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Horses are Characters, Too!

Horses are Characters, Too!

Helena Š. George


Horses are a primary means of transportation in fantasy. Great nobles and skilled warriors trot through the city with shiny saddles and bridles. Messengers gallop across the map and carry important letters. Even the village folk care for their aging plow horse and treat it as a family member.


In a nutshell, writing a fantasy story without including horses can be quite difficult. You can get away with skimming through any horse sections to avoid incorrectly writing them, but then you miss out on some fun ways to build your character, your world, and even the plot.


But before we jump in, I want to share some quick tips for writing horses in general. Most people may know these, but I feel like I should include them just in case. Buckle up, because I’m gonna be quick! :)


Firstly, horses are not robots! They do not mindlessly stand in a stall and chew hay, waiting for a saddle to be slapped on so they can gallop as fast as they can for days at a time. Horses are animals. They have muscles, bones, etc., and they need to eat, drink, sleep, and exercise. Galloping takes a lot of energy, and if you’re going a long distance, it’s best just to alternate walking and trotting in order to save your horse.


Most movies depict riders galloping everywhere. Is it accurate? No! They do it because it’s pretty and way more exciting than watching a group walk around.


Secondly, horses have distinct personalities. Are they friendly to people and/or other horses? Are they more vocal, or do they stay quiet? Are they anxious in a stall, or do they enjoy the opportunity to take a nap? Do they enjoy stretching their legs for a run, or would they rather munch grass and relax?


Thirdly, horses are prey animals. They have to watch for danger or else they may become someone’s lunch!


How spooky a horse is will depend a lot on their age, personality, training, and the trust they have in their handler. The first (and biggest) response to something scary is always going to be turn and run. As horses gain experience and confidence, they may simply stop and look at scary things, or else try to step away.


And remember, horses are not robots. Even the bravest, calmest horse can still be caught by surprise when someone comes around a corner or a loud noise goes off, just like people!


Fourthly, horses are quiet creatures. Movies use different horse sounds to try and get the viewers to “understand” what’s going on—squeals to indicate fear or excitement, snorts at scary things, whinnies to say “come over here” or “let’s go there!” As people, we communicate verbally and are sensitive to pitches and tones.


In reality, horses rarely communicate this way. They use (often subtle) body language. A turn of an ear and angle of leg can mean “stay away” just as loudly as a shout. A swish of a tail can mean “that hurts!” or “I don’t like this!” Planted hooves or a dramatic sideways walk is their way of saying “I’m not going where you want me to go!” instead of that fake “pointing their nose towards a direction and whinnying hopefully” thing you see in movies.


Okay, does that all make sense? The movies lied to us, horses are more like people than robots, and they’re scared of lots of silly things. Let’s move on to how this can help us write better horses, better characters, and better stories.


To write a horse well, we need to view each equine as an individual side character. They do not need to have an emotional arc with a resolution, but you have to be able to see this horse chew the bit and paw the ground as it waits at a hitching post, just as you’re able to see that side character nervously tap fingers against their sword hilt as they stand at attention.


How do we make horses into characters?


Firstly, we need their name. This may tell you about the horse (think Fireball and Midnight), or they may tell you about the rider and their personality or imagination and what they find amusing or important (think Black Horse and Chubby and Honor). Don’t forget to include some nicknames, either when the rider is lavishing affection on the horse (think Sweetie or Lad) or when the horse is acting up (a long-suffering Ye Daft Beastie or an angry Bleeping-Bleep-of-a-Bleep). See how that might show the character’s personality as well as make the horse seem like a real thinking (but not too human-like) creature?


Secondly, we need the horse’s age. You don’t have to pick a literal number and figure out a birthdate. But you need to know if this horse is generally young or old. Will they have youthful antics to watch out for? Are they still learning how to canter in a group without freaking out and bucking? Or have they been under saddle for years and know their job and can be dependable?


Thirdly, we need to know their breed type. Notice I didn’t say breed. You don’t have to know all the different kinds of horse breeds or create your own for the story world. But think about where this horse came from and what it’s going to do, and build the “type” of horse based upon that.


Does your character travel a lot or carry messages? They’ll want something tall and slender and made to run through grassy plains, or maybe a sturdy pony to get through tricky mountain passes safely.


Is your character a noble or a knight? They’ll want multiple horses—something big and powerful to joust with and carry a knight in full armor; something big and athletic to ride into war (still strong, but also slimmer and agile); and then something elegant and fast to ride while entertaining guests or hunting or traveling.


Of course, you could always put the “wrong” type of horse in a situation. A messenger gets a tubby pony that won’t go faster than a jarring trot. A poor knight is teased that he has to ride his chunky battle horse everywhere. A traveler has an ex-carriage horse that was super cheap after it was injured in an accident and is now terrified of anything with wheels.


Fourthly, we need a general idea of the horse’s personality. Is the horse energetic? Anxious? Spooky? Calm? Lazy?


You’re not writing a horse book. The horse itself may not have a lot of page time. But if said horse is trying to steal every bite of grass it can reach whenever it is mentioned, readers will remember it and laugh.


How would your rider react to the prospect of spending time in the saddle? Would they be worried that their mount will be jigging sideways the whole time and require all their concentration? Do they dread passing under the city gates because their horse always spooks at the flags? Or is their horse so calm that they get to show off by eating a snack or playing an instrument in the saddle?


You can even give a bit of resolution to the horse throughout the book/series. Does every battle charge start with the horse bucking into a gallop? Perhaps by the end it has calmed down and gallops at a single nudge. Maybe it no longer shies at the castle gate because it’s passed through hundreds of times. That energetic horse that terrified a certain character is the only one left for them to ride on an important mission. These are inconsequential little details, but things that readers can remember and smile when they see these tiny bits of growth. (Or they can laugh with the character as the scary flags spook that mare yet again.)


For all the list-loving people, you can copy the character sheet below. For people who don’t enjoy filling out character sheets, I would suggest jotting down (wherever you keep your story notes) something like the following: Big Red, bay older draft cross, calm and dependable.


Name:

Age:

Breed Type:

Personality:

Color:


(As you can see, I dropped color in there as well. Not necessarily important for building the horse as a character, but we do usually like to know the color and it needs to stay consistent, hehe.)


I hope all this was somewhat helpful. If anyone ever has horse questions, you are more than welcome to message me on Instagram. I’m always happy to help brainstorm and work out equine scenes. Now go and write some epic horses!





Helena Š. George has been riding horses for nearly twenty years. She perhaps takes a little too much pride in the fact that she never joined a show circuit, and instead spends her horsey time competing in Endurance and Ride & Tie races, camping with friends, or driving along in a cart. Medieval fiction & fantasy are her favorite genrse, and she is the published author of The Red War Annals (with lots of horses) and The Pirate Hunter Chronicles (not a lot of horses).


Instagram: @helenasgeorge

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