Equine Noses and Other Delights: Getting the Horse Facts Right for Writers (and Readers)

There’s an old adage: “The devil is in the details.” No matter how carefully you may tell your story, if you miss the little things, the whole story falls apart—especially for readers who have a particular interest in those things. This is true of any art, craft, hobby, or passion, and it’s definitely true of horses and horsemanship.

There are all sorts of details a writer or reader can research, especially now in the age of Google searches and Youtube videos. But often the researcher has to know what she’s looking for, what search terms to use and what questions to ask. There’s no substitute for actual experience, or talking to someone with that experience, but that can be hard to get in our mechanized urban world.

That’s where I come in.

I live on a horse farm and I’ve been involved with horses since before I could walk. I’m here every other week, and I take questions. Read something that confused you? Saw a film that made you wonder if they got the horses right? Writing something that needs horses in it but you’re not sure if they’re quite accurate? I might be able to help.

In the meantime, here’s a sort of random, sort of loosely organized collection of details that horse people may know but the world at large might not be aware of. Little things that make a big difference to the world and the story.

Horses are big animals. Really big, and hello, Captain Obvious, but to horse people, they’re just, well, people. Big, little, middle-sized. Horse people see them in reference to themselves, and tend not to be fazed by the simple fact of their size.

A really big one is imposing even to the horse person, but she’s still going approach him without fear of his size. If he does concern her, it will be because he doesn’t realize how big he is, or because he’s too well aware of it and inclined to literally throw his weight around. She’ll always be aware that she’s significantly smaller and lighter, and she respects that, but she knows how to keep herself safe. After even a little experience, it becomes second nature.

Horse noses are warm and soft. They’re sometimes described as velvety, but they’re not usually that plush. They’re not exactly like anything else. Some horses don’t like to have their heads messed around with much, especially if they’ve been roughly or minimally handled, but a well-socialized horse tolerates light stroking and may even enjoy it. He may not mind being kissed on the nose, either—though some schools of thought think it’s gross.

Horse people think horses smell lovely. Non-horse people may seriously not agree.

As a horse person, I don’t understand that at all. A dirty or neglected horse can smell bad—old urine and baked-in manure are not pleasant—but a clean and well-cared-for horse isn’t stinky. His skin has a faint pleasant musky smell, and he may also smell of sun and dust and sweet grass if he’s been living outside. To a horse person, this is the best perfume there is.

Of cuss if the horse person then goes tramping around the supermarket in her barn clothes, which have been in proximity with barn smells (including the more, shall we say, visceral ones), she may exude an effluvium that other horse people will recognize and enjoy, but the rest of the world will move off to a judicious distance.

But horse poop is definitely less gag-inducing than dog or cat poop. Horses are vegan, which makes a big difference. Also, once the stuff is dried and has started to break down, it becomes the gardener’s dream: beautiful, nutritious, earthy compost. Barn owners get used to the local gardeners coming over with wheelbarrows and a begging expression. Since whatever the gardener takes out of the compost pile will be more than replaced by tomorrow morning, he’s usually welcome to what he can haul off.

Horses grow distinct summer and winter coats. The summer coat is short, sleek, and tight, and may be so thin especially around the nose and head that the skin shows through. In mid to late summer, the winter coat starts to come in, and the horse takes on a plushy appearance, which thickens through the autumn until by winter he’s grown a thick, warm, furry coat that fluffs up nicely in the cold and insulates him quite efficiently.

He may change color, too, growing darker or lighter from season to season. Some horses don’t even look like the same animals in January that they were in July. Then in spring he starts to shed, and may leave piles of winter hair where he’s rolled or lain down to sleep; within a few weeks the heavy coat is gone and his summer coat is back, as sleek as ever.

In hot climates or in places where horses are kept in barns, humans may clip the winter coat. A clipped horse is much less miserable in heat or in work, but loses his ability to cope with cold. He has to be blanketed (US) or rugged (UK) to compensate for the missing insulation.

Horses are incapable of vomiting. Their digestive system is like a lobster trap: it runs in one direction, and it has to keep running. If it stops or develops a processing problem, the horse becomes ill and may die. This is called colic, and is one of the major causes of death in horses.

Horses’ teeth grow for most of their lives. Babies (foals) are born without teeth, but the milk teeth come in within a few days. These shed as the foals mature. The adult teeth grow constantly for a couple of decades, and grind down as the horse eats, since he’s designed to live on rough forage. In old age, the teeth become worn and may fall out; an old horse may lose the ability to chew hay and grass, and may need to be fed softer feeds.

Yes, it is possible to guesstimate a horse’s age by looking at his teeth. It’s not precise, and sharp horse traders will get creative with a file to make the horse seem younger, but the shape and angulation of the teeth change in consistent ways as the horse ages. Old horses can be literally long in the tooth—the incisors lengthen and their angle flattens compared to young horses whose incisors are more or less straight up and down.

And by the way, a pony is not a baby horse. A baby horse is a foal. A colt if it’s a boy, a filly if it’s a girl. A pony is a separate subspecies that happens to be on the small side.

Old age in a horse varies, but a horse over the age of twenty is regarded as aged. Life expectancy is around twenty-five, but horses make it to thirty fairly often. The oldest horse on record was supposed to have reached the age of sixty-two, but that was in the eighteenth century so hasn’t been conclusively proved. The oldest horse in recent years died at fifty-one, and the oldest pony made it to fifty-six. It’s unusual for a horse to be sound and working past the late twenties, though there was an Arabian who competed in endurance races at thirty-seven. He was considered a prodigy.

Horses lie down to sleep, though not for long. There’s been some mythology about how horses can’t lie down, but that’s not true. They can lock their knees and sleep standing up, and often do, but most horses will lie down for at least a few minutes every day, usually not more than fifteen or twenty minutes, though some may sleep for longer. They will even go flat and look as if they’re dead, until an ear twitches or they start to run in their dream.

Horses are the anti-cat for amount of time spent sleeping. They’re awake for about twenty-one hours of every day. Even when standing and dozing, they’re alert for predators, and can leap from sleep into flight in a matter of seconds.

Modern horses come in three gender-flavors, as a rule. Stallion (intact male), mare (usually intact female), gelding (castrated male). Most working horses in the English-speaking world are geldings, with a smaller number of mares (the rest are generally busy making baby horses). Stallions tend to be confined to breeding farms and experienced horse people. This is less applicable in Iberia and the Middle East, where stallions are much more common and less prone to myth and misunderstanding.

Mares are almost never spayed. Gelding a male is a relatively easy, uncomplicated procedure—more or less outpatient surgery—but spaying is complicated, expensive, and can endanger the mare’s life. It tends only to be done for medical necessity.

Some owners of performance mares may use chemical expedients to control their cycles, in the belief that those cycles need to be controlled—and to be fair, some mares do have strong heats for about a week a month, when their main focus in life to find a boy and make a baby, and others may have issues that need surgical remedies. But in general this is a mild alteration in the mare’s behavior and she doesn’t need correction, just a little more attention from her handlers.

On medical or official forms in English, “M” is female. Mare. The stallion is “S” and the gelding is “G.”

Sometimes a stallion’s testicles do not descend, or one does and one doesn’t. If the vet is lazy, he may only remove the one he can find. This can result in a gelding who has all the behaviors, hormones, and difficulties of a stallion. He may be called a rig or proud-cut, and he can be dangerous. Since geldings are supposed to be the non-hormonal, family-safe option, this is not looked on with approval on horse circles.

Horses come in a wide range of colors, some of which are quite technical, but you can get away with a handful of basics. For your epic fantasy that has to have horses because tradition, unless you really know what you’re doing, go for simple. Black, bay (various shades of brown with black mane, tail, and lower legs), chestnut (yer basic redhead, may have same color mane and tail or those may be blond or flaxen; legs will be same color as body). Sorrel is another name for chestnut in the US West. In the UK it’s more likely a horse with a red body and a flaxen mane and tail.

You may also want a beautiful white horse, which you can get away with, but if you want an additional degree of difficulty, grey is a series of color phases that starts off black, bay, chestnut, etc., but goes white by ages 4-8. One of the phases between base color and white is the dappled grey or dapple. A dapple will tend to be a young horse, because as he ages, he’ll go white. It’s really pretty.

Another color which may be one of the original, pre-domesticated horse colors is dun, which is various shades of tan, brown, or reddish, with dark legs, mane, and tail, and a dark stripe down the back. The stripe is the defining factor. Horse may also have fainter striping on the upper parts of the legs. There are dun horses in cave paintings (and spotted ones!).

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. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. 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.

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