Fair warning: you do not ever, ever want to watch a movie with me that has horses in it. Yeah, one or two movies don’t get it stupid, but the majority? Mmmm. This post isn’t going to correct EVERYTHING Hollywood gets wrong, but that’s not what it is about. It’s more about examining the horse as a companion and cohort in heroics.
I come by it honestly: the first picture of me on a horse, my mom was holding me. I was 6 months old, on a 6 year-old half-Arabian who had been bred by my family. Over the years, I continued riding, and when I was thirteen, started apprenticing with local horse-trainers. My first trainer had me working with her stallions, and we discovered pretty quickly that I wasn’t bad with the ‘hopeless cases’. I got out of it for a few years after a series of bad wrecks: broken nose, dislocated rib, sprained ankles and back and wrists, a kick to the head, being trampled. My confidence was gone and I was getting hurt. I didn’t get back to it until just a couple of years ago, when friends rescued a blinded, starved, terrified stallion from his abusive owner, and needed someone to train him.
What can I say? I’ve spent more time with horses than I have with humans. I don’t always understand the silly language the two-leggeds use. I’m used to the subtitles of weight and stance, the invisible moods. I believe that they are over-romanticized and yet given far less credit than they deserve.
There are documented cases of them fighting off grizzly bears, rescuing their riders from deadly circumstances at the cost of their own lives, and saving battle campaigns. They are incredible, beautiful animals bound into every corner of human history, and yet a genre which can spend a dozen pages on the layout of a city, paints over horses with the broadest brush possible.
As a hero, the horse cannot be surpassed, because it has no interest in glory or gain, but will, for the right person, be far more vital and essential than sword, shield or quest.
And yet, I am constantly disappointed at the minimalization of the horse in heroics. It is usually either vastly undersold and boring, or so incorrectly written that my teeth grind the entire way through the story. The horse has as much place in speculative-fiction as any dragon or human character. It deserves equal research and attention to detail.
The history of the horse can be divided, roughly, into 3 parts: War, Leisure and Work. Of these 3, war is where the horse made its greatest mark on history. Work could be accomplished by oxen, leisure would have found another vehicle.
But, for being a prey animal, the horse is uniquely suited for war.
It is sure-footed, strong, alert, agile, fierce, independent, intelligent and enduring. A truly great horse was not a tool to its rider, but a friend, a comrade in arms, and, frequently, the only reason that rider could walk away from a battle. Stories abound of a horse moving to take a sword intended for its rider, bearing a dead body for miles to bring her master home, dragging a wounded warrior out of battle, or standing over a critically-injured rider.
The horse plays a significant role in human history, and in the stories of war and heroism, especially. The greatest military figures raised monuments to their beloved horses: the great, rearing figure of Bucephalus; Napoleon’s little Arabian, Marengo; the Duke of Wellington’s bright chestnut, Copenhagen; El Cid’s Babieca. The Age of Chivalry was carried on the backs of the platter-hoofed chargers, Genghis Khan overwhelmed half the world on his wiry little steppes ponies.
The military organizations of the world are at the root of nearly all modern horse sports, from dressage to vaulting, and even conformation competitions. Nearly every European military organization had its own stud farms and trials. Most European horse breeds owe their modern incarnation to a military academy. Horses were in wide-spread use even into WWII.
And yet, they are gentle, curious, loyal creatures, too. A well-treated horse genuinely enjoys his people. My horses have to be put in another pasture if we’re trying to work, otherwise they are picking our pockets, sorting through the tools or generally behaving like half-ton cats. And that’s all well and good, until one of them does something like pick up a hose and spray you in the back. See what I mean?
So, let’s talk horses.
Reality and Myth
Hollywood fills our screens with towering, prancing horses with flowing manes and tails. The Mongolian and the Crusader ride the same beasts, in the movies, and that frequently bleeds back into our fiction, as well.
Ponies are significantly stronger and have greater endurance than most riding horses. Pound for pound, they jump higher, pull harder and last longer. The Mongolians rode ponies that, to us, look about as sensible as the kid-sized bikes you see full-grown men on. In addition, these tiny horses carried huge packs, ran for days, and were as dangerous in war as their riders. They also took a minimum of food, and the rider could get on them quite quickly, unlike the European knight, who had to literally be lifted onto his towering beast.
However, there are three breeds which are not only Hollywood-beautiful, but are actually the foundation of a great deal of equine myth. They are also uniquely suited to the hero’s needs, and common enough for information to be found on them without my more specialized journals and translations.
“The Blessings of Allah”
The fabled Arabian horse, best known from movies like The Black Stallion, deserves its reputation. There is no creature on this earth which has the level of intrigue, history and myth of the Arabian, up to and including the dragon. But they were small horses, fierce, brilliantly intelligent, long-lived, and of incredible stamina. Mares were of far greater value than the stallions, being quieter and more loyal, and were used in battle. Mares of certain lineages were the celebrities of the culture, and their daughters and great-great-great-granddaughters are still treasured and sold for incredible amounts of money.
(In other words, as nice a story as it is, The Black Stallion would actually have been shit out of luck. A mare? The entire clan might well have gone to war over a particularly-prized mare.)
The horses were hand-raised from birth, kept in their master’s tent, and wanted for nothing. They were hand-fed on camel’s milk, dates, mutton fat, honey and alfalfa. They were, essentially, very large house-pets, and devoted utterly to their families.
I have been unable to find the source for this, as a lot of my books are still in boxes on the East Coast, but the Bedouin are said to have used the following to determine their greatest mares:
“She was first run 50 miles without rest or water, caused to swim across a river at least once, and, if she immediately went to her food afterward, was never sold for any price.”
(If someone knows what book that was in, please let me know!)
“It was believed that the bulging forehead held the blessings of Allah. Therefore the greater the “Jibbah” the greater the blessings carried by the horse. The great arching neck with a high crest, the “Mitbah” was a sign of courage, while a gaily carried tail showed pride. These traits were held in high esteem and selectively bred for.”
(A note about this video: It is, basically, a long ad for the Sheik’s stable. However, it goes into the attributes of the breed, the relationship between the horse and rider, the way these horses are cared for, and some of their lore. It is also an excellent example of the Arabian horse as it was BEFORE the American show ring got hold of it. These are quite different from the thin, skittish horses one all too often sees on the market these days.)
Right Out of a Fairytale
Andalusians and Lusitanos were bred in Spain, and related closely to the Arabian’s cousin, the Barb. “Unnervingly intelligent”, strong, breathtakingly beautiful, these are the fairytale horses, with their ground-sweeping manes and tails, their flashing feet and their thickly-crested necks.
The Moors rode these horses, and they were, while not as fast or fierce as the Arabian, in no way an inferior breed. They are still popular today, and used extensively in movies. I’m sure the video will show you why!
“Their Kingdom Is the Back of a Horse”
And last, but certainly not least, the Akhal-Teke, the ‘heavenly horse’ of Turkmenistan. If the Andalusians are ridden by the fairy-tale prince, then the Akhal-Teke is the fairy-king’s horse: tall, impossibly slender, glimmering with a metallic sheen, their heads in the clouds. They can be almost alien.
The Teke developed in one of the harshest climates on earth. The history and lore of the Teke is too extensive to go into in this one post, but the following two bits of history illustrate their incredible strength very well.
“An Akhal-Teke stallion with three Teke warriors and two heavy felt coats aboard and wounded by a saber escaped the pursuit of Cossacks over shifting sands and reached Merv (500 km away).”
“In 1935 Akhal-Teke and Iomud horses completed a ride from Ashgabad to Moscow, a distance of 4,300 km, in 84 days. It included some 360 km of desert, much of it crossed virtually without water. This feat has never been equaled. It was also the salvation of the breed, as Stalin was, finally, convinced to preserve the creatures he had been killing off.” ~
Horses are measured in ‘hands’, from ground to the withers (bony point of the shoulder at the base of the neck). Hands are now standardized: each hand is four inches. The Bedouin and most other horse-based cultures also had precise measurements for the length of the horse and each of its components, right down the ideal number of fingers between the eyes.
Fifteen hands is five feet and is the average height of a riding horse. Such a horse will, depending on breed, weigh between 900-1200 pounds.
Draft horses, bulging with muscle, can be from 14-19 hands, on average, but can weigh up to 3000 pounds. The largest horse known was 22 hands and weighed 3360 pounds.
Ponies, contrary to popular opinion, are not judged by height, but by having a very different conformation from horses. However, they usually range from 11 to 15 hands. As mentioned earlier, they are much hardier and stronger than the average horse.
A horse talks primarily with its body, like any herd animal. It also communicates in whickers, nickers, bugles, screams, squalls, neighs and bellows. The scream of an angry stallion is a heart-stopping thing, because in that moment, the horse turns from prey to downright predator. The same horse will make the softest, friendliest of nickers, fluttering its nostrils and producing a sound as much felt as heard.
The basic gaits are walk, trot, canter and gallop. A horse can go all day at a trot. The rider? Not so much. If you aren’t used to it, it’s like riding a jackhammer. Certain breeds are ‘gaited’: smooth, ground-eating strides.
A good horse takes a normal man and raises him–literally–above the rest of us. The power and magnetism of the creature can’t be denied. It makes us faster, stronger, bigger, better. Ultimately, horses are not cabbages or NPCs or fodder. They will affect your story as much as any character.
So do yourself a favor, and get to know man’s real best friend.