Worldbuilding with Horses: Personalities

There’s one trap the worldbuilder can fall into all too easily. It’s the same one Hollywood persistently falls into with genre films. The special effects take over, and nobody remembers that what really makes a story work is people. Soylent Green is people, people. And so is Story.

A really well-built world is a joy to the reader and the writer, but the thing that makes it stand out is the cast of characters that populates the world. And this is the Horseblog, which means we’ll look at characters through a horse-shaped lens.

Maybe not quite that literally.

As with everything else that makes a world, the presence of horses makes some things more likely to happen. Certain personalities are drawn to horses–both positive and negative. Understand that and you have a guide to creating characters that make sense in a world with horses.

Negative first–so that we can end this section on a good note. First think about what horses are. They’re big, but they’re also fragile. Their digestive systems are tricky to manage. Work them too hard or too young and they break down. As herd animals, they’re evolved to cooperate with each other; millennia of selective breeding have enhanced that tropism toward cooperation and  extended it to their human handlers and trainers.

This can be irresistible to the kind of human who preys on the weak or the gentle or the submissive. As attractive as it is to dominate and corrupt humans, it’s even more alluring if the creature being dominated is physically large and powerful. Better yet from this perspective, the large and powerful animal, once subdued, can be used to dominate other humans and animals. It’s a double whammy of hatefulness.

For a horse person, one of the most quietly devastating images in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring is the closeup of the hoof of the Black Rider’s horse as he scours the Shire for “Baggins.” The hoof is bleeding from nails driven into the quick. This is a particularly horrible and painful torture, and it encapsulates the evil of Mordor.

There’s no need to be that obvious or dramatic, either. The sociopath who gets his jollies in much more underhanded ways will be drawn toward the training of horses and riders. The bad teacher, the master of verbal and emotional abuse, the subtle or not so subtle torturer–the horse world is full of them. Horses add that extra bit of spice to the mix.

But it’s not only the dark side that’s drawn to horses. The best kind of person gravitates toward them, too. The kind and giving, the compassionate. The patient teacher; the person who bonds with and understands animals.

The human in the middle can go either way: dark or light. If the human turns toward the dark, she becomes a torturer of horses. If she goes toward the light, or is steered toward it, she finds that horses have a remarkable ability to heal psychological and even physical damage.

Their movement can repattern damaged bodies and nervous systems; riding is a well-known and respected form of physical therapy. Their calmness and their cooperative nature are tremendously soothing. Their gentleness encourages the human to be gentle as well, and to be more subtle and understated in interactions with the rest of the world. Horses are very good at muting the nonstop yammer and hissing white noise of the human body and mind. They’re natural Zen masters.

Go down another layer and you can create believable horses as well as believable humans. No need to resort to talking horses, either–though I’d never sneer at them if they’re done well. Anthropomorphism is a common problem in stories written by writers who have not done their homework, though it’s more like dog-omorphism; writers write what they know, and more writers know dogs (or at least movie and TV dogs) than horses.

Real horses are their own kind of people. Aliens, if you will. People who live in the present but have better longterm memory than humans: teach them something once and decades later they will remember. People for whom the world is inherently dangerous; anything unknown is by definition suspicious, because it might eat them. People who are designed to live in complex social groupings; it’s deeply unnatural to be alone.

And yet they’re individuals. Each person in the herd has a place, but that place shifts with time and circumstance. There are leaders and followers, calm people and irascible people and people in all stages between.

Gender determines roles–but not the way humans might interpret it. Females rule; it’s a matriarchy. Males are the security forces, and of course the fathers of the offspring–and in the wild they will participate in the nurture of foals, watching over and disciplining them as the rest of the herd will when Mom needs a break.

In fact the way humans handle breeding stock can contribute to sociopathy in stallions: isolating them, denying them access not just to herds of their own but to any other members of their species, only allowing contact for sexual purposes. A stallion on his own is powerful enough and self-willed enough to be a danger to the humans who try to control him; human fear and ignorance can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a feedback loop of escalating dangerous behavior.

But again, there’s a brighter side: the stallion as companion in war and peace. Raise and educate him among other stallions apart from mares, and he settles into a mode he’s evolved for: the bachelor band, the young or unattached stallions who run together unless or until they’re strong enough to fight for and win their own mares.

Or if this monastic arrangement isn’t feasible or suitable, a stallion socialized in proximity to other horses–geldings or mares–and trained carefully and fairly by humans who understand him is a useful and cooperative equine citizen. There’s a reason why some cultures prefer stallions for war and display: they have a distinctive power and charisma, and a bit of aesthetic appeal as well.

One thing testosterone can do for some stallions is give them a closer, shinier coat, which makes for more of the pretty in winter when most horses turn into enormous and opinionated plush toys.

Like this.

As opposed to this.

Speaking of personalities.

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The “Living in Threes” Kickstarter is on through April 9th. Next bonus tier: backers get to see the art in process, and there will also be video of opinionated white horses. Click to read a few samples and a public update or two, and maybe come on board as a backer.

Interested in more magical equines, and another story based on real-world horse tricks? Have a look at “To Ride Beyond the Wide World’s End,” which is a free sample for the new Book View Cafe anthology of fairy tales transformed, Beyond Grimm.

Nonfiction more your style? Want more horse-related information and details? That would be Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right, also from Book View Cafe.

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Worldbuilding with Horses: Personalities — 7 Comments

  1. Enjoyed your post! I took my granddaughters to see Cavalia this weekend. We were surprised to learn they use only male horses–stallions & geldings. After reading your post, I guess they are doing it right, keeping the males together in a bachelor band. Very interesting!

  2. Wonderful post, as always.

    The healing abilities of horses can’t be overemphasized…I’ve seen deeply traumatized children find their strength from the compassion and gentleness of horses. I’m one of them…If I hadn’t had the refuge of the stable, and the unfailing patience and love of my horses, I wouldn’t be here today.

    Several major prisons now have programs where the inmates work with horses, and the recidivism rates of those inmates is much, much lower than in others who don’t have that outlet.

    http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/29657460/ns/today-today_pets_and_animals/t/colorado-prison-wild-horses-tame-inmates/

  3. O yes, this is so good.

    Years ago when living for awhile in the southeastern part of New Mexico (very different from Albuquerque up north, where I lived for a long time before that) I regularly visited a group of mares, geldings, colts, fillies and foals — by my count 19 members in all.

    For whatever reason their owner never bothered with them except for dropping off feed and making sure the water tank was operating properly.

    I could jog and run in those day before my spine went kablooey and my run always was organized to end as actual work-exercise where their fence was closest to home. I was happy just to look at the horses, to watch them.

    The first membera of the group to approach me was a foal, followed, in following days by the other 3 foals in the field. They were so curious, as curious about me as I was about them. Not at all afraid. But then, I didn’t try to touch them, though I did talk to them. Their moms were watching carefully while pretending not to be. They sort of inched over closer to the kids while grazing, just grazing you know, not paying attention to you. It was then I first realized that horses were perfect templates for modeling alien-human first contact.

    So we all got very friendly over the fence in the course of the summer. Partly I think I was amusement for them, filling the time at the close of the afternoon — it’s damned HOT down there — before feed was dropped off.

    Again, I never tried to enter their field — that’s trespassing, which is taken very seriously in the part of the world. But when the older horses shoved their heads over to be scratched after a while I obliged. Also I didn’t bring them anything to eat because, who knows? Maybe what I’d pick wouldn’t agree with one of them. Those weren’t my horses, and as I say, people take that sort of thing seriously down there.

    Love, C.

  4. TW, thanks! Isn’t Cavalia amazing? Yes, the males apart from the females are quite cooperative and generally easygoing. They make good touring troupes.

    Gwyn, thanks. Great and useful link.

    C, that must have been heaven for your kid self. There are people around here who bring their kids over in strollers and stop by to say hello to the horses. The crew is always happy to visit over the fence. We’ve mostly educated them not to try to feed anybody. Luckily there’s no grass here–so no danger from lawn clippings (thank goodness).

  5. Why are lawn clippings dangerous?
    Around here I have seen local horses ripping leaves and twigs off of the mulberry trees, and happily getting themselves purple.

  6. Couple more details on horse bellyache….horses can’t vomit (they lack the muscles to do so) so when they eat stuff that upsets their gut, it’s really not good.

    Also, if the horse doesn’t get a bellyache (colic), the rich fermented grass can also be high in fructans and give the horse founder (inflammed hooves; one particularly ugly side-effect of founder or laminitis is that the outer hoof wall starts to separate from the inner hoof wall. There’s a spongy layer in between filled with blood vessels that swells when horses get upset guts. Such separation can lead to the coffin bone in the hoof rotating and piercing through the sole of the hoof. Very, very bad stuff).

    Horses also don’t always have good taste and limit themselves to safe foods, either.