Caring for Horses in Fiction
Mary K. Wilson reports:
"A staple of fantasy novels, the horse often demands to be written into tales. As a source of transportation, recreation, or a magical being, nearly every fantasy novel has at least one horse. When they're written well[,] horses add sparkle and life to a story. When they're written badly the writer may find his or her book thrown across the room with disgust. It isn't important that the writer knows a lot about horses. She needs only know as much as the material demands. Fantasy, as a genre, demands much more from its authors than knowing the horse is a four-legged mammal. With horses playing such a prominent role, many knowledgeable readers will be quick to point out an author's error. When looking to add a horse to a tale, consider what purpose it will serve. The carriage horse needs to be built, and written, differently from a riding horse, and will have a different personality than a child's pony. The war steed for a valiant knight differs considerably from a lady's palfrey, though ladies are often found riding war steeds instead...Although there are no universally accepted terms used for the build of a horse, for the purposes of this article, I will use light, medium, and heavy. A light horse (or pony) would be one of very fine bone structure and conformation. Think of the refined Shetland ponies, Arabians, and racing thoroughbreds. Medium-build horses are those of sturdy build that were meant for [everyday] work. The majority of carriage and riding horses fall into this category...Heavy horses are those with thick bones and structure. Mostly draft breeds, many of the warmbloods used in competition also would fall under the category of heavy breeds. All draft horses...fall into this category. If you research into the history of various breeds you'll find that draft horses and light horses were crossed to create many of the medium-built horses. Modern warmbloods, for example, were developed from a cross of light Arabian horses (among others) with native draft (or war) horses. With this knowledge in mind, the appropriate horse can be selected for its job. A peasant working in the fields of a fantasy book may choose a draft horse, which is commonly used for hard labor such as plowing and heavy hauling. The peasant may also use this same horse to pull a cart to go into town, as it is unlikely that a peasant would have more than one horse. Keep in mind, too, that horses meant money in ancient societies, so that same peasant may have had to survive with a heavy pony, or perhaps a badly put together carriage horse for the same jobs. A knight readying himself for battle will find himself better mounted with a heavy draft horse, or a draft-cross that will bear up well beneath the weight of man and armor. Cavalry horses will also need to be heavily built; however, keep in mind that a fighter needing speed and agility will have to sacrifice armor for this, and would mount himself on an appropriate lighter-breed horse...Although the horse must be the appropriate size and build for its job, the horse also needs to be the right gender. Horses, like most domestic animals, come in three genders: male, female, and neuter...It may seem noble to have the lady who is running the keep all on her own riding a stallion; however, keep in mind the personality of these animals...[T]he levels of training for both horse and human need to be considered, as well as the type of mount appropriate to the character...Once the three issues of size, build, and gender are determined, then the writer can adequately equip his character. Further refinement can be added to the process by researching various breeds of horses and basing a fictional breed on ones found in modern day...Too many fictional horses exist on air and sunlight. In countless stories, a horse and rider gallop for miles, without any thought being given to the horse's stamina and energy levels, both of which are directly related to good nutrition. When it's time for war, these same steeds valiantly dive into the battle without worrying about enemy weapons, unless it's crucial to the plot. Then, the poor horse dies in a big, heroic battle, and the rider finds another steed to abuse. As with humans, good nutrition lies at the foundation of proper horse care. Horses require food in large quantities to function properly. The diet of a horse depends on its workload, its age, and its stage in life. Most fictional horses work for a living. Whether as a knight's mount, a plow horse, or a king's hunter, these horses exert large amounts of energy in the course of their daily lives...Given that an average horse runs from 1000 to 1200 pounds, your character is looking at feeding at a minimum 15-20 pounds of hay or forage a day. This means if the horse is on the road, it will need to stop and graze at several intervals through the day. A heavily worked horse will need 1 to 1.5 pounds of hay and .5 to 1.5 pounds of grain a day (again per 100 weight). Grains can be as simple as a mixture of oats and corn for a country character to an elaborate version of sweet feed that is fed to horses today. Sweet feed, a staple in many barns, is a mixture of oats, corn, and other grains laced with molasses. When a fresh bag of sweet feet is opened, the sweet aroma smells good enough for humans to eat. Some manufacturers add pellets containing nutritional supplements to their sweet feed. Mares in foal and weanlings need even more food than described above, while horses 'out to pasture' need less. Other foods such as beet pulp, milk products, and corn syrup can be added to the grain mixture to give it a different taste or to form a special mixture. A king's barn may feed horses as lavishly as a show barn would do today. Barn managers and grooms also carry with them their special recipe for bran mashes and other delicacies to improve the condition of a horse. Your character should also keep in mind the cost of feeding a horse. If he travels and doesn't carry his own feed, then he will need to purchase it at the inns where he stables his horses. Most inns should keep a 'house blend' of horse feed on hand, but just like full-service boarding barns, they will charge a premium price. A horse in campaign most likely will be fed from the ration wagon, which will carry feed for horse and rider, and on a farm, the farmer will keep some stock of grains on hand to feed the horses. Can a horse exist on sunlight and air? If it is properly explained through the particulars of a fantasy world, I don't see why not, but keep in mind that real horses need real food."
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