There are subleties and nuances in every area, and horses have a lot of both. Last time I talked about the things horse people take for granted. This time, let’s look at a few of the things writers and filmmakers do that set off the WRRRROOOOONNNNGGGGG! buzzer. In more or less random order:
1. Book or film is supposedly about horses. With a title like “The Horse Whisperer,” you’d think, wouldn’t you? But you get there and you discover it’s about anything but horses. It doesn’t even bother to notice that the couple of dozen horse doubles used are all different colors with different markings, body build, and breed traits. Trust us horse people, there is a difference between a chestnut Quarter Horse with a prominent blaze and a bay Thoroughbred with no white markings. And if the book said he was a Morgan and there’s a line or two that says he is and he’s obviously not, well, there goes the buzzer. And? Real horse people are about the horses. The human drama is focused on them, not on the humans.
2. Your fantasy horse is absolutely freaking huge. 20 hands, why stop there? Why not make him 25? And your hero/ine is twelve years old and not very big. Does the animal come with stepladder or boarding chute installed? (A hand is 4 inches. We measure a horse to the withers, i.e. the bony prominence at the base of the neck. The back of a 20-hand horse is a solid 80 inches above the ground.)
3. Even if your horse is normal size, your character “floats magically onto his back.” Which we read as, “the author has no idea how to get on a horse.”
4. Once the character is mounted, he shakes the reins to make the horse go. Which works if the character is in a cart and the horse is pulling it. When he’s being ridden, not so much.
5. Every single film with a horse in it for the past 20 years seems to have hired the same “trainer” to teach actors to ride, because every single one of them, regardless of genre, historical period, or supposed level of expertise on the part of the characters, gets on the horse, looks all dramatic, and goes, “Hyah!” I do not know what language that word is. It appears to mean, “Giddyap, horsey.” It does not, in fact, accomplish anything in any place where horses are actually, regularly trained or ridden. Like shaking the reins, it’s a thing. It says, “Somebody doesn’t know his basics.” Real horses in fact are encouraged to go forward by a touch of the lower leg, a shift of the rider’s seat, and in some contexts, a slap of the reins on the horse’s flank or butt (you’ll see this in old cowboy movies) or the tap of a whip (which escalates to some serious whipwork in racehorses–watch a race and see). Sometimes you’ll hear a click of the tongue; this is a fairly standard “pick it up a notch” signal in the modern horse world.
6. Your knight errant has no visible means of support. That is, he’s in a complete wasteland on his big giant horse, and there’s no train of mules carrying fodder for said horse. And no water for the horse, either. If you want to know how that works in reality, look up the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, July 1187 (and bear in mind that in those conditions, a single horse needs upwards of 50 gallons of water per day). It is, for those who haven’t taken a good look before, an eye-opener.
7. Your fictional horses have the mileage, and maintenance schedule, of motorcyles. Also the downtime requirements. Gallop at full speed up to villainous manse in howling storm, leap off, leave horse to fend for self while character rushes on to next plot point? Yep. Set up week-long, several-hundred-mile odyssey sans feed or water stops or changes of mount? Check.
8. The text refers to the gelding as “she.” And the mare as “he.” Also, frequently, the gelding is a mare. And vice versa. Less often, you’ll see the gelding referred to as if he were an entire male. He’s not. That’s the stallion.
9. Horse colors are referred to in nontraditional ways. “The brown horse” is marginal–there is a color called brown, or seal brown, which looks like a black horse but his nose will be a lighter shade of brown. If the brown horse has a “blond” mane, now you’re slipping. A black mane? Call him a bay. The whole horse is blond? He might be a palomino, but make sure he’s in the right region and period for it. And is the right breed. Not all colors occur in all breeds.
10. And my alltime favorite horse oopsie, from a well-known book: Character rides horse into warehouse, dumps sack of oats in front of her, and goes off to do Exciting Plot Things for a few days. In the book, everything was copacetic, man. In the real world, the horse ate the whole bag in a couple of hours, and the nice, considerate character came back to find a dead horse with an exploded gut. So, no. Don’t do that. Horse is made to eat small amounts over long periods. Never, ever feed him a lot at once. Unless of course you want to kill him off as part of your dastardly plan to destroy the hero’s army and take over his kingdom. Horse-savvy readers will hate you, but they’ll grudgingly acknowledge that you did your homework.