Elizabeth: Horsing Around

Centella in Action © 2015 Photo by Scott

Centella in Action © 2015 Photo by Scott

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?

22 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Horsing Around

  1. Horses are prey animals and they know it. Over the years, as they evolved, the ones that ran at the first suspicious noise or movement survived, while the ones that stopped to check it out did not. This tells you something about the genetics of domesticated horses – they still are easily startled and will run from anything unusual.

    They are herd animals and are nervous alone, because they is safety in numbers. They can be trained to obey a rider and leave other horses, but they are extremely unlikely to do so on their own. Horse do get attached to specific other horses – they have friends and buddies just like people. Horses react to any other horse on the basis of which is most dominant (not always the biggest or strongest) and they interact with people the same way. If a horse respects a person, they will do as the person asks, but if they don’t respect the person he (or she) will have a very difficult time getting the horse to do anything.

    Horses are not people!! They don’t think like people, they don’t react like people – they are alien beings with an entirely different thought process. They communicate almost entirely by body language and don’t vocalize often. A horse will whinney (call) for food or friends. A horse may nicker or whicker (a soft sound) to greet a favored human (especially if the human brings food) or horse friend.

    Strange and probably useless information – horses cannot breathe through their mouths, only their noses. A running horse breathes in rhythm with its stride. A horse’s teeth keep growing longer throughout its life since they are worn down by the coarse nature of the grasses they eat, so an experienced horseman may make a good guess as to a horse’s age by the length and condition of its teeth.

    If you have questions about horses as you write, you are welcome to email me. I am always happy to talk about them. I have horses of my own, and have studied them for many years.

    • Hi Carol, thank you for the information and your offer. I wondered about the “buddy” idea when I noticed that each of the horses walked to the starting gate with another horse/rider. I wondered if it kept them calmer that way or if there was some other reason.

      • I think they are called companion ponies and they are for support and friendship, but I’m pretty sure they are also used to restrain the race horse as he is being led to the starting gates. I’m just guessing on this – I would imagine that the equipment used on the horse is very different from, say, a hunter jumper so the rider has less control to maneuver a race horse. I’m sure Carol knows more about that.

        • Michille, that is a good point about the equipment and yes, the “companion horse/ponies” definitely seemed to be herding race horses toward the starting gates. I wondered once the race started how much the 120 pound jockey controlled the things and how much was the 1,000+ pound horse

        • The ponies are there to keep the racehorses calm (okay, calm*er*, maybe not actually *calm*), although not to physically restrain them, as such. (Those Thoroughbreds are too valuable/expensive to want to be “restraining” them by force, if it’s at all possible to avoid that.)

      • When we were in Denmark a few years back, we noticed a new-to-us trend as we drove through the countryside. We saw field after field with one full-size horse and one miniature horse (in DK, the minis are called ‘ponies’, regardless of their age). When we finally asked a relative about it, she told us there’s a law in DK that you can’t have just one horse because, basically, they need a friend. To meet the two-horse minimum but not have to double the cost of feed, many people buy one full-size horse and one mini. We were endlessly fascinated by this trend (obviously, we’re easily amused :-)).

        • Even in the US, “pony” should refer to a horse that is under 14-2, rather than to a horse of a specific age. (On the other hand, it also refers to the full grown horses used to guide the racehorses to the gate. And any time you have a second horse tethered to your saddle, you’re “ponying” the tethered horse. If it wasn’t confusing, it wouldn’t be fun!)

        • Sometimes the companion isn’t even a horse… or an equine at all! Some horses have goats for companions, and I’ve heard of some that have pigs. But no matter what, the horse is (as Carol pointed out) a herd animal and does not do well in solitude. (I know a spunky little pony that has two mini-donkeys as his companions. Watching those three little bundles of attitude in action is more entertaining than most television shows.)

    • Thank you for the info about breathing through their mouths! Somehow that hadn’t ever come up. I’ll have to berate my horsemanship guides for not sharing that bit of fascinating trivia.

  2. Carol had a lot of cool information! I never thought about them being herd animals before, which may explain some of the psycho horses I’ve met.

    OK, I was bit as a teenager by a lone horse who didn’t think I was passing out the apples fast enough. That took care of some of my horse fantasies.

    Don’t get me wrong — I love the idea, the IDEA of Horse. I just also see why cars caught on quickly.

    Anyway, just ranting a bit. The one thing I’ve seen people complain about is when a writer treats a horse like a motorbike — no proper rests, no proper food and water, nobody tends to the horse, and of course, no personality in the horse. A horse should probably be a character in the story, too.

    Still, there are so many lovely horse images in literature. When you say, “spirited Arabian,” a whole flood of imagined horses come to mind. I think one of my favorites is a song horse — “She ran calling, ‘Wildfire!'”

    • Michaeline, that’s an excellent point about not treating the horse like a motorbike. Sorry to say I’ve read a few “racing across the countryside” stories that did just that.

      *off to check the manuscript to make sure Hector gets adequate food and rest *

    • I’ve suspected that the “can’t just jump on and ride” thing is why horses appeal so much less to men than to women. Men frequently want something they can use when they want and ignore when they don’t want it, whereas women are more about the relationship with horse as a partner.

      Exceptions abound, of course. Buck Brannaman, Pat Parelli, Jonathan Field, Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Ronnie Willis…

  3. Wow, lots of interesting information from Carol, and what a kind offer! Good job I don’t write historicals – I have no clue about horses, but obviously they’d be hugely important. I never thought about it before, but I bet Regency aristos varied a lot – you’d have those who were really into their horses, could judge a good one and knew how to get the best out of them (the Regency equivalent of today’s petrol-heads), those had no clue and left it all to their grooms, those who had limitless funds and always had to have the shiniest/fastest and those who kept their favourites going year after year, and so on. You could probably tell a lot about a hero (or heroine?) by their horses.

    • Jilly, you’re right, judging a man by his horses definitely happened and that has given me an idea. I think my antagonist needs a pair of the shiniest/fastest/trendiest horses, since he is all about appearances and trying to project just the right image.

      My hero’s horse is not much for looks but a strong, dependable, warrior type. Kind of like Wellington’s Copenhagen. They made it through the war together, so Michael is not likely to trade him in for something “new and shiny.”

      I remember in Lord of Scoundrels Chase did a good job illustrating Dain’s character by the horses he kept – big, unfashionable, brutes who were badly behaved when given the chance but well-behaved given the right incentive.

  4. Great post! And I could go on for 100,000 words about horses … but … I shall attempt to stop myself and instead just recommend this book: http://www.amazon.com/Natural-Horsemanship-Explained-Robert-Miller/dp/0983462550/ I think it’s a good balance of readable + accurate, for an overview of equine psychology and also for developing a character who is a horseman (vs a “biker”).

    E.g., the antagonist sounds like he’d interpret a horse’s refusal at a jump as lazy, or defiant, or angry, and he might smack the horse right before the jump to “make it go faster/get over the jump.” Whereas Michael would understand that the horse was afraid and would allow the horse a moment to sniff the jump and relax a little and then would encourage it over. Michael would also know that the antagonist’s horse would quickly learn that when it sees a jump it’s going to get smacked and therefore it’s going to do what it can to avoid jumps, and certainly it’s not going to want to be vulnerable (e.g., in the air) while being smacked, so it’s going to stop ahead of time.

    Isn’t it amazing how much research it takes, that will translate into a single word here and there in the book (“encouraged the horse” vs “made the horse”) and possibly one or two sentences or even one paragraph of a scene … to get that depth of authenticity? Writers are so cool. LOL

    P.S. The book’s author, Dr. Miller, is 88 years old now and still practicing (and in fact was at horse expo last weekend!) and he’s hilarious in person — I’ve loved his short story collections too. (If you like James Herriott you’ll likely like Dr. Miller too.)

    • Welcome to the blog and thanks for the book recommendation, that sounds like a great resource. Yes, We Treat Aardvarks looks like an interesting read as well.

      You’ve definitely got my antagonist and protagonist pegged and yes, it’s all going to boil down to a few word choices or sentences here and there to convey all of this characterization/detail.

    • Thanks for the rec! I write historicals like Elizabeth, although in my current WIP, it’s more about carriage driving than horseback riding.

      A friend of mine from Atlanta rides a lot and just got a side saddle. I told her I want to pick her brain about riding it. 🙂 You know, so I can explain it properly!

      • Justine – hopefully you will share what you learn 🙂 Don’t forget that side-saddles today are different from the side-saddles that our heroines would have used. There was a very long discussion about that on the Beau Monde loop last year and I’m not sure if they ever reached consensus on the facts.

        • Thanks for the tip. I think just the difference in balance — although for a woman who has always ridden side-saddle, it might not be evident — would be something one might notice. I’ll have to dig up the BM loop discussion from last year.

  5. Elizabeth, you might want to reconsider the “spirited Arabian”. A spirited horse is generally one that is eager to run, nervous and prone to startle easily, and often difficult to handle. Is your heroine an expert rider? If not, she is better off with a horse that is calm and even tempered. If you want an Arab that is sweet and calm, you probably don’t want to refer to it as “spirited”. Also, Arabians were originally imported from Arabia (naturally) and I’m not sure how common they were during the Regency period. They may have been – I don’t know.

    On the other hand, Arabians are (in my admittedly biased opinion) the most beautiful, elegant of the various horse breeds, and were generally a little smaller than the thoroughbred type, probably between 14 and 15 hands. (A hand is four inches, measured from the ground to the highest point of the spine at the base of the neck.)

    Some of the terms that are used today, especially those used in the US, would have been different in Regency England. What I call a halter, for instance, I have heard referred to as a head collar in Britain.

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: A horse-racing fairy tale | Eight Ladies Writing

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