No, not that kind of horsing around.
I mean actual horses. Something I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about. The only horse interaction I recall was a birthday party I went to as a teenager. We plodded along the trail on horses that I’m pretty sure were plotting to dump us on the ground and head for the hills (I may have read Animal Farm around that time). My horse was blind in one eye and more interested in stopping to graze than in following the trail. Hard to say which of us found the experience more tedious.
Although I read a number of stories featuring horses when I made my way through the children’s section at the local library – Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, and a whole series of books by Marguerite Henry – I cannot claim to have actually learned anything about horses (or at least anything I can now remember).
This is a bit of a problem because horses were a part of Regency life; the period I’m writing about. Although my protagonist is not, in fact, a horse, horses do appear at varying times in the story so I’d like to get the details right.
I was able to get some basic help from A Random Guy On Facebook, so I know my hero’s horse Hector is a “chestnut hunter” and the horse he buys for the heroine is a “spirited Arabian” that’s friendly and sweet. I’ve learned from some videos I’ve seen recently that horses are playful (did not know that) and curious. In order to do a credible job of describing the horses in my story in action though, I needed to see them in action, preferably with someone talking about them.
Lucky for me, I was able to get a crash course by watching some racing. Okay, technically, there was a horse race on television the other day and I was looking for a way to justify watching it instead of doing the writing I was supposed to be doing. The point is, while watching the racing I was able to pick up some much needed information about horses. Unexpectedly, I learned a bit about story too.
The races I watched were part of the Triple Crown series for 3-year-old thoroughbreds that is run each May/June. Now Nancy recently talked about series in her posts here, here, and here and the races I watched (yes, I did “study” more than one), had a definite series feel to them. There was character development, drama and tension, and even a plot twist. The races each had an individual story arc and taken as a whole there was an over-reaching arc joining them together.
Take a look at the series I’ll call The Triple Crown trilogy and see for yourself:
The Run For The Roses
The first story in the trilogy is set on the first Sunday in May at the Kentucky Derby. The weather is warm and the women are dressed up in their large, elaborate hats, sipping Mint Juleps in their expensive box seats. In the spectator area inside the track, where there is little chance of seeing the actual race, revelers party with abandon. Although we know that this story will end with one horse winning, just like we know that our romance novels will end with a happily-ever-after, we don’t know who will win or what obstacles will be encountered along the way. There is a definite conflict lock – there can be only one winner – and since this is our first introduction to these “characters” we don’t know who to root for until we learn more about them.
The ensemble cast of 3-year-old thoroughbreds includes American Pharoah, Matieriality, Carpe Diem, Firing Line, and a number of whimsically-named others. The tale slowly unfolds with stories about the owners, trainers, jockeys and, of course, the horses. The excitement starts to build as the horses are paraded before the fans to the strains of Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home and the tension really escalates as the horses are led to the starting gates. After “the most exciting two minutes in sports” the story is over, our protagonist has been revealed, and it’s time to wait for the next in the series.
The Run For The Black-Eyed Susans
The series picks up on the 3rd Saturday in May at the Preakness Stakes in Maryland. While it still features an ensemble cast, this time we know who we’re rooting for – American Pharoah, the protagonist from the first in the series. And this time, it’s not just any race, it has become the next step in the “race for the triple crown.” Fans may have a favorite horse to root for, but the thought of American Pharoah winning and going on to possibly become the first Triple Crown winner in more than thirty years is a pull on the hearts and imaginations.
While the previous story was a horse-against-horse thriller, this one has nature in the form of a torrential downpour just prior to post time as its antagonist. The story unfolds with special interest segments about the contenders, previous winners, and those that had tragic results (like Barbaro who shattered his leg in the 2006 race), but the approaching rain storm is always there in the background. While fans party in the general admission infield, sip Black-Eyed Susans, and show off their fancy hats, the threat of game-changing bad weather is never far out of mind.
It starts to sprinkle as the horses are called to the post and the audience sings Maryland, My Maryland led by the United States Naval Academy Glee club, but it looks like the race just might go off before the storm really hits. Minutes later that all changes as the storm arrives with a vengeance, soaking the crowd and the track. The infield and grandstands are evacuated due to concerns about lightening, while the horses continue to the starting gates, seemingly unconcerned. With a wet track though, it’s a whole different race than it was a few minutes before and strategies change in an instant. Turns out our protagonist is a fan of the sloppy track and he races to victory through the blinding rain and splashing mud, leaving Tale of Verve, Divining Rod, Firing Line, and the rest of the field behind.
The conclusion of the story leaves us impatiently waiting for the next installment so we can find out how the race for the Triple Crown turns out.
The Test Of The Champion
We don’t have to wait too long to find out how everything turns out. Three weeks later the series wraps up with the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes, the oldest of the Triple Crown events. The day is clear and the only question in the minds of the spectators as they sip their Belmont Breezes is “will this be the day American Pharoah becomes a Triple Crown winner joining past champions like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, or will he come up short like last year’s California Chrome?”
We can’t help but root for him (despite his misspelled name). The “all riders up” call comes and then, in only his 8th career start, he gets an ovation like a rock star as he makes his way into the tunnel on his way to the starting gate. The horses are led to the field to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, and the crowd roars. They take their positions in the starting gates and then “they’re off!” Tensions rise as the horses make their way around the track. American Pharoah is in the lead, but when will the others make their move? When they get to the far turn the roar of the crown has risen to a fevered pitch and by the time the horses are at the top of the stretch, even non-racing fans are on the edge of their seats. And then it happens, the rest of the field starts to fall back, running out of steam, and American Pharoah wins, becoming only the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. His jockey walks him past the crowds so they can cheer their approval, before heading to the winner’s circle and the 40-lb blanket of carnations representing Luck & Love. It’s a fairy-tale ending and a great conclusion to the trilogy.
What horse related tidbits of information stood out during my “research”?
- The horses all had very distinct personalities. When it came time to saddle them some were saddled inside, some were saddled outside, and at least one refused to be saddled at all until he got some carrots.
- Just like a number of other athletes, American Pharoah apparently had in ear-plugs to block distractions.
- Despite all the training and practice, when the starting gun went off, sometimes a horse just seemed to say “nah, I don’t feel like running today” while some of the others looked like they couldn’t wait to run.
So – any horse fans out there? What details would make a horse in a book believable for you? What incorrect details have you seen that I should definitely avoid?