Our Beloved Fantasy Horses
I don’t think anything fantasy-related has stirred me so much as the Ride of the Rohirrim. Faced with a gargantuan orc army, the fearless Riders of Rohan leapt into the fray to break the siege of Minas Tirith. Seeing all those galloping feet hurtling over the rows of pikes and spears still brings a tear to my eye. Such is the power and influence of our noble fantasy horses.
“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 fantasy stories. They fearlessly carry our heroes into battle, face down dragons, Nazgul and all manner of fell beasts, and take our characters across countries and continents to save the world.
But there’s much more to a horse than them being just means of transportation. Great care ought to be adopted when featuring them in fantasy novels, lest you draw the wrath of the horse gods—Odin, I’m looking at you.
In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know, and more importantly, everything you ought to avoid when it comes to writing about fantasy horses.
Specifically, we’ll look at fantasy horses, types of horses (particularly from the Middle Ages), how to come up with horse names, ways of describing horses, horses in mythology, and much more.
Select A Section
- Fantasy Horses
- Horses In Mythology
- Anatomy of a Horse
- Make No Assumptions
- Types of Horses
- Treating Fantasy Horses Like Characters
- If You’re New To Riding, You’re Going To Fall
- Each Horse Has Its Own Personality
- How Do You Describe A Horse?
- Coming Up With Horse Names
I’m sure a dozen or more fantasy horses have sprung into your mind whilst reading this so far. Here are some of the most famous horses in fantasy.
Shadowfax – The Lord of the Rings
Perhaps the most famous of all fantasy horses, Shadowfax is the legendary Lord of Horses.
Not only is this creature beautiful and regarded as the fastest horse in all of Middle Earth, but he also has impeccable hearing. Either that or Gandalf has some insane whistling ability that Tolkien didn’t detail (unlike everything else, including Tom Bombadil and his gods-damned forest)
Bela – Wheel of Time
Fans of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series will no doubt be familiar with Rand’s heroic mount, Bela.
Once belonging to his adopted father, Bela carries Rand a serious distance on his adventure, as well as into battles.
Such is the influence of Bela that some fans have even hypothesised that she is, in fact, the Creator.
The Silver – Game of Thrones
As we’ll see below, horses play a big role in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones world.
Perhaps the most significant of horses in the books (and series) is Daenerys Targaryen’s Silver, gifted to her by her husband Khal Drogo.
Unlike in other stories, Dany’s horse doesn’t have a name as such and is referred to as just ‘The Silver’.
Yfandes – Valdemar Saga
One of the most unique portrayals of horses in fantasy is in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar saga.
Horses aren’t animals, but rather magical beings that resemble horses. They form bonds with their riders and communicate telepathically. Very cool.
Mythology is rich with equestrian beasts. Perhaps the most famous of all mythological horses is Sleipnir, from Norse mythology. Sleipnir was the grey, eight-legged horse ridden by Odin.
It’s known as the greatest of all horses and upon its back, Odin rode to Hel, as we can see in this image over here <.
Arguably one of the most famous mythological horses is the winged mount, Pegasus. Hailing from Greek mythology, its often depicted as white as the clouds it flies amongst, and is the offspring of the god Poseidon.
Another popular horse from mythology is related to the Irish mythical Celtic Otherworld called Tír na nÓg. In the great tale of Oisín and Niamh, the pair ride upon a magical, beautiful white horse that can travel over water.
Let’s take a look at the basics before diving into matters in more detail. Knowing these terms will make you look like an equine wizard when writing about your fantasy horses.
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, like 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 learn:
- A female horse is called a mare
- A male is called a stallion
- A young female is called a filly
- A young male is known as 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 RR Martin into the equation here. He studies medieval life so has an understanding of the horses of those times. He 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.
Your horse lives and breathes, just like your characters. It tires, grows hungry, thirsty, can get injured—limitations all living creatures possess. Disregarding these factors risks damaging the credibility of your tale.
Horses feature heavily in George RR Martin’s Tales of Dunk and Egg. The hedge knight Dunk has a close bond with his mounts. As a knight, he relies on them.
He makes sure his squire, Egg, feeds and waters them every day, and after a long ride, brushes and washes 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 and a mean shot, 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 heavens forbid is harmed (you cruel bastard), the reader feels it too. Just look at Black Beauty.
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:
- Lightly squeezing the horse’s sides with their legs to get it to walk.
- 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?
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 have a character like Aragorn who whispers sweet nothings in their ears and bends them to his will.
The world of horses is a detailed one, and taking advantage of those details will, as George RR Martin has proven, make your stories even more immersive.
The colours of horses are perhaps their most captivating aspect. Below, you’ll find a few different types of brown horse, but as any horse lover will know, these majestic animals can come in all manner of shades. A white horse is a common sight in fantasy, and a few times I’ve come across a blue horse. The beauty of the genre is that you could literally make them any colour you want.
Here are a few words to describe the colourations and breeds of horses:
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.
These are but a few; there are tons more for you to discover.
Coming Up With Horse Names
Coming up with names is always tricky, but what about horse names? Some writers may skip over this altogether. However, if you think of any pet you’ve had, how many of them haven’t had names? Horses are no different. It’s human nature to put names to things, animals included.
There are lots of different methods you can adopt to give you some horse name ideas. You could look at famous horses or famous fictional horses to help start you off.
If you’re going down the more entertaining route, you could look at racehorse names. Some are hilarious.
Films often feature horses too. Look at Black Beauty for instance. You could also look at the likes of Disney horses too—there are loads of them.
If you’re really struggling, here are some tools you can use to help you along:
- Fantasy horse names generator
- Standard horse name generator
- Random horse name generator – allows you to choose female horse names and male horse names
- Black horse names
- White horse names
- Names for male horses
- Female horse names
I’m a big fan of elven names, and as we know, elves and horses have a close affinity in fantasy (elves tend to love anything alive). You could also try some elven name generators too, like this one.
One thing I would mention when using the likes of horse name generators is to avoid overly-complicated names. My guide on naming fantasy characters and places might come in handy here.
Other Guides You Might Find Useful
Thank you so much for reading this guide on writing fantasy horses! Below, I’ve included some other relevant guides you might find useful.