The SFF Equine: Troublesome Tropes About Horses

Just about everybody knows what a horse is. Equus caballus. Odd-toed ungulate. Large herd animal. Prey animal. War machine. Transportation. Companion animal. Sports equipment. Racing vehicle. Semi-mythical beast. Not nearly as many people know what a horse is not. The horse in song and story, not to mention in film, sometimes bears only a tangential resemblance to the animal on the hoof.

We’re firm believers in positive thinking here—believe me, when you work around horses, negativity can get you splatted in three seconds flat—but sometimes it’s useful to talk about the ways in which the equine demographic is misrepresented or misunderstood in popular culture. Here we go, therefore, with a brief roundup of what the horse is not, as a pointer toward what he really is. (And as always, dear readers, please add your own experiences in the comments.)

A horse is not a motorcycle.

Or, as a couple of commenters observed in the Intro post, a Chevy. That is, a machine that runs for long distances on a relatively small quantity of fuel, can survive with infrequent maintenance, and does not suffer from the kinds of diseases and systemic failures that beset living organisms.

(Yes, yes, motorized vehicles break down, need to be looked after, etc., and our witty commenters also remarked on this, but you know what I mean.)

Horses are large herbivores with a quite simple digestive system in evolutionary terms: what goes in can only come out the other end, and any interruption or failure in the middle can be fatal. That means that horses cannot vomit, so a tummyache is a serious problem.

They need significant quantities of forage daily in order to survive, they must drink gallons of water every day, and their hooves while hard and sturdy, particularly when supported by shoes, can and do wear down to the point of rendering the animal nonfunctional. As every horseperson knows, “No Foot, No Horse.”

In practical terms, for the writer or filmmaker, this means that if the work is set in a world that features horses as transportation, the people of that world will need a whole lot more than a barrel of gas and an oil can to keep their ride going. Each horse will need at least ten to twenty pounds of forage—grass, hay, or in a pinch, some browsable leaf-type things—and a minimum of ten gallons of water. Per day. In temperate weather and if not exerting itself excessively. If those conditions worsen, the need for food and water goes up. And up.

It is possible to provide nutrition via concentrates (oats, barley, modern complete feeds, etc.), but a horse’s digestive system still requires roughage in order to work. He’ll have to graze, which means frequent stops on the road, or eat dry fodder, which he is either being fed at the handy inns in the morning and evening, or you’re carrying that plus the many pounds of grain with the pack train that’s following you in order to provide support for your horse. And you’re probably stopping several times during the day rest, drink, and have a snack.

Why no, horses can’t go on for hours and days without stopping. They break down. If pushed hard enough, they die.

And then there’s the portable forge for the shoes and the tack repair, with blacksmith to man (or woman) it. And the prayers everyone in the caravan says, pretty much nonstop, that none of the horses will go lame, break a leg, get sick, eat something toxic and colic and probably die…

For writers I cannot recommend highly enough a concise but thorough little book that spells out in detail how all this works: Donald W. Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. This book is gold.

So. Yeah. Horses are a little more complicated to keep going than a motorcycle. Or even a Chevy.

A horse is not a dog.

I see this a lot in books and film, when the writer apparently knows dogs, but doesn’t know much about horses. So he extrapolates. He figures, four legs, presumably sentient, must behave similarly, right?

Not really.

I have actually read books in which the horse wags or shakes its tail to express happiness or positive emotions. Um, no. If the horse is swishing its tail neutrally, that means there are flies in the vicinity. Flies are drawn to horses like bees to flowers. Fly control is a major preoccupation for anyone who takes care of or works with horses.

If the tail-swish is not fly-related, it’s distantly analogous to the cat version, not the dog version. It’s an expression of irritation and can indicate pain (a mare in labor will lash her tail from side to side and also fling it up and down in a characteristic up-and-down motion). A horse will not be wagging its tail to be friendly.

Even more common than this is the conviction that horses whinny by way of conversation, the way dogs will bark or whine. I see this all over the place, and in film it’s a shorthand for “Here be horses.” Again…no.

Stallions can be noisy, that’s true. They have a whole repertoire of come-hither noises, including a truly epic and ear-splitting aria which they will sing when the lady of the hour is ready to accept their favors. If you’ve stood next to a Heldentenor in full blast, that’s about the decibel level. They also will raise vocal hell when challenging each other, claiming territory, or just declaring their presence in the world.

But for the most part even stallions, and for sure mares and geldings, are not especially vocal. They communicate through movement and body language, and occasional flutters of the nostrils (the whicker or nicker, which is a tender and loving sound, the first one a foal hears from its mother when it’s born). A herd of horses will snort (clearing the pipes usually, but a sharp, loud one is an alarm signal, and a soft, regular one can express horse at work, trucking along here, snort-snort-snort), snuffle, chomp, teeth-grind, stamp, munch, snore, sometimes groan especially if lying down or getting up. But they almost never whinny.

A whinny is primarily a distress call. Its main meaning is, I’M ALL ALONE, WHERE ARE YOU, I CAN’T FIND YOU! It can also mean, HEY! I’M OVER HERE! Or HELLO! HORSE HERE! WHO ARE YOU? Or, urgently, DANGER DANGER NEED YOU NOW GET THE HELL OVER HERE!!!

It’s not a casual howdy, in short. It’s reserved for special occasions.

A horse is not a “dumb animal”.

When people aren’t anthropomorphizing horses—i.e. imputing human psychology and motivations—they seem to default to horse as sports equipment. Not very bright, not really sentient, just there to pack the human cast around. No individual personality, or if there is one, it’s kinda sorta based on, again, dogs.

Horses are actually quite bright. They have considerable verbal comprehension and can easily remember their own names, plus a range of human words. A smart horse can check out around, or above, the border collie level for intelligence.

They are still an alien species, and their agenda may not necessarily coincide with ours. They’re herd animals, therefore highly social and not in general happy alone. They’re prey animals, which means they’re wired to interpret the unknown as “probably going to eat me”—and when that kicks in, their first impulse is to run like hell away from it.

This is not stupidity. This, if your main defense against being eaten is speed, is very smart. It only becomes a problem if your brain shuts off in the process, and you run off the cliff to get away from the mountain lion. But a smart horse, again, can control his instincts and keep track of where he’s going when he runs. The horse who can’t do this is less likely to pass on his genes, unless he’s bred by humans to do nothing but run very fast. (Human interference is a whole ‘nother issue. And post.)

What’s amazing really is that the herd instinct makes the horse innately willing to connect socially with other species, and also allows her to overcome her aversion to predators when that predator is the human (and frequently the human’s dog or cat—these three species get along famously as a rule). This is key to the horse-human partnership.

And it is a partnership. Humans use and abuse horses as they do everything else, but when both sides are on the same page, there’s a real bond. The horse does not have human priorities, and does not think like a human, but the two species can definitely find common ground.

Top image: Tangled (2010)

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed spirit dog.

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