I’m very excited to welcome author and editor, Tisha Martin, to the blog today to talk to us about horses in fiction. If you missed her first two posts in this series, you can find them HERE and HERE.
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us, Tisha!
This is the final blog post in a three-part “Writing about Horses” series. It’s been so wonderful to guest blog for Kathleen, and I truly hope you’ve enjoyed reading these blogs and that they’ve been a help to you.
Like many of you, reading or writing about horses can be either exhilarating or exhausting. I grew up with horses, trained a few, therefore, I thought I knew how to write about them. Turns out it was harder than I bargained. In this third installment of writing about horses in our stories, I aim to share tips about how to write good horse scenes by making sure that the terms we use are accurate. If you’re a reader, perhaps you’ve read a book or two where reading the horse scenes made you cringe. Why? Well, read on, my horse-loving friend!
Whether you’re writing a historical, contemporary, or horse-infused novel, it’s important to make sure the horse anatomy, phrases about horses, and horse-related terms we use are completely accurate. I’ll provide information for English riders, Western riders, and some in-between phrases that I hope will be of help to you as you write or read. (Maybe some of you are book reviewers. You must possess a keen eye for those little details because that’s what makes or breaks the authenticity of your book review.)
Horse anatomy isn’t hard, but it can be tricky. It’s like taking a class on Anatomy and Physiology. While it’s a little confusing, thankfully, writers and readers only have to worry about the outside of the horse . . . unless there’s a veterinarian in your book, and then, well, you’ll have to learn the squishy parts of the inside of the horse too. Here are some key horse anatomy terms to keep straight because they’re super important when referring to character actions with the horse.
- Poll—this is the space on top of the horse’s head that is between the ears. A character would apply pressure to the horse’s poll to get the horse to lower his head so that the character could put on the bridle. The error most writers make is having the character stroke the forelock to put in the bit. That makes any horse expert cringe. Unless the character has taught the horse to lower his head when his forelock is touched, don’t use this terminology for putting on a bridle.
- Withers—this is the little hump at the end of the mane and right in front of the horse’s back. On a Western and English saddle alike, there is a hump at the front of the saddle. This hump sits on the withers, acting as the center of gravity. The rest of the saddle sits on the horse’s back, of course. The error most writers make is to place the saddle on the horse’s withers. If the character does this, that means that the saddle is also sitting on the horse’s neck! Yikes.
- Pastern—this is the long, slender bone between the fetlock and the hoof. The character would run their hand down the horse’s pastern to get the horse to lift its hoof so the inside of the hoof can be picked out with a hoof pick. If the horse refuses to lift his hoof, then the character can tug on the horse’s fetlock or apply gentle pressure to the coronet (which is like a fatty nerve directly above the inside of the hoof wall). If a horse has been trained correctly, he will lift its hoof when you touch his pastern. If not, well, that’s the perfect time for a lesson!
- Barrel—this is the roundest part of the horse that resembles a barrel. Easy, right? Of course. However, in most books about horses, the writer refers to the rider kicking the horse in the flanks. This is dangerous because the flank is farther up and back on the horse and causes two problems: the horse takes off and the rider loses balance. Another problem in books about horses is when the rider spurs the horse. This action is painful to the horse because real spurs tend to have sharp edges, so a nudge is better. Therefore, if a character has to flee on a horse, kicking or nudging the horse in the barrel is a more accurate term. But it may be easier to say, Jones nudged the horse into a canter. The reader will know what that means.
Like a character kicking the horse in the flanks, these type of horse phrases are tricky to master, but not impossible to master. Knowledgeable readers want to read an author’s book involving horses with the comfort that they won’t have to cringe at an ill-fitting phrase. Below are some overly used phrases that are often out of place.
- Above the bit—when the horse raises his head above the rider’s hands that he no longer is attuned to the rider’s control. For example, Acorn strained above the bit, causing Melody to sit deep in the saddle and tug on one rein to bring the horse back into submission.
- Back—to make the horse step backward. For example, Laurie backed her horse in a smooth circle.
- Bascule—to describe the arc of a horse when he jumps a fence. For instance, The yearling, Shantih, leaped over the six-foot fence, her body bascule. (Yes, this really does happen to horse owners and characters. Shantih was my yearling.)
- Four-In-Hand—a team of four harness horses, like the horses pulling a stagecoach (although there are usually two-in-hand). For example, The driver stopped the four-in-hand.
- Half Halt—a “pay attention, please” to the horse when the rider wants the horse to change gears. For example, Champ trotted forward, but Jed pulled back in a half halt and nudged the horse to the right.
- Jog—the actual Western riding term for a horse’s trot, and a term for a shortened pace in English riding.
Writing about and reading about horses is such fun whenever the horse anatomy and horse phrases and terms are used correctly. Otherwise, it’s like nails across the chalkboard. Not so pleasant. However, if an author studies the craft of writing about horses by employing a dictionary, asking a horse expert, or purchasing a few solid research books, the horse-lover reader will buy that author’s books for the pure reading enjoyment of the authenticity of the horse material.
About Image 1: English Trakehner gelding, Sybari in standing pose, marked with major points of the horse. Foaled in 2001, picture taken in 2010 (aged 9). Annotated with major morphological points sourced from Goody, John (2000) Horse Anatomy (2nd ed.), J A Allen ISBN: 0.85131.769.3. and (2007) Complete Equine Veterinary Manual, David & Charles ISBN: 0.7153.1883.7. Image sourced from Wikipedia. Created by Owain Davies CC 3.0. No changes made.
Which of these horse terms did you find the most interesting? Have you ever noticed an error related to horses in the stories you’ve read? Tell me about it in the comments below! (Just remember to be kind.)