Thursday, February 11, 2016

Horse Trivia and...Radcon

Yeah, I know they have nothing to with each other, but Radcon starts tomorrow and I haven't got time to do two posts. So deal. :)

As I was knocking the mud off my critters the other day (oh, Winter, why couldn't you dump a little more of that clean snow before you leave?), I could not help but notice the difference between the two. As always at this time of year, Pilot is hog fat and round. As always, Nellie bears a remarkable resemblance to a slat. This is not for want of food, mind you. It is because she is a hard keeper and Pilot is an easy keeper. What is the difference you ask? Heh.

Easy keepers put on weight if they breathe on food. Hard keepers can chow down on acres of alfalfa and still look like candidates for the glue factory. The only time Nellie looks good is in the summer when she has unlimited access to grass. In the winter, no matter what I feed her, she loses weight and finally achieves an equilibrium where you can't see or feel ribs but she just looks thinner than she should. She just doesn't process hay as well (and believe me, they're getting the good stuff). This is partly because Pilot is a bully and it is difficult the way my barn and corral are configured to separate them. Mostly it is just her. When she's alone, she frets off the weight. When she is with him, he chases her around and steals the best stuff. On summer pasture, there's 20 acres and he couldn't hog it all if he tried.

Some horses, even alone in their stalls, don't keep well unless you pour the super-high protein food into them, a product mostly of the 20th century. Before that, they were just "hard keepers."

So there's your trivia bit for the day.

Now, about Radcon. Come on down to the Red Lion Hotel in Pasco, Washington this weekend if you want to catch up to me. I'll be on various panels over the weekend and reading from The Heart of God on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Reading Room 2211. The full schedule looks like this:

Sat Feb 13 10:00:am
Evaluating Writing Critiques
Room 2203 So you've had a manuscript critiqued and you're trying to decipher the feedback. Some people say one thing. Some people have "rules." How do you tell the good advice from the bad? This panel will discuss how to keep the advice that benefits your writing while ignoring the bad.
Sat Feb 13 3:30:pm
S. A. Bolich Reading from The Heart of God
Reading (2211)
Sat Feb 13 4:15:pm
Resisting Rewrite-itis
Room 2209 Many promising manuscripts succumb to author anxiety that it's "not good enough yet" or "I need to fix this one thing" that proceeds to unravel the entire book. How do you resist the urge to polish and polish the first few chapters without writing the rest, or stuffing it in the drawer until it's perfect? Our pros provide tips on how to tell when your work is good enough and when to kick it out the door.
Sun Feb 14 10:00:am
The Hollywood Effect
Room 2209 Since its beginnings, film has had an enormous impact on culture, from feeding iconic phrases like "The Force be with you" to raising awareness and perpetuating or even creating stereotypes. What are the positive and negative trends in current film making? How does it impact our genre?
See you there!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Horses in Fiction: The Pack String

In glancing over some new manuscripts sent to me for critique (and remembering a good few from the past), I realized that it may be past time to talk about the casual assumptions so many writers bring to scenes with equine-equipped travelers. It seems that not many have stopped to consider the actual logistics of traveling with live beasties of any type aside from how far they can travel in a day and what the creatures might eat. So, let me share a few nuggets from a lifetime of a) packing in with horses, b) witnessing pack disasters, and c) listening eagerly to the yearly family stories of hunting trips gone awry. My dad was a terrific oral storyteller, and his return from elk hunting every fall was a treat, because there was always something.

Let me hasten to add that we always took care to trail-break our horses. All of them learned how to keep from killing or badly injuring themselves on picket ropes. All were taught as youngsters, like young and miserable Kalup here, to balance the dead weight of packs, usually before we broke them to ride. They learned how to maneuver around trees when loaded, how to deal with noisy or awkward packs (as the two-year-old baby, he doesn't have much of a load here, but look at all that weird stuff), and not to crowd up on the horse in front and drive it crazy going down the trail. But often Dad hunted with people from work who had their own horses, or guys who had never been around them at all. And oh, the stories! Horses that took one whiff of a bloody carcass and turned into prancing, dancing demons sidling over the top of everything in their path (including their handlers) to escape that awful thing bearing down on them (or already atop them). Packs slipping sideways on some round-backed nag. Neophyte pack horses bucking their way off trails, down sidehills, through ten-foot-high brush, floundering over small cliffs, landing upside down in rocks. One actually killed itself while tied to a tree. In camp.

NOT good times. There is nothing quite as scary or as helpless-feeling as watching a pack horse go berserk. And anything can spark it. A dangling strap. A bee sting. An uneven load that shifts worse and worse with every step. A pad working out from under the saddle. A rattling pot (or noisy gravel or other junk poured loose into a pack bag to teach a young horse). Elk antlers jabbing into a flank. Really awkward loads with crap sticking out every which way and cinched down as best the packer can. I read a really fascinating account by an old-time packer into the Idaho gold fields who remembered transporting the first piano into Couer d'Alene atop a mule. Also, one 800-pound piece of indivisible mining equipment. Just the weight boggles my mind. But the awkwardness!!! Holy smokes.

Bear in mind that all types of goods were transported by horse and mule in the heyday of medieval merchants. When roads were so bad that carts were impractical, anything large had to be transported by barge or by horse. Somehow. Last summer I got to watch my kinfolk loading up timbers and other awkward materials for the Forest Service for trail maintenance. Packing ten-foot timbers is an art, let me tell you. The bridge planking timbers shown in the first pic here are only four feet, and still required some serious thought and experimentation before they arrived at a configuration that rode well on the horse and didn't interfere with its shoulders or flanks. Four short timbers, two each side, weighed almost 200 pounds, a full load.

Now, think about really long pieces sticking out above or behind or even in front of the pack animal. Think about trying to maneuver through timber or around switchbacks on steep trails. Now stop wondering why traversing well-traveled European mountain passes was still so difficult.

I once critiqued a manuscript where the author had her city-bred hero starting on a spiritual journey across the wilderness with a pack animal. Okay. The problem was that he knew nothing about riding or caring for the animals. He had always had servants to do it. Learning to ride on your own is one thing; the basics are a matter of balance, figuring out how to get the beasties to go and stop and turn, and not triggering some unexpected reaction that leaves you broken and dying beside the trail. But packing...oh, that is a different skill altogether, and even the most experienced packers can run into problems. Look at the very specialized saddle shown in the first picture above, with all those ropes, the attached harness, and understand the fact that while one guy can load an animal by himself, it is ever so much easier for two. For a newbie with no experience of the animal he is packing to figure all that out, to understand that the load needs to be balanced for weight, to hoist it up by himself and figure out how to lash it on so it doesn't shift--that doesn't come in an hour, a day, or a month. Every load is different and requires experience to make it ride well.

Look at this picture of two nice-looking loads of assorted camping stuff, personal junk, and trash that had to be packed out of a permanent camp. Looks good, doesn't it? All nice and neat. Alas, the stuff was slithery and light, and despite the skill of the packers one of those loads came apart within half a mile. It could have been a spectacular wreck if the horses and people involved hadn't been so sensible. As is, they still spent a lot of time picking up the scattered pieces.

Please, author folks, if you are sending your characters out on a long journey with horses (or any pack animal), don't blithely assume it takes five minutes to get going in the morning, or that the average Joe can leap right in and pack his beast up without training. Or that the horse has been packed before, or will not come unglued when the ropes come untied. But hey! All that is excellent plot fare, isn't it?

Until next time, and I apologize that it has been so long.

If you want to see how I use horses in fiction, try my Fate's Arrow series, beginning with The Mask of God.