Horses are legends of fiction.
Novels such as Black Beauty and movies such as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron have graced the storytelling market for years. And horses are almost always the preferred mode of transportation when it comes to fantasy novels (except, of course, when there are dragons).
But over the years, something began to change. Horses began to take on the same roles, shoved into the same boxes.
Who hasn’t heard the trope of a girl with no horse experience suddenly befriending an “untamable horse” with no effort? The horse and rider who are seemingly perfect, charging into battle with no experience whatsoever? The failing ranch saved by the work of one kid’s talent at a horse show? Not to mention the unrealistic horse action in many modern day movies and books.
If your audience is the “horse crazy” niche, the fastest way to lose them is to follow the tropes and cliches. This is especially true if they interact with real horses themselves, like I do through my job as a stablehand. And even in fantasy/historical novels with horses as transportation, robotic horses lose an effective element to the storybuilding world.
By breaking out of cliches and tropes, you set out the story and add a whole new level of worldbuilding.
How do you write realistic horses in fiction? It begins with the age-old rule of “show, don’t tell.”
How “Show, Don’t Tell” is Key
We are a lingual species. We use language, words, and reasoning to communicate.
Horses are almost the complete opposites.
Equines are extremely reliant on body language to communicate to each other. For prey animals, a loud animal is a dead animal, so they use silent cues, a sign language of their own kind, to talk to each other.
For writers, this is a living example of “show, don’t tell”. If someone is bothering us, we just tell them outright that they’re being annoying.
With horses, “language” is a last ditch effort. If another horse is being a pest, they’d first pin their ears and kind of glare, a warning. If the horse didn’t stop, then they’d resort to a nip or a kick. Squealing would be reserved if the horse was truly ignorant about the first few cues.
See the difference?
Writing horses communicating would be an exercise in “showing”. You can’t write horses as if you were “telling”, because they are not a “telling” species. By telling instead of showing, you lose a whole layer of realism.
Writers beware: anthropomorphic stories where the horses talk are a real trap for falling into telling habits and eliminate the essential element of showing. You still need to show, even if your horses can talk. They’re still horses and they need to act like it.
If you’re going to write realistic horses, you need to understand horse body language. While I can’t get into that here (the article would take forever!), you can check out How to Read Your Horse’s Body Language (Equus Magazine).
Ten Unrealistic Horse Tropes
Tropes are certain elements of a story that are reused over and over– the Chosen One, the Mentor who dies, the Medieval Story world with elves and dwarves, the regular girl who falls in love with the prince… the list goes on and on.
While none of these tropes are essentially bad, they tend to become unrealistic. And horse tropes are no exception.
1. (City) Girl meets wild/abused horse and magically tames them without any work except by pure kindness.
This is the biggest offender of all horse-entertainment time, especially in the movies. Winnie the Horse Gentler, Orphan Horse, Spirit Riding Free, Spirit: Untamed, Black Beauty (2020), Free Rein… etc.
But why exactly is it so unrealistic?
For one, it takes a lot of work to tame a horse. When you gentle a wild horse, you have to override their instincts.
To a wild horse, humans = predators.
If you just jump on their back, they will think you’re a cougar trying to eat them, and will do anything– even rolling over and crushing you underneath their weight– to get you off.
No one can tame a mustang with only pure innocent kindness because technically, kindness from humans isn’t something a mustang wants. A wild horse thinks about feed, his safety from predators, where his buddies are, and a place to get out of the rain occasionally. He has to be taught that things like treats and petting are things to look forward to.
And if it’s an abused horse, it’s even harder. These are horses who are afraid of humans from past memories of pain. Horses never forget. They are like PTSD patients– sometimes a certain picture or noise can be all it takes for them to remember what happened and they flip out.
It can take years to rehab an abused horse, and that’s through professionals, not an amaetur with a day of horse experience. (Heartland is the only show I know of that gets this right. The MC, Amy, takes weeks to help Spartan, and he still has problems with memories of his abuse.)
The “city girl meets wild/abused horse and immediately bonds” trope could be fixed by instead of bonding at first sight, maybe someone older or at least wiser in horses could teach them how to work with the horse.
In Spirit: Untamed Abigail sort of does this by saying Lucky should feed Spirit an apple, but that isn’t true, because wild horses don’t eat apples in their natural habitat and you shouldn’t give treats to a horse you don’t know.
What would have been more realistic is if Pru somehow struck a deal with the horse wrangler and said that she would train Spirit for them, and then let Lucky help her. Still pretty unlikely, but something along those lines would have been better.
Or in Free Rein, when Zoe meets Raven and is able to ride him when his own rider can’t, it would have been more realistic if she actually knew something about horses and was able to identify that “hey, doing this is what’s making your horse hate you!”
2. Kid/City Person/Underdog and Horse Save the Failing Ranch Miraculously
This isn’t quite along the “realistic horse” side, but it’s worth noting because it’s been used so much.
It would have to take a lot of horse shows to save a ranch, and not just your local kiddie shows. It would have to be pro rodeo, Grand Prix level, something that takes not only a lot of skill, but a lot of money too. And your characters are already in debt, so probably not the best idea.
And if the ranch is behind in payments in the first place, explain why. Just having the owner “behind” on their bills and about to lose the ranch for no set reason is a lame excuse for a cheap driving plot.
The exception for this is the failing ranch for medical reasons, such as the family having to pay large sums of money for medical treatment for a family member, or losing the ranch because of a natural disaster that would cost too much to rebuild. This is not only more realistic, but also more relatable.
3. Perfect horse/perfect rider– AKA “The Natural”
The horse who is never used to the sights and sounds and smells of battle is completely bombproof.
The horse can run forever. The “newbie” rider is a “natural”.
Hopefully by now you’re seeing the “unrealistic alert” warning signs with this.
Charging headlong into a battle would go against everything a horse knows. You would have to start from getting him used to armor and the sounds of clanking armor and go from there.
Just the sound of the armor could be enough to spook a horse. There have been real life stories of inexperienced horses running into battle, panicking, and accidentally crushing their riders. And riding well enough to stay seated on a galloping horse takes years of work, not six weeks. Sometimes there are people who just get it quickly, but none of them are as fast as the movies make it.
Another note: horses, no matter what the movies say, cannot gallop over hills for hours at a time. Trotting? Yes. Galloping? No. Due to the structure of the circulatory system, if a horse was to gallop like that for hours, their heart would actually explode. It’s happened with racehorses, and those are just one to two mile tracks on flat ground.
Give the horse and kid flaws. Give them some training! Make them have to work together, or at least have the horse be bombproof to begin with. There’s a reason the French created the steady, gentle Percheron horse for war. They were bred to be bombproof.
4. Abused kid meets abused horse and seemingly heal immediately
While horses are amazing for helping abuse victims recover, no one, not horse or human, recovers from abuse overnight. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a horse help an abuse victim recover– but not overnight, and not without other methods.
While horse therapy certainly helps, abuse victims still need a regular therapist, and read this clearly, no abuse victim heals overnight, not even if they think so.
This is not only unrealistic, it also portrays abuse recovery in a light that doesn’t do the topic justice. Do your research on this. Your story will be so much deeper.
5. Snobby Rich Riders
Yep. You see this in every horse movie. The snobby rich kids who scorn the MC? The ones with the fancy horses that they don’t really care about? Veronica from Saddle Club, Ashley from Heartland…
Are there kids like that in real life? Sure, but they’re not as common as you’d think.
If you choose to use this, make the snobby kid a rider who can barely afford to go to the barn and is jealous of the more-wealthy protagonist. Or maybe the snobby kid is the protagonist.
6. Girl Gets Horse, Horse Isn’t What She Wanted, Girl Hates Horse
This is the incentive plot line of many a horse book. It’s also one of the most ridiculous.
First, you would have to be a completely spoiled brat to not appreciate it when your parents buy you a horse. Second, horses are expensive, and I’m pretty sure even the most clueless of parents would try to make sure they are not getting cheated out of their money by buying a poorly behaved horse.
Third, you don’t go buying horses willy-nilly! I can’t think of any adults who would randomly spend money on the first horse they see without doing some serious consideration.
7. Human gets hurt and/or loses confidence, meets horse, immediately gains confidence through horse
Yes, this does happen in real life.
But it’s a process.
If someone has truly lost their confidence, then it could take weeks, even months to regain. Not even the best of horses could work a miracle. And it’s really not the horse, it’s the connection you build with the horse through trust, which also takes time.
If you choose to use this, research horse bonding techniques, like liberty training or T-Touch. If the event was traumatic enough, it also might be more realistic to have your MC see a therapist as well.
8. Showy but Unrealistic Horsemanship
Horse rears a lot while the rider dramatically pulls back on the reins? Horse foaming and champing at a too tight bit as the character rides with urgency?
Here’s the true meaning of a horse rearing: a horse rearing means “I’m scared” and “I don’t know how to get out of this, so I’ll try going up”. Occasionally, stallions will rear while sparring, to show off their strength for a rival.
But horses don’t rear right before they’re about to charge into a dramatic gallop towards the next adventure (a stallion may rear and then charge his rival, but usually there is more warning first. Horses tend to avoid conflict as prey animals).
As for the reins, a real horseman uses his seat and legs to communicate. A horse that’s being yanked around all the time will begin to hate his rider real fast. Just hold the bit of a bridle and have a friend yank on the reins. If it hurts your arms, just imagine what it does to the horse.
Don’t include this trope in your writing. It takes up unnecessary words and creates overdramatized tension.
9. The Forgotten Getaway Car
This is mostly a medieval fantasy trope that is all too commonly overlooked.
The hero rides up to the castle (at that unrealistic gallop we mentioned earlier), jumps off his horse, and dashes into the castle to save the day. Later he steals another horse to escape, most likely with the beautiful maiden he stole away.
Your reader will probably be going “uh, what?” and rush back to figure out what happened to Charger back there.
Don’t forget the horse. It’s not kind to the horse and it leaves a plot hole. This trope is better to leave out, because it gives nothing back to the story and is a cheap suspense filler.
10. Acrobatic Mounting
I was reminded of this when we watched The Princess Bride the other night and Prince Humperdinck inspected the site where Wesley and Inigo were sparring and jumped onto the back of his waiting steed. I verbally winced, because if you did that in real life, you could probably break your horse’s back, or at least put him in a lot of pain.
Not to mention jumping onto a horse’s back with no warning is very similar to the way a cougar attacks him. It’s something heavy clawing at his neck in his most vulnerable blind spot.
I do applaud Alejandro’s horse Tornado in The Mask of Zorro. He was smart enough to know that a man trying to show off and jump onto a horse like his mentor was not worth messing with, and realistically bolted forward. But unless you’re going to have your MC embarrass themself like this, this trope is better to cut out.
So How Do You Write Realistic Horses In Fiction?
Do more research so that you understand horsemanship at least a little bit– this goes such a long way. Books like How to Think Like a Horse by Cherry Hill have improved my equine characters so much.
By taking the time to put your own creative spin on the trope, you’re not just rewriting the same thing over and over again– you’re adding a fresh detail, a new aspect. And you can do this even if your only horse is a knight’s steed.
I repeat: horses are non-verbal thinkers. They see the world through their senses as prey animals, moments in time as pictures. They speak in body language.
The ears tell a lot about a horse– pinned means the horse is annoyed or angry, high and forward means alert, and flopped out to the side means relaxed or the horse could be sick.
A fearful horse doesn’t plant all four hooves on the ground and stays stock-still– he has his muscles tensed, nostrils flaring to take in more oxygen for running, a leg cocked and at the ready.
An angry horse pins his ears, clamps his tail, clacks his teeth and may feign nips as a warning. However as prey animals horses also prefer to avoid conflict or pain– a horse will run before fighting if he has the choice.
A flapping yellow slicker or a piece of paper can be perceived as a threat to them. While they can be trained to ignore it, it takes time. Just because a horse doesn’t react to the slicker anymore doesn’t mean he won’t react to the opening umbrella.
And if they happen to be hurt at the same time or by the object they fear, then it can take longer to desensitize them and even escalate the problem.
If a horse is whacked across the rump by a falling tree branch at the same time he sees a balloon, then the horse will associate the pain and surprise with the balloon.
What’s the Point?
Writing horses well adds so much to a story.
Equine fiction is a growing and cherished market by many– some of the best writers I know, such as Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley, wrote horse books. It’s also a bit of a picky market– readers know a trope the minute they see it, and it can be easy to lose them.
However, even if your horse is like Snowfire in Eragon, or the dwarves’ ponies in The Hobbit, by implementing these tips you will have added a whole new story layer to the setting and create an equine character who will be remembered.