The Stories Begun

{April 22, 2010}   Horses: One of the Best Educations I’ll Ever Get As a Writer

I love horses.  I adore how they move, the range of colors and body shapes, the clean lines and powerful strides, but mostly the almost human-like personalities in each of them.  Part of it’s the ever-present little girl in me, part of it’s the rodeo in me, and part of it’s the writer in me.

You see, horses are important.  This I have learned.

You’ll find that most fantasy novels go in one of two directions: way forward or way back.  World creation, generally, requires some sort of technology or beast knowledge.  Once in a while, Ms. Anne McCaffrey comes to mind, both are handy.  Sometimes, none – thank you, Mr. Brandon Mull.  However, in the fair amounts of time that fantasy novels require a lack of technology, the mechanics of horses are important to the author.  This is, of course, not to mention all the period or culture pieces that are bound to include horses.

One of the worst things a writer can do is get a clinical education about anything they are writing about.  Basic research alone will not do it.  I had a teacher who was writing in the Arthurian Era, and he knew nothing about horses.  All of a sudden, he had a character on his hands that was from a famous tribe of horse tamers.  I can tell the exact moment in the book he researched horses.  The writing gets exponentially better, because he took that step to be closer to his character.  I love that book.  I love the series.  But I can still tell he is uncomfortable with his horses.

Worse so is the assumption that the experiential education will translate to the neophyte reader.  Horses are especially prone to these problems.  Minimal knowledge creates almost no picture, so does vast knowledge expressed minimalistically.  Ms. Robin McKinley is my favorite example of this exact phenomena.  She is well familiar with horses, and her clinical knowledge of minute color differences (which comes from experience and training) bleeds through in her horridly short and bland descriptions of horses.

I read The Blue Sword, one of her most famous novels, before I really got a decent horse education.  I knew a chestnut from a palomino from a black.  That’s about it.  She mentions the horse color “blood bay” in that book.  A bay horse is a reddish-brown with black “points” (the legs, tail, and mane), and a blood bay is the most sought after type of bay.  The body is more red than brown, though not blood-colored at all.  The contrast is gorgeous . . . and NO ONE calls blood bays blood bays except on registrations and online ads for horse buyers.  I actually thought she was making colorations up.  I have since learned that she was not.  It was a turn off then, but now I understand what symbolism she was trying to achieve with the color of that horse.

New worlds have opened up to me, just because I know about horses.  Knowing the colors alone makes life easier, and thankfully this does not apply to the modern fantasy genre alone.  Did you know that the fiscal status of one of Chaucer’s Pilgrims can be told by his horse color alone?  Not to mention his flaw of vanity.  Dapple grey horses are uncommon enough today, when we have breeders working to control color as best they can.  Back then, it would have been a sign of status to have a horse colored anything other than one of the browns.

Also, knowing horses has brought me to a culture, just as much as the culture brought me to horses.  I’ve been fully immersed in rodeo culture for years, and that knowledge has shown in my writing.  I’ve lived a life entirely different from the one I grew up in.  I’ve gained experience.

The experience of learning about horses, their symbolism and history, is making my writing better in more ways than just having knowledge of facts.  It’s truly changed who I am, especially as a writer.  I’m coming from a better and more artistic place, as well as a more informed one.

I highly recommend horse knowledge.  Basic knowledge improves writing.  Deeper knowledge improves life.  Intimate knowledge improves both.

Sign me up.



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