Just this morning I was reading a book I loved in my Sensawunda(tm) years. I still love it, but now I’m older and have published a few books of my own, the things I notice are different. In the context of this blog, one thing that leaps out at me is the attitude toward the riding animals (not horses, it’s alien-world sf, but they might as well be). The author is clearly an animal person; the non-riding animals are portrayed lovingly and in detail as individuals. The riding animals? Pure transport. Given no individuality at all, and treated like machines to be used and discarded at the characters’ will. The other animals are people. The riding animals…aren’t.
Not a horse person. At all. Still, one thing this author does sort of right: she doesn’t try to claim expertise she doesn’t have, by trying to make the animals real, or–and that’s the actual point of this post–by trying to describe the experience of riding them. They’re just there. If they’ve gone a long distance, they’re tired. They get fed and watered. That’s it.
The writer who doesn’t know much about horses is best advised to take this approach–though I would hope she might be aware that horses are people, too. What I want to do here however is talk about what it feels like to be a rider, because sometimes the writer can’t write around this. There are times and plots when a character has to pay more attention to the riding than just, “He got on and three days later he showed up at Zamora-Zameria.”
Some weeks ago I talked about the mechanics–what you do to get on, which part of your anatomy is in contact with which part of the horse, and so on. Here I’m going to get a little less touchy and a little more feely.
If your experience of riding consists of pony rides as a kid or a rent-a-ride at an older age, you have a sense of what it feels like to sit on a large, moving object with a mind of its own. This can be scary. Controls aren’t reliable, the movement doesn’t resemble anything else you’ve dealt with in this reality, and it’s amazing how fast 15mph can feel when it’s a horse instead of motor vehicle. Even a bicycle doesn’t feel that fast at that speed–it’s not the exposed-body sensation, it’s the OMG the transportation is sentient! sensation. You feel the muscles flexing, the animal breathing, the hooves digging in and letting go, and there’s always the awareness that if the horse decides you’re not the boss of him, you can’t do anything to stop it. That way lies the legend of the Kelpie–and the treasured plot device of the runaway horse/wagon/stagecoach.
But what if the rider is experienced, and knows what to do? A runaway is still possible in certain circumstances–poorly trained horse, horse under excessive stress, horse with the brainpower of a gnat on speed–but for the most part the rider is the boss of him. You can’t always write characters with your level of riding experience, if you’re writing about a world in which horses are the main transport. Most users of that transport will be as comfortable with it as users of motor transport in our society, meaning that many will just aim for basic competence, but a significant minority will be more than competent. Which category would include pretty much any aristocrat (male for sure, female rather likely) and any well-to-do member of the upper middle class, plus any farmer’s kid who rides the plow horse around when it isn’t busy doing its job.
What’s it like to be a rider? First of all it’s a lot more athletic than popular (un)wisdom might indicate. You aren’t just sitting there. The easier it looks, the more muscle tone, balance, and fine motor control the rider has–and he’ll be amazingly strong. Riding tones the leg muscles like you would not believe. Quads of the gods, there. The torso doesn’t tend to tone as much, but staying with the movement, especially on a big or big-moving horse, does wonders for the abs and the muscles of the lower back. The arms as a rule are probably kept in shape by all the weapons practice and/or wielding of pitchfork (it takes a lot of shoveling to keep a horse stable clean)–the rider with iron arms from riding has a horse with an iron mouth and leaves a wake of disapproving riding masters behind him. The real art of riding is in the seat, not the hands.
Riding requires tone rather than hard-locked strength. The rider has to be supple, balanced, and able to stay with the horse regardless of what he may do. It’s a lot like riding an exercise ball, and in fact that’s one of the better ways to get in shape for riding. So are yoga and t’ai chi–arts that call on the practitioner to be both flexible and strong.
That flexibility happens in the full range of dimensions: forward, back, up, down, and side to side. The horse’s movement starts with the thrust of the hindlegs and the pull of the forelegs; that’s the forward-and-back sway along with the up-and-down component (minimal in the walk, notable in the trot, more elastic and bungee-like in the canter, and breathlessly wow-wow-wow in the gallop, which can really blow your hair back). But there’s also side to side: the swing of the barrel that allows free movement and softer gaits. A stiff horse is a hard, bouncy, bone-jarring ride. A supple horse is niiiiice and smooth. And a gaited horse, which is its own genetic and neurological construct, can seem to flail like an eggbeater but its back never moves; its rider can hold up a glass of champagne and not spill a drop. The gaited horse is a godsend for the rider with back problems because the up-and-down component is effectively eliminated.
The rider who has undergone long hours of practice–what the cowboys call “time and miles” and “lots of wet saddle blankets”–is very much at home in the saddle and will usually prefer riding to walking. The height of the horse holds no terrors, in or out of the saddle: he’ll see a horse not as this big huge animal but in its own context as a big horse or a small horse or something in between. He’ll adapt fairly quickly to a taller or a shorter horse than what he normally rides, and to a wider or narrower one, too: horses vary a great deal in width, from narrow enough to feel like sitting on a fence rail, all the way to so wide his hip flexors cry for mercy. (Hers probably won’t start crying as soon; the wider pelvis and more flexible hips, as well as the lower center of balance, work to a woman’s advantage on a horse.) He may prefer a certain type of movement over others: from smooth and flat all the way to big, swooping, and bungee-like. My favorite has a distinctly oceanic component: long, flowing, with a sensation like riding a boat on a smooth but powerful swell. But I’ve heard others lament that “It’s toooo biggggg!” They like less air time and more ground-hugging.
No matter how big a horse’s movement is, if he’s well trained and trusts his rider–and his rider trusts him–the fear of losing control is never close enough to the surface to be an issue. As with driving a car or flying an airplane or for that matter riding a bike, accidents can happen, but the experienced rider has a whole kit full of tools for making sure they either don’t happen or are minimally damaging if they do. The confident rider manages a state o f Zen calm and quiet alertness that keeps the horse calm as well, and a very well-trained horse can induce this in a timid or inexperienced rider–that’s the value of a schoolmaster horse for the student of riding. For the adrenaline junkie, a very fast, spirited horse is just the thing. The more prudent rider likes a calmer mount, but there’s a difference between a calm mind and a deadhead. Some horses are very spirited but not crazy or spooky; they love to go, have lots of energy, but don’t waste effort being silly.
Riding for the experienced rider, in short, is very much of a comfort zone. A very long or hard ride can still cause physical pain and stress, but like other athletes, riders can condition themselves to quite a high level. The riders who do hundred-milers in under 16 hours are as awesomely fit as their horses–they’re the marathon runners of the sport. It can pay to study how they ride and train, if your story calls for long rides in rough country, most likely with pursuit.