A familiar trope often found in fantasy stories is the riding of horses as part of a journey or quest. These days the genre is diverse enough that the presence of horses is not inevitable, but many writers (including me) still find this method of transport — and the idea of journeying across the imagined landscape — sufficiently romantic and inspiring to fully embrace good old traditional horseback riding as a key element of their stories.
In my case, on beginning my latest project I found myself with a main character whose family breeds and trains horses, and who spends a deal of time (in the early part of the novel) on horseback.
This raises the question of how much a writer needs to know about the world of horse. When your characters merely use horses to get from A to B, it might be possible to gloss over the detail, to simply rely on the limited knowledge gained from a few trailrides over the years and what you read in books. But if your character is a horse expert, even if only in a peripheral sense, it behoves you to find out a little more about the topic.
I am lucky in that I have a good friend with a farm and seven ‘horses’ (I use the term loosely for three are ponies). So I recently joined her for the day and got her to tell me everything she knows (well, almost) on a range of horse-related topics. More importantly, she was able to demonstrate just about everything with a real flesh-n-blood horse (or three).
It was certainly not the first time I had been close to a horse, but I never in the past paid too much attention to how they were saddled, or groomed (or why), or what their various noises meant, or what they ate, or how big they were, or where they liked being scratched (which is different depending on the horse), or how to read their body language.
Nor did I know much about the developmental stages of a horse, and how humans work with them. My friend was able to demonstrate the different temperaments of her various horses and how they variously responded to instruction. I was fascinated to hear that horses must be relaxed in order to learn, that some horses think more than others, some are more alert and/or flighty — essentially they are all different (a bit like dogs) with quite strikingly individual personalities.
I possibly could have researched most of the information, but it would have taken me far longer to get through it and no doubt result in information overload (besides being far less fun). Also, I don’t think anything could replace actually witnessing the individuality of the horses, touching their coats, looking into their eyes. Immersion research is the best!