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Erastes : a horse's-eye view of the world

Today's guest is award-winning, fellow author Erastes, sharing what she knows - and has learned in her historical research - on the topic of horses.


A is for ‘Orses.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Thank you Clare for letting me play–again, I can’t believe how quickly this has become a tradition!

With the advent of Warhorse coming to the screen, I thought I’d spoil myself and write about something I actually know something about, rather than things I have to struggle to find out about!

As a writer of historical fiction it’s pretty damned difficult to write anything without a horse popping up somewhere or other. Historical fiction—as defined by the Historical Novel Society takes place at least 50 years in the past. (Although due to the Wolfenden Report/Stonewall taking place in the late 50s/early 60’s I have taken upon myself to move gay historical fiction to any event before those two times.

Even in the 50’s and 60’s there were horses around on our streets—I remember a rag and bone man who used to come up our street regular as clockwork and the horse would plod along unaided and would know exactly where to stop.

So—although it’s not necessary to become a fully-fledged expert in the horsey world—you won’t have to know your bog spavin from your coronet—it’s still important that if you are going to write about horses that you know a little bit about your subject. It’s kind of like if I were going to write about a Maserati in a contemporary book, and yet had the controls described as if it was a Ford Fiesta. Someone would notice.

After all—if your characters were taking a ship to America from England you wouldn’t say he’d got there in two days would you? Or if you did, you’d have to stand the guffaws of your readers and fellow authors!

Horses—obviously—are living creatures. Despite what so many Hollywood films would have us believe--because there everyone gallops on their horse from A to B no matter how far that is—horses have limits and those limits are a lot less than most people realise. In fact it’s amazing how durable a horse is when you consider how much there is that can go wrong!

They have a lot of things that can make them instantly unrideable. Feet being the obvious one.


What is surprising I think is that the horse supports himself on a tiny area, considering the weight of an average horse of 15 hands is around 500 kg (1102 pounds, or 78 stones). (then add 10-15 stone of person and saddle...) Add to that that the horse travels at speed and that tiny “sensitive lamina” seems an amazing bone to carry all that weight and pressure. Of course it’s not just that bone – the frogs, both sensitive and insensitive (which means that no pain in felt in that section) cushion the weight too. The insensitive frog area gives the horse some protection, which means that can tread on stones and even have them embedded in that part of the foot without damage, but if unattended they will puncture through to the sensitive frog and then...well, you have a lame and thereby useless horse. This is why a groom – or any decent rider at all, worth his or her salt – will always travel with a hoof pick, swiss army knife or other handy implement for removing stones.

The back is the other main area where problems can arise. In STANDISH, my protagonist, Rafe buys a “spirited” black stallion from a neighbouring stud. One morning he recklessly saddles the horse and takes him out—not checking both sides of the saddle area. The horse has been bitten by a bot-fly (nasty little insect that buries its eggs in the skin) and has a sore patch. After a few minutes galloping the horse, understandably disposes of the nasty painful weight of Rafe and buggers off leaving the rider face down in the dirt!

One thing to remember is that horses cannot move fast (canter and gallop – yes, thank you Hollywood) for long periods. If you were out riding the range, you’d take provisions for your horse, always be aware of where water was, and you’d travel as a sensible pace. A fit horse can trot for miles but will need to rest afterwards. Racehorses, as well as three-day event horses are athletes and are trained for very long periods in their life, on a daily basis to achieve the stamina they need. In the racehorse’s case it can be as little as a six furlong sprint, up to the Grand National which is a gruelling ordeal of nearly five miles including some very high jumps, wide ditches and usually soggy ground.

[Picture of Beecher’s Brook 1890]

The event horse has five kilometres of twisty turny jumps over hills and valleys. The hunting horse needs to be able to gallop over any terrain, recover it wind (its breath – hence the expression second wind) and keep going all day at various speeds to keep up with the fox (or in these day, a scent marked-trail).

The high athletes of the horse world are the endurance horses, where a race can be 100 miles—an arab horse is about the only horse that endures this kind of treatment, as they have amazing stamina, can travel long periods without too much water.

I have read more historical than I like to count which simply treat horses as some kind of combustion engine. They are harnessed up and ping! They manage to travel a hundred miles ina day with no trouble at all. I read something recently where a four horse carriage went from London to Brighton AND BACK in one day!

Post-Coach and passenger coach horses had a hard, short life. They would be expected to trot smartly in all conditions about ten to twenty miles. The horses would be unhitched and a new team put on for the next leg of the journey. The original horses would be rested overnight and put onto a different coach the next day. The journey from London to Colchester for example took six hours and was considered to be a very fast route. There’s a good article here on the subject regarding the book “Essex Coaching Days” by J.Elsden Tuffs here.

As you can probably tell, I could waffle on about horses for weeks, and I’m going to close here. All I ask is that if you do write a historical, please think a little about the horse and don’t just substitute “car” for “horse”! And if you are interested in my review of the book, Warhorse, it’s here at Goodreads. I wasn’t terribly impressed. Black Beauty is definitely the book to read if you want a horse’s eye view of the world around him.


Erastes writes gay historical fiction and short stories from many genres. She lives in Norfolk, UK with 3 cats and a daft dog. Her latest book “Junction X” was released in November 2011, and her next release will be “A Brush with Darkness” published by Carina in March 2012 as part of Carina’s M/M week. Her website is erastes.com.



From Clare: Like to stretch your writing fingers after Christmas' excesses? Fancy writing something for the visitors this month? It can be anything from a flashfic 3 sentences to a drabble of 100 or so, or even more. Any genre, any theme, any rating, any character(s). Maybe ones you already love, maybe the chance to try on a new character for size.
I'm holding a FREE FICTION DAY on the 28th, so send me new fiction - links to your existing work also welcome! - to clarelondon11 AT yahoo.co.uk and I'll post it all then :).

FOLLOW the Birthday Blog so far:
Jan 16: Sasha L. Miller making magic happen.
Jan 17: H. B. Pattskyn shares a free short story.
Jan 17: Becky Black on what can really happen after publishing.
Jan 18: Blaine D. Arden on keeping it close to her heart.
Jan 18: Tam battles with IKEA - and wins!
Jan 19: Toni Anderson shares her love of romance novels.
Jan 19: Poppy Dennison introduces the Boxer Falls m/m serial, plus a PRIZE DRAW for the (in)famous GRL bracelet **OPEN TO JAN 31** 

Jan 09: Lee Rowan shares her healthy resolution.
Jan 10: Rowena Sudbury and the beauty of a blue moon.
Jan 10: Sandra Lindsay and her WIP characters.
Jan 11: Shelley Munro and a tour of bedrooms through the ages.
Jan 11: Dany Sirene and her love of Goth characters.
Jan 12: Sarah Madison and her decision to stop competing.
Jan 13: Alix Bekins shares her love of kink.
Jan 14: Janis Susan May on writing one word at a time.
Jan 14: Charlie Cochrane watches movies with hankies at hand.
Jan 15: Megan Derr and the inspiration in fairytales.


Jan 01: luscious_words shares some fabulous icons.
Jan 02: Jordan Castillo Price shares her experience of re-releasing books.
Jan 03: Mara Ismine wonders how important is continuity in fiction?
Jan 04: Jen shares her favourite Rom Com movies.
Jan 05: Karenna Colcroft introduces her unusual werewolf.
Jan 06: Stevie Carroll takes us on a pictorial tour of her favourite locations.
Jan 07: Tinnean quotes Jack Benny on age.
Jan 07: Josie makes a brave leap into a scary sport.
Jan 08: Elin Gregory finds inspiration at every turn.


Check up on: Prior years fun HERE
and The 2012 Guest schedule HERE.

Want to join in but missed the original call? Email me at clarelondon11 AT yahoo.co.uk and I'll happily find you a space

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( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 20th, 2012 09:21 am (UTC)
What a highly fortuitous post - I was just thinking to myself last night "should I really have the horse trotting at this point?". Having never ridden or really had much to do with horses I find it is a glaring hole in my knowledge when it comes to writing about the past. Fortunately, I have my experience from working on the inland waterways to check any over-enthusiastically speedy travel in my tales: we used to travel 12-15 lock-miles (1 lock is counted as equivalent to 1 mile due to the time taken to get through) on a nice, easy day and 20 lock-miles on a busier day (climbing Hatton locks, for example, was about a day's work, and necessitated careful planning in terms of feeding the guests).

I've never actually read Black Beauty. Think I'll have to pick it up since you keep recommending it!
Jan. 20th, 2012 09:22 am (UTC)
PS From your precis here, I'm going with "yes, trotting would be an appropriate pace for someone travelling the last mile to home having been absent for several years" :-)
Jan. 20th, 2012 11:05 am (UTC)
Thanks dear - and yes, it would be, although it would depend on how long they'd been travelling and the stamina the horse has left, it's pretty easy to tell whether a horse has it in him to do a last minute sprint--although if they know that at the end of it is a nice warm stable and a bran mash, they often will perk up towards the end of a journey. Usually one would take it easier at the end of a journey than at the beginning, because a horse will need to be cooled down thoroughly, before even being allowed to drink anything. Colic! I should have mentioned things like colic and Monday Morning Disease which often killed (kills) working horses. I had a horse die on me with Monday Morning Disease when I was on the Summer Camps in the USA - they worked the horses every day so they were fit as fleas and then stopped suddenly, without notice to anyone, for "Colour War" and the horses cramped up. Lethal for the oldest of the horses.
Jan. 20th, 2012 11:13 am (UTC)
Oooh! Lots of info, thank you! Now you've got me worried about making the horse trot though - the journey would be from the nearest town (5 or 6 miles) and mostly done at a walk, and the rider would be anticipating another quarter mile or so up the farm drive - he's not to know (until they fling the gate open) that they're all down in the orchard next to the road... I have a feeling he's going to insist on going up to the farmhouse immediately though, so I'll make sure they do that at a gentle walk.

Monday Morning Disease sounds awful - and just goes to show how self-centred we can be as human beings. The old "well I can cope with doing this, why can't you?"
Jan. 20th, 2012 11:51 am (UTC)
That's not too bad a distance, and the horse would be fit--as they would be used every day. A fit horse can trot miles under a rider at a jogging pace. Alternating walking and trotting is how the endurance races are done, with bursts of faster paces.
Jan. 20th, 2012 12:10 pm (UTC)
Can I pester you with other horse-y questions later?
Jan. 20th, 2012 12:11 pm (UTC)
absolutely - happy to do it.
Jan. 20th, 2012 12:12 pm (UTC)
Jan. 20th, 2012 11:07 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's dreadful! My summer camp didn't have color war and we DID have one special-interest cabin where the campers were pretty much in CHARGE of the horses under the supervision of a couple of counselors, so there wasn't going to be any sudden stopping nonsense. I wasn't in that cabin, I just took ordinary lessons, but even so, we were NOT going to have any of that nonsense, the horse cabin would not have let it happen.

Also, I made a particular point of looking up how many post changes between Portsmouth and London, and a rough idea of how long it was going to take, so I had an idea of what time the boys showed up at the house. Then I never mentioned ANY of it... except sort of indirectly, in that they needed Madeira and seed-cake to fortify themselves because fashionable London dinner was later than their accustomed hour. BUT I KNEW IT WAS HAPPENING. I guess that counts for something?
Jan. 20th, 2012 01:53 pm (UTC)
I do so wish you lived closer and we could have gone to that 'Real warhorses' exhibition at Romsey together. I'd have had someone to blub with.

Good article. BTW, those horses which do Dover and back in a day possess Kevin Costner shoes.
Jan. 20th, 2012 03:08 pm (UTC)
I would definitely have been sobbing.
Jan. 20th, 2012 02:29 pm (UTC)
Vaux Brewery in Sunderland used horse drawn drays right up until the early 1980s. My grandfather was a drayman and one of the things I remember most clearly from my childhood was when he was in plaster for a few weeks having had his leg broken by one of the horses.

I've heard the problem you talk about described as writers treating horses as if they are motorbikes and having no notion of the amount of trouble they are and attention they need, or their capabilities and limits.

Personally I read all the James Herriot books when I was young and came away with the impression that horses are delicate creatures very much inclined to drop dead if you take your eye off them for five minutes.

Edited at 2012-01-20 02:30 pm (UTC)
Jan. 20th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC)
Dray horses make so much more sense in a city environment even today. Trucks don't breed little trucks either.

I don't expect that all books go into the nitty gritty, after all, most aristos would simply hand the horses over to a groom, but there should be some consequence for over using a horse. I'd like to write something much more horse related at some point. I have an idea for a 50's show jumping circuit, it was so much more glamorous back then, people wore lipstick!

Yes - the Herriot books are perfect for really looking at the animal world with unvarnished eyes. Love 'em.
Jan. 20th, 2012 06:25 pm (UTC)
I completely agree with you there. I used to ride 20 miles (more on one notable occasion) on a very fit pony, and that was us for the day, even though most of it was usually at a brisk walk or a slow trot. Plus we both needed a proper rest the day after.

Jan. 20th, 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
Great post and quite timely too. I'm researching (trying to anyway) how they would have treated colic in the 16 th century. Can anyone recommend a site or book? Not finding anything specific but I'll keep digging. I haven't ridden for years but would love to again. Oh and I too adore Herriot.
Jan. 21st, 2012 08:28 am (UTC)
Dad forwarded me an email from Abe Books that was just historical veterinary books. None quite as early as you want, but if you PM me an email address I'll forward it to you. Also I can try the Veterinary History society or see if any of my Cambridge friends with access to the University Library can also access the Vet School library. How's that?
Jan. 20th, 2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
I wish you WOULD write a short how-to manual for people writing horses in historicals. I'd buy it in ebook and print both. The info may be out there, but it isn't all in one place. And I'd like to apologize once again for the way the great big THANK YOU for equine lore was dropped from Tangled Web when they switched editors.
Jan. 21st, 2012 11:41 am (UTC)
I second Lee. Something along those lines would be very useful.

I think we can be a little bit precious about the treatment of animals in historical novels. Modern readers aren't going to warm to a hero who mistreats his horse/s but I can't help recalling that a days march for a Roman legion was 35 miles [including their cavalry mounts] and that Subedai's cavalry covered up to 100 miles a day [each man changing horses several times daily] when they were invading Hungary. It would be interesting to know whether the modern horse breeds have become more specialised - bred for speed or to conform to a 'type' - and so have lost something of that endurance.

But in any case I dearly love a story when I see someone pausing to let their mounts 'refuel' properly and paying the right kind of attention to feet and backs [or not as the plot requires]. :D
Jan. 21st, 2012 08:37 pm (UTC)
35 miles a day with a rider is certainly possible, especially keeping pace with an army on foot. My pony wasn't as fit as she could theoretically have been when we used to do that sort of distance on a Saturday. Romans wouldn't have wanted to push their horses to the limits either: a good horse represented a lot of money and work.

So I'd believe a story involving long distances at steady low-ish speeds, or stories of faster journeys where the horse was obviously exhausted at the end.

Some modern breed are better at one thing than another, but that's almost certainly been true since Roman times.
Jan. 21st, 2012 03:47 pm (UTC)
I was almost convinced that I only knew very unfit horses who couldn't gallop all day. Thanks for all the useful information - one of the reasons I don't read that much historical because the frequent superfast journeys dump me out of the plot.
Jan. 26th, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
I have read more historical than I like to count which simply treat horses as some kind of combustion engine.

Now there's a fine visual. Sad, but very true. Thanks for this post, I'll be eyeballing my historicals with horses much more closely.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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