Saturday, July 13, 2013

Horses in Fiction: The Forest Horse

I am back to riding, after an interminable month and a half in which the doctors worried exceedingly about what would happen to my spine if I did. Did I mention how much I hate cancer? But the new MRI/CT says I should take care, not quit altogether, so I am inspired again to drop another post on you poor unsuspecting folk.

Horses in the woods... that's a ton of fun in reality and on the written page. Horses did not evolve in thick forests. Their eyes are set on the sides of their head for maximum visual field on wide-open steppes. They are designed to catch any movement, which means that all those waving branches, fluttering birds, and nodding flowers WILL keep the lead horse in a group awake at all times. If you are riding alone, your horse will likely not be daydreaming whilst shambling along the road. He will be trying not only to guess what might be around the next curve or that big rock over there, but attempting to sort out all the sensory input. Movement means potential danger to him, and any sudden flight of a bird under his nose is going to send him leaping the other way. Whether he takes one jump or two has a huge effect on what happens to the rider. One jump you can easily survive. It is the next jump that will get you, because an unwary rider is probably already off-balance and ripe to land on his head if the horse takes another big leap.

There are other hazards to riding in the woods. Yes, there really are snotty horses and ponies that will go out of their way to try and scrape you off on a low-hanging branch. Fir trees have really stiff and sharp needles, and trust me, if the guy in front of you is careless about shoving a branch aside, you can catch it in the face with no trouble. And it hurts. Your hero can cause great havoc and attempt escape from his captors just by letting a branch snap back on the guy behind him. In thick forest you are really busy shoving stuff out of your way, reining your horse around obstacles, keeping him from jumping stuff that looks too big to step over, and generally preventing your kneecaps from getting dislocated on immovable objects like tree trunks. Really good trail horses are a treasure.

Contrary to popular belief, horses are not necessarily naturals on the trail. My Thoroughbred, Gallow, was so stupid, having come off the track, that he would walk over young trees and fall over rocks in his way, never thinking to walk around them. He would balk at the edge of anything muddy or strange, but when urged, would heave a huge martyred sigh, feel around with a forefoot--then go. Sometimes with a huge leap into the middle of it. Thrilling, but not safe. It took a while to convince him this was not socially acceptable behavior. He had never been exposed to hazards like that, and birds drove him nuts. Yet he would stand quietly while a train chuffed and clanked along ten feet in front of him. Man-made stuff he knew about. Nature, not so much.

The hazards to a rider from a green horse on the trail are many, and sometimes nasty. When the trail is narrow and the horse inexperienced, watch...your...knees! You may actually have to push your horse away from a tree beside the trail at the last second because he hasn't learned to judge his width or account for your extra bulk on his body. He also has no clue how tall you are atop his back, so he has no idea that the low branch that looks tall enough to get under is going to catch you in the belt buckle. Pack horses, and often your saddle horse, will try to jam their way between two closely-set trees because a) that's where the trail goes, and b) that's where everyone ahead of him went. Ergo, he must go there, too. Horses ain't long on reasoning ability. That wide-open space to the right of the tree? Huh?? Don't depend on Horsey to find it on his own.

Experienced horses, on the other hand, get very clever at avoiding obstacles. They can judge to a fare-thee-well the space they have to get their packs and riders through, and learn to walk wide around boulders and other unyielding objects. All it takes is a few solid hits that bounce them off-balance when the pack jams against something to teach them that they need to pay more attention. We had canny pack horses when I was a kid that we just turned loose to make their own way up the trail. The contents of the packs take more of a beating that way, though, because invariably the pack horse will stop to nibble at the grass, then jog to catch up, bouncing the packs more than he would if he was led quietly behind the saddle horse. They may also get quite creative in the trails they choose for themselves; they can turn your hair gray kicking rocks into space as they scramble to get to that nice green patch over there.

Despite the drawbacks of the horse wanting to stick to any trail as though crocodiles lurked to either side, there are also advantages to this. Horses can find trails; any old deer trail or faint rabbit path will show up clearly to them, and they will follow it even if the terrain to either side is fairly wide open. This is an advantage, especially if you are unfamiliar with the country or just plain lost. I got turned around on the Ft. Lewis military reservation once; Kalup took me home, in the dark, through a maze of trails he hadn't been on before, sniffing his way back to the stables. I just dropped the reins and let him go. His chances of finding home were at least as good as mine, so why not? And, because he was a great, great trail horse, I did not need to do much steering except to keep branches out of my face. He had his moments, did Kalup.

Wooded country narrows your options in bad situations. When a horse panics in a narrow, rocky, tree-bound patch, it's really not that much fun. In addition to protecting your face and eyes from branches, you'll wonder if he's going to break a leg scrambling among the rocks as he frets and pitches trying to catch up to the other horses, free himself from whatever is frightening him, or, perhaps, just get rid of you as the cause of all his troubles. Mud and water are the two guaranteed bugaboos; it usually takes a while to teach young horses to walk quietly through. Boggy spots are prime for trouble. In your fictional martial encounters, stake your ambush there, because even well-broken horses may panic when suddenly forced into soft spots accompanied by shouting and unexpected excitement. And then the rider will be busy keeping his seat while trying to fight off your villains/heroes. All sorts of mayhem may result.

Naturally, a cavalry charge in thick timber is out. I cringe at the Hollywood notion of swinging swords as a rider chases his foe through the woods. Check. I have this mental image of a sword suddenly sticking in a thick branch or tree trunk, dragging the chaser out of the saddle while the chasee giggles and scampers merrily on his way. Old-growth forest with little underbrush and lots of maneuver room between trees (and high branches) is about the best you can do in this regard. Most long-settled areas no longer have old-growth, though, so your woods will be thick with younger trees and brush that impede passage of horses. Thus, the poor peasants get to watch their year's labor in the fields get trampled, usually just about harvest-time, that being prime campaign season.

Anything falling out of a tree will give Horsey heart failure. Predators on the steppes come at him on the ground; he is equipped to deal with that using teeth and hooves. Something falling on him from above is just not natural to him, and in his blind spot to boot. So don't be surprised if a falling pine cone sets him off; he probably thinks it's a cougar. This is why taking your coat off in the saddle can panic a young horse into conniptions.

Bet you never thought there were so many uses for trees in your equine fiction, did you? Think from Horsey's perspective, and you can inject all sorts of interesting scenarios into your story as soon as you enter the woods. And what medieval fantasy world doesn't have woods?

 Until next time...

Watch for Seaborn, the next book in my Masters of the Elements series, coming in August. And The Mask of God will be out this fall, in which, gasp! I actually get to use horses! Lots of horses!

6 comments:

Josh Langston said...

Wow, Sue--still more fantastic information for writers. I can't wait to buy your collected essays. Please tell me they'll be available soon. I've got one book in the publication chain with another on the way, and they'll both benefit from your horse knowledge.

Thank you, again!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Josh, it's on my list of projects. The books I have contracts for have to take precedence, but I'm working on it!

Judy S. said...

Thank you -- fantastic comments as always. I can't wait to rewrite my pell mell chased by bad guys through the trees at night scene now!

One of my 'horses' is a mule--are they tempermentally different? Stubborn as a ... comes to mind but do they fright as easily? Wondering if I could make him the lead?

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Judy,

Great! Glad I was helpful. Yes, mules are temperamentally different. They tend to give up more easily than horses when the going gets tough, though they can "go" much farther than horses as a general rule. I read an account by a Forest Service Ranger who spent much of his tenure packing with mules. He had a pack string get tangled in a river once, with a few upside down. Instead of thrashing their way out, the most affected ones just lay there and the rest made no effort to get themselves out. They would have drowned if he hadn't gone and kicked them up to their feet. Horses would have been panicking and lunging out of the water. Mules also play much rougher than horses, and can really hurt a horse turned in with them if they get to roughhousing.

Elisabeth Christie said...

Glad you're back in the saddle, Sue.
Another great blog post to recommend to my friends. I'll have to rewrite the forest scene in my WIP.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Elisabeth,

I seem to have that effect on people. :)