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Judith Tarr

Understanding and Writing Horses: Training and Instinct

If you run a search on “horse training,” a lot of what will come up will have to do with overcoming the horse’s natural instincts. There’s also quite a bit about dominating him, and being the dominant herd member. But is this really what works, or what is actually happening in the mind of this alien species?

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Andre Norton Gives Romantic Suspense a Whirl in Snow Shadow

I’ve been a fan of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels for a long time. There’s just something about the plucky heroine with the complicated romantic past, thrown into Adventures that turn out to be connected with those same complications. Preferably in an interesting setting and with suitably scary stakes. And, of course, a murder or two.

Snow Shadow is Andre Norton’s entry in the genre. It was first published in 1979, and it’s very late Sixties/early to mid Seventies. The attitudes, the eccentricities, the fashions—that awful plaid coat which plays such an important role in the plot. The elderly lady who affects the clothes and morals of the year she was born (with furious broadside against the horrors of Victorian decor—Norton did so, so hate it). The drug ring, the forgery ring, the spy, the stone-cold killer. It’s solidly grounded in the genre.

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Writing Horses: The Eternal Mystery of the Lame Horse

A horse is an accident waiting to happen.

Put a large flight animal in a domesticated setting, surround him with walls and fences, ask him to suppress millions of years of evolution and instinct in order to cope with his surroundings, and you are going to run into trouble. Sooner or later. Guaranteed.

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Spinning Through Genres in Andre Norton’s Wheel of Stars

To give her full credit (and she surely deserved it), Andre Norton seldom wrote a book that seemed as if she had phoned it in. She played on similar themes, settings, characters, plots, but she made them seem fresh. She managed her tropes with great skill, and kept the pages turning with tireless energy.

Once in a great while however, she missed her usual mark. Wheel of Stars, for me, was a slog to get through. It never quite committed to a particular genre, for one thing. At first blush it seems to be headed toward a classic cursed-village plot, but then it swerves off into a confused melange of time travel (or possibly parallel worlds), Atlantis or Mu or some other undefined sunken world, reincarnation, mind powers and clairvoyance, astrology, and ancient wars between good and evil. And finally, as if that’s not enough, it throws in a cave full of bodies in cold sleep. Topped off by the fastest romance that I’ve seen in the Norton canon.

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Writing Horses: Why Bother to Get It Right?

Long years of living on the internet can make a body wise, but it can also make them weary and just a little bit cynical. Inevitably when certain topics come up, certain responses are as predictable as a stallion when the mares are in heat.

(What? You thought stallions were unpredictable? They aren’t, at all. What they are is reactive, and when mares come into the mix, they control those reactions with great and often wicked finesse.)

So last time I aired a peeve about language and metaphor, and as surely as a mare’s lifted tail sends her studlyboi into a fit of dancing and prancing, amid the lively and fruitful discussions, someone had to do it. They had to say it. The thing. The one someone always says.

When writing about anything, let alone horses, why bother to get it right?

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Ruritania Meets Gothic in Andre Norton’s Iron Butterflies

There’s a weird internal nostalgia in this entry in the Norton canon. It’s both a Ruritanian romance and a Gothic romance. On the one hand it harks all the way back to Norton’s first published novel, The Prince Commands. On the other, it was published during her Gothic period, in 1980, and there are echoes of the Witch World that almost made me think she was hinting very vaguely at one her other favorite themes, parallel worlds.

The result is a strange, dark, not quite coherent novel.

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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.

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Rampant Victoriana in Andre Norton’s Velvet Shadows

I’m enjoying my excursion into Andre Norton’s small collection of Gothic romances. They’re not great examples of the genre, but for the most part they’re enjoyable. And sometimes, as I’ll get into in a bit, they lead in a fascinating direction.

This workmanlike entry into the canon makes an effort to stretch Norton’s authorial skills into something like sexual tension. It’s extremely rudimentary but it’s perceptible. The heroine actually feels attracted to the hero, and anguishes over it in more than one, for Norton, emotionally fraught scene.

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Understanding and Writing Horses: The “Secret” Language Between Human and Equine

A few years ago I happened across a lovely article in the New York Times. For those who don’t want to venture the paywall, the article is by Susanna Forrest, it’s titled “Two Horses, One Language,” and it explores various aspects of communication between  horse and human. It’s delightful. It tells stories of the author’s own experience, with pictures of the horses. It even has a baroque horse front and center, a Lusitano of stellar pedigree and achievements.

And it has a great big gaping hole in the middle.

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Wrecking the Caribbean in Andre Norton’s The Opal-Eyed Fan

This entry in the canon of Andre Norton Gothics reads a bit like a book of the heart. It’s set on a fictional key off the coast of Florida, where Norton was living when the book was written. She clearly put a lot of work and thought into it, and some good, wicked writer-fun as well.

It’s full of classic Gothic elements. The orphaned girl, of course, shipwrecked with her sickly uncle on mysterious Lost Lady Key. The stalwart master of the Key, a ship’s captain with a contract to salvage ships wrecked on the reef—an occupation regarded by many as a kind of piracy. The captain’s strange, flighty sister and the rival captain who sees her as a way to get hold of the Key and the wealth it represents. The ancient Native witch and her sinister spells. The formidable housekeeper and servants both loyal and treacherous. And, best of all for us genre fans, a ghost.

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Understanding and Writing Horses: Creatures of Habit

Horses are creatures of habit. This is received wisdom, and true wisdom. Teach a horse something once, he’ll remember it. Teach it to him twice, it’s set in stone. And if it’s something inadvertent, backwards, or outright counterproductive, he’ll really never forget. It takes many times longer to undo it than it did to do it in the first place.

Horse memory is a remarkable phenomenon. Their long-term memory is at least as good as, and may be more accurate, than a human’s. This study blew a few scientific minds, though the anecdotal evidence has been demonstrating for years that once a horse gets an idea in his head, it stays there. He’ll also extrapolate from that idea to similar situations, and respond accordingly.

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Andre Norton Goes Gothic in The White Jade Fox

Gothic romance has a long and lively history, from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to the works of Ann Radcliffe and the Brontë sisters. Jane Austen did a sendup of the genre in Northanger Abbey, which tells you how popular it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it kept right on going. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was a huge bestseller from 1938 onward, and her heirs, including Anya Seton, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart, carried on the tradition the way through the end of the millennium and into the next.

Andre Norton seems to have gone through a Gothic phase in the Seventies and early Eighties. The White Jade Fox (1975) ticks all the boxes. Nineteenth-century setting, orphaned heroine, epically dysfunctional family, mysterious and possibly haunted estate, it’s all there.

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Writing Horses: Horses, Humans, and Coevolution

Usually when I hear about coevolution of humans and animals, it’s in reference to dogs. Wolves came to the fireside, the story goes, and humans fed them and got their services in return as hunters and guardians. There’s a strain of thought that says it goes further than that: that human cooperation is modeled on the pack structure of the canid. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but for a writer it’s an interesting thought experiment.

So what about horses?

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Love and Colonialism in Andre Norton’s Stand to Horse

Even though I live in the authentic Wild West, just 45 minutes down the interstate from Tombstone, I have never been a huge fan of Westerns. When I was a child in Maine, which is as far from the West as you can physically get, my father and grandfather used to watch them religiously on TV, especially Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Have Gun Will Travel. I grew up with the tropes and the visual and verbal vocabulary, but they didn’t capture my imagination the way science fiction and fantasy did.

Stand to Horse was published in 1968, in the heyday of the TV Western. It reminds me of 1962’s Rebel Spurs, which is set in approximately the same part of the world, and in some ways it’s a prequel to the prequel, Ride Proud, Rebel! (1961). These two earlier novels are set in and after the Civil War. Stand to Horse takes place in 1859, with multiple references to the conflicts that will explode into full-on war by the spring of 1861.

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Writing Horses: Caring for Horses in Summer

Summer horsekeeping in a temperate climate is pretty much the ideal, though a strong argument can be made for the crisp clear days of autumn. Heat and flies can be definite issues, and summer storms present sometimes powerful challenges. But the warmer weather, the freedom from ice and snow, the much reduced probability of Mud, and above all, the chance to save significantly on the hay and feed bill by turning horses out on pasture, make the season most horse people’s favorite.

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