Thursday, January 22, 2015

Horses in Fiction: Mounting your beastie

I know it's been a loooong time since I was out here. Suffice it to say that my autumn and early winter were not real fun, but it's better now. :)

A couple of weeks ago a writer friend asked for advice about how a horse might react to being loaded up with a fresh, bloody corpse. Today I was watching a video on Facebook (yes! I'm on Facebook!) about a little girl trying to get on her patient black mare, and it put me very much in mind of my childhood. After all, many of Horsey's many capabilities and advantages are inaccessible if we can't get on the beast. And they have soooo many ways of frustrating our ardent desire to ride.

Our first horse when I was a child was Lady (yup, that's me up top). She was rescued by my dad from the local fox farm, where she lived in a pasture with many other horses, her odds shrinking daily under the casual selection of the next walking horse meat victim. She was afraid of guns and gunshots to the very end of her life. She was the sweetest thing, though, with exceptional patience. Being too small to swing on or saddle up in the early years of her time with us, we four kids used to get her to put her head down for the bridle, then shinny up her legs and ride bareback.

This method was the only one available to me for quite a long time, as I was the youngest kid and my family couldn't afford saddles for all of us. I couldn't lift my dad's 40-lb stock saddle, so ingenuity was the order of the day. Once I got tall enough to grab a handful of mane and simply swing aboard (anything up to 16.2 I could handle; over that, I couldn't get my leg high enough), my problems were solved. I could get off anywhere and not have to walk home.

Not everyone is agile enough, tall enough, or coordinated enough to swing aboard a barebacked horse, which means a tedious hunt for a mounting block of some sort. Anything from a bale of hay to a rock or log or fence or (gasp!) an actual block made for the purpose will do, but those aren't always conveniently located. Plus, there is the matter of Horsey's cooperation in using same.

This is not guaranteed.

Au contraire. It takes the average horse a second and a half to figure out that if you are beside him holding his reins, all he has to do to prevent you crawling aboard is turn to face you. This puts the entire length of his head and neck between you and the desired landing spot behind his withers. Tugging on the rein just encourages him to walk straight into you and whatever you're standing on, which he is naturally reluctant to do. If you get off the block, patiently lead him up to it sideways, remount the log, and prepare to mount...he will turn again to face you. He has this figured out even if you don't.

Tugging on the offside rein will force his head around to the right and keep his near side bowed toward you a bit. It is also harder for him to swing his hindquarters away with his neck bent like that. Be quick, because the next stage is him starting to fidget and dance or attempt to back away or gain control of the reins and go forward. A horse trained to stand quietly sideways to the mounting block, no matter where it may be, is a godsend.

You can get plenty of humorous or dramatic mileage out of the bad guy or the hero trying to climb aboard an uncooperative horse. This all applies even if the horse is saddled, as the rider may be very short and can't reach the stirrup, not very confident and wanting an aid to mount, or over-confident in his ability to master the horse. They can disabuse you of that notion SO fast...

The situation mentioned by my writer friend is fraught with even more possibilities for mayhem. Being prey animals, horses dislike intensely the smell of blood and usually have to be trained to stand to it. They will be, at the least, snorty and nervous even if they don't try to actively leave the vicinity. Horses that have never been packed are also much less likely to stand quietly while you heave 200 pounds of dead, smelly weight over the saddle. The likeliest scenario, if the beast is tied to a tree, is a merry-go-round chase where you on the ground, heavily laden, attempt to approach the snorting creature while he sidles a continuous circle around the tree. Trust me, you will not win that one. Park him somewhere with a solid obstacle on the off side so he can't get away from you. This will not stop him trying to pull back or plunge over the top of you to try and get away, but at least you'll have more options. It is nigh impossible to keep one hand on the rope and try to hoist anything up over your head while he's in this mood. It doesn't even have to be a corpse; horses that have never been blanketed very often react badly to this bundle of stuff coming at them, even if you approach slowly and encouragingly and do your best to take the scare out of it. They just instinctively object to large unknown objects landing on their oh-so-vulnerable back.

The other problem with throwing corpses over saddles like in the movies is that the weight is really unbalanced, which bothers the horse somewhat. And when the body starts to stiffen...well, em, let's just say that it will not be fun maneuvering between tight trees, and getting it off the horse might be impossible single-handed for several hours.

Even experienced pack horses often object to hauling bloody hides. Your hero's wounded friend sort of falls into this category. He doesn't smell right, he doesn't act like Horsey expects of people, and your placid beast may suddenly revert to nervous colt when faced with an attempt to get him into the saddle. This can certainly delay or thwart a getaway and present a perfectly plausible plot point (geez, say that three times fast). You will have used your fictional equines in a way that rings absolutely true to life, and perhaps educate your audience a little. Those broke-to-death Hollywood horses make everything look easy. Real life is a LOT different.

Okay, that's my two cents' worth of accumulated horse wisdom for the day. Back to revising the sixth and last book of my Fate's Arrow series. The second one comes out next month. Woohoo!


Anonymous said...

So glad to see you back in the (blogging) saddle! I have missed reading your posts on our equine friends. And, by the way, I'm still waiting (not so patiently) to see a book containing all such posts. Sending good karma your way. --Josh

Anonymous said...

Love these posts!

Chrysoula Tzavelas said...

Awesome information, thank you. I love reading up on how to do horses right in fiction.

Trisha Wooldridge said...

Glad you're "back in the saddle" of blogging. :) I love your horse posts. My girl loves to wait till I just lift my foot toward the stirrup before she takes just...far...enough... of a step where I can no longer swing up on her.

Another "fun" scenario is if you get said load up on Horsey's back and you're good for a ways, and then said load and/or body shifts or your horse notices SOMETHING and then starts to freak out, bucking or running to GETITOFF!GETITOFF!GETITOFF! >:)

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Josh, it's on my project list... I'm glad you like the posts. I enjoy writing them.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Thanks for reading Chrysoula (awesome name, by the way!). I'm glad to help.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Trish, grrr! They can be so obnoxiously clever, can't they? And oh, yes, you're right about the sudden disasters. My family has many a story to tell about pack horses taking sudden objection, to the detriment of the saddle, the rigging, the packs, everything in them, nearby trees, and often the horse himself. When they get that stupid it is best to just stand out of the way of the wreck.

Terri Bruce said...

Another great post! You should do a panel on this stuff at a con, too! That would be awesome!

I've always wondered (maybe the topic of another post?) is whether or not these problems have existed throughout time or are modern horses just not as dead broke as the working horses of the past? I can't imagine a knight's horse, a colonial or pioneer era trapper's/hunter's horse (and pack horse), a rancher's horse, or a pony express horse acting this way. My uncle had five horses that mostly lived in the fields but we could grab any one of them at any time, throw a saddle on them, and hack around on the roads or trails with no problem (none of us had ever had a riding lesson and were not skilled equestrians). Were we just lucky or is that the modern pleasure horse is less well trained/more high strung?

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Terri,

What I describe in these posts is basic horse behavior. You can train it out of them to a certain extent but it is always there, and even the most well-broken horse can still surprise you. We kids used to catch our horses out of the pasture and ride all over creation bareback, but we still got dumped occasionally if something weird happened that overcame the training. I have a small and delightful book written by a an old-timer who used to pack mules into the Idaho gold fields way back in the way-back, and they regularly lost critters over cliffs on trails they had packed a hundred times. All it takes sometimes is for one animal to fall asleep, stumble, or panic to cause a problem. Sometimes a huge problem involving every horse or mule in sight. The older and more experienced the critter, the less likely he is to cause a problem, but they can all react to stimuli in ways that surprise you.