Names are important to a writer. They matter. What you call your characters influences how your readers react to them–either overtly or more subtly. Given a choice between a wizard named Schmendrick or a wizard named Ingold Inglorion, which would you choose to save your world? Sam Gamgee is the best servant ever, but he’s not going to challenge the King Elessar for his throne.
It’s not just in stories, either. A long time ago, before most people knew about the Internet, there was a study of names in politics. The line I remember is that if Abraham Lincoln had been named Andy Gump, it’s less likely he would have been elected President. People pay attention to things like this, whether they’re aware of it or not.
With horses, both in the real world and the fictional one, there are similar rules and traditions. Bill the pony, Shadowfax the King of the Mearas–there’s a clear distinction there. “On, Bill!” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “On, Shadowfax!”
Writers will do what writers will do when they’re making stuff up, but if they’re going to write about real-world horses, there are different rules for different breeds. Those rules evolve over time, and in some breeds, fashions and familial references can help the enthusiast determine the age and provenance of a horse.
The Jockey Club, which registers Thoroughbreds (by which I don’t mean purebred horses in general, I mean the breed that runs in the Kentucky Derby, fills the hunter show ring, and excels at three-day eventing among other disciplines), has a fairly iconic set of rules. No more than 18 characters or spaces, nothing scatological, JC will choose from a list you submit, and no duplications. This can get challenging considering the hundreds of thousands of names that have been registered over the years. Hence oddities like Seattle Slew and Funny Cide.
Other breeds operate under other sets of rules. With the Arabian, there are 21 characters and spaces (luxury!), but again, duplication is a no-no. What people do to get around that is provide a farm prefix–either the farm’s name (Fable Ylla) or its initials to save space (AM Sea Captain, where AM stands for Al Marah), and then it’s possible to have Fable Coronado but also TH Coronado. Or the spellings might get strange: Sea Dream, Csea Dream, Cee Dreme… It can get confusing when there are two nearly identically named horses both competing at the same time: Desperado V and The Desperado were by no means the same horse. But the registry doesn’t allow II or Jr., so spelling and farm names have to cover the bases.
A breed that does allow numerals, in some countries and registries, is the Lipizzan. Hence Gabriella II, Camilla III, 68 Africa, Maestoso XXIX (not to be confused with Maestoso XXIX-11). This can lead to glazing of eyes and buzzing of brains even in those who know the rules, and such delights as Favory II Gabriella II-2, which takes some explaining.
With this breed, a male horse’s name is his pedigree. (The female gets her own name, but it will be chosen from a traditional set within her bloodline–for some registries, that’s something hopefully Spanish or Italian, no more than 12 letters or spaces, ending in A), or it might begin with the same first letter as her mother’s, or it might not….) He has two names. The first is his direct male line to one of the six founding sires of the breed (Conversano, Favory, Maestoso, Neapolitano, Pluto, Siglavy). The second is his mother’s name. Hence Pluto Carrma, Favory Monteaura, Neapolitano Nima. But, if mom has more than one son in the same sire line, those that follow get Roman numerals: Pluto Carrma III.
And then it gets complicated. Favory II Gabriella II-2 is the second Favory son of Gabriella II by a stallion who is the second Favory son of another mare.
Nice and confusing, isn’t it? His owner says heckwithit and calls him Gabriel. Which is a good fantasy-horse name, actually.
Other breeds have different rules yet again. Some of the European Verbands or associations of breeders will name all foals of a year with the same first letter–so it’s a W year, and they’re all W’s, but with another Verband it’s a C year, so everybody is a C. With 26 letters, they figure the names will just be cycling around again when the old generation has died or at least stopped breeding.
Then there are breeds, especially large ones, that tend toward family names. In the American Quarter Horse, apart from a 20-character rule, pretty much anything goes, but there are traditions that some hold dear, and families that come back to the same names over and over: Bar, King, Leo, Lena, Poco, and so on. There can be an almost Lipizzaner sense of pedigree in a name like King Peppy San or Doc O’Lena (by Doc Bar out of Poco Lena–and by the way, a horse is sired by a stallion and comes out of a mare–it’s a Mark of the N00b to do it the other way).There’s been a fad in recent decades of combat-level cutesiness: Ima, Heza, Sheza, as in Ima Little Teapot and Heza Heffalump.
As with children, people naming animals sometimes lose all good sense. It may seem funny at the time to register a foal as Kahunalunadingdong,* but imagine the poor future owner who is stuck hearing that over the loudspeaker at a show–because often, registered names can’t be changed and in breed shows, all the horse’s shame comes out and flaps in the breeze. That’s why the Jockey Club polices the names people send in–though even there, there’s a fair amount of “What were they thinking?” in names like Ivegotabadliver, Dadsalittleunusual, and Cranky Pants. Some registries do likewise, with more or less success, but others pretty much don’t. Hence Bar-Hoppin’ Babe, Girls Gone Bad, and my personal favorite, the great jumper, Legendary Chicken Fairy.
And wouldn’t that be a great name for a fantasy horse?
*I am not making this up.
Judith Tarr writes books about horses, too. Her new book about magical horses, House of the Star, written under the name Caitlin Brennan, is coming from Tor Starscape in November. Also coming in November, exclusively from BVC: Horses for Writers, a writers’ handbook based on this blog.