The Trusty Steed

This article features in the acclaimed A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook, available now at Amazon. Find out more about the book at Goodreads.

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The Trusty Steed

 

Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden! Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered. A sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride for ruin and the world’s ending!”

King Theoden, The Return of the King

 

Horses play iconic roles in the fantasy genre, fearlessly carrying heroes into battle, facing down dragons (and being eaten by them), and taking characters across countries and continents. But there’s much more to a horse than a means of transportation and great care ought to be adopted when featuring them in a tale, lest you draw the wrath of the horse gods. Below you’ll find a few things to keep in mind.

 

Make no assumptions

For some of us, interactions with horses are few and far between. We may occasionally drive by one in a field at 50mph, or see one grazing during a foray into the countryside. We probably see horses more on TV than we do in reality. It, therefore, makes sense that we wouldn’t know too much about them: how they behave and such. Herein lies one of the biggest complaints from readers I’ve encountered: the lack of understanding.

To fill the void of this lack of experience, it’s important to learn. Assume you know nothing at all and start with the basics. After a few minutes of research you’ll know that a female horse is called a mare, a male a stallion, a young female a filly, a young male a colt. The average horse can gallop around 27 miles per hour. They have 360-degree vision and bigger eyes than any other land-based mammal. The height of horses is, in some countries, measured in a unit called ‘hands’ (approx. 4 inches), something you may have encountered while reading fantasy.

Let’s bring George R.R. Martin into the equation here. He studies medieval life so has an understanding of the horses of those times and uses this knowledge to tremendous effect in his stories. Here’s a bit of that knowledge for your benefit.

Horses had three main purposes in the Middle Ages—war, agriculture and transport—and they were bred with these purposes in mind. Here are a few different breeds, some of which feature in A Song of Ice and Fire:

Destrier – This was a horse renowned for its capabilities in war, though it was pretty uncommon due to their high cost— only knights and other aristocrats could afford them. Well-trained, strong, fast and agile, they were described as “tall and majestic and with great strength”. The average height of a destrier in the Middle Ages was 12 to 14 hands (48 to 56 inches).

Palfrey – Equal to a destrier in price and popular with nobles and high ranking knights for riding, hunting and ceremonies. The smooth gait of palfreys made riding comfortable, so they were the preferred choice when travelling long distances.

Courser/charger – Preferred for fierce, hectic battles. Fast and strong. Not as expensive as the destrier, though still valuable. The most common of all warhorses.

Rounsey/rouncey – General purpose horses. The ‘ordinary’ one. Cheap and readily available. Ideal for both riding and war. Used by squires, men at arms, and poorer knights.

Jennet – A horse smaller than a rounsey, known for their quiet nature. Used mostly for riding because of their smooth, ambling gait, though at times adopted as cavalry.

Hobby – How could I leave out an Irish horse? My family would disown me. Hobbies were well-regarded for their swiftness, effective in skirmishes, though used infrequently in combat.

If ever you’re unsure of something or want to know more, why not try riding yourself? It’s the best lesson you can get. Feeling the chafe of the saddle and the strain on your muscles, whiffing the scent of the horse, and hearing the sounds as it trots along a muddy trail. I’m sure there’s a riding school not far away from you. Or you could reach out to the writing community. There’s been many a time when fellow writers have offered their knowledge and experience on particular subjects to me, and you’ll be surprised how many people have experience of horse riding.

 

Treat your horses like characters

Your horse lives and breathes, just like your characters. It tires, grows hungry, thirsty, can get injured—limitations all living creatures possess. Disregarding them risks damaging the credibility of your tale.

Horses feature heavily in George R.R. Martin’s Tales of Dunk and Egg. The hedge knight Dunk has a close bond with his mounts, for as a knight, he relies on them. He makes sure his squire, Egg, feeds and waters them every day, and after a long ride, brushed and washed down. When one sadly dies, he buries it and later recalls memories of it.

As with any of your pets, horses require caring for, and a neglected horse is one that will suffer injuries, grow fatigued, and die.

There are other benefits to fleshing out your four-legged means of getting from A to B. A character building a relationship with a horse, or any pet for that matter is a great source of empathy. Characters considerate towards others tend to be likeable. Take Blondie from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He’s a killer, but we’re drawn to him because, other than being cool as fuck amongst other things, he respects and cares for his horse.

It’s a possible source of conflict too. If a horse your reader has grown attached to is at risk of harm, or heaven forbid is harmed (you cruel bastard), the reader feels it too. Just look at Black Beauty.

 

If you’re new to riding, you’re going to fall

Riding a horse is a skill which requires a lot of practice. A lot of practice. Not only does the horse have to be well trained to handle a rider, but the rider must also understand how to ride the horse. A character with no experience or knowledge of riding would be unable to jump on a horse and ride away to safety. Convenient yes, realistic no.

You don’t have to go through the ins and outs of learning how to ride a horse in your story. That’d be boring. Just acknowledge your character is training and improving. A few things they would learn for instance would be lightly squeezing the horse’s sides with their legs to get it to walk, or squeezing again to set it into a trot. Or to make the horse stop, lean back and pull on the reins.

While falling off a horse can potentially lead to serious injury—another source of conflict—it also makes for great entertainment. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of schadenfreude?

horse tree

 

Each horse has its own personality

All animals tend to have their own personality: belligerent, curious, nervous, friendly. Featuring this in your stories not only gives it more life, but it also presents an opportunity for you to build connections between your characters and their steeds. You may have a character who simply does not get along with their horse, which nips at him, rears up, kicks out, and runs off. Or you may be like Aragorn who whispers sweet nothings in their ears and bends them to his will.

 

A few helpful horse adjectives

The world of horses is a detailed one, and taking advantage of those details will, as George R.R. Martin has proven, make your stories even more immersive. Here are a few words to describe the colourations and breeds of your fantasy mounts:

Bay: a horse ranging in colour from light reddish brown to dark brown with black points, these points being the mane, tail and lower legs.

Chestnut: similar colour to the bay, though lacking any black points.

Buckskin: a lighter colour of the bay horse, though maintaining the black points.

Pinto: multi-coloured with patches of brown, white and/or black. The black and white variation is known as a piebald, a breed which features in A Song of Ice and Fire—.Pod’s old piebald rounsey.

So that’s the basics of horses and fiction covered. It may sound silly, but they have the potential to make or break a story for some readers. The Ride of the Rohirrim in the Return of the King still brings a tear to my eye. It’s such a powerful scene, and the horses played a role in that.

Ride for ruin, and the world’s ending.

 

A few words to help you describe your mounts

The world of horses is a detailed one, and taking advantage of those details will, as George R.R. Martin has proven, make your stories even more immersive. Here are a few words to describe the colourations and breeds of your fantasy mounts:

Bay: a horse ranging in colour from light-reddish brown to dark brown with black points, these points being the mane, tail and lower legs.

bay-standard1

Chestnut: similar colour to the bay, though lacking any black points.

chestnut

Buckskin: a lighter colour of the bay horse, though maintaining the black points.

buckskin

Pinto: multi-coloured with patches of brown, white and/or black. The black and white variation is known as a piebald, a breed which features in A Song of Ice and Fire—.Pod’s old piebald rounsey.

Spotted horse galloping in pasture

These are but a few; there are tons more for you to discover.

 


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16 thoughts on “The Trusty Steed”

  1. One of my characters is a Paladin of the Ancients Oath.

    “Find Steed” results in a Fae creature coming to be your steed and can take a form listed, or one approved by the GM.

    I picked the Elk. =)

    On my phone is a recording of that eerie keening cry they make, which I play before charging into battle…. on a battle elk.

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on Visions of Fantasy & the Future and commented:
    I didn’t use horses in Wings of Twilight for one simple reason: I forgot until I was 2/3rds of the way through the first draft. Then, I decided that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation why Strom & company weren’t using them: horses and their upkeep are expensive. Strom was leading his band on a misguided, self-righteous crusade, not exactly the kind of thing that would leave them rolling in dough.

    Much to the chagrin of one of my editors, I had the characters acquire mounts in Scars of the Sundering, though. It was like introducing a whole new slew of characters, and since the traveling groups in that series were rather large, that meant a lot of tracking whose steed belonged to whom.

    Pancras acquired Stormheart, a blue roan stallion
    Gisella rode Moonsilver, a white mare
    Delilah acquired Fang, a nailtooth (kind of like a rideable velociraptor)
    Kale acquired Blackclaw, a nailtooth
    Kali acquired Taavi, a nailtooth
    Edric rode Yaffa, a pony
    Qaliah acquired Comet, a piebald gelding, named after the Comet the Wonderhorse from the Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
    Lord Fenwick rode Shadowmane, a black stallion
    Valora rode Quincy, a dwarven battleboar (so named because I thought it was funny)

    In my next World of Calliome novel, horses will once again feature as mounts for the characters. I’m not quite ready to reveal the characters, but we’ll have Pepper (a dapple grey gelding), Socks (a chestnut stallion with white legs), and Silvermane (a silver dapple gelding). For you lovers of all things equestrian out there, I don’t go into as much detail as George R.R. Martin; I’m not really telling a story of a knight and his horse, plus, I write stories that are a little more fast-paced than A Song of Ice & Fire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the details of your horses! It makes them seem like characters of their own. Are your stories out at the moment? I like the sound of them.

      Thank you for reading and re-blogging! I appreciate it!

      Like

  3. A worthwhile read for anyone using horses in their writing. As a former horse owner and pony mad child I would just add that some terminology is peculiar to the UK or Us, in particular colour descriptions. For example, Pinto and Buckskin are American colour descriptions – in the UK we would use Dun for Buckskin and Piebald (black and white) and Skewbald (brown and white). It’s therefore worth checking that you have the correct one for the setting of your book.

    Hope that helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember seeing a booklet that circulated about writing called “On Thud and Blunder” which talked about the problems that a writer can get into when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One such problem is when someone says in a Fantasy story that Sir Arnold rode all day at a full gallop in plate mail. No horse could survive that.

    Liked by 1 person

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