There’s always a horse in a fantasy book. So I decided to do a bit of research on the trusty steeds that carry us fearlessly into battle, and this is what I found.
Make no assumptions
For some of us it’s fair to say we don’t see horses very often, driving past one standing in a field at 50mph on the odd occasion. We probably see horses more on TV than we do in reality. The main complaint I came across from readers when it came to horses is the author’s lack of understanding of them. So to fill the void of lack of experience, it’s important to learn.
After a few minutes research you’ll know that a female horse is called a mare, a male a stallion, a young female a filly, a young male a colt. The average horse can gallop around 27 miles per hour. They have 360 degree vision and bigger eyes than any other land-based mammal. The height of horses are, in some countries, measured in a unit called ‘hands’ (approx. 4 inches).
But don’t stop there. Let’s bring George R.R. Martin into the equation here. He studies medieval life so has an understanding of the horses of those times and uses this knowledge to tremendous effect in his stories.
Horses had three main purposes in the Middle Ages—war, agriculture and transport—amd were bred with these purposes in mind. Here’s a few different breeds, some of which feature in A Song of Ice and Fire:
Renowned for its capabilities in war, though pretty uncommon. Well-trained, strong, fast and agile. Described at the time as “tall and majestic and with great strength”. The average height of a destrier in the Middle Ages was 12 to 14 hands (48 to 56 inches). It was an expensive breed used mostly by knights (they could handle the weight of their armour).
Equal to a destrier in price. Popular with nobles and high ranking knights for riding, hunting and ceremonies. The smooth gait of palfreys made riding comfortable, so they were the preferred choice when travelling long distances.
Preferred for fierce, hectic battles. Fast and strong. Not as expensive as the destrier, though still valuable. The most common of all warhorses.
General purpose horses. The ‘ordinary’ one. Cheap and readily available. Ideal for both riding and war. Used by squires, men at arms, and poorer knights.
A horse smaller than a rounsey, known for their quiet nature. Used mostly for riding because of their smooth, ambling gait, though at times as cavalry.
How could I leave out an Irish horse? My family would disown me. Hobbies were well-regarded for their swiftness, effective in skirmishes, though used infrequently in combat.
And if ever you’re unsure of something or want to know more, why not try riding yourself? It’s the ultimate experience. Or you could reach out to the writing community. There’s been many a time when fellow writers have offered their knowledge and experience on particular subjects to me.
Treat your horse as a character
Your horse lives and breathes, just like your characters, and as such ought to be treated as one. It tires, grows hungry, thirsty, can get injured, limitations all living creatures possess, and disregarding them will damage your tale.
In George R.R. Martin’s Tales of Dunk and Egg, horses feature heavily, with the hedge knight Dunk growing quite attached to his mounts. He makes sure his squire, Egg, feeds and waters them every day, and after a long ride, brushed and washed down. As with any of your pets, horses require caring for, and a neglected horse is one that will suffer injuries, grow fatigued, and die.
A character building a relationship with a horse, or any pet for that matter, is a great source of empathy. Characters considerate towards others are likable. Take Blondie from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He’s a killer, but we’re drawn to him because he, other than being cool as amongst other things, respects and cares for his horse. It’s a possible source of conflict too. If a horse your reader has grown attached to is in risk of harm, or heaven forbid is harmed (how cruel), the reader feels it too.
If you’re new to riding, chances are you’re going to fall off
Riding a horse is a skill which requires a lot of practice. Not only does the horse have to be well trained to handle a rider, but the rider must also understand how to ride a horse. A character with no experience or knowledge of riding would be unable to jump upon a horse and ride away to safety. Convenient yes, realistic no.
You don’t have to go through the ins and outs of learning how to ride a horse in your story. That’d be boring. Just acknowledge your character is training and improving. A few of things they would learn for instance would be lightly squeezing the horse’s sides with their legs to get it to walk, or squeezing again to set it into a trot. Or to make the horse stop, lean back and pull on the reins.
While falling off a horse can potentially lead to serious injury—another source of conflict—it also makes for great entertainment. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of schadenfreude?
Each horse has its own personality
All animals tend to have their own personality: belligerent, curious, nervous, friendly. Not only does this give your story more life, it presents an opportunity for you to build connections between your characters and their mounts. You may have a character who simply does not get along with their horse, which nips at him, rears up, kicks out, and runs off.
A few words to help you describe your mounts
The world of horses is a detailed one, and taking advantage of those details will, as George R.R. Martin has proven, make your stories even more immersive. Here’s a few words to describe the colourations and breeds of your fantasy mounts:
Bay: a horse ranging in colour from light-reddish brown to dark brown with black points, these points being the mane, tail and lower legs.
Chestnut: similar colour to the bay, though lacking any black points.
Buckskin: a lighter colour of the bay horse, though maintaining the black points.
Pinto: multi-coloured with patches of brown, white and/or black. The black and white variation is known as a piebald, a breed which featured in A Song of Ice and Fire—.Pod’s old piebald rounsey.
These are but a few; there’s tons more for you to discover.
[Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from the author.]