Things Horse People Take for Granted

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.

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Things Horse People Take for Granted — 9 Comments

  1. And what a great template for creating fictional cultures. Have you read THE GREY MANE OF MORNING, by Joy Chant? In which a nomadic society is organized on horsey lines.

  2. I had a friend who told her fiance, “If you marry me, you marry my horse.” Five years later he divorced the horse, and her with it. He was more of a truck guy, really.

    A willing and sometimes non-comprehending spouse at a horse show is worth his or her weight in gold. This person will willingly hold things, fetch things, carry things, and comfort the horse person, even if he or she doesn’t get it. My friend (above) should have found her one of these.

    Horse people also don’t understand the fascination non-horse people have with manure. “Yeah, so there’s a pile of manure on the ground. Step over it, walk around it, or pick it up and put it in the muck bucket.” No, it’s not nuclear waste. It’s not disgusting. It’s just manure. Get over it. And hey, want some for your compost heap?

  3. The internet does not work properly. If it worked RIGHT, you would be able to open your monitor like a door and put in a shovelful of manure. Then I could open mine, and take it out to my compost heap.

  4. And to think I shoveled a couple of hundred pounds of it just this morning.

    Somebody call the FCC!

    Brenda, I liked RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN better (loved the main horse-zoid character). Though in later years I started to realize how incredibly sexist the world was. That tarnished it.

  5. I never thought about it, but there’s a situation already in the first chapter of KINGS AND REBELS where the horsewoman in me came through. The MC, Roderic, is the Royal Marshal and has his own retinue, his sergeant at arms, his men at arms, his standard bearer, physician, chief falconer and a bunch of squires and grooms. His horse stumbles during a single combat with a Nordman, and after the end of the fight (Roderic takes the Nordman captive) he personally checks the horse for injuries. I mean, he has a dozen or so people who could do it, he has to deal with the aftermath of a skirmish, wounded and dead, captive enemies, one pissed of second in command and whatnot, but he first of all checks his horse. 🙂

  6. Gabriele: You got it. That’s one of the signs of a horse person (or a non-horse person who did excellent research). The “mundane” would have him toss the horse to a groom and move on to the next plot point.

    There are all sorts of little signals like that, that tell a knowlegeable reader whether the writer has done her homework. 🙂

  7. I’ve been around horses for years, so that’s more instinct than research.

    Though I suppose not everyone is born to be a horse(wo)man and in a society where horses were the main means of transport, where even fighting happened on horseback, there will have been knights who’d indeed have handed the horse to a groom because they saw it more like part of their equipment.

    But not Roderic. 🙂 My MCs are all horse(wo)men if they have to do with horses at all – which most of them do, considering the historical-(ish) settings of my NiPs.

  8. Heh. And that’s why you signal “horse person” to a reader. ;>

    A knight might toss the destrier to a groom, but considering that the animal was probably the single most valuable piece of equipment he owned, he was likely to take at least a bottom-line interest in the horse’s well-being. Like the rich guy with his Ferrari. The mechanic would look after it, but the owner would surely notice if something was wrong.