Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ranger Jim’s Ramblings for July

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.

First thing I’d like to mention is swimming horses. Yes, once they get used to it, most horses love to swim. I’ve got a couple pictures of Yankee in the pond which show only his ears, eyes, and nostrils. Which brings me to my point. I once read (I kid you not) a passage in a Western novel where a cowboy chose a horse because it “swam high in the water”, so he (the cowboy) could “stay mostly dry”. One of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read. All you have to do is look at a horse to realize “swimming high” is anatomically impossible. When a horse is in water over his head and swimming, most of his body is naturally going to be underwater. You’ll see his head, part of the neck, maybe just the top of the rump, and the tail will be floating.  Which is a good way to have your character save his life if he’s drowning, by the way. Just have him latch onto the horse’s tail and be pulled to safety. Also, when a horse in water reaches solid footing, he usually lunges out of the water. That’s because his front feet hit the bottom before his hinds. So anyone sitting on a swimming horse better hold on tight when they near shore. And be ready to be shaken when the horse decides its time to shake himself off.

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.



  1. Florida equates to Hades, does it? Yet you are the one complaining about being hot, sticky and buggy while I sit in the shade of an oak tree, perfectly comfortable with a cool beverage on a beautiful non-sticky day. Go figure!

  2. Jim, this is a great blog post. For those of us who have never been around horses much (I know that's weird coming from a native Oklahoman!)it's very useful information. I am really enjoying these posts of yours. BTW, I just got back from a week in West Virginia...I thought THAT was Hades--so muggy and steamy like a rainforest. Give me this dry Oklahoma heat any day of the week.

  3. Sorry, Frank, but my sisters and their families live in Florida, and they (and you) can have it. Last time I was down there for the holidays we spent Christmas Day glued to the television watching the weather radar and tornado warnings. And up here the humidity, bugs and heat will go away in a week or two at the most. Florida's too flat (although my one sister and her husband live in Florida's so-called "Hill Country", a few bumps in the land), too buggy, and too hot... and I don't want to live where the reptiles are large enough to eat my horse! That said, I know Florida is heaven to a lot of folks, who would consider MY neck of the woods, with our nor'easters and blizzards, Hades.

    Jim Griffin

  4. Thanks, Cheryl.

    And weather is funny. People ask me why I want to stay in New Hampshire permanently once I retire, since it's so much colder up there. But, like your heat in Oklahoma, it's a dry cold, as opposed to the damp cold we get off the Sound in Connecticut, so it doesn't feel as bad.

    I remember when I was living in San Diego we had a hot spell, and the weatherman was saying the excessive humidity was making the heat feel so much worse. The "excessive" humidity to them was 20%! Everything's relative.

    As far as true heat and humidity, it's a tossup for me between Houston and New Orleans. Spent time in both those cities in the summer, and the weather was unbearable. All you had to do was step outside and you were as soaked as if you had just come out of the shower.

    Jim Griffin

  5. As usual, lots of good information. Thanks for the horse-tips!

  6. Good point about the swimming. My horses all liked wading but only one was a willing swimmer. And it's downright amazing how much water sticks to their hair, isn't it? I had one horse that would shake, then roll in the dirt. Hence, Mudpie. I'm gonna use her in a book one of these days.