I am currently working on a new fiction project centered around horse racing in the Antebellum South. Author, editor, and horse expert Tisha Martin offers excellent advice on portraying horses in fiction. With her permission, this post is shared from her website. For more advice on this and other literary subjects, visit it at http://www.tishamartin.com .
How to Write about Horses in Historical Fiction
by Tisha Martin
Horses have long since been an icon in American history, a loyal friend to the cowboy in the movies or in a novel. Often, too many historical writers don’t capitalize on the benefit of including the intelligence of the horses in their stories, and therefore, miss opportunities to add depth and personality to their stories and to shape the character arc. Horses are smart, despite what people may say. (And mules are even smarter! I’m thinking of Clarice from The Apple Dumpling Gang.)
Here are four ways authors can capitalize on the personality of the horse in their historical novels.
1. Use horses as secondary characters.
Perhaps that the idea of humanizing the horses in a story seems strange, but consider Little Brother, the mustang in Hidalgo, the western movie starring Viggo Mortensen. Little Brother acted as a secondary character in advancing the plot. When Frank T. Hopkins (Mortensen) went into the village to rescue Jazira, the horse worked with his human to make the rescue a success.
Including these types of minor details in a story adds depth to the plot and captures the essence of the character’s and horse’s relationship, further endearing both characters to the readers. That’s a pretty neat win-win, if you ask me.
2. Let horses help the human characters.
If you’re writing a western, consider this: horses will not run away from their owners. Many authors may think that horses are sneaky and always want to run off. In reality, horses are extremely loyal. I like to think they’re big dogs. For instance, if you leave a horse five miles down the trail so your main character has an easy getaway after the ambush, the horse will find its way back home without assistance. That’s called loyalty—and instinct.
3. Give horses an emotional personality.
Horses do show emotion if they are mistreated. If you have a nasty character in your story who mistreats the horse, you can show the horse’s emotional personality by describing the horse’s fear as it bucks, bites, or kicks. This adds suspense and propels the plot. Showing emotion in these scenes will deepen the care factor and enrich the story world.
But what if you want your character to have a positive relationship with the horse? Perhaps the character nurses the horse back to health, like Joe did in Black Beauty. You can use the horse’s gentle personality mixed with those moments of fear and mistrust (if the horse is coming from an abused situation or is now in a new environment) to liven up your scene. A horse that is treated with kindness and respect will respect its owner.
4. Consult the horse experts.
Nothing is more annoying to a horse lover than to read of inaccurate details in a story about horses. Some common inaccuracies include proper terms for horse tack, basic horse behavior, and horse anatomy. Often, these are misused because the writer googled what they did not know, found what appeared to be helpful information, and stuck it in their story.
Authors can avoid these glaring mistakes by bypassing the great internet and seeking out their local horse expert or local library for horse-related information. You can call a horse stable and ask questions, email the horse breed association, ask a friend who owns horses, or visit your local library and pull out a good horse resource book.
Remember, an animal is usually a reflection of its owner, especially if the animal has been loved for a long time. Now, a horse may not bring its owner the newspaper every morning (although stranger things have happened!), but the relationship between your character and their horse can be used to add a deeper layer to the story that feels and reads like a loyal friend.
Happy writing on the trail!