Two weeks ago in comments on “A Day in the Life of a Horse Farm,” Marie Brennan asked a very good question: “The fantasy trope of the horse that will only behave for their one rider, or whoever that rider has designated as ‘okay’ — how realistic and/or common is that? Usually it’s Our Hero’s highly-trained warhorse that will take the hand off anybody who touches him without approval, or something else in that vein, and we don’t have a lot of warhorses around anymore. But I’d be curious to know how much of the ‘one-rider horse’ thing is true, especially when it comes to that rider telling the horse to obey someone else.” I gave a short answer there, but promised a proper blog entry on the subject.
I have a somewhat unusual perspective on this question, because I raise and ride Lipizzans. This is a rare breed, best known for the Dancing White Horses of Vienna, the near-mythic white stallions of the Spanish Riding School. They are, by nature and design, war horses.
They are not the Great Horse of the medieval knight but the royal and noble charger of the Renaissance and the baroque period: relatively short, sturdy animals, long-lived and highly intelligent, with a particular talent for going airborne both with and without a rider.
What makes them relevant to Marie’s question is one particular trait for which they are famous, even notorious. They are in general, as a breed, one-man horses. This causes any amount of conflict among horse people who are not familiar with the breed, and who will not or cannot believe that such a thing can exist–because for the most part, as far as general horseman’s wisdom goes, a horse is a horse is a horse, and as long as you ride him right, he doesn’t really care who you are. This school of thought also tends to hold as dogma that a horse is not naturally inclined to be ridden or worked, he’d much rather be hanging in the pasture with his buddies, and he’s not really all that bright, either–he just reacts instinctively to stimuli. He certainly doesn’t have feelings, he doesn’t think as such, and humans are pretty much interchangeable, though he might, out of habit or food tropism, prefer the human who feeds him over a human who doesn’t.
In this world view, the Fantasy Warhorse is, well, fantasy.
I don’t live in that world. If I did, I’d crash and burn right quick with my herd of opinionated, hyperintelligent, super-people-focused equine oddballs. These are the models for Anne McCaffrey’s dragons–attitude, arrogance, and yes, Impression, too. When you meet “your” Lipizzan, you know it. So does everyone around you. There’s this feeling of, yes, this is right; this distinct click. And the horse looks at you. And that’s it.
What this means is pretty much what Marie describes. The horse is focused on you; other humans have greater or lesser existence in her world, depending on what’s in it for her: food, attention, training. In extreme cases, she doesn’t want anyone else to ride her. For the most part, luckily, she’s OK with being ridden as long as the rider does it right, but she’s quite likely to keep a significant portion of her attention on you if you’re in the area, and you may need to tell her, yes, it’s OK, she can do what Other Person is asking. Then as likely as not she’ll sigh and be long-suffering, but she’ll do her job. Because it’s her job. And because you asked.
These things have really happened:
A mare, separated from her rider on a long-distance ride, went to find him. She could have gone home to her pasture. She chose the human over grass and the herd.
A stallion, in his human’s absence, was supposed to be worked by the trainer whom he had known for years–but the human was not there, and he wasn’t having any. He was in a 16-by-24-foot stall. The trainer couldn’t catch him, though she tried for an hour. She had to give up and wait for the owner to come and tell him it was all right.
He wouldn’t let her ride him, either, for years. Every time she tried, he spun away from her and presented himself to his owner. She was allowed to get on him. Nobody else was.
A mare who was very good about giving lessons and letting various people ride her was, when with her owner, as protective as a guard dog. If someone else, even someone she knew well, made what she considered a threatening move toward her human, she would put herself between them and, if the other person persisted, show him with hooves and teeth that that was Not On.
Real life. Real stories. Real “fantasy” war horses.
There’s another thing a war horse does, too, that distinguishes him from the usual run of equines. A horse is a flight animal by nature. Predator threatens, he runs. But a war horse is more likely to run toward the threat.
There’s a story told about the filming of the Disney movie, The Miracle of the White Stallions. During one scene that required the horses to flee the bombing of Vienna, there was a problem. The first take or two, the horses shied and bolted as the director wanted them to. But after that, they had determined that the “bombs” were no threat, and were refusing to react. The director had to get permission to shoot off blanks practically under the horses’ feet in order to get usable footage.That’s a war horse. Intensely focused on his rider, highly protective to the point of being willing to fight, and literally bombproof. It may be fantasy, but a myth it’s not.