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The Care and Feeding of Fictional Horses
by Mary K. Wilson

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A staple of fantasy novels, the horse often demands to be written into tales. As a source of transportation, recreation, or a magical being, nearly every fantasy novel has at least one horse. When they're written well horses add sparkle and life to a story. When they're written badly the writer may find his or her book thrown across the room with disgust.

It isn't important that the writer knows a lot about horses. She needs only know as much as the material demands. Fantasy, as a genre, demands much more from its authors than knowing the horse is a four-legged mammal. With horses playing such a prominent role, many knowledgeable readers will be quick to point out an author's error.

When looking to add a horse to a tale, consider what purpose it will serve. The carriage horse needs to be built, and written, differently from a riding horse, and will have a different personality than a child's pony. The war steed for a valiant knight differs considerably from a lady's palfrey, though ladies are often found riding war steeds instead. Sadly, the latter is often one of the most glaring errors I find in fiction.

Should You Super-Size That?

Horses come in two basic sizes: pony and horse. Ponies range from only a few feet high to their maximum height of 14.2 hands. A hand equals four inches, and before rulers, was considered to be the width of a man's hand. Therefore, anything over 58 inches is a horse. Horses are measured to the withers (the raised area where the neck meets the back). Although riding horses can be as tall as 17.2 hands (70 inches), generally anything taller than 17 hands needs to be ridden by a very tall (or very brave) character.

Although there are no universally accepted terms used for the build of a horse, for the purposes of this article, I will use light, medium, and heavy. A light horse (or pony) would be one of very fine bone structure and conformation. Think of the refined Shetland ponies, Arabians, and racing thoroughbreds. Medium-build horses are those of sturdy build that were meant for every-day work. The majority of carriage and riding horses fall into this category, including Morgans, Walking Horses, Warmbloods and Quarter Horses. Heavy horses are those with thick bones and structure. Mostly draft breeds, many of the warmbloods used in competition also would fall under the category of heavy breeds. All draft horses, such as the large Clydesdales (the horses that pull the Budweiser wagon), fall into this category. If you research into the history of various breeds you'll find that draft horses and light horses were crossed to create many of the medium-built horses. Modern warmbloods, for example, were developed from a cross of light Arabian horses (among others) with native draft (or war) horses.

With this knowledge in mind, the appropriate horse can be selected for its job. A peasant working in the fields of a fantasy book may choose a draft horse, which is commonly used for hard labor such as plowing and heavy hauling. The peasant may also use this same horse to pull a cart to go into town, as it is unlikely that a peasant would have more than one horse. Keep in mind, too, that horses meant money in ancient societies, so that same peasant may have had to survive with a heavy pony, or perhaps a badly put together carriage horse for the same jobs.

A knight readying himself for battle will find himself better mounted with a heavy draft horse, or a draft-cross that will bear up well beneath the weight of man and armor. Cavalry horses will also need to be heavily built; however, keep in mind that a fighter needing speed and agility will have to sacrifice armor for this, and would mount himself on an appropriate lighter-breed horse.

Gender Bending

Although the horse must be the appropriate size and build for its job, the horse also needs to be the right gender. Horses, like most domestic animals, come in three genders: male, female, and neuter. Male neuters are known as geldings. Female horses are rarely spayed; there is no female-specific term for the neuter gender.

It may seem noble to have the lady who is running the keep all on her own riding a stallion; however, keep in mind the personality of these animals. Although I once worked with a Dutch Warmblood stallion that followed me (and others) around like a kitten, I also have worked with stallions that would prefer to kick you first and ask questions later. Stallions have two things on their minds: sex and food. Since our characters do not fall into either one of those categories, it takes a rider with a strong will and even stronger arm to keep the stallion in control. In addition, stallions sense hormonal changes in females of all species, which means a human caretaker can find herself in danger rather quickly. This doesn't mean that the character can't ride a stallion; in real life many people show and ride them. However, the levels of training for both horse and human need to be considered, as well as the type of mount appropriate to the character.

It seems wimpy to mount a hero on a gelding, which is probably why they tend to be underrepresented in modern fiction, but geldings have their merits. A young hero out questing will find himself far better mounted on a gelding, as will the lady who wishes to hunt or hawk, because geldings make better work animals -- their minds aren't distracted by their hormones (though they are still distracted by food). This lack of hormones also makes geldings less aggressive than stallions, and because of this they don't need as strongly reinforced corrals and can safely be stabled in communal barns.

Mares, too, get underrepresented in fiction. In the horse world, mares have the reputation of being "marish," the equine equivalent to PMS. When their hormones are fluctuating, male horses, even geldings, can easily capture their attention. While it is true that equine females, like human ones, can have changes in mood in accordance with hormone levels in their body, mares also make great workhorses. Mares make good mounts for ladies, completely avoiding the dominance issues associated with mounting a lady on a stallion or gelding (in ancient times, Celtic goddesses were mounted on stallions to show their dominance over men, and even today, some men feel affronted if a woman handles a stallion better than they.)

Once the three issues of size, build, and gender are determined, then the writer can adequately equip his character. Further refinement can be added to the process by researching various breeds of horses and basing a fictional breed on ones found in modern day. However, it's best to reserve the discussion of breeds for another article. The next article will explore the different breeds and how to use them properly in fiction.

Running on Empty?

Too many fictional horses exist on air and sunlight. In countless stories, a horse and rider gallop for miles, without any thought being given to the horse's stamina and energy levels, both of which are directly related to good nutrition. When it's time for war, these same steeds valiantly dive into the battle without worrying about enemy weapons, unless it's crucial to the plot. Then, the poor horse dies in a big, heroic battle, and the rider finds another steed to abuse.

As with humans, good nutrition lies at the foundation of proper horse care. Horses require food in large quantities to function properly. The diet of a horse depends on its workload, its age, and its stage in life.

Most fictional horses work for a living. Whether as a knight's mount, a plow horse, or a king's hunter, these horses exert large amounts of energy in the course of their daily lives. According to The Horse, by Evans, Borton, Hintz, Van Vleck, a horse under light work may need only 1.5 to 2 pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight and .5 to 1 pound of grain, if that much. Given that an average horse runs from 1000 to 1200 pounds, your character is looking at feeding at a minimum 15-20 pounds of hay or forage a day. This means if the horse is on the road, it will need to stop and graze at several intervals through the day.

A heavily worked horse will need 1 to 1.5 pounds of hay and .5 to 1.5 pounds of grain a day (again per 100 weight). Grains can be as simple as a mixture of oats and corn for a country character to an elaborate version of sweet feed that is fed to horses today.

Sweet feed, a staple in many barns, is a mixture of oats, corn, and other grains laced with molasses. When a fresh bag of sweet feet is opened, the sweet aroma smells good enough for humans to eat. Some manufacturers add pellets containing nutritional supplements to their sweet feed.

Mares in foal and weanlings need even more food than described above, while horses "out to pasture" need less.

Other foods such as beet pulp, milk products, and corn syrup can be added to the grain mixture to give it a different taste or to form a special mixture. A king's barn may feed horses as lavishly as a show barn would do today. Barn managers and grooms also carry with them their special recipe for bran mashes and other delicacies to improve the condition of a horse.

Your character should also keep in mind the cost of feeding a horse. If he travels and doesn't carry his own feed, then he will need to purchase it at the inns where he stables his horses. Most inns should keep a "house blend" of horse feed on hand, but just like full-service boarding barns, they will charge a premium price.

A horse in campaign most likely will be fed from the ration wagon, which will carry feed for horse and rider, and on a farm, the farmer will keep some stock of grains on hand to feed the horses.

Can a horse exist on sunlight and air? If it is properly explained through the particulars of a fantasy world, I don't see why not, but keep in mind that real horses need real food.

Find Out More...

Writing-World.com: Conducting Research and Interviews

More Information:

The Horse, by Evans, Borton, Hintz, Van Vleck. A highly recommended book for anyone interested in writing extensively about horses (or who owns one). This was my college textbook for a Genetics & Horsebreeding class, but this volume covers much more than that.

Copyright © 2005 Mary Wilson
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Mary K. Wilson lives in Iowa with her menagerie of animals, including an opinionated horse and a cat who was a dog in a past life. When not writing, she works as a help desk technician, and dreams of finishing up her degree in Equine Sciences. She runs Ancient Muse, an online metaphysical store.


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