Monday, August 16, 2010


By Anne Johnson

Have you ever read a novel where the character meets a wild horse in the forest? The horse looks at the character. The character looks into the eyes of the horse. Then he jumps on its back and gallops away. Did you think that was logical? If you said no, you’re correct.

Accuracy is important in fiction. Getting the little details right are just as important as the big ones. Little errors can undermine the believability of the entire novel.

The following are just a few things you should know if you’re writing a story where horses play an integral role.

Know the difference between stallions, mares, geldings, colts, and fillies. Stallion=male, Mare=female, Gelding=male, colt=young male under the age of 4, filly=young female under the age of 4.

Geldings cannot reproduce. They have been castrated.

When a mare (female horse) foals (has a baby), the baby is called a foal. A foal can refer to either sex. If it is male, it’s called a colt and if it’s a female, it’s called a filly. Colts don’t change into fillies. Their color and sex don’t change from page to page even though some authors think so.

Foaling (birthing) is a very messy procedure. Mares do not need help birthing the foal unless there’s a problem. Grabbing the foal’s legs and pulling it out can be very dangerous to both animals if you don’t know what you’re doing. Seeing it in a movie is for dramatic effect, and not realistic.

Know the breeds of horses and differences. For instance, you would never see a huge Clydesdale on a race track.

Food basics are water, hay, grass and grain. Horses like routine. They know when it’s time for their feed. The character can’t suddenly remember that the horses need feed the day after they should have been fed. Well, he could, but that would be animal abuse.

Training is necessary. They need breaking and need to get accustomed to a rider. All horses need training for the safety of the rider and the horse.

Riding. Someone who has never been on a horse, can’t mount the horse, gallop away, and expect to stay on. This is a common error seen in novels and movies.

Clothes: Boots are more appropriate in a stable and /or stall than $800 Ferragamo shoes with four inch heels.

Do your homework. There are many books at every level on horses and horse care in bookstores or your local library. And, finally, use the internet for research. There are numerous sites devoted to horses and horse care.

If you have questions, I will be happy to try and answer them.

Anne Johnson has a BA degree in English and minors in History and Journalism. She is the owner of two thoroughbreds.


Jeff Turner said...

Non-fiction also requires accuracy. When I was writing about a Fort Worth restarant chain I re-checked and found some errors. So you always need to doule check statements in any genre.

D'Ann said...

Oh, boy, did you hit a nerve.
I'm a lifelong horse owner, two-time coach of state champion horsebowl teams, and a writer who rallies against the idiocy that crops up in books. I hate screaming, rearing stallions that the inexperiened heroine can tame by whispering in its ear. Gag.
Nothing makes a book a wall banger faster than innacurate horse facts.
Good post!

Anonymous said...

What a great post. I hate reading some of the idiotic things writers put in books. When a black stallion turns into a paint horse, It really makes you wonder if anything else is worth reading in the book. Or the owner using a mare who has just foaled to take a pleasure ride.
God! How stupid.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Great post. As you said, the little details are also important in novels. My pet peeve is the hero who rides a stallion, not a gelding, among mares with no problems. Am I correct that this scenario is unrealistic?

Anne Johnson said...

Thank you for all the comments. To answer your question, Caroline, it's not unheard of in some disciplines(Racing, etc). There are several factors that go into whether this would be a bad idea or not. In example: the nature of the stallion in question, is the mare in season, the list goes on. I think for general believability purposes, keep the mares and stallions separate. If your characters are riding on a trail, the stallion may have trouble staying focused!

Kris said...

Hi, Anne. This post comes at a great time. I'm trying to make a scene in my current WIP come alive and am struggling to describe the feeling of how my heroine feels when she gets on a horse for the first time after five years. She grew up on horses - loves them - but hasn't allowed herself to ride due to a family issue (not related to horses.) The scene is key to her reconnecting to her past. I'm wondering if you could point me to some particularly moving descriptions of the connection the rider might feel. (i have ridden a fair amount but don't really have the horse sense/connection I'm trying to give my heroine.) Thanks for any suggestions you can provide!

Anne said...

I'm sorry it's taken so long for me to respond (busy work week). I read a quote that has been attributed to several people but I believe is from Winston Churchill.

"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

Describing that feeling is pretty difficult. The feeling of connection is just THERE and hard to pinpoint exactly. I can tell you a little about how I felt when I rode for the first time in years:
---Elated, wondering why I ever stopped, a certain 'rightness,' the need for movement, for taking a deeper breath, of being more comfortable on the back of a horse than on my own two feet, of the horse being an extension of myself, etc.
One book that I would point you to is 'Horse People: Writer's and Artists on the Horses They Love,' edited by Michael J. Rosen. There are some moving descriptions of the connection between horse and rider.

Anonymous said...

I just ran across this blog and this is just about the most useful information I have read. Writing about a horse if you've never been around them is like trying to describe the topography of another country, especially if you've never been there.
Really, really great post.

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