Me, My Horse, and I

(c) Lynne Glazer

(c) Lynne Glazer

Last week I talked about how horses are not dogs, and using dogs as a template for horse behavior is not the best strategy. The good news there is, a half-ton dog would be one scary beast, but a horse is relatively gentle, relatively cooperative, and highly trainable. Smart, too–much smarter than myth and lore would make him.

So, your protagonist has insisted loudly and at length that she is by damn going to be a horse girl, and your novel or story persistently sets itself among the horse tribes. You’ve researched the basics of behavior, biology, and management. You have a local barn you can visit to get the dirt-under-the-fingernails effect, and a beta reader who can catch whatever slippage still gets through. You’re good, right?

Not necessarily. There’s a further element to all this: the interface between human and horse.

The bare-bones default would be horse as transport. Large hairy object with saddle, put character on, use to get from Point A to Point B. With appropriate attention to details of care and fuel, this is perfectly adequate for most needs of pre- or post-internal-combustion societies. You might mention saddle sores in human or horse, throw in a thrown shoe or a thrown rider, and there’s some conflict to keep the plot rolling along.

But the horse girl in the Red Mare Clan is going to want more. So will the magical red mare who’s cantered into the story and refuses to leave.

Making the horse act like a dog won’t work. Neither will anthropomorphizing her–making her think and act like a human. Horses are their own thing. They’re as alien in their way as any extraterrestrial.

Horses think like horses. They are large, fast animals who run in herds, who evolved to eat grass and escape predators, and who happen to be just the right size and shape for a human to sit on. The fact that the human sits, sometimes in very unbalanced and clampy fashion, right where a big cat will latch on means that the horse has some strong instincts to overcome–though I’ve been known to argue that that’s also where the stallion lands when he’s breeding the mare. I support the theory that the first riding horse was probably an old broodmare who had been there, done that, and seen it all–and the first rider was probably a kid, and could well have been a girl.bigmacattack_bvc

Now add in the nature of the human beast: a vertically focused predator who is, by the nature of her anatomy and psychology, inclined to grab and lock when the horse needs her to relax and let go. It would seem as if the two aren’t going to work together at all–but they do. Amazingly, even incredibly well.

Horses are remarkably good-natured animals on the whole, and their herd socialization teaches them the value of cooperation. They will meet aggression with either flight or (especially in stallions) aggression, but the human who approaches them quietly, calmly, and with consideration for the horse’s needs and instincts can win a tremendous amount of trust. And from trust comes the partnership that has made the horse so very much a part of human lore and history.

Horses are by nature herd animals, but function as individuals within the herd. They defer to the alpha mare. The stallion guards and defends them. Younger or lower-status individuals move up and down the hierarchy. Foals are raised and nurtured by their mothers but also by their aunts and sisters, and the stallion may take part in the job as well. The human can become a part of this by establishing herself as a trustworthy partner and, for safety’s sake (because she’s too small and far too weak to take the kind of treatment accorded to a lower-status herd member), as an alpha. She does this as a horse does–by controlling the horse’s movement, by “claiming” the feed and determining who gets to share it, and by applying swift, fair, and accurate discipline when the horse challenges her authority.

Horses respect fairness. Unfair or abusive treatment damages trust and can turn the horse vicious. If a horse commits an infraction (intentionally or not), the human has to correct it immediately but appropriately–and then stop. Forget about it. Move on. Humans’ tendency to keep on hammering out of rage or fear, or to keep punishing long after the horse has got the message, can damage the horse mentally as well as physically. Horses stop after they’ve got their point across. Humans, too often, don’t.

From the horse’s point of view, humans in general are loud, coarse, inept, and inclined to overdo things. Horses communicate through subtle shifts of body and posture, sometimes very subtle indeed–no more than a pushing of energy or intent. Certainly they can escalate into roaring, screaming, battering fights–and not just stallions, either; mares and geldings can hammer each other to a pulp if sufficiently provoked–but the vast majority of their interactions are very, very low-key: shift of a shoulder, slant of an ear, flick of a tail.

A human who learns to move within the herd learns to be extremely aware of her body language, her emotional affect and her movement and position. If she marches in determined to show the horse who’s boss, but scared or uncertain underneath, the horse will pick up all the layers. A timid or uncertain human may get run over, and an unobservant one can get in the way of two challengers in a dominance fight and get clobbered. Watch the best horse handlers and you see great quiet and centeredness comparable to that of martial artists, a soft watchfulness and quick response to what may seem like imperceptible cues, and an ability to draw the horse’s attention and keep it, then shape it to the handlers’ purposes. It’s never rough or loud or agressive–though it can be firm and even sharp if the horse offers a challenge.

That is the world your horse girl lives in. She moves among the aliens, adapts her different biology and psychology to theirs, and they, in their way, adapt theirs to hers. It’s a symbiosis; a partnership. They work together to mutual benefit. She feeds and cares for them and protects them from predators. They carry her where she needs to go, and keep her company, too, as any good companion species will. She relates to them as individuals, recognizes their personalities and sees them as people. Not human people, no; they have different motivations and priorities. But  congenial and compatible aliens.


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Me, My Horse, and I — 9 Comments

  1. My daughter can do this. In an act of what in retrospect I can see was great folly, we sprang for riding lessons for her when she was 8. She learned to communicate with larger, hairier and stronger beasts, and to impose her will on same. She extrapolated all these skills into adulthood, and is now an officer in an MP battalion in the US Army.

  2. Brenda, I’m sure Alexander the Great’s mother said the same. “Damn, Phil, we should never have given that kid riding lessons!”

  3. Watch the best horse handlers and you see great quiet and centeredness comparable to that of martial artists, a soft watchfulness and quick response to what may seem like imperceptible cues, and an ability to draw the horse’s attention and keep it, then shape it to the handlers’ purposes. It’s never rough or loud or agressive–though it can be firm and even sharp if the horse offers a challenge.

    Yes, this ;).

  4. Nice read. Made me think about the differences in how I move in your herd, from 2007 to 2009. I was overwhelmed then, calm, mature, but overwhelmed with trying to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ of who was doing what and what the dynamics were.

    Now in 2009, I’m confident but watchful in the arena, I keep an extra eye peeled on potential frisky mares, but I have confidence in how I feel about them and how they feel about me and each other. Telling me that I should make Khep my friend helped. Instead of always pushing him away, I now seek to give him his due, tell him he’s a great guy, but not mine. And then I move out to my horse, with the calm confidence that he can respect that decision. It doesn’t hurt that Pandora is a queen in her own right.

  5. Grin. You left out the notorious equine sense of humor.

    Things such as–the horse who plunges her head into the drinking trough up to her eyes, drinks deeply, then turns her head to slobber all over you.

    The horse who grabs a plastic bag as a toy, waves it around, and discovers the bag spooks another herd member. He (the stories I’ve heard have involved geldings) then teases his herdmate with the bag.

    I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head–it’s been a hectic day–but generally, equine humor is rather like the humor of small boys–the grosser the better.