Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fiction and Horses

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.

Cheers—Laura Crum


A.K. Alexander said...

Even the youngest equestrians have a hard time reading stories taht don't stay true to the animals themselves. My daughter who is 8 put a book down recently that is all about horses and a horse academy, etc. I asked her why she wasn't reading it an she told me that the horses would not act the way the writer had written them. Hmmm...

I know I've taken some liberties when writing the Michaela Bancroft series, but I have worked hard to keep it true to the horse. Like you, Laura, I borrow from experiences I've had. I did make a HUGE mistake in Death Reins In (trust me, readers have let me know), and it was just one of those things because I did know better. I wrote that Barbara fractured his leg at Belmomt when it was the Preakness! I even watch that race, so how that got past me, I don't know. Writers are human, but I think when you write about horses that you really should have a decent knowledge of them.

Have a great day!

A.K. Alexander said...

Please excuse my bad spelling for the day on previous posts! See, writers make tons of mistakes. LOL.

Tina said...

Not a writer - but the Disney movie Spirit the horses lap at water with their tongue like a dog - it completely killed that movie for me.

Anonymous said...

Great post. As someone who recently rode a horse who couldn't stop grazing while I was on the trail I can attest to the fact that it was not "heaven" for me, (or probably the horse who was getting whip lash from the reins.)

As for the ending, why not just have the horse pick up a shotgun and blast the intruders? funny stuff.

Laura Crum said...

My son's horse, Henry, must have been allowed to graze under saddle by a previous owner, because the horse tried to do this all the time on the trail when we got him. One of my son's great triumphs as a young rider has been mastering the determination necessary to jerk the reins, thump with his heels, and whack with his stick firmly enough to prevent Henry from grabbing at grass (and trees and whatever else he can reach). I am really proud and impressed that at this point my kid needs no help or instruction and can keep Henry in line all by himself. But it wasn't easy, and it is this good horse's most annoying habit. What a shame that someone created the problem to start with. As Charlie Horse says, horses who do this are certainly not "heaven" for the rider, and it was just a tad disconcerting to hear the author of the mystery I read describing this behavior as a positive thing.

I guess I'm sort of like Michele's daughter. I couldn't get into the story in quite the same way after the author lost her credibility with me on the horse issue. A simple mistake, such as mixing up the Preakness and Belmont, I can understand, but creating fictional horses that behave as no real horses ever would was off putting to me.

Kitty said...

A while back, someone gave me a book telling me "I know this isn't the kind of thing you read, but it's about horses." The protagonist was a woman who had been a show jumper, but had been retired, as had her horse, for several years. She decides to get back into the show jumping scene, goes and gets her retired and doubtlessly out-of-shape horse, and proceeds to begin practicing for a Grand Prix. Eight hours a day. Yes, you read that right. Eight hours of riding and jumping, each and every day.

I wanted to throw it across the room, but it was a loaner, so I restrained myself.

Mary Paine said...

I read a novel once by a #1 New York Times bestselling romance author. It was an enjoyable novella until I got to the part where the hero rides up on an powerful stallion. Okay, it's been done but it's workable. Until I read the next line. She described the horse's coal black color, etc and then told the reader our tall hero's stallion was 15 hands. Oops! Talk about being pulled out of the story (and in chapter 1 yet)!

Gayle Carline said...

Point of Origin did it for me. Yes, I'm naming names. Cornwell kind of got some things correct in describing the horses in the book, altho the scene with the farrier talks about the smell of metal and manure, which isn't my experience - I don't smell metal when Monte shoes our horses, but I do smell that burnt-hair scent of the hoof being heated. But when she talks about her detective moving carefully behind a horse that was "at least 14 hands high" I wanted to throw the book (or maybe her) across the room.

There are certain times when you may need to consult an expert...


Laura Crum said...

Gayle--I love that "at least 14 hands high." Too funny.

Laura Crum said...

And Mary and Kitty-- I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets turned off a book when the horse details are wrong. I wondered if I was being an unreasonable "horse snob."

HorsesAndTurbos said...

I am so gun-shy of bad horse writing I tend to avoid all that is in this universe - sorry, writers! :P But I must say I am going to read some of your books when I get a chance.

I am a die-hard Science Fiction/Fantasy fan. One of my favorite writers is Mercedes Lackey - the Valdamar Universe is wonderful..and when you escape there, you don't expect horses to act like horses!

So if you want to just have fun, I'd recommend trying one of her books. You can pick up anywhere, but you'll probably do what I did and go back to the start of the series. I only got through the Mage Wars...sigh. Need to find time to read the rest!


OldMorgans said...

I second the nod to Mercedes Lackey's books.
Piers Anthony gets horses right also, even when they are not quite horses.
A poorly done horse thing in a book will stop me dead. I then lose all respect for that author.
Same for movies--I hate how horses are usually done in movies. And the way the horses were done in the movie of Robert Parker's Resolution was just one of the outstanding points of the movie. The makers of that movie really researched everything to produce a true quality movie.