They say to write what you know.
I don’t entirely agree with this notion. In my case, as a Georgia born and raised horse girl, that should mean horses, religion, fried food, and southern accents. My current work in progress is a serial killer crime thriller set in rural Oregon, and I’ve never met a serial killer (that I know of, anyway.)
However, there is some truth in it. When we write about something we know inside and out, we bring an authenticity to our characters and their worlds that someone speculating about the same topic may not fully understand.
Like a doctor watching Grey’s Anatomy, “horse people” can typically tell in a chapter or two whether or not a “horse story” has been written by someone who has actually worked with the animals versus someone who has admired them from afar.
I polled a few of my fellow professional equestrians to see what horse-related glaring errors stood out to them in novels where horses are featured. I warn you, we east-coast english trainers are a snarky bunch, who apparently love our horse stories, especially when they portray the life of horses and those who care for them in a realistic light.
1. Super vocal horses.
I now live with three horses, and have seen hundreds in my life time. My horses whinny at me—because I feed them twice a day. So when they see me, it’s like seeing the hotdog vendor at a ballgame.
This is not love or affection.
This is: hey food lady, throw me something good. Some horses are more vocal than others. I have a thoroughbred mare right now that squeals and hollers and carries on for days when there’s a new horse on property, while other horses only whinny for food or if they see another horse coming.
Horses will “blow” if they feel threatened, snort if they have dust up their nose, but seldom does a horse whinny to its rider while being ridden, or nicker in their hair, etc. I have had horses who will “groom” back if you scratch an itchy spot, but this can lead into a not so pleasant rake of the teeth—which hurts like #*%^ when it’s on your scalp. I’m just saying.
2. Galloping for miles and miles and miles.
In real life, this could seriously injure or kill a horse that isn’t bred and/or conditioned for endurance, and even still, there’s a limit.
Also, riding on a galloping horse takes strength and balance. I’m not sure I could ride a galloping horse for a solid hour without any breaks into a different gait, much less half a day.
3. That the big expense is buying the horse.
No. Just no. Unless you’re buying a $100,000+ imported warmblood, your monthly expenses are quickly going to make that initial purchase price look like you overspent at the dollar store.
And even if you dropped a hundred grand on a fancy horse, chances are you aren’t going to keep it in your backyard.
Board is expensive, ranging anywhere from $250-$2500 a month. Horses’ feet need to be trimmed/shod every 6-8 weeks.
Routine vet care is several hundred dollars a year, and emergent care will quickly rack up thousands of dollars in bills. Supplements, tack, supplies… I swear being willing to “go for broke” is an expression begun in the aisle of a horse barn.
We don’t travel much or have nice furniture, and the last time I was in a salon of any sort was about two years ago because a lot of our “spending money” gets eaten (and then pooped out, which I have to then clean up…if we’re going for honesty here.)
4. Along with the expense, horses are a very time-consuming hobby.
They require more attention and maintenance than almost any other domestic livestock/pet/etc. I can think of. So when these protagonists have horses and also an abundance of free time, it’s a big red flag.
Most horses eat twice a day.
Some horses require more frequent, smaller meals.
And whatever goes in must also come out, so every day, that protagonist better have a pitchfork in her hand or money to pay someone else to do it. Some horses are blanketed for wet and/or cold weather. Tack needs to be cleaned. Trailers maintained. Aisles swept. Feed/hay ordered. Troughs/buckets checked, dumbed, scrubbed, refilled.
Flies. So many flies.
If you’re in a farm with no flies, you’re either in a really nice, fully insulated barn, or you’re in a fantasy world.
Now I’m thinking if I ever write a fantasy novel with a barn in it, I’m going to have a fantastical explanation for not having a single fly, because that sounds like heaven…
5. The never-ridden-a-horse-before-girl is the only one who can tame the never-ridden-and-dangerously-aggressive horse.
This is a sweet concept, but it’s a situation where said rider is going to end up in the dirt over and over if she’s lucky, and then the hospital when that luck runs out.
Yes, some people have more natural talent than others. That could be said for any sport. However, the basketball is going to give anyone who holds it an equal opportunity, and isn’t going to be offended if you bumble around while you learn to handle it.
Most horses care. An unbroke horse is really going to care.
This actually leads to a legitimate problem when a horse enthusiast reads a book about another horse enthusiast who adopts a wild mustang/ex race horse/horse bound for slaughter, and then expects the horse to be so grateful for being adopted that the horse will let them do whatever whenever, and that it should follow them around like an oversized puppy and never take a wrong step.
A horse has no idea what you expect of it when you buy it. To be frank, people die and are injured for life in this industry—professionals who have had decades of experience and sat on thousands of horses.
No one is immune to gravity.
Becoming skilled takes time and the help of an educated rider/trainer. This leads to a lot of confused, frustrated, “green-broke” horses who then end up changing hands over and over, or even back on the auction block, and can be such a negative experience for the horse-enthusiast that their dream of owning/riding a horse becomes a thing of the past, especially if they were hurt badly in the process.
6. And if the said wild/dangerous horse loves you, it is going to come find you in the burning barn/dark woods full of wolves and cougars/dangling from a tree branch over a river and help save your life.
Nope. That horse is more likely on the hunt for a patch of green grass. It’s considered nice when a horse doesn’t run off after dumping you.
7. Mismatching tack.
And no, I don’t mean clashing colors.
When it comes to horses, what you can “dress” them in could fill a catalog—and does… many, many catalogs.
There are also many disciplines of riding: western pleasure, gaming, racing, English pleasure, hunter/jumper, dressage, western dressage, equitation, competitive trail riding… the list goes on and on.
When a rider in a story is grabbing the horn of a western saddle before kicking her horse over a four foot jump in a show ring, we have a problem.
It would be like a doctor asking for a drill instead of a scalpel to cut open a surgical patient. The key here is this: whatever it is you’re writing about, make sure you’re studying up on your details.
I don’t even know where to start. Wait, yes I do. There’s a book series my daughter loves about a girl and a mystical pony.
They have an “instabond” (which I’ll touch on next) and this girl who has never ridden before learns how to maneuver on horseback.
Now it helps that this girl and this pony can literally speak to each other, and I appreciate that the author makes her struggle a bit. However, as girl and pony are approaching a very large otherworldly obstacle, this girl pinches her knees in, draws her leg up, and leans up the pony’s neck several strides out in preparation to jump.
In the real world, one of three things would happen:
- This is an awesome pony who is considered a “babysitter, and can take a joke, so it finds the distance on its own and has a nice flat jump and a balanced landing so they make it to the other side unscathed.
- Pony adds in an extra half step (called a “chip”) because there’s no contact from the rider and all her weight is too forward so the pony has to throw in a step due to lack of balance and impulsion, and then the rider is probably at least going to fall on the pony’s neck or get wacked in the face.
- Pony throws on the breaks and drops its head, and the girl flies off and jumps the jump all by her lonesome. If you are going to have your characters ride, and you do not ride the discipline you’re writing about, I would highly advise at least reading one training book focused on the discipline you’re using in your story.
Many readers take issue with the “Insta-love” connections that seem prevalent in current YA/NA lit, especially fantasy novels.
The same can be said for “insta-love” depicted in fantasy novels where the horse and protagonist are in beautiful harmonious sync from step one.
Now, I have “fallen in love” with a horse on sight before. But these horses have never “fallen in love” immediately with me (or possibly even ever. I’m still on the fence about whether “love” is an appropriate word here, but for this sake of this point, we’ll consider it a strong bond.)
I also know what I’m looking for. I like a dominant mare with an uphill build, a shorter back, a low hip, expressive ears, a more refined head, and kind eyes.
This does not mean under any circumstance that I am going to know everything about this horse before I get on, or even during the first ride, or the tenth. A lot of horses are like onions in that they are layered, and you’re not going to ask a horse to perform every task you expect of it on the first ride (unless you’re trying a horse to buy, then by all means run that critter through the gauntlet.)
Still, as you develop your own communication with the animal, what you understand about each other, what you ask of each other, and how you answer will evolve. This is a process.
It does not happen in a single ride. Ever.
There are exceptions to every rule, and a story to prove it. Otherwise, where would these fantastical ideas come from?
I fully believe our imaginations are searching a collective unconscious for long forgotten histories and truths, and I have no doubt somewhere, some time ago, a girl saw a wild horse grazing in a field, and she jumped on, and when they raced away it was utter magic for all who saw it.
Why else are we all still mystified and enamored with that indescribable, undefinable thing that happens between humans and horses?
About the Author
Young-adult author. Equine professional. Southern gal. Pacific Northwest Transplant. Especially fond of family, sunlight, and cookie dough.
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Tanzy Hightower is not crazy. At least, that’s what she tells herself. Crazy looks more like her mother, who studies each sunrise with the same fascination other women give tabloid magazines in the grocery store checkout line. Crazy sounds like the woman on the radio claiming there’s a whole separate world existing parallel to our own. Still, Tanzy can’t deny the tingle of recognition she feels each time she sees her mother standing at the kitchen window, or hears the panic in the woman’s voice coming through the speakers of her father’s truck.
Tanzy intends to follow her father’s footsteps into the professional horse world. But the moment she watches him die on the back of a horse in an accident she feels responsible for, everything changes.
On the first anniversary of his death, a fight with her mother drives her back to her father’s farm in the middle of a stormy night. Neither Tanzy nor life as she knows it escapes unchanged when she is struck by lightning and introduced to a world… unseen, and receives proof her father’s death was no accident.
Two strangers seem too willing to help her navigate her new reality: Vanessa Andrews, a psychiatrist who believes lightning chooses who it strikes, and Lucas, a quiet, scarred stable hand with timing that borders on either perfect or suspect. But Tanzy has secrets of her own. Desperate for answers and revenge, Tanzy must put her faith in their hands as her past comes calling, and her father’s killer closes in.