Horses. They are the most common mode of travel in fantasy novels, and yet how many authors actually get it right? Forget about Gandalf's Shadowfax who could run like the wind...indefinitely. I'm not interested in such magical or magicked creatures. I'm talking about horses. Regular horses that, as much as we might wish they could, can't gallop for hours on end, cover full countries in three days, or survive blizzards without shelter.
Despite what we have been programmed to believe, the ground a horse can actually cover in a day is not as much as you might expect. In fact, a person on foot can feasibly cover as much ground. Sure, a horse can kick it into a gallop in the blink of an eye, but it's built for evasion, not sustained periods of speed. They need to run faster--a little bit longer--than that lion giving chase; that's all. Depending upon the breed and training, size of the rider and terrain, certain horses can go longer, faster, but no breed can gallop for hours on end, or even an hour, or even half an hour.
The reality of traveling horseback is that the animals themselves are designed to walk. Plod even. Horses need to drink and graze often. Like other grazing animals, they eat most of the day just to get enough nutrition to graze again the next day. If ridden, even at a walk, for several hours a day, a horse can't simply be staked to graze through the night. When would it rest? A working horse needs grain to supplement its diet or it will starve, quickly. To carry that grain entails having a pack animals of some kind, which in turn slows things down considerably. Of course, ye ol' stabling a horse can work sometimes, but that comes with a whole different set of obstacles like the expense.
Horses are expensive--and that's another reality of horses in fantasy. They're fine and dandy for the royalty and wealthy in a story, highwaymen and brigands maybe--that quick getaway being kind of important-- but few of your locals are going to own horses. As for travelers using horses, the sad fact is that trading a spent animal for a fresh one would be a lot more realistic than properly caring for a beloved horsey-companion.
Horses in fantasy fall into the category of other such realities we've discussed this month in Heroines of Fantasy. If we were after authenticity, we'd see more mules--smarter, hardier, and all around stronger--than we do horses. But would Lady Godiva (above pic) strike as romantic and lovely a pose if she were riding a much more stalwart and practical mule?
And there's the biggest reason I see fantasy employing the horse when the reality would do no such thing. Not only have most readers been programmed to see horses through these rose-colored glasses, but we want to suspend that belief. They are beautiful animals, almost magically so. They are part of our fantasy backdrop--like those non-menstruating sword-wielding warrior women--and I don't see that changing any time soon.
Have you ever seen a realistic depiction of horses in a fantasy novel?
Whenever I think of the practicality of horses in SFF, I'm always reminded of the time capsules of a century ago. When the ones place in buildings from the turn of the 20th Century are unearthed, the letters from kids in those things often have a "where do you put all the horses?" question in them.
That underscores a big problem with horses --they take up a lot of space and are expensive to maintain. In an urban environment that becomes very untenable. In the country, horses are a vital part of the farm, and just saying "here, kid, go take this horse and go find your fortune!" doesn't make much sense. Would a farmer give up their tractor so that their kid could head off on a Quixotic quest?
The easiest way of dealing with this is to simply write horses out of the story. Unless your characters are rich or there's extraordinary circumstances, odds are good they won't have access to horses.
Hey, Mike! Thanks for stopping in. The reality of horses not just in fantasy, but in all fiction, never seems to make it into the story. I tried, with Finder, to realistically portray their place. In the desert, only the wealthiest of the wealthy owned horses. It was a prestige thing to have horse poop laying about your drive. They used camels to travel, as they'd have to.
And still, I had one of my characters very attached to his horse--so attached that when it came time to trade in the horses for camels, he didn't. It was a device to show the man's deep sense of loyalty, and worked on that level, though I'm fully aware that it wouldn't have happened "in real life."
I also like how everybody knows how to ride, instinctively. Just hop on a horse and go galloping cross-country -- often while chatting it up with your riding companion whose horse matches yours stride-for-stride in perfect rhythm. These folks should be in the Olympics or jockeying at the Derby! 99% of people would fall off (my ex-race horse) Cooper in a millisecond if he actually broke into a gallop!
Hello, Jenn! You nailed that one--whew! It takes years of learning how to ride to be able to leap up--especially bareback!--and ride off at a gallop. Muscles you never knew you had have to be toned and strong. Bad enough for a farm hand (male or female) who's never ridden before--at least they'd be muscled enough from work. But a (insert any character from princess to scholar to scullery person) unschooled in the equestrian arts is NOT going to make it fifteen feet let alone make an escape.
Thanks for dropping in, Jen!
At the risk of being immodest--
So you've decided to write about horses...
Stacy--thanks for stopping in and sharing the link!
I wonder how much of this horsey-ness was because of American culture. We live in a big area, and atypical for people in the rest of the world (except maybe Mongolia, or the Etruscans) horses have been pretty common for the last few hundred years. Also, since we traded in our horses for cars, the big land expanses of North America have been tied in closer with the automobile, trains, planes, and our highway systems. So when you apply that to fantasy, you get a pretty unrealistic way to travel great distances in a short period of time.
Shadowfax, I don't know, I've got nothing. Magic horse? But in most American fantasy, horses are a big deal, even though as Terri said, mules (and even oxen) played as much a part as their equine companions in settling the continent. And for 25k years, the first settlers of the western hemisphere didn't even have them.
Though some endurance breeds of horses can hit 100 miles in a day. Though these are probably not bred for things like battle or racing. And just because a horse goes 100 miles in a day, it doesn't mean their rider can. Especially some green rider, in a dress, who just escaped some wizard's tower.
Great post Terri, as always!!
I actually haven't read a whole lot of fantasy that misrepresents the role of the horse. (Though I'm sure after saying that, I will be showered with examples of titles that do...)
Where I see misrepresentation is in films. But honestly, it's never annoyed me. I saw a program once that documented how much training those movie horses have to go through before they are able to do something completely against their instinct, such as, say, crash through a wall, or leap over a line of pikes. It's cool. It's adventure. Granted, it might never happen in real life, but who cares? That's what I go to the movies for.
In my writing, of course, I'm a little more picky. I try to be realistic about how much a horse can be used, how far and fast it can gallop, trot or canter, how skilled it's rider will be. Whether a particular character would have a horse at all. But the world I write about demands realism with respect to these particular details. Not everyone's worlds are the same that way.
I wonder if, more than the reality of horses, what matters in fantasy is the symbol of the horse -- what it represents for our history. The domestication of the horse had a transformative effect on human society. As a symbol, the horse represents spirit & speed; the harnessing of a great and wild power. A revolution in transportation, travel, conquest. Granted, it's not all that fast compared to my car. But it was a powerful mode of transport in its time, a symbol of wealth and power; and I still think it speaks to us on that level today.
As an aside -- We may gross out nowadays thinking about what people "did" with all that manure back then. But 100 years from now, people will be grossing out (I hope) over the car exhaust all of us breath every single day.
Karin--I think you really nailed a big draw of the horse--that mystique that made them a status symbol of their time lives on--even in our modern conveyance of choice in horsepower. In a less altruistic sense, it symbolized humanity's dominance. Here is a huge creature that could crush us as soon as look at us, and we tame them into carrying us around. Speaks more about a horse's follower/prey sort of traits than our own prowess, but we humans aren't known for our lack of hubris.
And I can think of a lot of uses for manure, but not exhaust. Then again, such things would be utilized in the country, but in cities--STINKO!
Great post, Terri!
You said: "It takes years of learning how to ride to be able to leap up--especially bareback!..."
I would add that riding barebottom would be difficult as well, as depicted in the picture above. ;)
It's true that humans have a built in ability to walk all day, more so than just about any other mammal. Humans do get a lot of nourishment from meat whereas horses and their relatives don't so that explains part of it (although I've been a vegan for 20 years and I can walk all day without any trouble--more recent humans have gotten more nutrition from cooking vegetables, which allows us to absorb many more nutrients from them). Also, humans have the most efficient circulatory system of any mammal, an adaptation from when our ancestors climbed down from the trees to the savanna(h) and had to travel long distances to find food.
I'm on the fence about how realistic the use of horses should be in fantasy, or in fiction in general, but I tend to agree about making things believable, even in a world that has magic. A fantasy story that has magic in it is already accepted by the reader as being possible in that world. It seems that horses that can walk or gallop all day also tend to be accepted, maybe partly because they represent what is strong and powerful.
Hey, Eric! Thanks for stopping in, my dear.
I think most people really have no idea about the reality of horses. They know what they see on TV, in movies and such, and nothing of fact. But with all things when it comes to writing, it's the ones who WILL know the difference that we should be the most aware of.
I didn't know all that stuff about the hardiness of humans. Wow. We're cool! And riding bare-butt...yeah, that's gonna hurt.
I love horses in fiction - for obvious reasons - but it drives me crazy when people get so much wrong. I mean, in certain contexts I think horses as a means of transportation DO make sense. Yes, they're expensive - but in some areas of the world native tribes still depend on them for food, milk, and transportation. (And there are still areas in America's backwoods country where a horse is the only reliable means of transportation because trails are too narrow/steep/rough for motorized vehicles). Being a good rider and a good horseperson are required skills in some areas/times/cultures, and it would make sense for someone to take his horse (along with at least one in reserve) on a quest if such person came from a culture that relied on horses. But then, as you pointed out, there would be limits. Fit horses can easily travel 25-50 miles in a day over decent terrain and provided with enough calories. Athletic horses known for endurance can go 100 miles, but then they need several weeks to recover. Horses need shoes or boots, grain, water - CLEAN water - forage, and time to sleep. And most riders can't stay on a horse that long - most people are sore after an hour, let alone days!
Still, when I find a horse done _well_ in fiction, it gives me such a thrill. :)
Wildhorse! I was hoping you'd chime in. YOU know the reality of horses.
I hadn't thought to mention that a horse needs SHOES, and if they're doing a lot of traveling, they need them fairly often. Not only an other inconvenience, but an expense.
And the reality is, horses are a reliable mode of transportation--just not as fast as movies/books seem to make them.
So, just to tie in a bit the 'heroines' theme...
This discussion reminds me of a funny thing that happened with one of my students who was working on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica a few years back. The Osa is, well, in a word, amazing. A magnificent forest,similar in structure to the Amazon, yet more diverse, with jaguars and scarlet macaws and squirrel monkeys...but, I digress.
My student, a young woman, was working in the rural towns surrounding Corcovado National Park. During her stay, she participated in a horse race at one of the festivals -- and won.
Now, no woman in living memory had participated in these races before, much less won. So, everyone got very excited about this turn of events.
Interestingly enough, however, very few people seemed to credit the skill of the rider. In the local imagination, it was not the woman who rode the horse to victory. It was the horse that people concluded was somehow unusually skilled at being ridden by a woman.
For weeks afterwards, the horse's owner was approached by people interested in borrowing "the horse that women could ride".
I'll be using that in a story someday. (And all of you are welcomed to use it, too.)
I've linked to this on FB, Terri. I think Shadowfax gets a pass, because he was magic, really, but OMG the amount of zipless fantasy around...
Karin...I'm torn between being amused and aghast! We three with eyes that see should all work that little tidbit into one of our upcoming novels, just to give a wink and a nod to one another.
Wow...still torn...how about amusedly aghast?
Jenny--Thanks for the signal boost!
Yes, Shadowfax gets a pass. I have a funny story about Shadowfax.
I used to drive past a stable all the time. A sign out front read, "birthplace of Shadowfax." I thought that was a strange thing to claim--until I realized they meant the RACEHORSE!
Actually, horses do not necessarily need shoes. Many horses are just fine without them. The problem comes when they throw a shoe, or lose a few nails. A shod horse needs shoes. An unshod horse ... not so much. :)
Jen...really? Even when traveling? I know they have no shoes in the wild and all, but, wow!
I suppose my farrier had ulterior motives for pressing home the importance of SHOES. Ha!
Oh there is a whole controversy these days over barefoot vs shod. Everybody has an opinion. I'm just saying that they don't necessarily need shoes -- even traveling. It would all depend on the terrain and the horse. But many trail riders go barefoot these days because shoes can actually make things more slippery, and the trail more complicated. It is generally accepted that high performance horses need shoes -- such as race horses and jumpers -- primarily to protect the hoof from concussion (that leads to bruising and abscess.
Most people also benefit from some foot protection, but some of us (wink wink) can do almost anything barefoot ... while others of us tender-footed types need shoes to walk on the beach!
I AM the barefoot goddess!
I used dogs as the draft animal of choice in my fantasy novel, inspired by Jack London and modern day Iditarod adventures. I also use a reindeer-like draft animal. Whatever the species, I think the animal needs to be a character in its own right, not just a vehicle that stops and goes at their person's convenience.
Mary--Now that would be an interesting thing to learn about, as I'm sure you had to for Shaper's Veil. Now that is something I have NO knowledge of.
Hmmm...I see you are our guest blogger next week. :-D
You mean Mr. Ed wasn't real?
Shadowfax doesn't need a pass--he IS the pass. Represent the Mearas.
CJ Cherryh in her Gate novels does a nice job with Vanye and Morgaine's mounts. I never thought she stretched things unduly.
Horses are often a necessary evil in fantasy. So many stories locate themselves in our subjective past,
and our relationship with horse goes back so many centuries that it becomes archetypal. They are part of the myth of 'us'--and when we talk of myth--how much realism do we need?
I say use them, stretch veracity at need but don't slap your audience with absurdity.
"They are part of the myth of 'us'--and when we talk of myth--how much realism do we need?"
I think that is the most basic truth of all. Nicely done, sir!
Though I don't have a huge amount of epic fantasy on my shelves, I can't see much in what I do have that exceeds the documented abilities of
Let's consider the Ride of the Rohirrim from Edoras to Minas Tirith (a distance of about 200 miles) in a week. Say 30 miles per day. This is comparable with many marches undertaken by Alexander's cavalry under more severe weather conditions and is easier than La Marcha, a 14 day, 750km (about 480 miles, so over 30 miles per day) event undertaken in Uraguay where horses are required to live entirely off the land and when travelling move at a minimum speed of 10 kph (about 6 mph). They carry 245 lbs too, roughly akin to a 12 stone man with war gear.
Shadowfax's lineage could, I think, be compared to that of ordinary horses as that of elves to men. Elves were tireless and immune to disease. So while by normal equine standards his feats are ridiculous, the fact he is an isolated example (so a small stretching of credulity) allows Tolkien to get away with it. If all the Rohirrim had such steeds, it would be a wider stretch and weaken the book. But their horses do nothing impossible (consider Alexander's Companions played a decisive role at Gaugamela and then pursued the fleeing Darius as far as Gaugamela (52 miles!) through the following night.
Hello, Pongo! Yeah, Shadowfax was well done, no doubt. Not only did he get special abilities of his own, but, as you point out, he was the happy recipient of the established perks of being elvish--or rather, being of the Meara.
You are right, horses can and do get (in fiction or fact) ridden through rough circumstances, and can survive. It's amazing what a horse can survive(I watched Animal Cops, Huston yesterday. Three horses starved over the course of about six months...and they survived.)and how little they can survive on--but they're not going to look like they do in the movies by the end of their march, any more than those robust warriors still look robust. One of the things horses have going for them is that the flight reflext is strong. A horse that looks like it's going to drop any second can still kick into that gallop--maybe only for a second or two, but it can.
Thanks for stopping by!
WOW! So many great comments! Great story about the horse the woman could ride.
I'm glad we are discussing horses. I have several nomadic tribes in my world. One exclusively travels by foot because of the terrain. This is necessarily a slow process, but when necessary, the adults can run all day unencumbered. The other group travels with wagons. I was thinking horses would pull them, because why not it's what everyone does. Now I think I'm going with an ox/buffalo sort of creature. My father is currently in Brazil traveling in the Amazon. The police there ride water buffalo. I asked him what was the cruising speed of a water buffalo. At a run, they are a little slower than a horse.
Shoes: American Indians didn't shoe their horses and they traveled with them everywhere.
Distance: Yeah, they really can't travel as far or as fast as t.v. That was the first thing I tried to find out when I wanted to realistically use horses.
Bare back vs saddles: Just because you are used to riding in a saddle doesn't mean that you will be expert at riding without one or that the horse will like it. True story: It had been raining and the ground was wet, so an adequate novice rider (me) decides to practice bareback riding because, hey the ground was wet therefore softer when I fell off. The young horse was used to a saddle and didn't like being ridden without one. She opposed violently to proper procedure and threw me high in the air over her head. Just because the ground is soft doesn't mean you still can't break your arm.
Yike, Amanda! That's a tough lesson to learn--a softer ground doesn't mean SOFT!
Ah, I like the idea of domesticating the buffalo critters to use with the wagons. Very authentic.
I've been thinking about the shoes vs. no shoes thing since Jen's comment yesterday. I wonder if it matters whether the horse will be ridden on packed earth or cobbles. That's something to look into.
Thanks for stopping by!
Terri, I think that it probably does. Cobbles are going to wear on the hooves more than earth.
Amanda--I would imagine so, and I would also imagine it has a great deal to do with how often the horse is actually ON cobbles, but like beaver's teeth, a horse's hooves are always growing, so would cobbles actually be GOOD for them?
We need a horse expert in here!
I was always told that the reason for shoes was that a horse carries its own weight without them just fine, but add 300lbs for you, saddle, tack, and gear, and the horse could have some serious hoof injury with prolonged riding.
Also, working in Wilderness areas in my misspent youth, I learned that horses store the seeds of whatever they've been munching on in stables for a long time. Their droppings can spread non-native species if they aren't acclimated to a wilderness area.
Another reason people love llamas as pack animals. They can got much longer on foraging than horses can go without supplemental grains, and their period of acclimation is much shorter.
I had ponies. We use to trim their hooves but they never wore shoes. However, we kept them to grass, paths and dirt roads. The only time they were on paved roads is when we had to cross.
I love reading about horses and am willing to suspend my belief somewhat to read about a strong, handsome horse. I remember the scene in "A Man From Snowy River." where his horse is racing straight down an almost vertical mountain side. Part of me was thinking - is that possible? But the other part of me was thinking wow, I love this scene.
Clint--very good point, about the weight making a difference. I hadn't even considered that aspect of it. Thanks!
Misspent youth, huh? I'd never'a'thunk it. :)
Llamas! Yes, fantastic pack animals and I don't think I've ever seen them used in fantasy. In fact...considering the climate and altitude of my world in ATNL, they'd have made an AMAZING contribution! Dammit! A missed opportunity.
Mary, there is definitely something to be said about such scenes. What's more important? To take the reader's breath away? Or to be realistically accurate?
A little of this, a little of that makes a better soup than a whole bunch of the other thing, says I!
Thanks for coming by, love!
The shoe thing totally depends on terrain and mileage, as well as genetics and diet. It's true native horses are barefoot - I keep my mustangs barefoot - but ANY horse will need some sort of hoof protection if the terrain is too rocky or if they're covering very many miles. Hooves wear down through use, and too much riding will wear the hoof wall down faster than it can grow. Indians, Bedouins, and Mongolians could ride barefoot because they didn't expect the same horse to carry them for mile after mile after mile after mile without respite. (This is why they tended to travel in groups, with herds of horses moving alongside - plenty of spare mounts). (I also read an article about a tribe who used to pack leather pads in their horses' hooves for protection, sticking them on with pine pitch or something. Will see if I can track it down.) They also understood the need for correct trimming, to make sure the hoof didn't crack. Average epic fantasy riders expecting a horse to go on massive quest journeys would need some sort of hoof care for said horse, whether that be shoes or barefoot trimming.
I like it when an author says something like, "He was riding one of the tough little mountain ponies" or "she chose a desert horse" or something, because then I assume that the rider has chosen a horse specifically suited to the task at hand and I can willingly make myself believe almost anything else, especially if the rider then demonstrates basic horse awareness - stopping for a rest, watering the horse, checking for stones in the hooves, etc. But if it's just some random plow horse and the rider hops on to go across country, welllll... that's a different story. ;)
Fantastic info, wildhorse! Thank you for offering your expertise in here.
And...realism aside, look at the extremely cool details we can glean from just that short comment. Using leather and pine-pitch to protect a horse's hooves, the Mongolian bands traveling with replacement mounts. These are FABULOUS details that we could add to our work, make it more realistic AND bolster the worldbuilding.
What a great discussion! It's one I'm going to refer back to as I continue in my writing.
Wildhorse (and I refer to you thus rather than Jen because we already have a horsey-Jen in here!)
Excellent point! How many times does a hero or whatnot steal a plow horse from someone's barn and ride off? In Finder, I had Ethen steal a pony and cart, but even he knew enough to steal it some grain at the end of each day.
I can think of a couple people that got some parts of the reality right.
Diana Wynne Jones has a Countess horse in the last Dalemark book, and she is a perfect example of a contrary horse - grumpy, biting, lagging behind or pulling ahead. And poor Mitt who has to deal with her gets saddlesore and miserable on his first long ride, and gets fixed in a way I've never heard of before.
Jo Walton wrote very early on about a woman warrior in The King's Peace. The horses there are fed, shod, provided with grooms, and even better; the war horses are different from the pack horses and different again from the light horses.
Tamora Pierce takes a good stab at this same thing, horses for knights, with the Alanna books. Although my favorites are Kel's books (Protector of the Small) in part because the animals don't talk to Kel. She has to rely on training and kindness, with a little bit of specialness from being in a world with magic.
Lee--oh, thank you! I'd like to read the Wynne Jones book. Sounds like the horse is a character in its own right, and that's not something done often, and less often, well. I'll check it out! I am remiss in my Wynne Jones reading, having read NONE of her work.
OMG this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I actually have a degree in Equine Science so I know a little bit about horses.
I love fantasy. The thing that always gets my attention the most is when authors "get it wrong." It jerks me out of the story so badly it's not even funny.
I own a horse. An endurance horse. She's specially trained to trot for 50 miles, 100 miles, w/e. Most horses can't do that. (well, she's retired so she can't do it anymore either) but the point is, I know what it takes to train a long distance horse. Most characters in fantasy books don't train their horses like that. A lot of fantasy horses have been run to death and not even known it because the author didn't get it right.
Recently I've read Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind and the second one. I can't remember which one, but he does have a scene where the character goes and buys a fine horse and runs the snot out of it, but he does it right. Then the MC sells the horse to the first person he can, because he knows he can't afford to keep it.
Kristian Britian also does a really good job with her horses in her Green Rider series.
Of all the fantasy I've read, those are the only two authors that I can think of that didn't jerk me out of the story with their portrayal of horses.
Some authors just gloss over the horsey issues, and that works better for me than blatantly getting it wrong.
I write about horses a lot in my fantasy and every once in a while I'll get an editor that doesn't know anything about horses... that can be really frustrating.
For example, a Paint (an actual breed of horse) is not 'a painted horse.' sigh. That is a tangent though.
Anyway, thank you so much for sharing.
I stop in and read a lot.
Julie/Phoenixfirewolf (on LJ)
Julie! Thanks for stopping in. I was hoping you would. I know you've a lot of "horse sense."
I didn't even know you COULD train a horse to trot 50 miles, but yeah--don't see that happening much in stories. I'm with you. I'd rather see things glossed over than gotten wrong.
Great input, love. Thanks again!
Yeah, they can trot 50 miles :) The 100 mile endurance horses are trotting for most of that 100 miles. Then you have the multi-day rides in which you ride for 50 miles a day for 250 miles (so five days). The horses fair very well on those rides, but they are pretty hard on the riders.
There are break times built into the endurance competitions. As I recall (it's been a couple of years) the 50 mile ride has 2 one hour mandatory breaks.
Touching on the shoe vs no shoe issue, many endurance horses go barefoot these days. The riders will carry boots for the horses that they can use over extra rough terrain. One of the top endurance riders, Karen Chance, has her horses go barefoot. It's a hot topic in the horse world right now.
Wow, Julie--that is endurance! It must take a long time to work a horse up to that...and a rider. Whew.
Great post, Terri! I am definitely guilty of not considering my horsey characters fully when determining what they can and can't do, although I do try to make sure they are fed and rested once in a while. This is definitely a great point, though, and something I'm going to be more aware of going forward.
Kim--When in doubt, be as vague as possible!
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