by Laura Crum
Those of you who read my mysteries already know that I use my real horses as characters in the stories. I change them some, and I give them different backgrounds or problems, or whatever I need to further my plot line, but their appearance and behavior is much as they really are. This helps me to create believable equine personalities, rather than generic made-up horses. In my latest book, “Going, Gone”, Sunny, my somewhat cross-grained but abosutely reliable little palomino trail horse, has a starring role. At a certain point in the story, my protagonist is chased through the hills by the villain—your classic horseback chase scene. Gail, our heroine, is riding Sunny, with only a halter on his head. Our villain, who shall remain nameless (so I don’t spoil the book for you) is chasing her with pistol in hand, riding a horse he has leaped on bareback with a halter. OK, OK, I know, its not a terribly believable concept, but the book has got to be at least somewhat exciting. Oh, and lets not forget, this all takes place in the middle of a blowing storm.
Now I have never been chased through the hills by a villain on horseback. I have, however, ridden the terrain that this chase scene traverses many times—though the fastest I ever went was a high lope (on a sunny day with no one in pursuit). So here’s my idea for today. I’m going to give you a brief excerpt from my chase scene and I want your feedback on how believable it sounds. As fellow horse people, feel free to tell me what I got right and what I got wrong. Don’t hold back. Some of you have done a lot more exciting things on horseback than I have. Here we go:
"Staying on was the problem. Plunging downhill at the gallop, I was slung from one side of the horse to the other like a rag doll despite my grip on the horn. I made an effort to check Sunny with the leadrope, desperate to stay aboard, and felt him slow a bit. I pulled myself upright and risked a glance backward up the drive.
Nothing but trees tossing in the wind. I blinked. Still nothing. If he’d run after me, he would be in sight by now.
I slowed Sunny to a long trot, fast enough to keep moving down the hill briskly, but a lot easier to stay with. I did not want to fall off. He had to be coming after me. He’d incriminated himself too thoroughly. But I still didn’t see him.
I was almost at the bottom of the drive. I could see Tucker Pond ahead, brown and ruffled, its reeds waving wildly. Sunny pulled hard against the leadrope, wanting to go home. Rain and wind spit at us. We were on level ground. Dropping my hand, I gave the horse slack and let him go.
In one stride we were galloping. I could hear the echoing thuds of Sunny’s hoofbeats as he thundered along the trail by the pond. His ponderous, rolling gait smoothed out as he drove harder and we started up the hill.
Sunny grunted with effort, the wind whipped my face, the ground pounded beneath me, the trees tossed and moaned above and the storm howled. Everything seemed to be whirling around in a noisy inferno, punctuated with cold and wet. I couldn’t see much. All I could hear was cacophony.
A sudden eerie white light flared; a moment later the sky boomed. Part of my mind noted that this was thunder and not gunfire. I hung on and let the horse go.
He galloped on up the hill, his breath coming harder now. A few more driving strides and we were nearing the top of the climb. I could feel Sunny easing up and used the leadrope to slow him as we dove into the tangled shrubbery, still following the trail.
Branches slapped me; I ducked low over the horse’s neck. Sunny stumbled suddenly, throwing me forward. I grabbed the horn in time to avoid being flung off his back. Pulling on the lead rope, I slowed him to a trot.
“Easy,” I said. “Let’s get home in one piece.”
Sunny was tired. He checked down easily and trotted through the brush, breathing out long rolling snorts as he went. We passed the ruins of the Richardson house, half blotted out by vines and mist. I pulled Sunny up at the black skeleton of the swingset and could feel his flanks heaving.
“Easy,” I said again. “Grab some air. We’ve got a ways to go.”
I looked back at the trail behind us. Sunny stared, too. The oak trees tossed above the green leaved vinca. Strange wraiths of mist twisted between the redwoods across the valley. Raindrops swirled around me in gusts. Sunny’s ears went sharply forward and his head came up. And then he neighed.
For a second I didn’t understand. And then I saw. Charging through the brush, coming toward us, a horse and rider. Galloping. A dark horse with a dark clad rider.
Oh shit. He’d mounted one of the horses in the corral. He was coming after me.
I tugged on the leadrope and thumped Sunny’s ribs with my legs. But the horse danced in place, his eyes on the oncoming horseman. Using the leadrope, I whipped his sides, and he leapt forward in a sudden lunge. I ducked forward over his neck and heard the sharp crack of the pistol above the storm.
Come on, come on. He was right behind me.
I didn’t look back, just rode for all I was worth. We were charging up the hill between the oak trees, headed for the ridgeline. Sunny was running as hard as he could, excited by the shots and the galloping horse behind him, but he wasn’t a particularly fast horse. I hoped the dark horse wasn’t either.
Trees swept by, raindrops beat against my face. I could feel Sunny digging hard, grunting as he drove forward up the slope. I wasn’t hearing any more shots. Nor could I hear following hoofbeats on my trail.
I risked a glance backward as we topped the ridge. He was still coming, but we’d pulled away. He was bareback with a halter; I had the advantage. I spun Sunny and headed down the hill at the long trot.
I absolutely had to stay on. If he caught me, he’d shoot me. He was chasing me against the odds because if I got away I’d ruin him. I just had to stay out front, not fall off, and make it home. I knew exactly how hard it would be for him to hit me with a pistol from the back of a moving horse. Especially with him riding bareback, especially if I were moving, too. The odds were in my favor. Unless I fell off.
As if on cue, Sunny stumbled again, and I lurched forward over his shoulder, saving myself at the last second with a grab for the horn. My heart seemed to bounce up my throat into my mouth, and I gasped for air, checking the horse with the leadrope as I pulled myself upright. My God.
I could hear crashing on the slope above me and kicked Sunny forward. I couldn’t stop. He’d catch me. But I couldn’t fall off either."
OK—I can’t really give you more than that without giving the villain and the plot away. But I’d welcome any input you have to offer on writing horseback chase scenes. I’ve included such a scene in most of my books, and I always try to keep them believable. So, how did I do?