Reading Horses, Part I: Being With the Horse

Genre fiction has an ongoing fascination with horse cultures. Sometimes it’s indirect—the Western lives forever in the likes of Firefly and various regions of the Star Wars canon—but it crops up everywhere. Fantasy of course goes all-in for preindustrial worlds, which lean toward animal rather than mechanical transport.

And yet most modern readers and writers have little direct experience with actual horses. Of those who do, many may have been near a horse once or maybe ridden one a time or two, but day-to-day, in-depth contact is rare. I suspect that’s why fantasy horses so often act like motorcycles. Motorcycles are easier to comprehend, these days, than horses.

Still, if a reader or writer really wants to get it right, and if that reader or writer loves working in worlds that feature horses as transport and companions, there are ways to fill in at least a few of the gaps. Talking with an experienced horse person. Visiting a stable. Signing up for a ride, whether a riding lesson or a trail ride on a rent-a-horse.

Disabled, and/or interested in writing about disability in a horse culture? Check out therapeutic riding centers. Talk to the people there, both the staff and the participants.

But even with hands-on and in-person research, there are still layers of experience that need time and immersion, and most people don’t have either the time or the funds to acquire that kind of expertise. The expert beta reader is invaluable here, but what if you want more of a personal feel for horses and the things they do with and for humans?

That’s where imagination comes in, with a little help. Just knowing how to think about horses makes a difference. So does understanding how a horse looks and seems and feels to a horse person.

It’s like anything else in a fantasy world. You’ve never met a dragon, let alone ridden one, but good writing and game design and filmography can make it real for you.

Horses have a lot in common with dragons. They’re big, strong, opinionated, and even, occasionally, predatory. They can and will bond with humans. Maybe they don’t talk, unlike Smaug or Orm Embar or Temeraire, but they communicate quite clearly with the human who understands their language of movement and expression and, much more rarely than film and fiction might make you think, vocalization.

To the horse person, a horse is a complex combination of objective and subjective perception. There’s the part that thoroughly understands and respects the size and strength of the animal relative to the human, and the wiring that trends toward rapid reactivity and sudden flight. There’s also the part that sees the horse more in horse terms, as larger or smaller within the parameters of the species or the herd, and can fairly reliably predict how and when the horse will react.

This translates, from day to day, as an acknowledgment of the Fear Factor as inherently valid, but also as the understanding that [a] the horse picks up on fear and amplifies it, and [b] it’s in the human’s best interest to put fear aside and present an air of calm confidence and quiet respect for what the horse is capable of. The horse person sees the horse as an individual with their own full set of thoughts, feelings, and responses both wired in and learned.

Walking into a herd is an exercise in quiet alertness, being aware of where every horse is and what they’re doing, and keeping an eye out for things that might set one or all of them off. Horses live in a complex social structure. There will be at least one horse whom the rest will refrain from challenging. That’s the one who walks where she pleases, and the others will move out of the way—not always willingly, and sometimes with objections which can hurt the human if he’s not paying attention.

There will be one or more who always give way, who will be driven away from the desirable thing, whether it’s dinner or the human. If that’s the one the human is trying to catch and bring in, complex negotiations may be necessary: tossing out handfuls of hay to distract the others, for example, or carrying a whip to fend them off, or bringing reinforcements to lure them away from the exit and prevent them from attacking the low-status one when he’s trapped in the gate.

Then there are the ones in the middle, who may be dumped on by those of higher status, and who will dump in turn on the ones below them. This order will shift and change depending on all sorts of variables, from weather to the presence of food to the desirability of the human who’s come to choose a recipient for her attentions. A horse may be trying to move up, too, or be in the process of sliding down. Every instance is subtly different.

To the experienced horse person, much of this is automatic. The same way a parent will be able to sort out the various interactions of her kids, or a cat or dog person will know what’s going on with their particular combination of pets, the horse person picks up the various cues and responds in ways that have evolved over time. They’re generally not thinking, “Oh god huge monster animals coming to kill me,” but rather, “That one likes to kick, that one likes to chase the others, that one has a thing about mugging me for treats, and that one over there is the one nobody messes with—if I need to, I can use him as a buffer.”

It’s not always or even mostly a melee in the making—quite the opposite. A herd of horses at ease, relaxing and doing their thing, is the most amazingly calm and peaceful collective entity. If the human comes in quietly and without intent to Work Somebody Now, just wants to be there and hang with the horses, the herd may circle around briefly—checking to see what’s what—but then will go on about its business. One or more may decide to hang with the human, to stand or graze or even lie down nearby. The rest will return to what they were doing before the human arrived.

Horsepeople can spend hours hanging on the fence or sitting or standing or even lying among the horses. Watching, chilling, soaking up the quiet—because horses really don’t make much by way of noise unless alarmed or provoked. They’ll snort and snuffle, stamp at flies, swish their tails. They move almost silently, except for the cropping of grass and the quiet sound of chewing and the occasional rumble of a gut at work. A herd at ease is peace on the hoof, and will welcome a congenial human as one of its own.

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 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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