Horse Sense

In writing Regency set romances, you almost always have to deal with having a horse somewhere in the book. Even in London, there’s riding in Hyde Park, and if you characters have to go anywhere, it’s in a carriage or on horseback.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve a life spent with horses: the family story is that, at three, I stole my brother’s rocking horse. I’ve been horse crazy since then. So horse mistakes in fiction drive me nuts.

Which means if you’re writing a scene with a horse in it, try avoid the following.

Horses are not cars – This is the scene where horses are parked, left alone, started and stopped without the horse reacting to any of it. There’s a scene I love in the movie Victoria & Albert. He’s trying to be all romantic in a rainstorm — but they’ve tied their horses to a tree. You see the horse just behind Albert eating the branch, getting swatted back by the branch, pulling lose and wandering off–and, yep, that’s a horse for you. Carriage horses need to be held when standing, walked cool after hard work, and warmed up to hard work. They are not cars.

Horses are not dogs – This is a movie legacy, and I love those old Roy Rodgers movies, but Trigger — a dog-like horse who would come at a whistle, untie you, and even hold the bad guys at bay — is not even close to real. Can you teach a horse a lot of cool things? Sure can. I had a horse who would come when I whistled — unless, of course, she was distracted by grass, other horses, or spooked by something. Horses are not really that smart, and have their own set of prey animal instincts that leave them prone to being short on attention span. They also like habits, which is one of the best ways to train them. But they’re a long, long way from dogs — and the smart ones are actually often harder to work with.

Horses are not motorcycles – This one comes up when you have two folks riding the same horse. The back is actually a weak point for the horse, particularly right over the loins. Yes, we ride horses, but they weren’t really meant to hold lots and lots of weight. Put three hundred pounds (figure two for a guy and one for a gal), and that’s enough to make a horse struggle. Yes, you can do it. But it’s going to take its toll on the horse, and some horses won’t put up with it. And it’s not going to be comfortable.

Horses are not without a sense of humor – Horses never really think about what you want — they have their own focus. And their own ideas. I’ve read in stories about heroes and heroine kissing on horseback — not likely. You lean and that’s when they move to compensate. And if you’ve ever seen the wedding videos on You Tube where the bride tries to get hitched on horseback — ah, disaster, thy name is horse. It’s not a pretty sight. Horses are often amazed when you fall off, they think that bucking is a pretty fun thing to do, and I’ve known horses whose idea of humor includes learning to open their stall door, and let everyone else out, too. (Remember how I said they weren’t dogs — they’re not smart. Well, they’re also pretty amazing when it comes to getting food — food is another great way to train a horse. Or also make him a little too nippy with his teeth.)

Horses are characters in their own right – A horse can be a wonderful character addition in a story — they can add humor, drama, or action, but they add it by best if they’re not treated as anything but a horse. They’re not really noble, although they put on a great look that way. They’re herd animals — they’d rather be with other horses, and they have their own social order. There are plenty of books on horses, and a little research always helps any character — so does spending time with them if you can.

My own two horses right now have been out in pasture. They’re lazy, don’t want to be caught or worked, and they’re about to start back in training with me. They also might just make it into a story — other of my horses have.

Shannon Donnelly

Now at Book View Cafe:
A Compromising Situation
Under the Kissing Bough

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Horse Sense — 3 Comments

  1. favorite book cover(regency)slain highwayman in foreground, horse in background-peeing! I could never decide if artist was being funny, or had used photo as model and didnt realize what this horse was up to.

    • There’s a ‘stretched’ pose horses do when they pee, or in halter classes — so the artist might have used a photo of that pose (just an unfortunate accident). I had a horse once on the cover and the artist put on a driving bit and rope reins — drove me nuts, but what can you do. It was a pretty cover, at least, even if the horse was a little small. I did get to correct it on the cover for the ebook (Proper Conduct).