A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part I

I’ve held off for the last couple months, but the time has come for: A Writer’s Guide to Horses. It’s obligatory, you see; I’ll lose my reputation as a horse person in good standing if I don’t periodically pontificate about them.

And since many writers mention horses in their work, usually in passing, I foresee an audience for horse-related information, and common pitfalls of writing about them.

(This will be a multi-part post, because I kept going off on tangents about genetics, weird caveats, and personal experiences. It also contains pictures/diagrams, so let me know in the comments if you’re having trouble viewing it on your phone.)

Let’s start with basic terminology. ‘Horse’ commonly refers to any member of the species Equus ferus caballus, no matter its size or age. That said, a pony is specifically a member of Equus caballus standing less than 58 inches when measured from the withers (the top of the shoulders). They’re measured from this point because it’s the highest point on a horse’s body that doesn’t change in height (they raise and lower their heads, of course, and their hip height can change based on how the horse is standing). Even in metric countries, horses are measured in hands (four inches), because that was the approximate width of a man’s hand when it was becoming a standard measurement. So, ponies can be called horses, but horses can’t be called ponies. And a baby horse is not a pony, even if it’s shorter than 14.2 hands (58 inches- the decimal point is followed by the number of leftover inches, not a base-ten fraction of a hand).

There are many different breeds of horses and ponies, and a few breeds of miniature horses, which are not the same as ponies. Ponies tend to be short and fat. Minis look like tiny Arabians- delicate and graceful- and are usually too small to ride, except by very young children.

Mares are adult females, stallions are adult intact males, and geldings are castrated males of any age. A mare under four years old is called a filly, and a young stallion is a colt. If you don’t know the baby horse’s sex, it’s called a foal until it’s a year old; then it becomes a yearling.

You, the writer, can refer to any of the above animals as a horse, and readers will get it. Please note: Donkeys are an entirely different species, and a mule is the offspring of a male donkey (a jack) and a mare. A hinny is the (much rarer) offspring of a female donkey (a jenny) and a stallion, but because they look similar to mules, most people lump them together. But you shouldn’t refer to them as horses; it confuses the reader, like calling a wolf a coyote. A female mule is called a molly mule and a male is called a john mule.

The earliest known ancestor of the modern horse was a fox-sized critter known as Eohippus. He’s not all that interesting, except that he showed up about 50 million years ago in North America, where he evolved quite happily (or not) into the modern day horse. Horses migrated through Alaska into Siberia, then died out in North America, leaving American Indians grounded until the arrival of the Spanish, thousands of years later.

(Random alternate history idea: what if the horse hadn’t gone extinct in the Americas? Or any of the other species of megafauna, like camels? Could make for some interesting Old and New World interactions.)

Ahem. Moving on. Horses were hunted for meat by early man, and may have been kept in herds like sheep before being used as draft animals. The first signs of domestication come from the Black Sea area, around 5,000 years ago. Horses were ridden, but more commonly hitched to wagons and chariots, since a horse can only carry 10-20% of its weight on its back, but can drag its own weight and can pull a wheeled cart much heavier than that. Also, the stirrup didn’t become widespread until later, and riding without stirrups is really damned difficult. It’s also painful to the horse when used in conjunction with early saddles, which had no tree (like the backboard on a hiker’s pack) to distribute the rider’s weight over the horse’s back.

Until the advent of the telegraph and the railway in the 1830s, horses were the fastest mode of land transport available, no matter how much money you had.

Let’s talk speed. A horse walks 3-5 miles per hour, trots 5-10 mph (but some horses can trot up to 30 mph), and gallops at 15-30 mph. The canter is a slower, more collected gallop, average speed about 10-20 mph. All of these speeds can vary drastically, based on the size of the horse, its length of stride, and the terrain. The record sprint speed is about 55 mph, but some horses have to be coaxed out of a walk.

You, the writer, can use this to your advantage. If you want to increase the tension when a character is in hot pursuit of his goal, have him commandeer a horse only to discover that it’s a total slug.

Aside: I’ve always wondered how annoying it was for armies who had to commandeer the local farm horses for their cavalry. I mean, some of those horses probably weren’t even trained for riding, and certainly none of them were used to cannon balls whizzing by. Must have been quite an adventure, just riding the horse into battle, never mind the actual fighting.

Anyway. There are also smooth-gaited horses, which usually substitute the trot for another gait of approximately the same speed, like a running walk (typical of Tennessee Walking Horses), slow gait, rack, fox trot (Missouri Foxtrotters), tolt (Icelandic Horses), or pace. Smooth-gaited horses are relatively rare, and more common in the Americas than in Europe, although some knights and ladies liked to ride smooth-gaited palfreys, and they were also popular among colonial era gentlemen. Some breeds of horses, like Saddlebreds, Standardbreds, and Morgans, can be smooth- or rough-gaited on an individual basis. More on that in a later installment.

A horse’s endurance also varies, just like in humans. Wild horses walk ten or twenty miles a day starting at birth, so as long as they’re well fed, they can go quite a distance under saddle. An out-of-shape domestic horse might get tired after a few miles. The Pony Express riders changed horses every fifteen miles, because they were moving at speed. If you’re writing about a Mongol cavalry, they probably changed horses about that often, and went fifty or so miles in a day, going through three or four horses during that time. Modern endurance races assume a speed of 5-7 mph for 6, 12, or 24 hours at a time (with mandatory breaks). This works out to 25, 50, or 100 miles, and some races are longer.

But a horse isn’t a machine. Just like a human runner, they need to rest, eat, and hydrate at intervals, and will be tired at the end of a race. Horses sweat, like humans, but they’re not as efficient at cooling themselves.

A word about tack- that is, the gear that a horse wears. This can include saddle, bridle, saddle blanket, and harness. The front of a saddle is the pommel, and the back of it is the cantle. The stirrups are made of steel, or wood covered with leather. Nowadays, the two most common types of saddles are English and Western. Cowboys ride Western;

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Regency bucks use an English saddle (this one has modern safety stirrups);

File:English saddle.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

knights in jousting tournaments use something like this, which eventually developed into the modern Western saddle:

What kind of horse saddle did they use in the Middle Ages? - Quora
Proper ladies used sidesaddles from about 1300 until the mid-1900s, but women of all eras often rode astride because it’s more practical. Early sidesaddles were extremely dangerous, because there was essentially no way to hold on (I used this as a minor plot point in The Garia Cycle). But the leaping pommel was invented in the early 1800s and provided extra security to the rider. Sidesaddle riders do not ‘switch sides’; the stirrup of a sidesaddle is always on the left, so the rider can mount and dismount safely, and cannot be changed to lay on the horse’s right side.

If your character is Aussie or Kiwi, they might use an Australian saddle, of which there are a couple of types. These are gradually becoming popular in the US, but were unheard of a few decades ago.

A horse will usually wear a halter on his head when handled from the ground. It’s made of nylon or (historically) leather, has no bit, and instead of reins, a lead rope (6-8 feet long) is tied or clipped under the horse’s chin. This allows the handler to control the horse more safely than by holding the halter directly. Horse people are taught to tie a horse only by a lead rope, never by the reins of its bridle, but your character might use the reins if he’s in a hurry (if the horse yanks on the reins while tied by them, the bit can bruise his mouth).

Leather Horse Halters, Amish Made Leather Halters for Horses

An English bridle usually has a cavesson (noseband) and the reins are joined by a buckle. They come in a few different neutral colors, but the most common is dark brown. An English rider holds the reins in both hands when in the saddle. Most English bridles have a snaffle bit, which is recognizable because of its rings. The bit in the picture below is a D-ring snaffle.

Bridle Parts & Types

Western bridles are simpler than English ones, with no cavesson. Split reins are also used, which are longer and so called because they don’t have a buckle at the ends to join them together. The reins are held in the left hand and used in conjunction with a curb bit, which is recognizable because of its shanks. In the picture below, the arrow labelled ‘bit’ is actually pointing to the shank of the bit.

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There’s some indication that nose rings (septum piercings) were used alongside bits in very early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent. These are effective at controlling cattle, but much less so for horses.

Harness refers to the tack a horse wears when pulling a carriage, cart, or plow. There are a zillion types of harnesses available to the fiction writer because, up until cars became popular, most harnesses were handmade to a customer’s specifications. Most harnesses are made of leather dyed black with brass or stainless steel hardware, but they can be all colors, if the customer is willing to pay.

A carriage harness is lightweight, and depending on the era, may have a breastplate to which the traces are attached.

The harness for a draft or work horse is thicker and stouter, and may have a padded collar that rests in the crevice between the horse’s neck and shoulders. It’s also more likely to be brown.

The horse pulls a vehicle by means of the traces, long, hefty pieces of leather that attach from the body of the vehicle to the horse’s collar or breastplate. The reins are also known as ribbons, and just like riding reins, they’re attached to the bit. The other main parts of the harness are the saddle (holds the shafts of a cart), crupper (goes under the horse’s tail and keeps the saddle from sliding too far forward), and breeching (keeps the cart from sliding forward and tripping the horse).

Please, unless you’ve done a ton of research on the subject, or are a confident horse person, don’t get clever when describing a horse’s tack. There are so many variants of saddles, bridles, and bits- and everyone has their own favorite combination- that you’ll have at least one reader shaking their head at you. These descriptions are meant for your own edification, and so you know what terminology to put into your search engine.

Thus ends the first installment of A Writer’s Guide to Horses. The next part will probably focus on colors, markings, and breeds. But I’m open to suggestions and questions, if you have them.

41 thoughts on “A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part I

  1. One of the interesting tidbits that I picket up when writing about the early long-trail cattle drives was that a working cowboy on a drive would have two or three remounts – and change horses during the day. Also – that the horses were not his personal property, but provided by his employer. The average working cowhand only owned his saddle, not the horse under it. At the end of a long drive, the horse remuda was often sold off along with the cattle – and the cow hands sent home by train.
    I know an old rancher and polo-fanatic down in the Valley, who has insisted for years that good cattle-working horses and good polo-playing horses are practically interchangeable.

    1. I completely agree with your rancher friend, and add this anecdote as evidence: My family owned a retired polo horse when I was a kid. Bombproof, sweetest thing on the ground, but as soon as you got in the saddle, it was time to work, and he didn’t stop until the day was over. Had a shoulder brand, never bothered the couple of Herefords my parents kept, but Mom swore up and down that he’d been a heeling horse before being trained for polo, because as soon as he saw a rope go across his eyes, he stopped and backed up. It made tying him a bit of a trick, but he was smart enough to stand still if you dropped the lead or reins on the ground, which is another cow-horse behavior.

      And it’s only logical, that a fast, handy, smart horse could go from working cattle to playing polo without much difficulty.

      1. Quick, fast, intelligent horses – yes, the crossover abilities are pretty obvious. I always thought that the best insight into a polo horse was in a Kipling short – The Maltese Cat.

        Our childhood horse was an elderly retired parade horse, who might have known all sorts of interesting tricks, did we know the cues to give him. He was the solidest, most trustworthy equine imaginable. He pranced when we rode along the bridle-path by a fairly busy road – the sounds of traffic fairly energized him. And car horns never panicked him. I never knew there were that many idiots who thought it would be fun to panic a horse with a kid aboard, by blowing a car horn…

    2. Polo horse as a cattle horse? I can see that. My horse Charles was an arabian. He was somebodies yard horse before he was mine and they weren’t very wise in his training and let him run home. He turned out to be a good cattle horse though. He was excitable but never spooky and he was quick to pick up tricks like nipping at calves that were too slow or getting underfoot. God help you if you had to ride him home though.

      The main difference I noticed between him and the quarter horse that taught me to ride was that he didn’t have as much care when it came to what happened to me. The old mare wouldn’t take me under low branches and would carefully make sure I had leg room in thick brush. Where as Charles would crash through without a thought if there was a cow on the other side. He did my brother a bit of injury that way once.

      I’m actually curious about extraordinary animals. I’ve been reading the long riders club website that talks about some of the places and distances people have taken horses in recent years. I’ll put a link in a reply. Short on time atm. Also interested in the limits of horse intelligence. Some of what you read in fiction makes me shake my head but I know from that old mare that a horse can surprise you with how much they pick up on.

      Thanks for the post!

      1. I once knew a fellow who had Belgian drafts and a trolley he’d have them pull around for various events. His daughter had been training her own horse for some some show or such (4H competition? Not sure any more.) And then not long before the big event, there was a terrible scratch/gash.. nothing terribly injurious, but it looked terrible and needed to heal, so… no horse for the competition. Well, he told his heartbroken daughter, take May (ancient Belgian draft) and at least you’ll be there – but don’t expect to win anything.

        Seems nobody bothered to tell May about that. May knew more than just how to pull, but nobody else had realized it. Daughter came away with a few third and second place ribbons as the ancient mare was “Oh, I remember this. Here’s how it’s done!”

        May was also the very definition of bombproof. Once, setting up for a parade, he had some kid hold the horses while he went to check on something with the officials. When he got back, kid was nowhere to be found. And despite police cars, flashing lights, sirens, etc. May (and the other half of the team) were right were he’d left them. May hadn’t gotten the “we’re going to work now” signal(s), and she wasn’t about to waste effort for anything else!

  2. I was going to spend a long time describing the horse’s tack, but you said neigh.

  3. I’ve held off for the last couple months, but the time has come for: A Writer’s Guide to Horses. It’s obligatory, you see; I’ll lose my reputation as a horse person in good standing if I don’t periodically pontificate about them.

    Truth, as per other of my horse-loving friends.

    An equine rescue nonprofit was one of two charities I listed for people at my wife’s memorial service to donate to (The other being the American Cancer Association).

  4. I think it would be worthy to note how the saddle is attached to the horse.
    Getting the cinch tight, having it work loose, or even break, are things that Mr. Murphy is likely to inflict on the character at the most inconvenient times.
    Besides, it’s always a memorable moment when you’re moving at a gallop, and the saddle starts to slip.

    Pro tip: if you use oil or grease to keep leather straps strong and supple, knots tied in them are always suspect.

    1. And horses are sneaky little devils. My mare used to surreptitiously take a big breath when I tightened the girth, so I had to check it two or three times before getting on. And of course she was very round- no withers to speak of- so the saddle slid all over the place anyway.

      Even more fun was the time my saddle slipped during polo- different horse, same shape. I looked down to find the stirrup I’d lost, and realized I was looking, not at the pommel, but the saddle flap! Good times.

        1. Heh. Maybe they’re the ones with high withers, so we don’t notice the difference.

          I once dismounted after a trail ride on the horse in the top image, only to realize I’d forgotten to tighten the girth and could stick my whole hand, sideways, through the girth. But she had high enough withers to keep the saddle in place, and I never even noticed.

  5. Very interesting and useful! The pictures and diagrams are quite helpful as well. I’m looking forward to the other parts of the multi-part post.

    As for suggestions, perhaps something along the lines of “Horse Care and Maintenance in the Field”?

  6. I’d always heard that the Appaloosa breed of the Nez Pierce (sp?) were the only “native” N. American breed, linked by their distinct striped hooves to Mongolian (ergo, Bering-Kamchatka land-bridge migration s) rather than Spanish stock.

    1. …? I’ve never heard this before. Do you have a link to that?

      It doesn’t make sense to me, that the Nez Pierce would be able to keep their horses secret from their neighbors, who would have latched onto horse technology as fast as they could, as they did when Spanish horses escaped from the conquistadors and populated the North American plains. And striped hooves weren’t exclusive to Mongolian horses.

      1. No link, unfortunately.
        My family’s from western MT and dad studied indigenous anthropology (among other things) toward his MSU teaching degree in the ’70s. I heard it first from him.

            1. Genetic research has tied the breed to Scandinavian roots as well as Spanish stock.
              Which makes sense.
              If you were a trapper traveling around Canada, a stocky, even-tempered horse, bred for cold temperatures, is exactly what you’d want your packhorse to be.
              And it’s no surprise that the Nez Perce acquired some along the line.

              Of course, people being people, I’ve heard arguments that this is *proof* that the Viking settlement of North America was much more extensive and of longer duration than generally believed.
              But that the breed came across the Bering Strait is a new one.

              Excellent breed. Smart, strong, decently fast, with crazy amounts of endurance. I never saw ours spook even once.
              He was also a bit of a klutz and rather headstrong, although I don’t know how universal those traits are.
              He had too much momentum to cut cattle with quite the agility of our quarter horses, but he was no slouch at it.
              (Just don’t try to put a bit in his mouth. Strictly mechanical hackamore only, or he’d let you know of his displeasure.)

        1. Poking around online, I was able to find out about an interesting documentary made on the subject:


          So apparently, there IS – or recently WAS – a population of horses somewhere up in a remote part of Kyrgyzstan that look like Appaloosas and have a close DNA match to the official purebred Appaloosas off of the registry.

          Exactly how that came to be isn’t clear – there’s still no direct evidence of a Bering land bridge migration. (Kyrgyzstan is not close to the Bering Sea.) A lot of other possibilities come to mind – e.g., the Nez Perce having gotten some stock that ultimately came from Russia’s colonial efforts. The Nez Perce were very deliberate in how they bred horses, so a few successful Kyrgyz stallions brought down from the north could have had a huge influence on the genetics of the modern breed (especially with the subsequent American breed association breeding for the spotted characteristics).

          Naturally, the breed association contests any relationship between the two populations, although I wouldn’t count the breed association as a reliable party in this. They have a clear commercial interest in denying any link between the two and trying to block the introduction of new Appaloosa stock, i.e., block people from selling *as Appaloosa* the Kyrgyz horses that show similar characteristics and genetics, or horses bred between the healthier wild Kyrgyz horses and the (now-somewhat-unfortunately-inbred) purebred American Appaloosas from their registry.

          Like most domesticated breeds have become after breed registries have gotten at them, Appaloosa horses now have serious problems with genetic diseases, so breeding in more genetic diversity would be good for the breed, but also threatens the oligopoly installed by the breed registry.

          1. The citation was apparently a Prof. Taylor (Montana Geography) at MSU in the late ’70s. Apparently Merriwether Lewis (¿or poss. Wm. Clark?) even remarked on the breed in travel journals as being as true-breeding as any back in Virginia.

            1. It is more likely that steppe horses ended up in Spain, via the Silk Road, and then got sent over to America.

              There is a lot of weird stuff that got sent over from Spain and Portugal.

    2. Not precisely. The way I heard it is that the original Appaloosa breed—not the current breed, which was thoroughly watered-down when the Army “acquired” it from the tribe, but the original Nez Perce breed—was developed by the tribe from various specific breeds including Arabian and Azhal-Teke. I know about twenty years ago, the tribe acquired a batch of purebred horses in order to start rebuilding the historic breed.

  7. Perhaps some information on historical breeds. Finding what was used by whom, when and to what purpose has been more difficult than I expected. Especially around the 1200s and earlier.

    Meanwhile I will sit in a corner and just take notes. I don’t know enough about horses to really meaningfully comment.

    1. As a general note, big horses were rare because they ate so much. An armor-class horse was the reason a knighthood was pretty much limited to the class of people who had some serious income coming in.

  8. Looking at the picture of the harness tack, what type of Regency-era vehicle would a similar type/complexity of harness be used for? E.g., curricle, phaeton, closed carriage, etc.? Would the Mail coaches use the heavier draft harnesses because of the much heavier loads?

    Also, so many novels about the era have scenes where the curricle/phaeton/coach/whatever has been run off the road or flipped into the ditch, etc., and the groom/postboy/tiger/other survivors immediately “cut the horses out of the traces” or otherwise get them free of the mess. (What are the “traces” anyway?)

    What parts of the tack would it be necessary to remove or cut to get a horse or horses safely untangled? Would it differ depending on how many horses were involved? The authors just seem to assume the reader knows stuff like this, or doesn’t care. But if one of the horses is then pressed into service to be ridden to the nearest inn for help, some of the tack must be left on the animal, yes?

    One more set of related questions. For longer trips horses were swapped at posting stops for a fresh pair or four. Were the waiting horses partly tacked up to make things go faster? Or were they put into the same harness as the previous animals? How fast could this change-over be done, on average?

    Thanks for starting this series! My experience with horses and tack is limited to six months of Western-style riding lessons in my mid-forties, but I’ve loved horses and horse stories and stories with horses in them my whole life. And what breed is the horse in the top picture? I was thinking Morgan or perhaps a quarter-horse, but really have no clue. 😉

    1. Excellent questions! Most of them will be answered in a later part- I’m thinking of doing a post on safety and basic handling, as well as traveling with horses, which might require a bit of research on my part because I don’t have any personal experience. If only I had a time machine, alas.

      The horse in the top picture is a Quarter Horse mare, 12 or 13 years old at the time, and a pretty good example of the breed. She belongs to a family member, and though the pic has been cropped, I’m on the other end of the lead rope.

    2. A few years ago at the National Western Stockshow, something went awry with the Budweiser team during a turn (a very small arena and a big team; eight or ten). One of them ended up on the ground. I was amazed that it didn’t turn into bedlam. The rest of the team just stood there patiently while the people got all the tangled leather undone and the horse back on his feet.

      My thoughts when reading about a downed carriage were always about, “how can you possibly be cutting them loose when they’re all trying to get away?” Apparently with a well trained team, they know better.

  9. On the subject of bridles, I learned to ride with a hackamore (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackamore?wprov=sfla1), which is arguably kinder to the house than a bit and controls *very* differently. So when in middle school I got my Morab who was trained with a martingale (a type of harness that holds the horse’s head down for showing)… Well, it’s really no wonder I got thrown in the snow. We we’re basically speaking two different languages. So there’s another wrinkle that could be used to good effect.

    1. Heh.
      Give the greenhorn the cranky old bastard with the spade bit.
      Smile innocently.

      (He was a great horse. If he found you worthy of riding him. Even then, he’d test your seat at least once during the day on general principles. And he had a knack for knowing when you weren’t paying attention. My grandfather and I got along with him just fine. Everyone else, not so much. )

  10. Are you muleskinner enough to tell us how to write mule trains?

    Call a me jackass, but how do you dress a horse when you kill it out in the field from overuse, and need the meat for rations?

    1. Get the guts out first….

      Re: carnivores, minis seem to present much the same “takeout food!” vibe to dogs that rabbits do. Obviously you can train this away, but it is weird that foals and ponies do not trip that switch the same way.

      1. Apparently over in the dog deep history world, there is evidence of two periods of domestication for dogs. (Which is perhaps support for some of the discussion of bronze age civilizations lost in human deep prehistory.)

        Foals and ponies may be similar to what humans were using around during a time when they were domesticating dogs not to go after humans. Minis likely aren’t. They don’t sound like very useful working animals, and domesticated animals that aren’t useful are luxuries for wealthy societies.

  11. Horse injuries (part of the horse care in the wilderness). Say you’re still a hundred miles from the Evil Mountain of Evil and your horse… fill in nonfatal injury. Now what?

    1. I recall a brief comment about how “healthy as a horse” is kind of a mistake as a phrase, because compared to humans, horses are extremely delicate creatures. Especially as regards diet.

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