Today, Leandra brings you some common mistakes when writing horses that she was discovered through years of avid reading and horseback riding.
Leandra and Gwen
Writing Tips: 5 Common Mistakes When Writing Horses
- Using “stallion” to mean fine horse (and other horsey vocab): Many writers will talk about characters receiving or riding stallions to show that the person is rich or has a really nice horse. However, stallion does not mean “nice horse;” it means “uncastrated (or ungelded, in horse terms) male horse.” Unfortunately, stallions are like teenage boys without the self-control; they are full of hormones and see every other horse as either something to fight or mate with. Therefore, they are very unpredictable and strong and can only be safely ridden and handled by experienced horse people. They are also not very suitable for jobs that require serving calmly or in close proximity with other horses (though there are exceptions) such as pulling carriages. Though nice horses are more likely to be kept stallions as they have traits that are desirable enough to pass on to deal with the hormones, there are certainly plenty of very nice mares (female horses) and geldings (castrated male horses) that are much easier to handle, and nothing turns a riding reader off of your story like this mistake.
- Calling a baby horse a “pony” (and some notes on horse height and baby horses): Foals (baby horses) are super cute! Ponies are also super cute! However, a pony is not a foal; it’s just a little horse. To be more exact, ponies are 14.2 hands (4’10”) or shorter at the top of their shoulder when fully grown (you can use foal for both baby horses and baby ponies). For some additional baby information: horses reach adulthood at 4 years of age, though you normally switch from foal to yearling, colt, or filly at one year of age (any horse under 4 is a colt (any gender, though traditionally male) or filly (female)). To make things a little more confusing, many horse owners will call their horses “pony” as a pet name.
- Treating horses like cars (and some ideas on horse fitness): Though most writers know that horses need to eat, they often write them as being able to go at any pace for any time as long as they eat. In actuality, the distance and speed a horse can run at one time is dependent on how fit they are, their general body type, the weight they are carrying, the difficulty of the terrain they are covering, and a bunch of other factors (just like humans). To give some idea, a fit horse with one or two riders can canter (the second fastest gait) for about 30 minutes a day on flat terrain and still be fresh to ride the next day. The Pony Express would switch horses after galloping 10 miles on rough terrain, and the horse would need several days off to recover. If you have characters traveling long distance on horseback, check out some endurance horse regimens to determine how they would parcel out their horses’ energy.
- Writing noisy horses: Horses are prey animals. Therefore (despite what movies tell us), they tend to be rather quiet as to not attract predators. Horses tend to only make noise when communicating with creatures who cannot see them or who are not paying attention to them, and prefer to use body language whenever possible.
- Treating thoroughbred horse racing as the only horse sport: Thoroughbred racing gets a lot of publicity; however, it is not near the only horse sport existent. There are over 25 different horse sports; saying you ride a horse is closer to saying “I play ball,” than “I play baseball.” Additionally, each sport requires different skill sets, types of gear, and body types for both horses and humans. In fact, the short, skinny jockey body type is not the preferred body type for most equestrian sports; a taller rider is preferred to better give aids to the horse in many sports. Therefore, before you decide your horse-loving character wants to be a jockey, take a look at the other horse sport options and see if there’s something that fits the character better.
I have one final hint for you guys: if you want to write expansively about horses, take some riding lessons! I know this is not feasible for everyone due to cost and location, but, if you can, nothing quite teaches you the feel of horses and riding like being around horses and riding. This is not at all necessary if you only have horses in the background of your stories, but if they are a central part, it will definitely help you capture the essence of equestrianism in a way that online research cannot.