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;
Regency bucks use an English saddle (this one has modern safety stirrups);
knights in jousting tournaments use something like this, which eventually developed into the modern Western saddle:
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).
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.
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.
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.