Hello Fox Friends!
What a decade 2021 has already been...😬 But hey, you, YES YOU, are doing great. You're hydrating, you're taking breaks, and you're here, reading this fantastic blog--so you are gonna be just fine. (also, you should probably eat a cookie? maybe a slice of cake?)
My CPs know that if they include horses in their manuscript, I will probably send them back a ten page essay on the *ONE* line they have about horses. Which, while I'm aware it's delightfully obnoxious, I still can't help myself. So I'm trying to channel all that horse energy into something more useful, which brings me to:
Welcome to my *jazz hands* NEW series where I'm going to break down various horse related topics that writers might encounter in hopes of helping you navigate writing them accurately. I'm calling it Pony 101 and have a huge list of topics. I'm so excited to share with other writers and provide an easily accessible resource for basic horse-related things.
And look, I get it, equine accuracy is low in rank when it comes to writing, but this is an area that always hits me hard when I read or watch horse adjacent scenes my overall reaction is just:
My qualifications include: B.S. in Equine Management from Wilson College, 4-H National Competitor in Horse Bowl (think Jeopardy for horses), Hippology (think the most intense lab practical ever--if you're a pony clubber, I could have handily passed my H-A knowledge test). I've trained with Olympic level instructors, competed at FEI level (CPED***) dressage, competed through Novice eventing, have experience riding: Western, Gymkhana, Saddleseat, Hunters, Eventing, Dressage, Single Cart Driving. I've owned horses since I was twelve (this is my first full year being horseless). I have taught lessons, trained, schooled, cleaned at least 10 tons of poop out of stalls, hauled horses from coast to coast, co-managed a 70 horse facility, groomed, and gone into deep financial debt in pursuit of my *hobby* (and that, folx, is the true level of my expertise--the amount of debt I've gone into). I present pictorial evidence of my horse-addiction going all the way back to my très unfashionable western days of the early 90s...
Oh, the memories. But back on topic! Today I wanted to focus on travel and movement because this seems to be the most common place I see writers get it wrong. So settle in, grab some carrot sticks and apples (to get yourself in the horsey mood) and let's tally-ho.
First off, most horses have four distinct gaits: walk, trot, canter, gallop. I'm going to break down each one as simply as possible.
Walk: the walk is a four beat gait in which there are always at least 3 feet on the ground. This one is pretty self-explanatory so I'm not going to post a video. This is the easiest gait to ride for newbies because it's S L O W and generally is not difficult to follow the motion on. The likelihood of falling off at the walk are slim barring any type of sudden unexpected movement. The walk averages 4-5mph, which is not much faster than a human (using the 20 min mile average).
Trot: (aka: jog) The trot is a two beat gait where the horse's legs move in diagonal pairs. Trotting ups your speed to about 8 mph and is a speed that is generally sustainable for long distances--miles and miles and miles. The two beat rhythm creates a lot of motion through the horse's back and in turn, causes the rider to have to do a lot more walk to both stay on & be comfortable. The easiest solution is to post the trot this is an up down motion by the rider (almost like standing up and sitting back down). Sitting the trot takes a lot more skill & you need a horse with a smooth trot (for example, my thoroughbred had a trot with a lot of movement and he was the worst to sit, but my paint horse was smoother than a greased pig and I could sit his trot for hours with no effort). Behold this amazing video of me and my thoroughbred (Luck Dragon, aka: Bastian) trotting during a dressage test in our wee-baby dressage days:
I'm not going to get into the riding aspect--that's a deep dive for another day, but here are the bare minimum you need to know, posting is KILLER on the thighs & abs--you have to be super fit to post for any length of time. Secondly, riding double and posting is like A REALLY BAD IDEA. So please don't make your sexy-smexy couple who are fleeing on horseback & riding double go at a trot. I am cringing on behalf of every horses' spine right now.
Canter: (aka: the lope)The canter is a three beat gait and has a range of speeds from 10-17 mph. You can cover ground more quickly, but you will be tiring your horse faster too. Cantering long distances is not very sustainable (so every time the hero runs his horse *all day* to get where he's going, I die a lot on the inside--more about this later (the running all day, not the dying inside)). For the rider, the canter tends to be quite easy to sit once you're comfortable with the uptick in speed. Here's a video of Bastian and I cantering with bonus! jumps! (which be addressed in a future blog!)
Gallop: Have you ever watched a horse race? The Kentucky Derby? That's galloping. It's a faster version of the canter AND the beats change. The canter is a three beat gait, the gallop is four, meaning that while this 1,500 lb animal is catapulting itself through the atmosphere, there is only one hoof on the ground at any given time. That's one hoof supporting 1,500 lbs of horse & rider and traveling at speeds of 24-30 mph. If that doesn't make you realize that horses are magical gifts from the universe than I don't know what will. Similar to the canter, the gallop is incredibly easy to ride once you adjust to the speed. There are however, several things to note about galloping:
It's not sustainable over long distances. The Kentucky Derby is 2 1/2 miles and is one of the longer sanctioned races in the world. Those horses are EXHAUSTED after that race and they were probably only galloping at top speed for half of it, at most. Seriously, google a horse race on youtube and watch it, then watch it again and keep your eye on the winner--in most cases, they settle in the middle of the pack or towards the back and save that final burst of speed for the end.
So, if you're galloping your horses, it's not going to last more than 3-4 minutes (Kentucky Derby horses clock that 2 1/2 miles in 2-3 minutes and they are the TOP of the food chain in equine athletes. So yes, it's super cool and exciting to have your heroine fleeing for her life, but keep in mind that you have a super short ticking clock attached to that speed. Your horse can run at 25mph, but they cannot maintain that speed for an hour.
(CW: animal death) My best example of this is in True Grit. In the book and in the most recent film version, at the end, Rooster Cogburn has to get an injured person to a doctor. He literally rides the horse until it collapses and dies because he pushes it so hard. And while it makes me sad, I love the accuracy of it. It doesn't gloss over the fact that horses aren't tireless.
Here are some random fun facts regarding horses, gaits, and movement.
There are more than the four gaits I mentioned above! *gasp* These are all gaits that associated with one specific breed. Standardbreds can pace, Icelandic horses tolt, Saddlebreds rack, and Paso Finos preform all the Paso gaits. This isn't an exhaustive list, but I include this because this is my pro tip for non horse people trying to write a character who has to ride a horse for the first time with no prior experience and have them *not* die or fall off--put them on a gaited horse. All of the gaits I've mentioned above are incredibly smooth and cause very little rider movement and that takes away the awkwardness of having a rider try to navigate the trot, which is DIFFICULT for those not in the know or with out the proper core muscles.
At a canter, a horse covers approximately 12' with every stride. At the gallop this jumps up to around 20' with Man O' War holding the record for one of the longest strides ever--28'. (Seriously, check out that link, Man O' War is a god among horses for a reason)
Many of these gaits can be performed with sideways motion, or, in some cases, with little to no forward motion--it's all based in how thoroughly the horse is trained.
Each of the basic gaits can be performed in a dozen variations. Each of them can be working, collected or extended to different degrees. This is where riding starts to become art and so I give you these youtube videos to check out of two horses with phenomenal movement. These are upper level dressage horses who have spend YEARS training to get to this point. This takes dedication and purpose. First up is a video of Charlotte Dujardin & Valegro (stick around for the one-tempis, they are one of the most amazing things that upper level horses can do)
Second is Totilas and Edward Gal. Totilas is a god amongst dressage horses--this is what every dressage rider would kill for. Valegro is amazing, but Totilas just blows him away
Are you crying? It's okay if you are--this is artistry and I honestly cannot watch either of these videos without crying because of how elegant and amazing these two horses are. Also, did you quiz yourself? were you able to identify the walk, trot, and canter? Excellent! Well done! Gold Star for you. Now back to our fun list.
Every horse's gaits are different and one might have an elegant, smooth, ground covering walk while another might have a choppy, discombobulated mess that makes you seasick. For our purposes I am sticking to generalities. If you want in-depth analysis, hit me up with questions. I will talk horses until the cows come home.
Horses have excellent night vision! So if it's late at night and your heroine needs to escape, it is totally plausible that she might allow her horse to have more control in choosing their path. Horses are prey animals--seeing well at night is survival for them.
Horses can swim! They are generally great swimmers and some absolutely love it. It is exhausting for horses (you try moving 1,500 lbs through the water) so don't do long distances, but crossing a deep river is totally feasible!
How does this all tie into writing about horses? I have a list of questions you can ask yourself when you're in the revision stage to make sure you're keeping it realistic (although, to be fair, the bulk of your readers are not going to side-eye your twisting of horse-related content with the same intensity that I will)
How much distance will my characters need to cover on horseback? Figure this out and check out the speeds mentioned above. Remember that the trot is the most sustainable gait for long distances and even then, you're going to have to plan in breaks for the horse to walk and recover at different points.
What is the terrain? Terrain affects all of this! Flat level ground with great footing makes everything easier, hills, mountains, bogs (remember Artax in The Never Ending Story? 😭) make it harder. The more difficult the terrain, the more it will hamper the amount of ground being covered.
How much time do they have? Do they have time to get fresh horses somewhere on the way or to stop and let the horses recover? Or do they need to travel 100 miles in 24 hours? (Which, IS POSSIBLE by horseback--but is not for the faint of heart. There is a competition called the Tevis Cup that takes place every year for endurance riders and it is through rough terrain. They have 24 hours to travel 100 miles. They train METICULOUSLY for this. If your horse and rider are not fit enough, they're going to end up like the horse in True Grit.)
How much weight is the horse carrying? Rider weight? Saddle bags full of books? Armor? Weaponry? Two people? (I have so many thoughts about riding double in stories, but will save those for another blog post) The more weight, the quicker they are going to get tired.
How fit is the horse? I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who ever thinks this when I read a book or watch a movie. But I constantly see people jumping onto their horses and spurring them into a gallop from what was probably a very nice horse nap where they were dreaming about carrots and green pastures. My reaction: They didn't do a proper warm-up and therefore the chance of injury has just increased exponentially. Along the same vein, consider what this horses job is before your heroine gets to it. Was it a plow horse? It's not going to have a lot of endurance. Was it a military horse? Then it's probably fit enough.
I've rambled on quite a bit, so I'm going to bow out now. Remember these are just the basics of horse movement and travel--there are a lot of adjacent factors to these things (breed, rider, training, injury, etc.) that I will cover in future blog posts. If you have any questions, please feel free to hit me up on Twitter (@KatjaBookDragon). I am always here to talk ponies.
Horse Gaits, Balance, and Movement by Susan Harris. This is a fantastic book that really breaks down the mechanics of each gait