I saw a promo for the film, THE REVENANT, the other day and glimpsed a scene where a horse and rider sail off a cliff. Yeah, it looks cool, but like many other ways horses are depicted in movies and books, it doesn’t ring true. (I’ve already seen many people comment negatively on this scene in reviews, so I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t buy it).
Column by Vicki L. Weavil, author of FACSIMILE (March 8, 2016,
Month9Books). Weavil turned her early obsession with reading into a
career as a librarian. After obtaining a B.A. in Theatre from the University
of Virginia, she continued her education by receiving a Masters in Library
Science and a M.A. in Liberal Studies. Weavil is currently the Library
Director for a performing and visual arts university. Follow her on Twitter.
Fortunately, many books and films display an understanding of horses and horsemanship. But occasionally a lack of knowledge or research rears its shaggy head. So, as someone with a background in this area, I’d like to mention a few common errors that make readers like me cringe.
1. Horses not being cooled down after exertion. Picture a romance novel, where a dashing hero must ride hell-for-leather to reach the church where his beloved is being married off to another. His horse is lathered in sweat. Sir Hero reaches the church, jumps off and ... does nothing with the horse.
Any horse person knows this a big no-no. Hard-ridden horses must be walked until they are cool, because a hot horse given water or food can be permanently injured. Foundering, which can lame a horse, can be one result. If your character can’t take time to do this, please invent a stable urchin or someone to care for the horse!
2. Heights of horses. In my favorite series of films, the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, the Nazgul ride horses that tower over men as well as Hobbits. This is fine in fantasy, but in reality the horses used in such scenes might top out at 17 hands. (Horses are measured in “hands”, which is approximately four inches). The average height for a horse is between 15 to 16 hands, measured from the ground to the top of the withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades). Ponies measure 14.2 hands or under. Draft horses can measure 17 to 19 hands, occasionally more. So, even if depicting the “warhorse” often seen in fantasy novels, please don’t describe them as 25 hands or another incredible measurement, unless you mean to depict supernatural creatures, ridden by giants.
3. Gripping the reins tightly and “holding on” with the reins. This is often seen in media depictions – even in my beloved Disney version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, where Belle’s clutches the reins and flails her arms in the wolf scene. (A problematic scene for many reasons, especially its depiction of wolves, but I digress). I’ve also read books where someone’s described as gripping or yanking the reins. To a horse person, that says your character’s an inexperienced rider. Reins are meant to guide the horse, not forcibly control it. Similarly, good riders use their thighs and legs to grip the horse and stay in the saddle. Only an inexperienced rider will "hang on" by the reins.
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4. Horses jumping off cliffs. As mentioned in reference to REVENANT, this is an unlikely scenario. An extremely well-trained animal might respond to its rider's demand to jump, but if a typical horse encounters a cliff-edge they are going to firmly plant their hooves and send the rider sailing off into the canyon, not themselves.
5. Untrained horses used in battle. Horses fear fire and loud noises. Unless they’re trained as a warhorse, they aren't going anywhere near such things. So don’t describe the family workhorse, or an animal a character just grabbed from someone’s barn, as willingly plunging into battle.
6. Horses as blocks of wood. Sadly, I've read too many stories where horses aren’t depicted as intelligent animals, but rather as “vehicles with hooves”. Take a clue from THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS and give your horses personalities – remember the wonderful Bill the Pony? You remember them because they aren’t just forms of transportation, they’re also characters in the novels. Think about what those horses add to their narratives and how that concept can enhance your own writing.
Like with any type of writing, do your research and write intelligently. Horses are important, too!
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