» The Idiot’s Q&A on Horses in Historical Romance

The Idiot’s Q&A on Horses in Historical Romance

This post appeared on the Dashing Duchesses on January 14, 2013. Guest poster Alyssa Alexander is one of my awesome critique partners.

Duchess Alyssa (a.k.a. The HORSE IDIOT): I must confess, horses terrify me. Big eyes, big teeth. Big hooves. Those hooves are scary. I have ridden a horse only once in my life, which resulted in significant bruises in places one should not have bruises. Therefore, I have stayed away from everything horse-related for many, many years, and don’t know a bit from a bridle from a forelock (fetlock?).

But Duchess Alyssa, you say. You write historical romance, where everyone rides a horse. Yes, indeed I do. And I have to research every single fact about horses and their various parts, saddles and their various parts, and how to ride and hold the reins. Clearly, I have no experience in that area (see above regarding bruises — I wish someone had told me what stirrups were for.) But even better than researching is asking an expert. It just so happens one of my critique partners is not only a veterinarian, but she has been riding horses for years and even recently adopted one, Mr. Beaux Regard. Isn’t he a handsome devil?


Duchess Jenni (a.k.a. The HORSE EXPERT): I must confess, authors terrify me. Big ideas, quick fingers. Big egos. But then you get to meet them and discover they are human! Just like… er… horses. As you might have surmised, I love horses… their intelligence, their wit (yes, a horse can be witty), even their smell. I am going to blame my love of historical romance on horses, too. I can’t imagine writing about any time period other than one in which dates occurred on horseback. In fact, I love horses so much that my debut book, the upcoming What Happens in Scotland, features a lovable stallion named Caesar as a prominent character. The only problem is the hero, James MacKenzie, had a rather wild night, and now can’t remember where he’s misplaced his trusted steed!

James pulled up in astonishment as the young groom emerged from the dark alley dragging a saddled horse behind him. The oddity of the morning’s exchange fell into place as the boy dodged a near miss of clicking teeth and dancing hooves.

The moment called for something dramatic, but James was at a loss for what a proper reaction should be. Beside him, his brother William started laughing, hearty guffaws that made the groom pink up in ignorant embarrassment and the anger churn red in James’s stomach. Of course this horse kicked down a stable wall. Of course James had left it here in a state of dim remembrance. It fit perfectly with the ridiculousness of the rest of his evening’s activities.

“Take it, sir.” The groom was practically begging now, handing over the snorting black horse as one would a lighted fuse.

James reluctantly reached out his hand and closed it over stiff leather reins that felt foreign in his hand. He gave voice to the thought tripping around in his head, though he doubted the question would win him any friends or do him any good.

“What is this?” He gestured toward the horse, earning a flattening of the animal’s ears for his trouble. “Is this some sort of joke?” He twisted around, expecting to see William bent over in laughter, having concocted this elaborate ruse merely for entertainment value.

The groom’s eyes widened in confusion. “It’s your horse, sir.”

“This is not my horse.” As if agreeing with him, the horse reached out and nipped at James’s waistcoat, ripping the fabric and taking a bit of skin, to boot. “My horse is chestnut.” He rubbed a hand over his newest injury and eyed the beast with irritation. “And male.”


So what does this idiot do when faced with a horse-related question? Execute a perfect Google-Fu dive into research, and then contact my horse expert to verify.


HORSE IDIOT: During my single, ill-fated attempt to ride, we primarily ambled along single file on a lovely forest trail (not that I saw much of it, as I was too busy trying to keep my horse from eating leaves and bushes as we walked by). But then the instructor said we were going to do something exciting – canter! Oh, joy! Except I didn’t know what that meant until my horse took off down the trail with me bouncing around in the saddle. Turns out cantering is painful. Later, I discovered there are four types of movement. Walk, trot, canter, gallop.

HORSE EXPERT: Oh, very nice! These are, indeed, the four basic gaits (and the term “gait” is the correct one to describe the various horse movements). To the novice, the gaits appear to roughly correspond with varying rates of speed (think of it as a car going from first gear all the way to fourth), with the gallop as the fastest speed. In truth, the gait of the horse has nothing to do with speed at all… it’s all in the position of the horse’s legs in relation to the ground and each other.

A walk has a distinctive four-beat pattern, with each hoof making separate contact with the ground. A trot has a front and back limb moving in tandem for a two-beat rhythm; the English rider usually bobs up and down in a motion known as “posting” to keep time with the horse’s trot. Otherwise… bruises (although, really, I would argue a good raucous wedding night could cause far more bruising than a ride on a horse!) A canter is a three-beat gait with one of the horse’s front limbs stretching out in front; even more confusing, there are different “leads” a horse can take, depending on which front limb (i.e. right or left) stretches out first). In a gallop, the fastest gait, only one of the horse’s legs makes contact with the ground at a time for a distinctive four-beat rhythm (see ye old historic rendering for reference).


Beyond these four basic gaits, there are a series of additional gaits that horses can be trained to learn. For example, there are different ways a horse can trot depending on the rhythm/sequence of their legs. A true trot has front/back limbs on opposite sides moving in tandem, whereas a pace has front/back limbs on the same side of the body moving together. Carriage horses are termed “trotters” or “pacers” depending on how their legs are trained to move. Then there are the so-called “gaited” horses like Saddlebreds, Paso Finos, and Walking Horses that are trained for big/flashy steps that make them almost seem as if they are rearing (going up on two back legs) as they move. Alas, I must divest the mantle of expert for “gaited” horses, as I have never ridden one.


HORSE IDIOT: One of the toughest parts of writing horse scenes is the time it takes to for characters to get from one place to another! If the hero gallops to the heroine’s rescue (or vice versa), how long will it take to get there? I had to look it up, of course. Wikipedia says the speeds are: 4mph for a walk, 8 mph for a trot, 10-17 mph for a canter, and 25-30 mph for a gallop.

HORSE EXPERT: The thing to keep in mind is that those are considered average speeds. You can have horses that are very fast trotters, making them move even faster than the “average” canter. There are horses that race using this gait while pulling a little carts called a sulky, and it is freaky-fast to watch. In contrast, you can also have very slow trotters. Looking at Western-trained horses as the example, a jog is a Western-style type of gentle trot. Head-to-head, my pony Beaux can probably walk faster than a horse at a jog. Also keep in mind that a horse cannot sustain a canter or a gallop for extremely long periods of time – those are “brief burst” gaits that cannot take a horse all the way from London to Edinburgh, in case you were planning to use these estimates to calculate time for travel.


HORSE IDIOT: Well, shoot. Guess I’m going to have to rewrite that scene. But now that I know how fast horses can move, what about size and age? Is a pony just a baby horse?

HORSE EXPERT: No, although it is easy to see why people might think that. A pony is just a horse that is shorter than most. A horse is measured in “hands” which is the equivalent of four inches. A fully grown pony is 14.2 hands or less from the ground to the top of the withers, whereas a horse reaches more than 14.2 hands at its full-grown height. Most folks think Mr. Beaux Regard looks like a horse, but he is actually 14.2 hands, which means he is technically classified as a pony. A baby horse or pony is called a foal (and a girl foal is called a filly, whereas a boy foal is called a colt). A “teenager” horse 1-2 years old is called a yearling. While we are on the topic of terminology, a female horse is called a mare. An intact (i.e. non-castrated) male horse is called a stallion, and a castrated male is called a gelding.


HORSE IDIOT: I once wrote a scene where the hero patted his horse’s neck and I had to look up whether or not horses had necks, or if it was called something else. Turns out it is actually called a neck, but what about that forelock (fetlock?) And what the heck is a hock?

HORSE EXPERT: I am snorting with laughter about the neck. Neck, back, shoulder, tail are all pretty much as expected, but there are some oddities in the mix. From front to back, ten parts of the horse than a romance writer might need to know:

1)      Muzzle- the nose. (Smooth and velvety – perfect for purple prose)

2)      Forelock- the bit of hair that spills over between the horse’s eyes. (Could be likened to a hero’s rakish, windswept hair)

3)      Poll – the rounded part of the skull just behind the ears. (Nothing sexy about this.)

4)      Mane – the hair that runs along the horse’s neck. (Easy to compare to a heroine’s luscious, flowing locks. Although, you can pull on a horse’s mane and it won’t hurt them. I don’t recommend you try that with your heroine.)

5)      Withers – the highest point of a horse’s back, rounded area just in front of where the saddle goes. A horse is measured by the distance from the ground to the top of the withers. (Not to be confused with what happens to the hero in cold water…)

6)      Fetlock – the bottom rounded joint of the horse’s legs. Think: ankle. (Do not confuse this with forelock, or much reader hilarity will ensue.)

7)      Stifle – the equivalent of the human knee, but visually higher than you expect, with the front curve starting the horse’s rear leg. (Not to be confused with the state of women’s rights in the Victorian era.)

8)      Hock – the pronounced curve at the back of the rear leg. (Do not have the hero compare this to any part of the heroine. Trust me – it doesn’t work)

9)      Hoof – the hard foot of the horse. A bit like our fingernail, it needs to be trimmed regularly by a strapping gent called a farrier. (Someone really ought to make a romance hero out of one of them… they have delicious muscles and spend the day bending over.)

10)   Sheath – part of a male horse that would bring a distinctive flush to a well-bred lady. (Enough said.)


HORSE IDIOT: Snicker. You might laugh about the neck, but I’m laughing about a hero pushing back his rakish forelock while admiring the shapely stifle and pronounced hock of the heroine. But going back to the fact that I find horses scary (remember those big teeth and sharp hooves!), why are horses bad-tempered sometimes?

HORSE EXPERT: Well, why are you bad-tempered sometimes? Tired, hungry, in pain, misunderstood… that time of the month? All of those same things can throw a usually well-tempered horse into a tailspin. Horses need regular rest, attention, love. They are herd animals, and if they are deprived of contact with other horses and kept in a stall except to work they can become very annoyed with the world. Female horses are also hormonally influenced, and when they are in season they can want nothing to do with work or play or you.


HORSE IDIOT: So how can I tell whether the horse is in a good mood, or whether I should start dodging hooves?

HORSE EXPERT: While it is true that a horse’s feet will probably pose the most immediate danger to you (and the hind limbs can do the most damage because they can kick powerfully backwards), what you really want to be watching is their ears. The horse’s ears are the window to their soul. A horse rarely strikes out without first giving an indication it is really not happy with you. When a horse is miffed, it sweeps its ears backward until they lie almost flat against its head. This is a sign that may as well flash “Danger, Horse Idiot!” It is somewhat analogous to a dog growling, which most do before they bite. In general, this is an excellent cue to get the hell out of the way. A happy horse has its ears perked forward, exposing the open surface toward whatever is interesting it. A neutral-eared horse is also usually fine to be around.

Front Parts of horse


Other Parts of Horse


HORSE IDIOT: So now I have to watch teeth, hooves and ears? Because I can guarantee I’m still going to be keeping those hooves in my sight. But at least now when my heroine’s horse kicks the villain, I can add the detail about flattened ears. Thanks, Duchess Jenni, for sharing your horse knowledge with this idiot!


HORSE IDIOT Alyssa Alexander writes historical romantic suspense and attempts to include accurate horse-related details. She lives in Michigan, where her domesticated household animals include a husband, a small boy and a very stupid cat. She does not own a horse. Or a pony. Or even a picture of a pony.

HORSE EXPERT Jennifer McQuiston writes stories that have been called “fairly unrealistic, but still a ton of fun to read” by at least one well-meaning reviewer. Her debut historical romance, What Happens in Scotland, will be released February 26th. She lives in Atlanta with handsome Mr. Beaux Regard, the pony she promised to buy her little girls with her first book deal. Be careful the deals you make with the devil, my friends: fairy tales do come true.