One thing the non-horse person may not think about when writing about horses is that horses don’t come out of the box saddled, bridled, trained, and ready to go. For that matter, even horse people who have ridden but never raised or trained a horse aren’t always aware that the process of getting the horse from zero to fully trained is a bit more involved than throwing tack on the horse and showing him a couple of cues (stop, go, left, right, WHOAAAA! ).
It is a process, and it starts with the unhandled, un-human-contaminated animal–whether newborn or older and feral off the range. People who have tamed and socialized Mustangs really know how much work it is to take this large, fast, instinctively reactive prey animal out of his herd and teach him to both respect and trust humans. Breeders who raise foals have a much easier job provided the foal’s dam is herself socialized and will tolerate humans near her baby. It’s considerably less complicated to teach a baby to trust if baby’s mom is setting an example. It’s also less physically taxing to deal with an animal who barely outweighs you, versus one in the half-ton or larger range.
Not that babies can’t do some damage. Those half-dollar-sized hooves can hit like hammers, and once baby is up and steady on his feet, he’s ‘way faster than you are, and seriously strong. But still, he’s nothing compared to what he’ll be when he’s even a few days older.
But that’s not actually what I’m talking about here, except insofar as the younger you start them with the rules of engagement with humans, the less trouble you’ll have when they’re larger, older, and orders of magnitude stronger. What I’d like to look at here is a smaller slice of the training experience: namely, getting stuff on the horse so you can lead him, drive him, or safely sit on him.
The first thing a breeder tries to do with a baby is get a halter on its head. This is absolutely basic in that when a horse’s head is under control, the rest of his body is quite a bit easier to manage. He doesn’t really follow his nose–he pushes his back end toward the front (which is seriously nonintuitive for most humans; we’re vertically oriented, our eyes point forward, and we do most of our major manipulation with our hands)–but the head is relatively small, easily accessible, and loaded with sensory organs–not just the eyes and ears and nose but the whiskers and the organ inside the upper lip that enhances the sense of smell. Get some strappery around that and you’ve definitely got his attention.
First, you have to catch him. This can be complicated by the fact that, sensibly, he’s not wired to be caught, especially if he’s stalked and leaped on by a predator. This applies even to an older, “trained” horse, if he doesn’t know or trust you or if he has reason not to want to cooperate (said reason ranging from he’d rather finish his dinner, thank you, to he knows you’re going to hurt him).
The trick is not to march up to him with intent to dominate. Sidle around. Don’t look straight at him–predators stare; herd and prey animals, stared at, will run. Stay calm and mellow. Move slowly, without fast movements or loud noises. In short–hunt him, but you’re not coming for the kill; you’re seducing him instead.
When he lets you near, don’t go in head-on. Move up toward his shoulder where he can see you with that wide field of vision, and you’re signaling by your positioning that you’re not a threat. Head-on is aggression. Directly from behind is attack (and you’ll very likely get kicked into the next county). Ease on up. If he’s little, you can slide your arms around his body and hold him lightly; if he plunges or struggles, you can restrain him without losing him by holding him softly around the chest and hindquarters. If he’s larger, your best bet is to ge a soft rope around his neck and use give-take motions to stop him from taking off. (He will have the prerequisite by this point, which is give to pressure.) Slide the halter quietly over his nose–if he flips up his head or backpedals, go with him as best you can, wait for him to ease up, repeat your attempt.
I prefer a halter with a buckle up near the ear, rather than one that requires me to pull the lot up from his nose over his ears. Horses react badly to things coming at their eyes from in front. Most interactions work better from the shoulder or neck forward. And, horses can be weird about having their ears touched. A halter that can be slipped up over the neck behind the ears, then slid up over the nose and buckled near the ear without touching the ears or coming at the eyes will defuse two common problems right there–in adults as well as babies.
All of this requires some setup before it starts: acceptance of your touch, moving away from pressure rather than pushing into it, and not flipping out (or back or over) when the horse feels your hand or your equipment on his body. He has be desensitized, preferably gradually, to the point that when you put something on him, he doesn’t regard it as a threat.
Getting a halter on his head doesn’t instantly mean he’ll tolerate anything else on his body, either. Each new piece of equipment needs its own course of desensitization. Saddle on the back, girth around the belly (this can be quite a lively procedure in horses that are very sensitive or ticklish in the undercarriage–involving neck-snaking, snapping, kicking, body-slamming, and other delights). The best weapon always is persistence. Also patience, agility in avoiding kicks and bites, and nerves of steel. Do it in installments, watch the horse closely for signs of explosion, and know when to push and when to give it a rest.
Even putting clothes on a horse can be an adventure. A horse blanket can be a literal lifesaver in bad weather or with a horse who is ill or undernourished, to keep him warm and dry and protected from the elements. But getting ten yards of flapping fabric onto her back and quarters and around her chest can be an Adventure. I’ll started with a halter, which the horse has been trained to accept. Then introduce her to the folded blanket, let her see and sniff it. Touch her with it–she may shy or veer. I persist. When she calms down a bit, I’ll let it drape over her neck. She may shy again. The blanket might fall off, which makes her even spookier. I persist. Gradually she’ll let me move it down over her back. When it touches her hindquarters, especially if she’s a young mare, she may get really unhappy.
I persist. No yelling or hitting or lunging at her. Just the same low level of “This is happening, we’ll take as long as we take, nobody’s letting this become an ego battle or an emotional meltdown.” (Which can be Extremely difficult when it’s sleeting sideways and there are still six horses to be blanketed under the same awful conditions.) Slowly I unfold the blanket until it’s covering her whole body and she’ll let me fasten up the straps (they vary, but there’s usually a set to close the chest, one or two under the belly, and a couple up and under the hindlegs). Much fun can be had climbing under a large horse who likes to kick, groping for wind-whipped straps and trying to fasten them with numb fingers.
They always do eventually let it happen, because I don’t give up. And then they learn that blanket equals warm, dry, comfortable, and start asking for it. But they also have to learn to let me take it off (same process in reverse, unfastening straps, folding up from the hind end, sliding off).
The lesson here, specifics aside, is that horses have to be taught just about everything to do with humans, and that includes wearing the clothes humans want or need them to wear. Your fantasy warhorse will need to be trained to wear all that armor and that barding and all those other fancy outfits (the weight, the binding on his body, the noise, the flapping–these are all major issues for a horse). Your carriage horse may have no clue what a saddle is about, and a riding horse will draw a total blank on harness (and the carriage rattling behind him? RUN AWAAAYYYY!)
Somebody has to teach the horse to cope with all of this. If that doesn’t happen, adventures will ensue. Usually involving rearing, kicking, shying, body-slamming, head-throwing, spinning, veering, bolting…
That nicely trained horse? Somebody trained him–and it took time, skill, and a whole lot of patience. Which you as a writer can turn into plot points, and character development, and all those other nice, chewy, writery things.