It’s reader question time at SFF Equine, and commenter srEDIT has a good one:
We read in Book Three and Appendix A [of The Lord of the Rings] about the “father of horses,” Felaróf, who was captured as a foal by Léod, Eorl’s father. This is the horse who later sired the race of Mearas horses raised by the Rohirrim.
My question(s): Tolkien tells us of Felaróf that “no man could tame him.” But he also says Léod is established as a successful “tamer of wild horses.” How long would Léod likely have waited before attempting to mount this stallion? That is, how young a horse (who presumably began his life as a colt in the wild) might be ready to be mounted? How old are “real” horses before an experienced tamer might try to mount and ride an “untamable” stallion? We’re told that Léod actually rode for some (unmeasured) distance before Felaróf threw him. What might this distance be? Assuming the best of intentions by both human and animal characters, was this a case of irresistible force meets immovable object?
In your own mind, what sort of circumstances surrounding the taming of Felaróf had you imagined?
First of all, a bit of a disclaimer. I’m a LOTR/Silmarillion geek but not a Tolkien scholar. I haven’t delved deep into the lore and I have not read most of the exhumations and continuations published over the years. What I am is a longtime horse person, a rider and a onetime breeder. That’s the framing of the question, and that’s how I’ll answer.
Tolkien was not a horseman per se, but he wrote of them with respect and a degree of understanding. His Mearas of Rohan are a distinct breed, all or nearly all greys, and he describes them as “tall and clean-limbed and proud,” with exceptional night sight. While in general they seem to be more or less normal horses, their “king” or primary herd stallion is a cut above the ordinary, being exceptionally long-lived and able to understand the speech of Men.
In my mind, from the description, they sound like Irish Thoroughbreds. In the Jackson films, their king, Shadowfax, was played by an Andalusian, which is a pretty decent bit of casting. Andalusians and Lusitanos, the horses of the Iberian Peninsula, and their Eastern European cousins the Lipizzaner, also tend to have a high percentage of greys and are famous for their longevity and their high intelligence.
To get back to the question, the original King of the Mearas, Felaróf, was a wild horse, but Léod captured him as a foal, which means he was just a few months old—young enough to be handled and domesticated thoroughly by an experienced trainer. The fact that he refused to be tamed at all indicates that either the proto-Rohirrim did not handle young horses but sent them out on the range like the ranch horses of the American West, or they did handle the horses but that one was exceptionally resistant.
Either way, if Léod came from a long line of horse trainers, he would know from tradition and experience that it’s best to wait for a young horse to mature before trying to ride him. Modern trainers debate, sometimes heatedly, the meaning and age of horse maturity. The cowboys with their range horses would bring them in at age two, break them and then turn them back out for a year or two more until they were brought in and turned into working horses. It seemed to work for them in that it gave them an injection of training right when their minds were malleable, and they would remember it when their bodies and minds were more mature and better able to handle ranch work.
The musculoskeletal system of the horse takes a rather long time to mature—six to eight years depending on the individual and the breed. Physically, however, also depending on the individual and the breed, a horse will look mature somewhere between ages two and four. (I had one who looked like a hatrack till she was six, but she was an extraordinarily late bloomer from a very late-maturing breed.) Modern Thoroughbred racehorses are started under saddle at 18-24 months in the US, but they’re also not expected to race much past the age of three years. Elsewhere and for different disciplines, generally people wait until the horse is three to four years old before trying to ride them.
By that measure, Felaróf was probably at least three or four when Léod tried to mount him. He could have been older, but that would get dicey, because as with human learning stages, there is a period after which, if a horse has not been worked or handled, he becomes considerably more difficult to train. That age is somewhere around six or seven years.
(If the horse has been handled and worked with, even if not ridden, it’s usually fine. It’s the experience of working with humans that’s needed. They understand about communication. They’ve learned how to learn.)
So let’s say Felaróf is around three and a half years old. He’s not fully grown but he may look as if he is. He’s well built, he has some size and great bone. He’ll fill out later and he may grow another inch or more in height, maybe quite a bit more, but he has enough heft and strength to carry a grown man.
If the horse really was as resistant to training as Tolkien indicates, I doubt he would have been hauled in off the range, forcibly saddled, and ridden into submission. It’s not a training method I care for at all, though it’s attested in multiple cultures. In the American West it’s called breaking, and its opposite number is gentling, which is a slower, more gradual process.
I suspect Léod took his time. He had years to get to know the horse. He must have managed to at least approach and touch him, and probably put a halter on him and teach him to lead and, over time, accept bridle and saddle. Probably he wouldn’t let anyone else near him, but he had to have accepted Léod sooner or later.
The horse was obviously well off the charts for intelligence, and had a powerful sense of self. He was not a horse who could be manhandled or forced. He had to be asked, and asked in the exact right way.
Even with that, actually carrying a rider would be a serious challenge. Felaróf was a stallion, and stallions are wired to fight off anything that tries to climb on top of them. In the wild, that will be either a predator or another stallion fighting for the same band of mares.
Moreover, he was a king. He was born to defend a herd (and defer to its mares). Submitting to a human was not on his agenda.
But Léod was going to complete the training of this spectacular animal and make him a riding horse, had spent years building up to it. He would go slow, be cautious, and ask permission at each step. Actually sitting on the horse’s back would only be the beginning. Once the horse started to move and the human started to move with him, it’s quite likely he would have become one giant furious manifestation of NOPE.
How far would Léod have got before he flew off? Depends. If the horse tried to bolt out from under him, he could have hung on for a fair distance before the horse veered or swerved or spooked or even stopped dead and sent him flying. If the horse bucked, rodeo style, the ride would have covered very little ground and lasted somewhere in the region of eight seconds.
[Update: See the comments below for additional observations on the fate of Léod and Felaróf.] As the appendix notes, after Léod’s fatal fall, his son Eorl came to an understanding with the horse, who agreed to carry him willingly when Eorl claimed his freedom in compensation for the loss of his father. Otherwise he would never have submitted to the human at all.
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.