Writing Horses: Those Handy Equestrian Metaphors

This post brought to you by my pet, Peeve.

One of the things writers have to do when they’re writing in any world that is not right here, right now, their own culture and their own world view, is to think about the language they’re using to evoke that world. It can seem tedious to have to consider every single word, but it’s part of the job. And no, many readers, who live in the same culture and have the same attitudes and are familiar with the same images, won’t notice.

But a few will. And the nature of those few is that they will let you know.

Figurative language invites the reader to view the world in a different way, but it does this by creating images and concepts that recall the familiar. “His eyes were the color of dark chocolate.” “The air smelled like cinnamon, with an undertone of cold iron.” And that great USAian analogy, “The jousting court was roughly the size of a football field.”

The thing is, if your world doesn’t have chocolate, cinnamon, or American football, your character had better be a transplant from our world, because those concepts won’t exist without the objects on which they’re based. You can, and many writers do, simply change a word to an invented one—but that can backfire. “The grublck-eyed warrior strode through air that smelled like hot schlargh and cold metal, seeming to fill the fhlooball field with the power of his presence.”

Uh. Yeah.

Better to rethink the imagery, and reflect on what your world does have that could be used instead. “His eyes were the color of the rich dark earth in the Syndic’s garden.” “The air was warm and sweetly pungent, with an undertone of cold iron.” “The jousting court was as big as a farmstead.”

Same applies to horses. Peeve here reminds me to note that in our essentially horseless society, a particular set of metaphors has slipped loose from its original meaning and caught hold of another that still makes sense. Sort of.

To wit: free rein and its converse, to rein in.

Now even otherwise well-educated writers and editors believe it’s free reign and, by apparent extension, reign in.

Free reign does kind of get the point across. The original meant “to give the horse a free rein, to let him go where he will.” So if you give your whatevers the freedom to rule or reign over their own domain, well, all right. But there’s still the fact that reign in does not mean you restrict that freedom. Satan reigns in Hell, but as far as I know he has a fair amount of autonomy down there. What you need is rein in, which is to pull on the rein to command a horse to slow down or stop.

But what if the world doesn’t have horses in it? Or if it does, what if you want all your horses to be wild and free even when ridden, a la Shadowfax? No bridle or other head-restraint device means no rein. You’ll need to find another way to get the point across.

Same applies to other forms of tack that have worked their way into our language. Your character is unhappily saddled with the care and training of the bratty princess—but—what’s a saddle? Lord Obstreperous is champing at the bit to go to war against the Midforian Empire—uh. Bit. What’s a bit? Not to mention the generosity of his girth, except with no saddles, there’s no girth, because a girth is the strap that keeps the saddle on the horse.

Bratty princess kicks like a mule? Can’t have a mule without a horse, because a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey (which means you also have to have donkeys in your world in order to use this image). She can’t be stubborn in that particular way, either. And her Great-Aunt Prunisba can’t be horse-faced, or have teeth like a horse, or eat like one.

Even if that’s fairly obvious, watch out for the hidden snares. Nobles jockeying for position in court? Only if you have races, and people who ride the animals in them. All that leather you’ve dressed your sexy protagonist in? Better have an animal for it to come from—something large, preferably cultivated, with a thick enough skin to be tanned and turned into clothing. (You might use humans for this, but beware the ick factor in your readers.) Sexy protag’s a real stud? That presumes animal breeding on a largeish scale, and male animals who carry a certain amount of prestige in the culture. You can use other animals—bulls and even dogs are possible—but the original stud is both the male horse and the farm he rules over (and stands at stud at).

Worldbuilding is the art of thinking things through. That goes all the way down to the origin of the words the writer uses. The more you think it through, the better grounded your world will be, and the more real it will seem to the readers.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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