Writing SFF Horses: Notes on Breeds and Riding

Every so often when I put up an article in this series on SFF Equines, the commenters give me all kinds of ideas for new articles. And they ask great questions. Last time was no exception.

This batch of questions centers around a couple of common themes, namely horse breeds and riding. I’ll take the shortest one first, and then circle out from there.

Before I begin, I (who suck mightily at tooting my own horn) should disclose that I have written an ebook that answers most of these questions in greater depth, and offers a primer on horses in general. It’s called Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right, and it’s available from most ebook outlets. There’s even an audiobook. (The link goes to the publisher’s website.)

Still, we all know it’s a lot easier to read specific answers to one’s specific questions. Also, a lot more fun.

* * *

Let’s start with cecrow, who asked:

So how do you make a horse go? Inquiring minds of non-horse-people want to know.

This is one of those deceptively simple concepts that can lead to some very not-right versions in film and fiction.

No, leaping on the horse and yelling Hyaah! does not make a horse go.

Nor does flapping one’s elbows harder the faster the horse runs.

Shaking the reins doesn’t do it, either.

Or kneeing the horse in the flank from the saddle, which requires the rider to remove her leg, lean waaayyyy down, and goose the horse directly in front of the upper joint of the hindleg (called the stifle) with the severed limb.

How do you make a horse go?

Horses are trained from birth to move away from pressure. Mom does it to get the baby to move where she wants it to go. When it comes time to ride the horse (too often around age two, more optimally around age four or older), the rider signals the horse with leg pressure. Apply lower leg, horse moves forward.

There are finer points and nuances and variations—a well-trained horse with an expert rider will respond to a signal so subtle it’s almost subliminal, the release of a breath, the intention of forward—but that’s the basic signal. As the trainers say, “Leg means go, rein means stop.” Horse moves off the leg, stops at touch of the rein. Turn is either rein on neck (American Western/cowboy style) or direct pressure of rein in direction horse needs to go (many other styles). Want to go faster? More leg, again with some fine-tuning, but watch your favorite horse film where the rider kicks the horse to get him moving. That’s yelling and not subtle at all, but it is clear what the rider is doing.

The part of the leg that’s doing this is the lower leg—the calf/shin. Spur on ankle may be a factor for cowboy or knight or whoever. Spur turns up the volume a lot. This can be good if done right. Can be damaging if not. We used to call a certain very famous trainer “Old Bloody Spurs” for a reason.

The knee is not doing it. Often you may read, “He pressed with his knees,” but in actual practice, squeezing the knees squirts the rider up like a watermelon seed. What the rider may do instead is kick with his lower legs and heels, and the horse may run off or he may buck, but he is going, and the rider is likely to be much more secure than if he’s trying to lock his knees.

* * *

Lilaer asked a somewhat similar question, but somewhat broader:

The last point, about the Mongolian Derby, makes me wonder something. The horses are Mongolian, while the riders are probably wealthy Western tourists, right? So… that means that all horses understand all riders the world over? Is there just one uh… riding language? One human-horse language?

That’s right. There are different signal sets, different cues in different styles, like the turning methods I mentioned above. But the basic point of movement away from pressure is pretty much universal. An experienced rider will verify a few basic signals, get on the horse, and be able to make herself understood fairly quickly.

Because no matter what equipment she’s using or what the specific signals are, the bottom line is still the human sitting on the horse’s back. Human conformation working with its parameters, horse conformation likewise. Rider’s weight, seat, legs, hands. Horse’s back, neck, and sides. That’s the universal language, though the dialects will vary.

What about voice? you might ask. Horses are quite verbal and can acquire a vocabulary that may exceed that of a smart dog. Humans do use voice commands, sometimes extensively—especially when teaching tricks and working from the ground. Clicker training, too: that works great with horses.

But again, the language of touch and contact is most efficient when riding, and most effective when horse and rider are well trained. Horses are cosmic masters of body language and movement. Humans who tune in to that can ride pretty much any horse, anywhere the horse happens to live.

* * *

Karen had a more eclectic set of questions, which I’ve excerpted here. I’ll tackle the others another time.

Tell us about palfrey and coursers, and Icelandic ponies. Also those glossy horses, akhal-teke.

Palfreys were the riding horses of the middle ages—the ladies’ mounts, the knights’ transport between battles, the all-purpose vehicles of the time. They were more lightly built than the big war horses, and they were expected to be calm and sensible.

They were often gaited. Normal horse gaits are walk, trot or jog, canter or lope, and gallop. Canter is an easy three-beat gait (called galop in Europe which leads to confusion). Gallop is a four-beat run—that’s what you see horses doing in the Kentucky Derby. It’s fast and there’s pounding and there’s wind whipping your hair.

Some horses naturally default to additional gaits—it’s a wiring thing. Modern gaited horses do things like the rack, the stepping pace, the foxtrot, the running walk, the paso fino. Medieval horses ambled, which could be any or all of the modern gaited-horse moves.

The point of these is comfort for the rider. The walk and canter are pretty easy to sit. But walk doesn’t get you there very fast, and horses can’t canter or gallop nonstop for long periods. The gait they default to when they need to cover ground without excessive effort but a walk is too slow, is the trot.

The trot is a two-beat gait, and while some horses have a nice smooth jog (US Western horses are trained to smooth and slow it way down), the truth is, it’s hard to sit. It’s also hell on the back. Modern riders developed a movement called posting (from the post riders of the eighteenth century who did it to keep their teeth from rattling out of their heads) or rising trot, which once you get the hang of it is pretty easy and doable with or without stirrups, but it’s rather athletic. Really works those abs.

The amble in all its forms is smooth. It’s a party trick to carry an egg in a spoon while gaiting, extra points given for doing it bareback, and never dropping the egg. Full glass of water, too. Never spilling a drop.

I mean look at this. (Keyboard alert. Remove all ingestible liquids from vicinity while watching.)

That’s smooth. Extremely easy on the back. Horse can keep it up for a long time. Rider can sit it all day long.

That’s what your palfrey can do. The courser or destrier, the war horse of the West, is a completely different type of animal. He’s bigger, to carry the weight of the armored knight. He’s accordingly more massive. He’s a lot more aggressive—yes, he’s probably a stallion. He is not supposed to be gentle or kind. He’s a fighting machine.

While I was getting up to date on medieval war horses, I came across this from a few months ago. Scroll down to the second article about the Art Institute of Chicago. What’s interesting here is that the Art Institute had sets of fifteenth-century armor, and they needed horse models to fit it. They tried the American Quarter Horse, which is a quite chunky and sturdy animal, but the armor was too big. They tried a draft horse—supposedly a descendant of the Great Horse—and the armor was too small.

What they found was a breed of horse from a little later, which was just the right size. And that was the Lipizzaner, which is a short, stocky, sturdy animal that looks pretty much exactly like the horses Leonardo Da Vinci loved to draw and paint and sculpt. So that’s a living example of the late-medieval war horse. Not as big as you might think, and quite a bit more agile than the draft horses we have now. They’re still doing fighting moves, too, in places like Vienna and Tempel Farms.

The Icelandic horse (not pony despite its size—they’re different subspecies) is a short, very sturdy, highly cold-tolerant animal, supposedly bred for a thousand years without the addition of any other breeding stock. It’s the horse you want when winter comes—through your Westerosi knight may kick at riding a horse so short the knight’s feet barely clear the ground. The Mountain might have to stay in the south. Which is probably not a bad thing.

A major selling point of this breed is that it’s gaited, and therefore is a very smooth ride. The signature gait, the tolt, can cover serious ground, and the horse can keep it up for quite a long time.

As for the Akhal-Teke, this is a straight-out fantasy horse, and it’s totally real. It’s a rare breed from Turkmenistan in central Asia, and tends to be tall and narrow. If it were a dog, it would be a greyhound or a Saluki. It can have a challenging temperament: lots of brains, low idiot tolerance.

The thing that sets it apart from other breeds is its coat. This is the horse who looks as if he’s been brushed with gold. He has a distinctive shimmering sheen. It’s unusual and striking and very beautiful.

As I said. Fantasy horse.


That’s it for this week. If you have questions you’d like me to answer in a future article, ask in comments, and I’ll see what I can do.

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 dog.


Back to the top of the page


Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.