Thursday, February 14, 2013

More Horse Lore by James J. Griffin

 I’m going to call this entry the Blizzard Blog, since I’m writing it just after one of the biggest snowstorms to ever hit New England. We now have officially over 40 inches of snow!  Got my pickup out, but the car’s still buried. At least I can get out of the condo now! This morning an eight foot drift blocked the front door, and since the back deck is 20 feet above the ground (I live on a hillside) it’s a long way down, even with three and a half feet of snow to break your fall.

Thought I’d continue last week’s discussion of horses for a bit, toss in a few funny mistakes I’ve seen, then next time get into the Texas Rangers.

I’ll start off by mentioning this year’s Budweiser Super Bowl Clydesdale commercial. I don’t have television, only use my TVs to watch DVDS, but I’ve watched the commercial over and over on the web. It sure captures the special bond between human and horse. Still get teary-eyed when I watch it.

Now, a few errors and misconceptions I’ve seen or read over the years.

First one was in a western paperback, where the sheriff, telling the posse they have to catch the outlaw before he reaches the mountains, says, “He’s on a palomino. Palominos can run real fast and climb all day.” Of course, a palomino is just a golden colored horse, no faster or slower, or with more stamina, than any other.

Another author described his character’s horse as having “dinner-plate sized hooves” so he could run through the desert sands with no problems. All you need do is imagine a riding horse with hooves that size and you know he’d be tripping all over his own feet. In fact, the quintessential desert horse, the Arabian, has small hooves.

A. Leslie Scott, who created the character Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield for the long-running Texas Rangers Magazine, either didn’t know much about horses or deliberately described them incorrectly. He called Jim’s loyal mount, Goldy, a “golden sorrel”. He’s the only person I’ve ever known to call a horse a “golden sorrel”. There is no such thing. A “golden sorrel” would in fact be a palomino. Why Scott didn’t call Goldy a palomino I have no idea. A sorrel is a variation of a chestnut horse, a coppery, almost fiery red color. A sorrel brushed and groomed will shine like a newly minted copper penny.

Scott also often described Goldy as having a black mane and tail. That’s genetically impossible for a palomino. In addition, he would state that Goldy was eighteen hands high. Eighteen hands is a huge horse, even by today’s standards. Back in the frontier West days, when most horses barely reached fourteen hands, an eighteen hand high horse would have been a giant.

(For those who don’t know, a “hand” is four inches, the average span of a human hand. And a horse’s height is measured from the ground to the top of his withers, the point at the base of the neck. So a fifteen hand horse is 60 inches or five feet tall at the withers.)

Also once read a story where the author, who yes was from Great Britain, described a BLUE cardinal flitting across the trail. Okaaayyy.

Another British pulp writer used to tell the story on himself that in one of his first westerns he described “coyotes circling in the sky.” Now that’s a scary thought, flying coyotes.

Back to horses. Most of us have seen a “croupier mount” in a Western movie, where a cowboy runs up to a horse’s back end, plants his hands on the horse’s rump, and vaults over said rump and into the saddle. I highly doubt any real cowboy ever did that, except maybe when drunk and trying to show off. Trying to mount a horse who isn’t expecting such a move is a surefire way to get a pair of hooves planted squarely in a cowboy’s gut, or even more painfully in his you-know-what’s. Dumb idea. Same way that mount where a cowboy gets his horse running first, grabs the saddle horn, and bounds into the saddle in a running mount. Wrong. Just like in a gunfight, better to take the extra second to be accurate. Mount normally but quickly, so there’s no surprises, and you’re more likely to settle into the saddle and be on your way with no problems.

Another misconception is that horses can only be mounted from the left. Most horses can be mounted and dismounted from either side, although mounting from the left is the usual method, and just seems more natural. One possible explanation for mounting from the left is that since a cavalry soldier wore his saber on the left, mounting from the left kept the saber out of the way.

As long as we’re talking about movie horses, I’ll mention Yakima Canutt, who was a working cowboy who became an actor in innumerable early Westerns, then went on to become one of the most famous stuntmen in Hollywood, especially in Westerns.

I have mixed feelings about Mr. Canutt. He did some spectacular stunt work, including the chariot race in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, in which the horses were so carefully trained none of them were injured. However, on the other hand, he was instrumental in the development of the running W. This was a wire device attached to the front ankles of horses, who would then be forced into a run until they reached the end of the wire, at which point their front feet would be yanked out from under them, leading to a spectacular but usually crippling or fatal fall. Literally thousands of horses were killed by the running W, until 1936. In that year, so many horses were killed in the making of The Charge of the Light Brigade that public uproar led to the banning of the running W. Even then, it took years for Hollywood to accept the watchful eye of the ASPCA to assure fair treatment for animals in films, and even today some filmmakers try to avoid the ASPCA supervision.

Since I mentioned Appaloosas last time, I’ll talk a bit about them to finish up this week’s chapter. I will admit Appys are not one of my favorite breeds, just like some folks don’t like Paints. To each their own, as they say. Most of the Appys I’ve known have been beautiful, but not the smartest horse in the barn, to say the least.

Appaloosas were, in North America, developed by the Nez Perce Indians, although images of horses with appaloosa-type spotting go back to prehistoric Mongolia. Originally the whites called them palouse horses, probably after the Palouse River. When the Nez Perce were defeated in the Nez Perce War of 1877, they lost most of their horses, and over the next several years the Appaloosa nearly became extinct.

There are three main types of Appaloosas. The first is the leopard, which looks just as the name implies, a white or very light horse with spots over all or most of its body. The second, and most common, is the blanket Appaloosa, which is a horse with a white blanket over its rump, usually with spots throughout the blanket. Third is the snowflake, a dark horse with white spots.

Appys have two common characteristics. One is a very skimpy, thin tail, usually short. This is where the term “rat-tailed palouse” comes from. The other is vertically striped hooves. Most other breeds have solid-colored hooves. Since both the American Paint and Pinto Horse Associations are dead set against crossing Paints and Pintos with Appaloosas (and the same goes for Appaloosa Horse about crossing Appys with Paints or Pintos), a striped hoof almost always immediately disqualifies a horse from being registered with APHA or PtHA.

Time to say adios for now. Next time, I’ll talk Texas Rangers.


  1. WOW. Jim, I learn something every time I read one of your posts. This is fascinating. Not having been raised around horses, I don't know a whole lot about them--but your posts are sure enlightening and very interesting.

  2. James don't forget the light-colored sorrels, sometimes called "blond sorrels," with flaxen manes and tails, resembling a palomino and were often called California Sorrels.
    Ken Farmer

  3. Ahh, those Californians, always so trendy. I have to admit I'd never heard of those. Love the way we all learn from each other. BTW, Paint and Pinto also try to discourage palomino or gray paints/pintos. The reason is those colors can be so light, especially when a horse is wearing its summer coat, it can be hard to tell it's spotted. Nonetheless, there are a lot of gorgeous spotted horses with those base colors... and my first horse was a palomino Pinto.

    Jim Griffin

  4. Cheryl,

    I've been around horses for years and still don't know everything there is to know about them. Also, if anyone lives near or is visiting near one of the Budweiser Clydesdale stables, stop in. If you time it right one weekend day a month you can get your picture taken up close and personal with a Clydesdale. (Closest one to me, Merrimack, NH, is the 2nd Saturday of the month). I don't drink, but the tour is fascinating. The stables in Merrimack are set up like a Bavarian village, the drivers and stablekeepers live in cute4 Bavarian style cottages right on the grounds, and the stables are unreal. Spotless, with someone standing by to catch manure almost literally before it hits the floor. Air conditioned, heated, and everything highly polished. We should have it so good. If only realized when I was young what a job I could have tried for....

    Jim Griffin

  5. NIce post, JIm.
    I could almost give Scott the 'golden sorrel' description. But the black mane and tail are deal breakers. I'd be more likely to call a gold horse with black points a dun or a buckskin, depending. And, I can't imagine climbing up and down off an 18 hand horse all day--not to mention what riding a big horse like that would do to your knees...
    Hope your horses are doing well post blizzard.

  6. Mark,

    Yep, imagine riding a Clydesdale all day long. Talk about bow-legged. Actually, it'd be almost impossible to get your legs around a Clydesdale's barrel.

    Yankee's doing fine, hard to keep him inside no matter what the weather. Trooper, Gina's horse, is too. Only guy having a problem is Merlin the Mini. Gina had to dig him some in the corral so he could just get out of the barn, so he can't get around the whole corral like the big guys. I have a new neighbor who I just met during the storm. He said he has a friend who owns mini-donkeys, and the friend had to literally carry the poor things in and outside. We've lost a lot of the snow, but are still pretty much buried, and it's way too deep to ride now it's getting hard and crusty. Did get in a ride during our day after Christmas 12 inch snowfall. Love riding in the snow.

    Jim Griffin

  7. Um, yes, the croupier mount. We used to try that all the time. Sometimes our horses would cooperate, sometimes not. Both the horses and my dad thought it was a pretty stupid thing to do. Same with jumping on a horse from the rooftop.

    Appies are great. They're pretty smart, too, just in a different way. If you want a flatland horse, you might not want to put up with a horse who has a mind of his own. But if you're riding in rugged country, an Appie will keep you safe long as you don't think you're smarter than he is. They have great mountain instincts, can smell a cougar a half a mile off, and are surefooted.

    I've never had an Appie but wished I did. My sister-in-law has one and he thinks he's a person. He plays practical jokes on my SIL, too, such as hiding brushes and what not when he knows she's looking for them. Quite a character.

  8. Oh, Jim! You mean Rex was stupid for jumping over the horse's rump in Rustler's Rhapsody?? LOL I believe the horse with a hoof the size of a dinner plate might be a Clydesdale, and I'd sure hate to get stepped on one. What's your take on the movie Hidalgo? Wasn't that an Appie? or was it a paint... now I can't remember. More myths, of course. :-D Great post!

  9. What an interesting post" I've ridden since a child, and have a Welsh Cob and a Paint x Quarterhorse. I changed from English to Western riding many years ago and love it. I also love Westerns and have written the odd one or two, and hopefully haven't made any too great howlers. Things like knowing a palomino is a colour not a breed, and hopefully getting the items of tack right are easily checked with a bit of research online these days, even for someone without personal experience or knowledge of horses.

    One thing that always annoys me both in English historicals and Western historicals, is that the hero or heroine invariably rides a stallion. I've ridden some lovely stallions myself, but they're not always the easiest of horses to handle, especially in company and I doubt your average cowboy or rancher's daughter would use them for every day ranchwork - or am I making a false assumption here?

    There's always something to learn about horses and mine teach me something new almost every day!

    I envy you being able to ride in the snow on Christmas day, I used to love doing that when I lived in Wales, although since I moved to England after my marriage, I haven't had the opportunity (or the snow.) Can't imagine having snow that deep though. Here in the UK people moan if we get three inches!

    Hope you and your horses are still doing ok and managing to keep warm.

  10. I love this post, mostly because I hate reading books where the author uses horses heavily but clearly didn't bother taking the time to do any research. The only thing more irritating is covers that show beautiful horses and perfectly groomed girls without a trace of horse spit or manure on their clothing.

    The only exception I take to your post was your comment about dinner plate hooves and clutzy. My jumper has hooves that large and, so far, has never tripped. In fact, the stable where I ride breeds warmbloods and shoot for feet that large. We also like a nice heavy bone.

    For the the commentors who thought riding drafts would be uncomfortable, I beg to disagree. I know several who are quite nice to ride, in fact, I find them easier than the narrow horses and I'm quite slim. They're also a smoother ride than nearly all of the Quarter Horses and other Western breeds I've ridden. The only horse that aggravated my body was a smallish Friesan.