10 Ways to Prove You Didn’t Do Your Horse Homework

For those who believe in doing their homework, but who aren’t experts in a subject, figuring out what looks authentic and what constitutes the Mark of the Amateur can be a challenge.

There are subleties and nuances in every area, and horses have a lot of both. Last time I talked about the things horse people take for granted. This time, let’s look at a few of the things writers and filmmakers do that set off the WRRRROOOOONNNNGGGGG! buzzer. In more or less random order:

1. Book or film is supposedly about horses. With a title like “The Horse Whisperer,” you’d think, wouldn’t you? But you get there and you discover it’s about anything but horses. It doesn’t even bother to notice that the couple of dozen horse doubles used are all different colors with different markings, body build, and breed traits. Trust us horse people, there is a difference between a chestnut Quarter Horse with a prominent blaze and a bay Thoroughbred with no white markings. And if the book said he was a Morgan and there’s a line or two that says he is and he’s obviously not, well, there goes the buzzer. And? Real horse people are about the horses. The human drama is focused on them, not on the humans.

2. Your fantasy horse is absolutely freaking huge. 20 hands, why stop there? Why not make him 25? And your hero/ine is twelve years old and not very big. Does the animal come with stepladder or boarding chute installed? (A hand is 4 inches. We measure a horse to the withers, i.e. the bony prominence at the base of the neck. The back of a 20-hand horse is a solid 80 inches above the ground.)

3. Even if your horse is normal size, your character “floats magically onto his back.” Which we read as, “the author has no idea how to get on a horse.”

4. Once the character is mounted, he shakes the reins to make the horse go. Which works if the character is in a cart and the horse is pulling it. When he’s being ridden, not so much.

5. Every single film with a horse in it for the past 20 years seems to have hired the same “trainer” to teach actors to ride, because every single one of them, regardless of genre, historical period, or supposed level of expertise on the part of the characters, gets on the horse, looks all dramatic, and goes, “Hyah!” I do not know what language that word is. It appears to mean, “Giddyap, horsey.” It does not, in fact, accomplish anything in any place where horses are actually, regularly trained or ridden. Like shaking the reins, it’s a thing. It says, “Somebody doesn’t know his basics.” Real horses in fact are encouraged to go forward by a touch of the lower leg, a shift of the rider’s seat, and in some contexts, a slap of the reins on the horse’s flank or butt (you’ll see this in old cowboy movies) or the tap of a whip (which escalates to some serious whipwork in racehorses–watch a race and see). Sometimes you’ll hear a click of the tongue; this is a fairly standard “pick it up a notch” signal in the modern horse world.

6. Your knight errant has no visible means of support. That is, he’s in a complete wasteland on his big giant horse, and there’s no train of mules carrying fodder for said horse. And no water for the horse, either. If you want to know how that works in reality, look up the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, July 1187 (and bear in mind that in those conditions, a single horse needs upwards of 50 gallons of water per day). It is, for those who haven’t taken a good look before, an eye-opener.

7. Your fictional horses have the mileage, and maintenance schedule, of motorcyles. Also the downtime requirements. Gallop at full speed up to villainous manse in howling storm, leap off, leave horse to fend for self while character rushes on to next plot point? Yep. Set up week-long, several-hundred-mile odyssey sans feed or water stops or changes of mount? Check.

8. The text refers to the gelding as “she.” And the mare as “he.” Also, frequently, the gelding is a mare. And vice versa. Less often, you’ll see the gelding referred to as if he were an entire male. He’s not. That’s the stallion.

9. Horse colors are referred to in nontraditional ways. “The brown horse” is marginal–there is a color called brown, or seal brown, which looks like a black horse but his nose will be a lighter shade of brown. If the brown horse has a “blond” mane, now you’re slipping. A black mane? Call him a bay. The whole horse is blond? He might be a palomino, but make sure he’s in the right region and period for it. And is the right breed. Not all colors occur in all breeds.

10. And my alltime favorite horse oopsie, from a well-known book: Character rides horse into warehouse, dumps sack of oats in front of her, and goes off to do Exciting Plot Things for a few days. In the book, everything was copacetic, man. In the real world, the horse ate the whole bag in a couple of hours, and the nice, considerate character came back to find a dead horse with an exploded gut. So, no. Don’t do that. Horse is made to eat small amounts over long periods. Never, ever feed him a lot at once. Unless of course you want to kill him off as part of your dastardly plan to destroy the hero’s army and take over his kingdom. Horse-savvy readers will hate you, but they’ll grudgingly acknowledge that you did your homework.

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10 Ways to Prove You Didn’t Do Your Horse Homework — 44 Comments

  1. My pet peeve is horses whinnying. I’ve known one (one!) horse that would frequently let out movie-type whinnies for no discernible reason, but on the whole, movie, and to a degree fictional horses whinny about ten times as often as real ones. The standard whinny is substituted for all kinds of equine communication – from stallion calls to soft grumblings, and of course the whole gamut of body language rarely ever gets a look-in in fiction.

    Making horses whinny randomly is the equivalent of having your Scottish character say ‘och, aye.’ Not saying it will never happen, but most of the time, something else will work better, and if you do it more than twice in a book it will annoy your readers.

  2. You should see the list of things people get wrong about… oh, biology. History, from events to clothes. Quantum mechanics. Mythology. Cities or towns they haven’t lived in or visited. Etc.

  3. Oh yes, the Random Whinny. I wonder if it’s kept in the same vault as the Random Scream?

    Oh, Athena, yes indeed. I’m a PhD when I’m not shoveling manure. There are authors and films I can’t go near for fear of exploding-head syndrome. This is the Horseblog, so here we talk about horses. 🙂

  4. Well, you -could- list the evil films. Just for educational purposes, you know?

  5. Much as I adore the Richard Lester Three Musketeers, even I, who know almost nothing about horses, watch the scenes with the musketeers haring off to England to get back the queen’s diamond studs, and wonder when they’re going to trade horses for the ones they’re killing by riding at such a pace.

    Swordplay: kinda brilliant. Horseplay: not so much.

  6. The only way to really work that is to postulate magical horses: Shadowfax and friends.

  7. I generally make my heroes pedestrians or give them trains — but magical horses work too. If set up carefully.

  8. Saw Robin Hood on Friday and was pleasantly surprised when Robin Hood as played by Russell Crowe did not go “Hyaah!” or shake the reins. (I believe Russell Crowe has horses of his own.)

    But then there was the whinnying, and the I’m-not-sure-how-many-days-long gallop to the battle (and the miraculous cleanliness of the horses at the end of said gallop). Not to mention that Robin Hood (as an archer) probably wouldn’t actually be able to ride. Oh, and the fact that the plot made no sense. And stuff.

  9. Actually, “shaking the reins” to make driving horses go is anathema to the driving folk. Shaking the reins, and therefore the bit, is never good horsemanship.

  10. Random whinnies: Also one of my pet peeves. My mare is a talker, though. Every time I go out of the barn or into the tack stall and then reappear, she whinnies at me. Makes me smile every time.

    Favourite way to annoy horse people: Watch Hidalgo (also infamous random whinnies) with a bunch of Arabian breeders. Especially Crabbet breeders. Heh. (It is a pleasure to watch Viggo Mortensen ride, though.)

    Thank you for the link to the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. I’ll be reading that tonight. (Finished reading Xenophon’s work on horsemanship.)

    Enjoying your blog posts. Always excellent.

    Kim

  11. Marge: Good point. Still, if you slap the horse’s butt with the reins, which is what happens, you get a response. Shaking them from the saddle? Horse says, “You rang?”

    Thanks, Kim.

    Brenda, my mind generally mercifully forgets who did what awful thing in a film. It’s pretty much all of them, sad to say. I can’t remember one film that has ever got the horses 100% right. I’m sure there were some and commenters will hasten to list them, but my mind, it is a blank.

  12. On the other hand, one could make good use of the whinnying horse. For instance, my arabian almost always greets me with a whinny when I come out of the house toward the barn. It’s her way of saying “Hi! There you are!” Or “Damn human, don’t you realize that lunch is now 7 minutes late?”

    There is no way in the world that I could sneak unobtrusively out to the barn. Even if I was trying to get the drop on Bad Guys trying to steal my horses.

  13. As a sometime driver, I take a bit of exception that it’s okay to shake the reins on a driving horse as well… it’s maybe only okay if it’s a donkey or true ‘cart’ horse hauling drayage.

    I get annoyed at westerns that ‘try’ to be accurate as to clothing, backgrounds, etc. but the horses are all wearing modern roping saddles and such. “Silverado”, (one of my favorite movies anyway) is one of these.

  14. And the horses are all modern bulldog Quarter Horses with tiny feet. Yes. If you’ve ever seen a real ranch horse, you’ll know why that’s not authentic.

    Hidalgo has Viggo, who can ride, but I would never enter that adorable overo Paint in an endurance competition in the Arabian Peninsula. Not only is he not built or bred for it, all that pink skin would sun-blister something awful.

    I did hear that the original star was to be a Spanish Mustang (as in the original story, and more credible in terms of build and stamina), but there was a problem and they had to replace him. I do not know why they replaced him with a Paint horse. Sure, and why -not- replace the Indy 500 entry with the minivan?

    Hollywood logic.

  15. Not to mention that even some writers who think they know about how to get on and off a horse… may have forgotten that it may go a bit differently if the character is wearing a sword or bow when they mount. Or has a pack on their back. Or other stuff.

    (Now that I think about it… writers often get the details about motorcycles wrong, too.)

  16. My knowledge of horses is pretty much limited to “Ooh, pretty,” but even I was aware of most of your posted items (the too many oats thing, no). Which makes me think that a lot of filmmakers (and, alas, probably writers) just can’t be bothered.

  17. Ah, movies. Or worse, TV. The most recent bad movie moment I noticed was Russell Crowe, as the Gladiator, apparently riding the same horse from Germany to Spain at a gallop after being wounded. Whattaguy! I know that Andalusians are nice horses, but still…

  18. Just thinking about TV horse stuff reminded me of a nameless PI series in which one hero buys a race horse, who is of course a nice, stocky quarterhorse. Um, I think not.

    Once short series got it mostly right—the Racing Game, from England, starring Dick Francis’ hero, Sid Halley. I think in one of those stories they actually had the actor riding Red Rum, who won the Grand National several times.

  19. Boy, I found The Horse Whisperer painful to watch. Yuk! But I have to admit I LOVED LadyHawk. I mean the manes and tail of the Adulusians were freakish, and I worried about them when they slipped all over the cobblestones, but they were wonderful to watch, especially the Fresian. (Rutger Hauer not too hard to look at either!)

  20. Don’t forget that you can blame the whinnying in movies on the foley tech (and maybe the director: “Hey, look, we got some horses. Can you throw in some of those sounds horses make, you know, like–” Sound tech (tiredly): “You mean like this?” **cues up stock whinny from CD sound effects library.** Director: “Yeah, exactly! Throw those in here and there, okay?”). I suspect some of this is a hold over from the days of radio sound, where you had to establish horses with clip-clops, whinnies and the occasional “Whoa!”

  21. “Shaking the reins” drives me up the wall. I mean, the author usually seems to have done five years of research on swords and archery; would it have been that hard to pick up “Horses for Dummies”?

    Another one that gets me is “pull on the reins and the horse rears dramatically.” To me, that reads as “really, really soft mouth” or “crazy horse.” A battle-trained warhorse, sure, I’ll buy that it will rear on command, but it’s going to be more a specific signal than “pull on the reins.” Because most horses _stop_ when you do that, and back up if you do it once they’ve halted. If they’re rearing, you’re probably going to end up under them when they flip over.

    One film that will (ironically) drive most horsepeople crazy is the late 80’s version of Black Beauty. It’s a lovely film with beautiful horses, but almost everything they do reads as a trained movement–it’s all very unnatural to anyone who knows horses. They whinny every five minutes. Still a gorgeous film.

  22. Madeleine E. Robins: in the Three Musketeers books, D’Artagnan actually says things like, “If I drive this horse until it’s dead and switch at such-and-such a place, then I’ll get there in time.” I think he kills something in the order of three horses just for the necklace. (It certainly made an impression on me.)

    I figured the filmmakers either A) didn’t want to suggest their heroes would kill horses or B) didn’t want to spend the film time.

    The most frequent excuse for not getting a detail right is that to do so would require either more film time to actually explain, or more set-up time. (How this applies to not yelling “Hyah!” or snapping reins… don’t ask me. The number of times I’ve wished they took the extra five minutes…)

    I look at films as having certain Narrative Conventions as formal and practical as those governing plays, where a gymnast’s streamer is used to represent a firebird, and everyone speaks in iambic pentameter. Any claims they have to realism are a desperate attempt to deny this. Analyzing which are secret Narrative Conventions makes it easier for me to let slide things like taking a week to go from hate to love, and see if the people and tale are about truthiness. (Which, usually, they also fail. But that’s another rant, and well off the topic of horses).

  23. Good info.

    I’m a writer but not by any stretch a “horse person” so this is good stuff.

    I’m also a shooter and firearms instructor and us “gun nuts” have our own version of this list for how writers and Hollywood gets guns wrong. Trust me, they do just as bad a job with weapons as they do with horses.

    Let me know if you ever want the equivilant list for writers for “gun stuff.”

  24. Heh.

    Just for you, I have a set of magical horses in my forthcoming book. Every time they came on screen, as it were, I thought of you!

    Otherwise, I have learned that minimalism is best when you have no idea what you are talking about (that, and some basic research).

  25. I’m a total horse nerd and loved this post! I’ve got something similar in the sidebar on my website, but you’ve covered most of the howlers here. Apart from tack and horse grease leaving nice marks all over your pristine robes and boots! And this one – how many films, novels have you seen/read where the horse is put to bed and fed, and then immediately after, taken out for a good hard ride? Somehow the animal never seems to get colic afterwards.

  26. In my writing class I warn young writers that there are certain areas where it is worth researching deep. Guns, horses and historical clothing are the usual ones.

  27. LOL. And don’t forget all the sounds the horses make. Because we all know that horses just make noise all the time. *eyeroll*

    Sure, horses do nicker and whinny on occasion, but we have 3 horses and none of them makes a peep when we go out there. (It’s a rarity.)

  28. I should say that it’s a rarity that the horses make any sort of noise when we go out there, not that we go out to see them rarely. (They live in our backyard after all.)

  29. In the Three Musketeers book, there is also a discussion between the Duke of Buckingham and d’Artagnan before the latter sets off on his return journey of where the changes of horse will be set up for him between the coast and Paris, and the Duke actually gives those horses to our hero as a “thank you gift” (instead of the fencing sword we see in the Michael York movie). Presumably, D. will be sending someone back to pick up his horses or sell them for the cash at the stations where he’s left them.

  30. Interesting discussion, brought to mind lots of slip ups I’ve read and seen.

    How about the fact the horse in hidalgo falls in a pit and gets speared, but jumps up and finishes the race.

    Or Mellissa Gilbert’s horse in Sylvester ? One minute it’s doing dressage like an old school horse, next minute it moves like a grand prix horse !! I think it might also have changed from flea bitten gray to dapple gray, but it’s been a while so I could be wrong.

    Although I praise Bonnie Bryant for introducing kids to the world of horses, she really needs to do some serious research.

    In one of her early books a horse lies down rump first and gets up rump first, got to say, I’ve never seen any of my horses do that one.

    There’s also the time everyone panicked during a storm because their horses were out to pasture, as if the horses would totally freak and bolt. I’d understand if it were extremely high winds with things flying about, but a normal thunderstorm ? We get some very nasty summer storms, but none of my horses ever freak out, nor do I run around drying their legs for them as soon as it stops raining (which was described in one of the saddle club books), just don’t understand that one at all…

    And as for the horse movies, what was wrong with black beauty in the late 80s version and the way he kept shaking his head, really weird, think I’d be calling the vet if that was my horse.

    I would recommend The Long Ride, with Kelly Reno and John Savage, they represented the Cossaks pretty well for the most part, they even include the girthless saddle the cossacks use. Yes they do make some mistakes, like when the horse goes for help. Also, that chestnut John rides is just gorgeous. Sadly only available on video, but worth a look if you can find it.

  31. I find the “Hyah” thing very interesting actually.

    In German, “Hü” or “Hüa” (which would sound like Hyah to an English-speaker I suppose) have been used by wagoners (and riders in general more recently) since medieval times, and basically mean: “Go”.
    (“Brrr” would be “stop” and “hist” and “hott” would be left and right, none of which have anything to do with the German words for those concepts)

  32. So can we speculate that there’s a German trainer around Hollywood somewhere, and the one thing any of his pupils remember is that one word for “Go”?

    I’ve never seen “The Long Ride.” Will have to check the Netflix queue. (Cossacks, even!)

  33. Just looked up The Long Ride at the Internet Movie Database for some more info.

    It was actually set in Hungary, during the Nazi occupation of WW2. I think the riders are called Csikos.

    I remember having a big argument with a friend about how they used saddles with no girths. He wouldn’t believe me til I showed him a photo of one in a book.

    I think in the USA it was called Brady’s Run, and it must have been distributed in Europe as Hosszu vagta.

    I have an old video copy but I’ve been tring to find a dvd copy for ages, with no luck.

  34. oops, made a mistake, the movie as released in the USA is Brady’s Escape

  35. What I dislike the most about movies involving horses, is the way they take a totally inexperienced actor, put him or her on a horse wearing a curb bit, then expect them to be able to handle such a bit without doing any harm to the horse.

    Many a time I’ve watched a movie with an actor who’s riding skills are no higher than beginner level, riding a horse fitted with a fairly nasty curb bit. The horse spends the entire movie going along with it’s mouth gaping, trying to get some relief from the aching pain inflicted by it’s riders ham fisted hands.

    There have also been movie moments when I would swear the director has told an actor to show anger by jerking on the reins, sometimes quite viciously.

    Surely I’m not the only horse person who finds this appalling and frustrating to watch ?

  36. Abuse of horses in film is a long-running issue. At least they’re not using trip ropes and the like any more. Many films run under ASPCA supervision.

    That still doesn’t prevent bad riders from yanking on horses’ mouths, but…

  37. My grandfather (in the midwest), a very able horseman, a (now retired) farrier, cattle-rancher and farmer, who had some heavy involvement in rodeo (please let us not get up in arms about mistreatment of animals in rodeo. My grandfather never mistreated an animal in his life, I am sure) taught me to say ‘Hyah’ as a child (though accompanied by a crack of a whip or crack of long western reins, which substitute nicely in a pinch). ‘Hyah’ meant something like ‘Go very fast!’ to all my grandfather’s horses, and I grew up hearing it in midwestern rodeos. Girls who barrel race often say it. Perhaps your Hollywood trainer was involved in rodeo.

    I no longer use the word with my own horses. It sounds kind of silly to me now, but then again, I don’t barrel race anymore.

    As a data point: my grandfather was the son of German immigrants, so perhaps his use of that term was related to that term the other poster mentioned.

    Another data point (I swear I’m not trying to be contrary!): My beloved horse Dancer is brown with a blonde mane. He’s a reddish brown. My grandfather calls him sorrel. I tend to call him chestnut because everyone I ride with rides thoroughbreds and when I say ‘sorrel’, they blink in confusion because it’s a quarterhorse color, I guess. My first pony was chestnut Shetland with a blonde mane and she was brown the color of the Crayola crayon browne. And when I was a teenager, I worked at a Saddlebred farm, then later at an Arabian farm and both had liver chestnuts of varying shades of ‘brown’ with blonde manes (some with blonde tails, too). I don’t think the color is that uncommon.

    I’ll grant you the term ‘brown’ is inaccurate, but if the character in question is not much of a horse person, it wouldn’t be that weird for him/her to refer to ‘chestnut’ or ‘sorrel’ as ‘brown’, because a lot of chestnuts are certainly some kind of brown color. Of course, a character with any amount of experience around horses ought to use the correct terms. Chestnut (or sorrel) with a blonde mane and tail. Not uncommon at all among certain breeds of horse.

  38. There are two movies that come to mind that got it right. Both are Australian-made. “The Man From Snowy River” and its sequel “Return to Snowy River”. The plot does not focus entirely on the equine characters, but they are functional to the movie, and two of them are major secondary cast characters.

    Both movies are on my all-time faves list simply because of the authenticity and accuracy of the details. It’s amazing how enjoyable a movie/story can be when it gets it _right_.

  39. not to mention: stirrups.
    came to europe in the middle ages, asia earlier. but in movies like “Gladiator”…. stirrups.
    nice homework, boys, you get an F

  40. I would happily give up the attention to detail regarding the equipment reflecting the period depicted in a movie, if that meant the welfare and comfort of the horses has been considered more important than accuracy.

    Probably only the horse people would notice the mistakes.

  41. For the record–and this is the only horse point I don’t have to worry about getting wrong–stirrups were in use from at least 300 BC. They are shown on one side of the torque ending in Scythian riders at the Hermitage . Moreover, the original Latin of Gregory of Tours 6th century history of the Franks describes noble warriors couching a lance, which can’t happen without stirrups. The problem is stirrup use appears to have been treated as optional. Scholars have theorized they were developed to aid aged or infirm riders. (The rider using them on the torque appears to be older.) This would mean depicting them would characterize the rider as less than a prime specimen.
    Unfortunately, it’s been years since I stumbled across the research, so I can’t offer citations, but if you can find a close-up of the torque, the stirrups are visible. The best shot I could find was this one, but the angle isn’t the best <.

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