One of the most common mistakes authors make when writing horses is treating the animals like automatons: the characters get on, ride somewhere, get off, and the horses just behave themselves and never set a foot wrong. So if you want to portray the horses in your story with more realism, they each need to have their own personality. That doesn’t mean you need a character sheet and a complex backstory for each of them (I imagine something like “in foalhood, he was traumatized deeply by the wind-borne passage of a plastic bag through his pasture, and emotionally he has never recovered”), but they do need to have some form of foibles that differentiate them from one another.
You can do this even in broad strokes by looking at what I call Equine Archetypes. This is a bit like assigning your characters a Myers-Briggs type or a zodiac sign; it’ll give you a place to start with what their personalities might be like. Just like your local high school might have goths, jocks, band kids, and loners, so too will your average horse barn be populated by a few of these types of personalities:
The Sour Nag
This horse has been there, done that, and would like a refund. It’s a horse that’s been treated poorly, has become embittered toward humans, and has passed the point of being afraid to show it. This horse won’t suffer fools and will keep your character on their toes. It’s likely to display vices like ear-shyness, girthiness, and biting or kicking with minimum provocation. It will respond to commands only with extreme reluctance, and attempt to take out its rider with every
conveniently placed tree branch. Saddling your character with this type of horse is a gold mine of conflict and difficulty to add to your plot. If your character manages to earn the trust of a horse like this, that’s not only character development for the both of them, but it’ll also turn that horse into your character’s loyal, grumpy companion for life.
The Courageous Charger
This horse has a personality that’s all-in, and it’s prepared to forge into the fires of hell if its rider asks it to. It’s nearly impossible to spook, and has a steady, focused personality. Don’t give in to the temptation to turn this horse into a bicycle, though; it’s obedient, but that doesn’t make it an automaton. Its bravery can also make it a little foolish; it may forge into unnecessarily dangerous ground when it should just go around, curiously investigate a deadly viper that’s about to bite it on the nose, or decide that charging the dragon is totally the right idea and forget to ask for its rider’s input.
This horse has a maternal streak a mile wide, and if it comes to see your character like its own helpless foal, it’ll not only treat them carefully, it’ll also protect them fiercely. This horse may return to a rider who’s fallen off, slow down on its own when it feels a rider is unbalanced, and do its best to keep an injured rider safely on its back. It’s also likely to look out for the other horses in the group, disciplining the unruly and protecting the vulnerable. Once your rider has the trust and solicitous attention of a horse like this one they’ll be well looked after. (And it’s worth noting that this type of horse isn’t always a mare!)
The video below shows the kind of behavior you might get from a protective horse. This horse is trained to stay between his rider and the cow, but his proactive approach to really driving the cow away is probably a combination of experience (he works cattle and that involves confidently pushing them around) and his own nature. In a less extreme example of this behavior, if I sat down on a bucket in the middle of the pasture, my own mare would stand directly above me and warn away any of her pasturemates who came too close. It’s possible she just thought I was bumbling and helpless and unable to care for myself, but it was still heartwarming as hell.
The Shy Kid
This horse lacks confidence and relies on its human to give it direction, but even then it has a difficult time trusting that it’s safe. It’ll want to buddy up with the nearest horse and desperately stick to them. It’s quick to spook and shy, and its more fearful instincts will usually get the better of it. This horse may not realize it’s lost its rider until it’s two miles down the road, and even then it won’t be interested in going back. This hyper-aware horse can be a valuable danger-detector, and it can certainly learn to overcome some of its more timid instincts, but it’s probably still going to want to run first and ask questions later. Much later. From a great distance.
This horse is constantly getting into everything. It initiates play (and more often stirs up trouble) with its herd, drags the blankets off of other horses, unties itself to go have a nice graze, snatches the hat off your head, rubs its bridle off on the nearest tree, and generally screws with your characters for its own entertainment. It’s not usually acting in a mean-spirited way, it’s just intelligent, easily bored, and more than willing to entertain itself. Mischief is its middle name, but the curiosity and pursuit of fun that define it also make it bold and willing to be reckless. This horse can be a brave and fearless mount as long as it’s kept too busy to get up to much trouble.
This fancy horse looks impressive and knows its job, but it might be a little much for even an experienced horseman to handle: it’s high-stepping and high-maintenance. It has an advanced level of training and an excess of energy; it demands its rider’s full attention at all times and if its rider isn’t in control, it’s happy to take charge. Its willful personality and take-charge attitude make it a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield or in the show ring, and an absolute handful everywhere else. With a rider who can channel its focus, it can be an unbeatable powerhouse; with someone less experienced, things may end in disaster.
This is a horse who has lost all its joy and isn’t particularly motivated to find it, either. Just consider what it might be like to ride Eeyore, and you’ve got the right idea. The deadhead has given up on life and resigned itself to constantly being burdened with riders it doesn’t want to carry on adventures it doesn’t want to go on. It’s not particularly embittered about its lot in life — it isn’t usually inclined to bite, kick, bolt, or otherwise express real malice the way the Sour Nag will — but it’s not having a good time, either. It’s not at all responsive to its rider (horses constantly carrying complete novices, like the ones available for rental by tourists, often become deadheads), and it probably isn’t very mentally present at any given moment, either. This horse is all about plodding along at the slowest possible pace and putting in the absolute minimum required effort.
Match made in heaven or ultimate odd couple?
The relationships your characters have with their horses can add plenty to your story, from comic relief to character development. Here are just a few examples of ways your characters and their mounts can get along (or not) and how that can create an interesting situation:
- The spoiled prince being over-mounted on a Powerhouse-type horse can reveal a lot about his character: he has to have the best, even to his own detriment, and wildly overestimates his own abilities. This horse eventually leaving him bleeding in a ditch will certainly add some drama to his situation.
- A knight could ride a Courageous Charger who’s just like her: foolish, impulsive, and never willing to back down, even when she should. Together, they’re a juggernaut of bad decisions that will probably lead their party into some ridiculous(ly entertaining) situations.
- Your character is riding across the country on an urgent mission to stop a disastrous event when his own horse — suited to him in every possible way, so sympatico they’re practically in telepathic communication — is stolen. The only remount he can find is the sourest of Sour Nags ever to exist; will the evil forces in pursuit kill him, or will his new horse do him in first?
These archetypes are, of course, only some of the equine personalities you could add to your story. Give some thought to what sort of horse might help your heroes on their journey — or provide a plot-complicating hindrance.