Horses & Fiction: How (not) to kill a horse in one paragraph

By Deborah Jay

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WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW!

How many times have you heard that advice? And how many times have you wondered how you’re going to achieve that, when you want to write about space ships, other planets, dragons, magic systems and such like? A far more realistic piece of advice would be: write what you are passionate about. And if you can adapt some of your own knowledge to add authentic flavour, then so much the better.

A good example of this is the work of Elizabeth Moon, author of, among other things, The Legend of Paksenarrion, and Serrano Legacy. Moon is both a former US Marine, and a devoted horse lover. The former comes out in many of her works, chronicling her characters through military training, and in her ability to write authentic-sounding battle tactics, albeit in space. But her devotion to horse riding was where she really connected with me as a story-teller: who else would have thought to combine star travel with bloodstock breeding and fox-hunting?

To understand this better I should explain that my day job involves training dressage horses. In the evenings (and very bad weather) I morph into an author of fantasy novels. Not every fantasy novel features horses, but plenty do, at the very least as a means of transportation. You don’t need to be a rider to know what it looks like to sit in a saddle and gallop around the countryside, but if, like me, you have that knowledge and – here’s that word again – passion for horses, you can add layers of depth and authenticity to your reader’s experience.

On the other side of the coin, if you get your facts wrong, you can push a reader right out of the narrative. For instance, do you know how far and for how long a horse can gallop before it collapses? No? I recently came across a fantasy novel in which the author had his horses ‘gallop mile after mile’. Sorry, but that would kill them. Canter, trot, canter for up to 15 miles, maybe. But 10-12 minutes at gallop – around 5 miles or so – would be a limit before they collapsed.

For my own novels, I delve into the roots of my sport, which developed from the training of horses for battle. Only a tiny number of institutions, such as the world-famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna, still practice the ‘airs above the ground’- spectacular leaps with a wicked kick out – that were used to intimidate and kill foot soldiers. Most of my battle scenes take place on horseback, and it’s an area where I can give my readers a different experience of fighting from the usual sword and mace swinging. I also make sure that my characters deal with their mounts like real riders: they know how long to ride before resting, they know how to feed, groom, and form a bond with them. And you know what? I’ve gained fans as a result – people who are not generally fantasy readers, but are horse lovers, and the authenticity of the horse angle has pulled them in and converted many.

Some authors take their passion and extrapolate it into far-flung futures. The late Anne McCaffrey was also a horse lover – in her latter days she lived in Ireland, and built her dream there: Dragonhold Stables, first a livery yard, and then a competition centre. The planet, Pern, on which her dragon rider series takes place, is populated by dragons, not horses, but you can still see the same care and attention to the animals, adapted and modified only slightly to suit dragons, but based on her equestrian knowledge. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind having the telepathic link with my horses that her riders have with their dragons.

Looking at a different passion, let’s take sword play. Do you love either watching, or even learning, the art of swordsmanship? Many a fantasy writer is also a keen re-enactor, or martial artist, or student of sword fighting. Did you know that David Gemmell loved to choreograph his own fight scenes? With a twinkle in his eye he would retell how, while he was still working as a journalist for a local paper, one evening after everyone else had gone home he was acting out a battle scene that he planned to write, swinging his blade and lunging between the empty desks in the newsroom, when he noticed lots of flashing blue lights outside the windows.

Apparently there was ‘a madman with a sword on the loose inside the building’! So best advice is to take your obsessions passions and include them, adapt them, or just plain write about them. Not only will you find them to be excellent motivators, but your enthusiasm will shine through and engage your readers – every writer’s prime goal.


Deborah Jay
Deborah Jay

Deborah Jay writes fast-paced fantasy adventures featuring quirky characters and multi-layered plots. Living mostly on the UK South coast, she also shares a farmhouse in the majestic, mystery-filled Scottish Highlands where she retreats to write when she can find time. Her taste for the good things in life is kept in check by the expense of keeping too many dressage horses, and her complete inability to cook. Her debut novel, epic fantasy THE PRINCE’S MAN, first in a trilogy and winner of a UK Arts Board award, was an Amazon Top 100 Hot New Release.

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