C. S. Lewis

"It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."


Monday, March 30, 2015

writing a believable horse

It's probably J.R.R. Tolkien's fault. Shadowfax and the exceptional horses of Rohan have made super-smart horses an important part of high fantasy. Even without an attempt on personification, horses also tend to be important features of any story lacking automation. How else do you get from point A to point B quickly? Did you have to look up how to cook a rabbit to write that one scene? Treat your transportation with the same care.


Why do some book horses work really well, and others are like fingernails on chalkboard? There are a lots of reasons, of course. Here are some tips for writing a believable horse:

1-Remember that horses are prey.
They like to eat grass and sometimes play. Their first instinct when something startles them is to put distance between them and the thing. Horses can be trained to think first, and can be taught not to react to scary things--like, you know, cannon fire--but it is taught, not inborn. That said, some horses are better suited to this than others.

This is also why war horses are so valuable.

2-Horses are athletes.
Think about human fitness for a moment, and that should put things in perspective. Top speed for the horse as a species is 45 mph. This is a very fast horse. A very fast horse in peak condition can probably do 45 mph for maybe three miles before needing to slow down.

That said, back in the day horses worked for a living, so chances are that most horses were fit.

Endurance racing is a thing, look it up to get a feel for the timing and pacing of urgent travel.

The pony express is a decently documented courier service if you need a model for king's messengers getting around.

3-Gender matters.
When they filmed the first three Lord of the Rings movies they relied a lot on stallions. Shadowfax was played by two Andalusian stallions, Asfaloth was a different Andalusian stallion. And of course Brego was played by a stallion. Most of the time this wasn't a problem (though there was a reason there were two Shadowfaxes) but you know that scene at the Black Gate? One minute they are on horses, the next all the horses are gone and there is no explanation? That day, one of the cavalry mares was in heat and the stallions got downright dangerous. Now, on a film set, there is a lot of standing still. If there had been a lot of galloping, it probably would have been fine. But I laughed when watching the making of The Hobbit films, because there was not a stallion in sight on that set.

Historically, the Bedouins preferred mares as their war horses because the mares were quieter and less likely to give away surprise attacks. Stallions like the world to know they exist--especially other stallions. A well trained stallion can still be an excellent mount, and I imagine a world where horses work for a living would produce more good citizen stallions than this one does. (There are a few breeds more prone to gentle stallions than others, but on the whole they have a lot of testosterone and need to be very well trained to be safe. Most professional trainers advise extreme caution when handling stallions.)

That said, mares get close to geldings and then squeal. It's a very annoying form of flirtation.

Geldings are neutered males. This is done to limit unwanted horse production, and to make the males more manageable. Granting that horses are individuals, geldings are extremely reliable creatures.
While we're on the topic, baby horses are foals (not ponies). Girls (up to age 5) are fillies, boys (up to age 5) are colts. After that it's mare and stallion or gelding.

4. On Whinnying. 
Movies love to make horses whinny. Horses don't actually whinny often.

Here are some circumstances when a domestic horse might whinny:
-The horse is alone and uncomfortable in unfamiliar territory and smells another horse.
-The horse is alone, approaching home more slowly than he wants and smells a stablemate (this is rare among horses who are accustomed to traveling alone).
-The horse is completely terrified and can't get away (such as fire, or a fall).
-The horse has attachment issues to another being (probably a horse) and is separated from that being.
-The horse is home, but smells another horse coming and for some reason wants to say hi.
-Stallions making a statement, see below:

Here are some circumstances when a horse might squeal:
-Play fighting.
-Real fighting.

Here are some circumstances when a horse might nicker:
-Favorite being's arrival or departure.

From what I've read, wild or formerly wild horses really don't whinny ever. They take the world too seriously to risk attracting predators, I guess.

5-When you personify horses, think through just how sentient you want this creature.
Refer back to item 1, and set your ground rules. You can give your horse a completely human personality, but make sure you actually decide that. Disney/Pixar's approach to the personified horse is usually to pretend the horse is a personified dog (see Maximus and Bullseye).

6-If you have not personified your horse, don't personify your horse.
Yes, I know I describe Midas like a person when I talk about training.  He has a distinct personality, but he's just a horse. He's smart, knows and cares what I want him to do, and sometimes looks me straight in the eye and does the forbidden thing on purpose. Horses in real life are a lot like toddlers.

They gut react to strangers, they get antsy when they are bored or cooped up. But if they have a job, they love having a job to do. They also love being done with their job and free to do what they want. If they know you and trust you, they'll be happy to be around you and more willing to do whatever you ask.

Horses recognize people, and remember events and feelings. They are excellent judges of people--for lack of a better descriptor, they pick up vibes from people and react accordingly. That said, a well trained horse isn't going to be reacting hugely unless the person's behavior sets them off.

Some horses are braver than others.

7-Tack (horse equipment). 
Every part of the world has their own version of saddles and bridles. But in English they are called saddle and bridle. Bridles are for riding, halters are for handling on the ground. The rope for leading a horse is called lead rope. If you don't have a halter, you can hobble a horse--IE use a pair of pants or a rope to tie a horse's forelegs together so the horse cannot go far or go fast. Cowboys, in particular, used hobbles.

Grooming essentials are a brush for dust/dirt, a curry comb of some sort to deal with crusted mud, and a hoof pick for cleaning out hooves.

Realistically, you probably don't need to know much more than this unless you're writing a period piece.

This is a saddle:

Saddles have stirrups for the rider's feet, and a girth to hold them on. They have a pommel at the front, and the back is called a cantle. and the thing that hangs down between the stirrup and the horse is a flap.
This is a bridle:

A bridle usually holds a bit in the horse's mouth, has reins attached, and is specifically for riding. The part that goes across the horse's forehead is a browband, the part behind the ears is the crown, the part under the throat is the throat latch.

This is a halter:

Halters take many forms, some more simple than others, but the main thing is that it's for handling the horse (or cow, or sheep, for that matter) from the ground.

Usually, a harness only refers to the trappings hitching a horse to a cart/plow/chariot:


It happens. A horse who is lame is called lame or off, a horse who is not lame is called sound. If, for the sake of plot, you need to deprive your hero of his mount there are a number of ways. Horse thieves are always an option. As are spook/bolts. Assuming your hero is not in a position to lose his horse thusly, or plot demands it for another reason, your horse could come up lame. The possibilities here are endless but here are a couple common options:

-Lose a shoe. Unless your hero carries around special pliers for pulling off all the other shoes, your horse will be gimping along pathetically. This is a very fixable and temporary lameless, but it still makes the horse unridable until you can get it fixed.

-Pick up a stone or get a stone bruise. This usually involves a stone being wedged by the shoe against the hoof and leaving a bruise. It can be an injury you walk off, of an injury you don't recover from.
It happened to Black Beauty and made him fall on his face and dump his rider. I once had a horse step on stick--the stick actually impaled his hoof a little and I had to pull it out. He was lame for a few minutes and then walked it off. If we'd been galloping when he stepped on it, things would have been worse. Incidentally, hoof bruises are usually red.

-Mystery reason. Heat/inflammation in the leg(s) plus lameness means something is wrong. The average horse owner today would have a list of guesses, but if your knight doesn't have a local vet to call for a diagnosis, I wouldn't worry too much about specifics.

-Ever heard of cattle trops? These are devastating. It would be theoretically possible for a horse to live, but I find it unlikely that the horse would ever be sound again.

-Pull a tendon or ligament. This is fairly serious and you probably retired that horse from the story--unless your story spans months and months and months.

-Receive a wound in the saddle or girth area. This also probably retires the horse from the story as wounds take time to heal.

It takes 5 years for all the bones in a horse's body to fuse. Age 8-18 is generally the prime of life. Some horses stay fit and healthy much longer. Some horses are overused early and burn out before age 8. I think the current oldest horse in the world is in his 50's (happily retired in the UK).

Granting the variety of personalities in the world, young horses in general tend to be higher energy, prone to forget their lessons, and get bored easily. They are even more prone to doing silly or stupid things than horses in general. Some horses stay this way forever, but most gain wisdom with age.
There was one memorable spring day a few years ago when all the horses were high as kites--the colts especially--except the 30+ year old Shetland pony who just watched them all the way Yoda watches Luke Skywalker.

Ponies are the best things ever. They are not young horses, they are simply small. They are very clever. Much more clever than your average horse most of the time. They also tend to know they are clever, and know they are cute, and are openly willing to use those traits against you. But they are still the best ever. Hardy, long lived, sturdy. A few small breeds are still strong enough to carry a grown man. Not all breeds can carry grown men.

11. Loyalty.
Horses are reasonably loyal, but they are not dogs. They are prey. When a horse spooks its brain turns off and the horse gets the hell out of Dodge. Later on the horse will realize that it had a rider once, and now the rider is gone and they aren't sure where they parted company. Horses live their life in circles (read up on Monty Roberts if you're curious) so chances are they will eventually circle back to their rider. Unless they know their way home. Though, they are lazy, if they didn't go far, they probably won't go far. A good rider can usually stop a bolt right when it starts, it's a bit harder to stop once a horse is fully underway, but it is still possible to regain control.

Now that I've said that: There are always exceptional horses. There are always exceptional bonds. There are always miracles. I read a story about a horse who charged a bear with its rider to save another horse and rider (go read that story, it's a great example of horses and riders in a scary situation). I've read about horses staying with fallen riders and taking them to the nearest house where they could get help.  I've experienced a bolting horse stopping for a traffic signal when she was in sight of the barn and had no horse reason to stop (on a related note, God answers prayers).

Don't be afraid to have exception horses, bonds, and miracles, but be aware that they are exceptional.

12. Gaits.
Most travel will be done at walk, and trot. Trot is a two beat gait which can be quite bumpy, the rider sits or posts (a sort of controlled rise and fall of the rear) the trot. If the rider is riding bareback, he's sitting the trot and it's probably not comfy unless he's a really good rider or riding a really smooth horse.

Canter or lope is next on the speed scale, and then of course we all know gallop.

There is such a thing was a gaited horse--this is a horse with an extra gait, which is some form of running walk. There are different names for the different cadences of running walks, but one foot is always on the ground. This is an exceptionally smooth riding experience, and it looks weird. Just google "single footing horses" and you'll see what I mean. Someone like a circuit rider or traveling monk would love it if you gave them a gaited horse to ride. These horses are ideal for long distance traveling. They are not ideal for knights unless he's rich enough to have a separate charger.


13. Terms. 
If you've made it this far through the post you've probably learned or googled all the terms you really need to know. More than this, and you're just flaunting to your reader that you've done research.

              You are writing a period piece, in which case I encourage you to look up the names of the gear used in that time period. Just to give you incentive: If your piece is before the Mongols, no one had stirrups. The Romans had shoes, not stirrups.
              You are writing a horse story. In which case I strongly recommend spending seriously huge amounts of time around horses and horse trainers. The more the merrier. And read The Black Stallion and every single Marguerite Henry book you can get your hands on. Also read the equine encyclopedia. 
              You are writing a character who would know such things (such as a horse trainer, a groom, a horse enthusiast-even just a racehorse owner).  In that case, read up on the particular sport or discipline, or what life was like for horses in a comparable time period (if you're writing fantasy).
              Plot. If you need the carriage to break down, wouldn't hurt to learn what the parts of a carriage are called. If someone poisons the queen's favorite horse, it would be important for you learn more about how much of what kind of sick a horse can actually take.

Happy writing!

Friday, March 27, 2015

The blue fedora

It was a navy blue day for some reason. May have been the hat. My solitary purchase from Forever21...I own a brown-Indiana Jones-fedora, and a short brimmed fedora, but the medium brimmed swoopy fedoras have been flirting with me every since they appeared on the internet.

It was 100% wool, and lower priced than any I'd found previously (only $15), and felt every bit as quality as my more expensive hats. It was time to take the plunge.

Have I mentioned that I really love hats? They are hard to wear with a phone job...but worth the trouble most of the time.

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Hat. Forever 21. Necklace. Jewelmint. Sweater and pants. AE. Shoes. Toms Desert Booties. Bracelet handmade. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015


This is kind of a photo dump of all the critters I've been snapping pictures of for the past month or three. It has been *so* much fun having a bird feeder. Although the squirrels are around as much as the birds.

Most of the time I grab Zorro's DSLR for taking pictures of the feeder--it's got such a nice zoom lens. I'm reminded just how little I understand about a camera's workings. I do mess around with the settings until I get a picture that works, but I suspect I'd actually need a course for it to stick in my head exactly what settings does what and how to change it.

Still, I luck out plenty.





Purple Finch

Party place

Our first woodpecker!

purple finches


and of course the chickadee





The time the bird feeder blew into a really weird position

didn't bother the purple finches

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

the big field

After much training and work on my part, the big field is my domain now. I've ridden a few times out there, in the spring air, and its gone very well. We've trotted around successfully, no bolts. I religiously keep my hands 4 braid loops from the buckle on the reins. This helps keep Midas in a good mental place because I'm not clutching his mouth, and it helps to force me to ride correctly.

As I've said before, rider confidence is absolutely central. If you have to build it by chanting "The world is my burrito" when you're outside your comfort zone, so be it.

It's baby steps, I suppose. And when I think about all the galloping around in the woods I did 10 years ago (sheesh) it feels like a small accomplishment. However, it is my accomplishment, and I'm pleased with it.

We've been messing around more with ropeless groundwork, too. I did my most successful ropeless lunging to date in the riding ring last week. I'm experimenting with moving him around--I mean getting him circling and walking to move the circle around. This keeps him wondering what I'm doing, but right now if I move too fast he stops and turns to face me because I'm behind him. I'm still sorting out the mechanics of communication on that one.

One thing that is quite satisfying, though, is stopping him on purpose. If I crouch, or suck back, he stops and turns in. The crouch is an invitation to come to me, the suck back means new command coming (which, at this point is a change in direction).
This picture is from the day I came down with my stomach virus...do I look sick? I feel like I do...

I've had the Ham out on the ridge in the big field, too. It's kind of the best footing this time of year--OK, it's really the only halfway decent footing this time of year. We're pretending it's a dressage arena and learning how to make round circles. The Ham's half halts have gotten to the point where he absolutely needs to use leg as part of the half halt. Otherwise he gets a beautiful hesitation in stride or a drop in gait. That's perfect, except it was supposed to soften and collect rather than slow. Time for leg, too.

I also really, really, need to get more training materials to read. I should probably start with all my old Practical Horsemen magazines. I also want to read Monty Roberts' From My Hand to Yours. Any other book recommendations?
It's that magic season with snow, ice, mud and t-shirt weather. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Just keep writing...

Old habits die hard, but new ones seem to have the lifespan of a gnat.

I guess things like food and going to work aren't really optional, which is why things like working out and writing come and go from life, while going to work and making dinner don't.

I'm working to re-establish my morning writing habit. It makes me so much happier as a human being, I should really treat it like brushing my teeth--except it takes longer. So far, it's already turned out a couple thousand words, and I've only been at it a couple days. This is promising.

I got through roughly half of the Badlands Job before I started posting the story--I think I need to do that for the next story also. It gives the opportunity to get the story off the ground and standing on its own before showing it to the world. That way I don't have to go back and take back plot points that turn out to be really bad ideas.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Everybody loves a cowgirl

I had this great teal tshirt in college (probably found at walmart) which read "Everybody loves a cowgirl." Over the years it's gotten smaller, and I've changed, but I couldn't bring myself to totally get rid of it (I think I've got  some of my dad's tshirt loyalty).

Even in the early days of my t-shirt refashioning, I tried to plan a new life for this t-shirt, and just couldn't come up with a design. Most of my refashioning is pretty basic, and mostly consists of taking a men's shirt down to my size. Taking a too-small-tee-from-Juniors and making it wearable again? Big challenge for this novice.

I ended up taking a scrap from another tee to make it work. I'm pretty happy with my finished product, it'll be a fun around-the-house or work-out shirt.

I tried to use slightly better than hack-and-slash methods--you know, finishing seams, and hemming every raw edge. Even though jersey won't unravel, it will stretch and  become misshapen over time. Ask me how I know. (Hint: The answer is not that I listened to my mother the first 3 times she told me this.)

If you want your creation to last more than a few washes, you need to take the time to hem--and bonus points if you finish your seams.

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argyle socks= plus 10 fashion points, right?
So, here's what I did. Roughly. Because I totally didn't take pictures of the exceedingly messy trial and error design process (which mostly consisted of pinning pieces of shirt to my duct tape dress form until I found something that I liked that I could actually do.)


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

To Health (Happy St. Paddy's)

Zorro and I are coming out of a grueling 5 days of stomach sickness. Not exactly the best weekend we've ever had. But it's coming a close and we're trying to regain our strength--it's amazing what not eating does to a body. Not good things.

I emerged from the house yesterday and discovered that apparently spring sprang while we were down for the count--my, what beautiful weather!

It's time to really plan what I'm doing for gardening this year, what herbs I want, and how I plan to pot everything. A few of my carefully purchased outdoor pots from last year were apparently not the type that can sit outside all winter.

So I'm back to square one for several of those. Which might not be a totally bad thing, as frustrating as it is. It's too early to tell what survived the cold winter on the deck. I'm always afraid it won't be much. And I'm probably right. We'll see.

I am, at least, thoroughly enjoying the birdfeeder.


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