By Laura Crum
Recently a friend gave me a mystery, saying that she knew it wasn’t my sort of thing, but she thought I might enjoy it, and “it has horses in it.” I read the book. I did enjoy it. It wasn’t my “sort of thing”, being one of those mysteries that has much to do with the inner workings of the police department in a big city, a subject that usually bores me. However, this author had a light touch, and was wonderful at dialogue, and I thought her book was quite entertaining. And it did, indeed, have horses in it. And there was the rub.
Because these horses, which belonged to the protagonist in the story, behaved as no real horses would ever do. The protagonist behaved as no real horse person would ever behave. The climactic scene featured a particularly unbelievable bit of horsey action. I was left rolling my eyes.
It was still an enjoyable book. But it would have been much better from a horse person’s point of view if the horses had behaved realistically. For the first two thirds of the story, the protagonist feeds them and hangs out with them and the whole thing seemed fine. She described the horses as becoming very agitated whenever a stranger drove in, which seemed unlikely but possible, and I didn’t think much about it. It was only late in the book, when she decides to go on a trail ride with two friends, one an “experienced” rider, one a complete novice, that I got the first inkling. The experienced rider decides that his horse’s wish to hurry home for dinner is a good reason to let the horse take off and go home at his own pace. We are left to imagine said horse bolting home at the out of control gallop. This horse is described as “spirited”. I don’t know about you, but when I hear someone describe a horse who is acting up as “spirited”, I immediately assume this person knows nothing about horses. So, strike one.
The protagonist is left walking home with the beginner, who is riding one of the protagonist’s horses. The horse is described as grazing and walking, alternately, “heaven for horse and rider”. Uhmmm….more like hell for a rider, actually. No horse person with much skill lets a horse graze under saddle. It’s a terribly difficult vice to break, and it will make a trail ride H E double hockey sticks for the poor rider who constantly has to tug the horse’s head back up. The protagonist in the book seems to condone this annoying behavior, rather than addressing it in some form or another (in the same situation, I’d put the horse on a pony rope and make him come along, if the beginner couldn’t control him). Strike two.
It was the climactic scene that really got to me, though. The protagonist is attacked in her home by the villian, in classic mystery form. So far, so good. But what does the protagonist decide to do? Run for the horse corrals. Well, at first it didn’t seem like a bad idea. She might be able to disappear into the dark; people who don’t know horses are frequently afraid of them. Maybe she can lose the bad guy. So, I’m completely on board so far. Protagonist runs into horse corral with bad guy pursuing her. Horses are agitated and start charging around. That’s believable. But then, horse number one attacks the bad guy, rearing up and lashing out at him with his front feet. Uhm, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t fly. Horses are prey animals. They don’t attack intruders to protect their owner.
I have seen horses “attack” someone in their pasture, but the reasons were pretty specific. Herd aggression at feeding time and not wanting to be caught being possible causes. I’ve seen a horse attack a dog that came into his corral. But never have I seen or heard of a horse attacking a human intruder in defense of his/her master. Not to mention domesticated horses rarely rear and strike at humans—a possible exception being a nasty stallion (as I wrote about in my 9th book, Moonblind).
OK, so maybe it’s a freak thing. But then, horse number two dashes up, turns its butt and kicks bad guy in the head, knocking him out cold. So now we have two attack horses. It’s a bit much.
I’ve used the device of a horse kicking a human in the head and knocking said human out. By itself, that’s believable. I’ve been kicked in the head by a horse and knocked out. I can attest to the truth of that concept. But, again, horses do these things for certain reasons. Protecting their owner from an intruder isn’t one of them.
At this point I’ve decided that the author of this book doesn’t know much about horses. Did it ruin the story for me? Not really. Just made me think the conclusion was a little silly. Readers who are not horse people will never know the difference.
But it got me thinking. I, too, have manufactured a great many climactic scenes involving horses. In books number three, five, six, seven, eight, ten and eleven of my mystery series, my heroine gallops across rough country, either being pursued by or pursuing a villain. In three of these chase scenes, she is bareback. Is this believable?
Well, kind of. I have galloped cross country popping over small jumps bareback myself, in my younger days. Gail McCarthy, the protagonist in my series, starts out in Cutter as a thirty-one year old woman who had horses in her youth, gave them up in her twenties while she is off getting an education, and has just acquired a three-year-old green broke colt. She learns to team rope in books number three and four. Its just barely believable that she could survive such bareback chase scenes. I do have her fall off in book number ten. Score one for realism.
The truth is that my horseback scenes are believable (if they are) because every single one of them is based on an experience I have had, or a friend of mine has had. Ditto for the horses. Everything that happens involving a horse (in my mystery series) is based on something that actually happened to me and my horses or to someone I know. Thus real life is the basis for all the exciting and dramatic horse scenes, which lends them a bit of credibility. When Gail gallops through a rainstorm in my forthcoming book, its based on my own experiences. And no, I haven’t galloped across country in a downpour pursued by a villain with a gun. But I have galloped flat out through the pouring rain in pursuit of another racing critter (I entered a team roping contest that didn’t get finished before a storm broke, and our final runs were completed in a drenching, blowing downpour), and I have ridden cross country through the rain many times on mountain pack trips. So I have enough experience of the reality to write the scene.
Anyway, for those of us who write fiction involving horses, the issue of making the horses believable comes up a lot. I’d love to hear about how others keep their fictional horses credible, or hear examples of books where the horses’ behavior parted company with reality and what effect that had on you as a reader.