Skip to main content

6 Wrong Ways to Write About Horses

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. Weavilauthor 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.

(Can you re-query an agent after she's rejected you in the past?)

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.

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more. 
Order the book from WD at a discount.

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.

(Should you mention your age in a query letter?)

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!


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

A Thief in the Market

A Thief in the Market

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, someone is stealing from small business owners.

Auguries and Alchemy Pamona Sparrow

Auguries and Alchemy: Starting a New Publishing Company

Publisher Pamona Sparrow shares what inspired her to start her new publishing company, Auguries and Alchemy, and how to submit to your own magical stories.

Roselle Lim: On Resting in the Writing Process

Roselle Lim: On Resting in the Writing Process

Author Roselle Lim discusses the joys of getting older in her new novel, Sophie Go’s Lonely Hearts Club.

How To Write and Research a Local History Book

How To Write and Research a Local History Book

Let award-winning writer Jennifer Boresz Engelking help you uncover local mysteries and put the puzzle pieces together when writing and researching a local history book.

From Script

Vulnerability as an Asset (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with Netflix’s acclaimed mini-series “Keep Breathing” creators Martin Gero and Brendan Gall, and BounceTV’s “Johnson” creator and star Deji LaRay.

Michael J. Seidlinger: On Asking Questions in Horror

Michael J. Seidlinger: On Asking Questions in Horror

Author Michael J. Seidlinger discusses the writing process of his new literary horror novel, Anybody Home?

10 Tips for Building a Realistic and Vibrant Fictional World

10 Tips for Building a Realistic and Vibrant Fictional World

World-building of any kind can seem like a daunting task. Here, author Nalini Singh shares 10 tips for building a realistic and vibrant fictional world.

Adalyn Grace: On Writing for Escape

Adalyn Grace: On Writing for Escape

New York Times bestselling author Adalyn Grace discusses combining her favorite genres into her new YA fantasy novel, Belladonna.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Our September/October Cover Reveal, a Competition Deadline Reminder, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our September/October 2022 cover, a competition deadline reminder, and more!