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Writing About Horses: Why They Aren't Like People

One of the biggest issues I see in equestrian fiction, be it sci-fi, fantasy, chick lit, anything, is that horses are given human characteristics so much so that they’re almost not equine anymore but some kind of weird horse-human hybrid. When we equestrians read equestrian fiction, mistakes like this are what rip us out of a story faster than anything else.

Characters predictable? Meh, no big deal.

Plot a bit drab? Ok, we can understand that.

Writing like a teen? That’s cool. We ride, we don’t write. Easily looked past.

Horses act like people? OH HELL NO.

By no means am I saying not to give your horses personality when you write. All horses have personality, some more than others. Just PLEASE make sure your horses’ personalities are, ya know, horse personalities, not human ones.

What do I mean by this? Lemme ‘splain. 

1. There's a difference between a horse knowing its owner and a horse ~*KnOwInG*~ its owner.

Lots of books I’ve read talk like the horse is some kind of psychic and knows when its owner is happy, sad, nervous, pissed off, or what have you. This isn’t because the horse is psychic, y’all. It’s because horses can read body language and tone of voice just like people. The difference here is that horses are more attuned to it because they are prey animals.

For anyone who’s ever shown, one of the biggest issues can be schooling emotions so the horse doesn’t know how insanely nervous you are. *waves* As a kid, this was my biggest problem. I’d get so nervous my horse would freak and it would go something like this:

“OMG THE ALPHA IS NERVOUS. WHY IS THE ALPHA NERVOUS? WE ARE IN GRAVE DANGER. I’M ABOUT TO DIE.” *prances* … *shies* … *bolts*

The reason horses are so attuned to people’s emotions is because they view us as the alphas. We feed them, care for them, and protect them. Thus, it stands to reason that if we’re happy, sad, nervous, pissed off, or whatever, they should be, too, because we wouldn’t be without good reason. Essentially, they look to us for guidance.

2. What is "love"?

When I go out to feed Sunny, I whistle and he comes running. Sometimes, I’ll be outside talking and he’ll hear my voice or see me and come see what’s up. If I’m outside working at the barn or doing something in the pasture, he’ll follow me around. When we were still going and showing, he would know when I was coming down the aisle he was stalled in and nicker, and he was not a happy camper if I wasn’t there with him.

Some people might say this is because he loves me. That could be part of it, yes, but most of it is that horses are herd animals and I’m his herd. He’s a bottom-of-the-pecking-order horse and I don’t pick on him (read: spoil the crap out of him) even though he knows I’m the alpha, so he hangs with me in the pasture. When we were at shows, I was the only herd member he had. It’s entirely possible that he loves me, but it’s also possible that I’m just his security blanket.

Writers who don’t know the horse world love to romanticize the bond between horses and people, especially that between a young girl and her horse. More often than not, though, these “bonds” are one-sided and the horse just doesn’t share the same sentiment that its owner does. This isn't entirely a bad thing when it comes to literature, as long as the writer remembers that the horse doesn't necessarily reciprocate.

3. What kinds of personalities do horses really have?

This is where things get sticky. Lots of people, even people in the industry, chalk up a horse’s personality to “Oh, she’s just mareish” or “He’s just a dumb stud.” That’s not always the case. Those are stereotypes, and ones that are more outdated than anything.

Mares have a reputation for being something called “mareish”. Essentially, this means moody, bitchy, PMSing meat tanks on hooves. However, being mareish isn’t exactly common. I’ve only ever met one mare that I’d consider mareish, but her dam and full brother had the same issues, so I suspect it was more a family thing than anything.

Geldings are stereotypically easy-going and pleasant to be around. Also not the case. I’ve met some right nasty geldings in my time, specifically the gangster that threw me off at college and dislocated a rib.

Stallions, of course, are testosterone-pumped beasts with one thing and one thing only on their minds. Or not. I’ve met stallions that were more laid-back than a hammock on the beach.

Then there are ponies. Ponies, the poor things, are stereotypically considered little demons and only the truly insane ride them. (I admit, this is probably the only one that's mostly accurate in my experience. I've only met one pony that wasn't a little hell-raiser.)

While these stereotypes are rooted in some form of truth, they are STEREOTYPES. Saying all mares are mareish is like saying all blondes are dumb or all people with tattoos are criminals.

As for the personalities they do have, they can be a medley of things: lazy, aggressive, nervous, curious, obedient, stubborn, and much more. Each of these comes from their own individual life experiences. An aggressive horse is not inherently aggressive; it’s learned that being aggressive is the best way to survive. Some horses genuinely love their jobs, as well, and this shows in their personalities. They get excited on the way to the arena, or if their riders say something they relate to their jobs. It all depends on the horse’s backstory.

4. How intelligent are horses?

Horses are damn smart. Researchers have said that horses are capable of learning and understanding more words than dogs and that they have the average intelligence of a 12-year-old child. If you need proof, look no further than the internet. It’s full of photos and videos of horses opening stalls/gates/house doors, crawling under fences to get to “greener” grass, playing in pools or water troughs, and all sorts of other things.

My sweet, darling retired show horse figured out how to walk the chain link fence between the pasture and our yard down low enough that he could step over it. A friend’s horse one time predicted a tornado (due to his unusually bad behavior) and another time found his owner’s neighbor’s blind and deaf dog in the bushes. I’ve known of horses who could tell the difference between a skilled rider and a novice. They’d be a pain in the ass for a rider who could handle it, but they’d babysit a novice rider.

Additionally, horses remember. They remember training, schedules, routines, and bad experiences. Building on that, some horses are fine with women, but don’t like men because, throughout their lives, men have treated them worse than women. Some horses are okay with straight-load trailers, but not with slant-load trailers because they’ve had bad rides in slants.

5. Fight versus Flight

For some dumb damn reason, people screw this one up all the time. Horses are not fighters. They’re prey animals. Flighty, skittish, nervous, fearful prey animals. Their first instinct is to run, not fight back. Sure, there are exceptions. The ballsy lead stallion that’ll stare down and even kill a mountain lion while his herd runs to safety. That spunky pony that won’t move a muscle even when someone else’s crazy horse dumps its rider and tears around the arena freaking all the kids out. But those are just that: exceptions.

Perfect example: Remember Sunny, that spoiled rotten show horse of mine that’s supposed to love me? I was out riding him bareback one day, something I did often back then, and I was at the far end of the pasture. Across the fence, our neighbors were doing yard work. As my horse and I passed them, they started the chainsaw, he freaked out, took off, and I slipped off. I can all but guarantee y’all that he didn’t even think of me until he was back across the pasture, back at the barn, and safe from the scary yellow chainsaw.

A good rule of thumb to follow when writing scenes like this: If a horse is startled, he might bite or kick. If he thinks he is in any genuine danger, he’s gonna run.

One of the biggest contributors to the myth that horses are these great, brave, heroic creatures is the cavalry charge. While it looks like they’re charging into battle, they’re really just running away from the hollering soldiers behind them. That’s why so many movies show the soldiers yelling and blowing their horns and clapping their swords on their shields. In their state of panic, horses view the real danger to be behind them, not in front.

When it comes down to it, writing about horses is generally pretty easy. Chances are, if you think it’s not plausible, don’t include it. If it’s important to the plot or a certain character’s development, shoot me a tweet and I'll do my best to help you out.

Have you guys read any novels that have done right by horses? Done wrong by them? What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen in equestrian fiction? Have I missed something on this list? Let me know in the comments!