Since it was too doggone hot and humid, and with enough mosquitoes and deer flies attacking to lift Yankee off the ground and carry him off, I quit riding early today. It’s so sticky and buggy up here in New England right now it’s almost as bad as living in Hades… or Florida, which is pretty much the same thing.
So, since I had to get inside once Yank was settled in the barn with his buddies, out of the sun and away from most of the insects, I figured I might as well do some scattershooting around the world of horses this month. I’m going to toss out a few tidbits which will help make writing about horses a bit more accurate, as well as bring the equines in your stories to life.
Second, a bit of information about horse vision. Horses’ eyes are the second largest of the land animals (no, don’t ask me which has the largest, I forget). Their eyes are set high and to the sides of their heads, so they can see almost 360 degrees. That’s the reason so many draft, carriage, and race horses wear blinders, to keep them from seeing what’s behind them. The only real blind spot a horse has is directly in front of his face. Also, because their eyes are so far apart, and the makeup of their brains, the horse sees the same object separately, and differently, from his right and left side. Therefore, a horse might walk calmly past an object on his right side, but if he’s turned and sees the same object in the same place on his left side, he may shy at it.
While not completely color-blind, horses are indeed partially color-blind. Most things appear to them in muted shades of blues and grays. Reds will look more brownish.
Third, on to the ears. A horse’s ears are probably the most expressive part of his anatomy, and the one a rider should pay the most attention to. (Unless, of course, you happen to be the target of a kick or bite-then move, fast!). Ears pricked sharply forward, especially when the neck and head are held high and the horse is looking ahead, means the horse is interested in or studying something, often out of curiosity, sometimes to see if it’s a threat or predator. One ear forward and one back means he’s listening in all directions, or listening for something ahead while at the same time listening to his rider. That position, or both ears laid slightly back, can also mean the horse is relaxed. However, both ears pinned back flat against the head means you are looking at one angry horse, who’s getting ready to fight to defend himself or a herd mate.
Fourth, the horse’s nasal passages. The horse’s brain is about the size of a grapefruit, so most of the head in front of the cheekbones and above the mouth and jawbone consists of nasal passages. A horse could actually have a hole shot through the nasal passages in the lower part of his head and survive. So you could have your character’s horse hit there and still get him away from any pursuers. However, if you want a character’s horse to get stunned and dropped, but not killed, use the method the old-time mustangers used to capture wild horses. They would aim their rifles carefully and clip the top of a horse’s neck, stunning him for a spell, long enough to rope and tie. I’m certain quite a few horses died from misplaced shots, but it was a method used, so would be valid in your story.
Fifth, a few more random observations. Most of you have probably seen the phrase “standing hip-shot” in a Western. That describes a horse who is standing on three legs, with one of the rear ones hitched up with little or no weight on it. That means two things - the horse is relaxed and content, and is resting one leg. After a while he’ll shift his weight from one rear leg to the other.
Horses can sleep standing up, due to a special function of their joints that locks the legs in place, but contrary to popular opinion they usually sleep just like us, lying down. And horses generally sleep only three to four hours a day. You will see in a herd, or even a pair of horses, that they don’t all sleep at once. At least one horse is awake and upright at almost all times, looking for danger or predators.
Unless you have a real need to do so, don’t have a stallion as a riding horse in your story. Stallions generally were, and are, far more trouble than they are worth as riding horses. Most cowboys, then and now, rode geldings or the occasional mare. Some men just didn’t like riding female horses, (wasn’t masculine enough) and like stallions, mares could sometimes be a lot of trouble. Since geldings are generally interested only in eating and sleeping, they are the best choice for general all-around riding. So keep the stallions for breeding, and the geldings for riding.
If you have an appaloosa in your story, and the story is set anywhere but the Northwest, make sure that appy attracts a lot of attention. Appaloosas were very rare outside of the Northwest US and Canada until well into the 20th century, so anyone riding one in say, Texas, was bound to be noticed. And never capitalize “appaloosa” or any other breed in your Western, since formal breed organizations, for the most part, didn’t come into being until the mid-1900s.
Ladies, of course, should always ride sidesaddle, although I admit most of the women in my novels ride astride. It would be a scandal in the frontier period for a woman to wear pants and straddle a horse. Even split riding skirts were uncommon and usually frowned upon. Better to have your female character drive a horse and buggy if you want to have her move fast but not be labeled a loose woman.
Horse treats can be carrots, apples (not too many of those, unless you want to kill your horse with colic), biscuits, doughnuts, candy, potatoes, or just about anything you can think of that’s not meat. Watermelon is a favorite treat. And at the risk of repeating myself, in case I’ve already mentioned these, two fun terms to use when describing a horse are “pie-biter” and “biscuit-eater”. These are terms which cowboys used to describe a horse which was spoiled by its rider, and which hung around camp looking for treats.
As far as horse vocalizations, a whole book can be written about those, or at least another whole blog. I’ll save that for another time.
So, when you write your Western novel or story, don’t just have your horses be props. Make them come alive, give them character and personality, have them be a friend and partner to your humans, and you’ll bring a lot more life to your stories. The bond and trust between a horse and rider is one of the most powerful on earth, probably second only to that between spouses or lovers.