While running the latest incarnation of Camp Lipizzan, I had occasion to reflect on how different disciplines and enthusiasms also have different assumptions and “givens.” There are things that one takes for granted when one has inside or expert knowledge. This is most certainly true in the world of the horse people. And sometimes, when horse people gather, they start to think about what they just, you know, know, that non-horsefolk might not be aware of–and that a writer who is not horse people but who is writing horse people might need to know before she starts.
The horse always comes first. A visitor who is not horsefolk made this observation during Camp. “You were really hungry and had been out sightseeing for most of the day, but when you got home, the first thing you did was feed the horses.” Well, yes. But this might not be something a writer thinks about. The characters have to get from X to Y in Z hours, and then there’s a Big Important Plot Thang to do. But before the characters can do it, they have to take care of the horses. That means cooling down if they’re sweaty, removal of tack, grooming, feeding, watering, blanketing or rugging if the weather is cold or wet, and tucking up in dry stall or nice roomy pasture (depending on conditions).
It doesn’t matter if the horse person is tired, sick, or injured. The first thing she thinks of is the horse. She’s on the ground dying of a terrible wound or a catastrophic fall? “I have to take care of my horse.” She’s dying and she knows it? “Please look after the horse.” The horse killed her? “Don’t punish him. It was my fault. Or if it was his fault, it was my fault for not stopping it before it got out of hand.”
A horse has a mind of its own, and opinions to match. A good horseman always listens to his horse. A bad one plows through blindly without considering the horse. If the horse resists a command, the good horseman asks why, and takes responsibility for the answer. Maybe the horse didn’t understand what he was asked to do. Or he was asked to do something that wasn’t possible, or comfortable, or safe. Or he was asked in a way that was too strong or too tentative or too unfair. Whatever the reason, it’s the horseman’s job to discover it and fix it.
The horse’s digestive system is a one-way road. What goes in can only come out the other end. If it’s bad, spoiled, or there’s too much of it, the horse can die. He will almost certainly become very sick.
As a corollary to this:
Manure happens. If it doesn’t, worry. A horse must produce manure on a regular schedule (every 1-4 hours on the average). If there’s nothing coming out, the horse can die.
No foot, no horse. A horse has to stay on its feet. It can lie down for short periods (up to a couple of hours at a time), but the construction of the horse’s body assumes that he’ll be upright on four legs with the inner organs more or less suspended from the “pole” of the spine. If his legs or feet are compromised and he’s unable to stand, the prognosis is not good. Even with modern veterinary science, a horse with a broken leg or foundered feet may be unable to recover sufficiently to continue standing or moving. If that happens, he’s gone.
A horse is a herd animal. He’s a prey animal, too, but his primary focus is on the complex social interactions of a herd. A human can make good use of this to control and bond with the horse. He’s wired to accept control of his movement by another horse, and he will accept a human as a member of the herd.
For safety’s sake, the human should be higher up in the herd order than the horse. Low horses on the totem pole get beat up, chased, and otherwise dominated by higher-status herdmates. A human is much smaller, weaker, and slower than a horse, but she can, and should, convince the horse that she is in charge. While she controls their interactions, she stays safer. And the horse, because he is a herd animal, accepts her leadership (though he may keep testing it, just in case, you know) and does as she asks.
A horse is big and strong and fast. But to a horse person, he fits into his own category: a small horse, a slow horse, a weak horse. The horse person never forgets that the horse is ten times her weight and many times her strength, but she doesn’t let that terrify her. She respects his size while also taking it on its own terms.
Whereas a half-ton dog or cat would be a seriously dangerous animal–even a tiger, who is much smaller than that, can be a deadly pet–a half-ton horse makes a safe companion and a loyal ally. Herbivores for the win here.
A horse is a grazing animal. This means that while he will, optimally, eat all day long, he eats small amounts at a time, and he’s designed to eat a lot of roughage (grass, primarily, and some leaves and grains). He cannot be fed large amounts of grain at a time, and even free feed of new grass or rich hay, if he’s not used to it, can damage or kill him. The damage will manifest as founder (breakdown of circulation in the feet) or colic (severe, possibly fatal digestive upset).
Horses are the most wonderful animals in the world, and everything to do with them is a source of endless fascination to horse people. The fact that the rest of the world glazes over completely when horse people get together and start talking horses is very difficult for horse people to understand. But–but–what else is there to talk or think or care about? It’s a hard thing for a horse person to be in a non-horse-person family, or married or partnered with a non-horse person. Often, divorce happens. Or the partners live their separate lives, interacting as they can. They live in different worlds, and the incomprehension, as a rule, is mutual.