How to Write Horses: The Terminology Trap

by Mac

Perhaps the single most important piece of advice I’d like to offer you when it comes to writing horses is this: don’t rely on terminology. Terminology is a trap.

There are plenty of occasions where a judicious application of technobabble will get you through, even when you’re completely making it up as you go along. Advice for writing horses often boils down to this, too — “whatever you do, just use the right words and you’ll be fine!” — but when it comes to horsemanship, throwing around terminology can be a particularly risky proposition, especially if you’re writing in anything but a modern-day setting.

Humans have been keeping horses for many thousands of years, across numerous cultures, social strata, and time periods. Even in cases where two horsemen have a language in common, their vocabulary will often not line up. Terms used in the western United States might be entirely different from ones you’ll hear in the east, and both of them different still from those used in Britain, even though we’re all speaking the same language.

Add in education, social class, local culture and customs, and you’ve got another layer of complication. Even things you’d think of as real basics, like a horse’s coat color, can have differing terms depending on the character’s background. You can point three different people at a red horse and ask them what that color is called, and get three different answers. Is it sorrel? Chestnut? Liver chestnut? Blond chestnut? Red dun? Technically a roan? The answer you’ll get depends a lot on who you’re asking, where they’re from, and how much they know about horses.

Start writing a fantasy world, and things get even more complicated. Many of the terms we use for horses both historically and in modern times are deeply tied to place and language. You could specify that a horse is a Belgian draft horse, but if there’s no such place as Belgium in your world, would that really make any sense? (In most contexts of writing in ancient or medieval time periods, breed isn’t actually a thing that exists, either. We’ll go into that in more detail in a future post in the Horse Writing series.) Many of our terms for medieval arms, armor, and horses are likewise drawn from specific languages like French; without a France in your world, what would those objects and types of horses be called? If you’re writing in English and the only applicable word is one in German, do you still use it? How deep down the rabbit hole do you want to go?

Regardless of what terminology you use, and how correct it might be, some readers with horse experience will insist that it’s wrong. If there’s one thing all horse people can agree on, it’s that it’s impossible for us to all agree on anything. Many horse people will have experience limited to their own local terms or discipline, and may not have much depth of knowledge when it comes to global horsemanship traditions, or horses in history, either. But they’ll insist that their terminology or method is the correct one, and view anyone using different terms as being simply incorrect or inexpert.

For example, when I first learned how to drive horses in harness, my teacher was absolutely fanatical about drumming into us that the long lengths of leather used to control the horses’ speed and direction — commonly called “reins” on riding horses — were called lines, and were never, ever to be referred to as reins. Any time I saw a story refer to these as “reins” on a harness horse, I’d scoff at their obvious inexperience. (I like to think I’ve grown as a person since then.) It was only many years later that I learned that the terminology differed regionally… and indeed most of the world does call these “reins,” whereas the use of “lines” is more of a tradition specific to the American west, as far as I can tell. (And a person could probably spend a lifetime studying the origins and variations of words just within the equestrian sub-culture. So let’s not and say we did.)

This 1902 illustration of parts of harness — for a specific type of harness, at least — definitely thinks “reins” is the way to go. Horse harness is another great example of both wildly and subtly different terms, though. The piece here that is referred to as “breeching” may also be called “britching,” “britchen” or “britchen seat,” and is entirely absent on some types of harness, anyway.

So, your painstakingly researched, completely technically correct historical novel may nevertheless inspire plenty of pointed reviews from readers who think they know better. What’s a writer to do?

The words you choose will depend largely on your story’s setting, and your characters’ backgrounds. (If your character is, for instance, a Japanese samurai in the American old west, he’s likely to think in feudal Japanese terms, not historical cowboy vernacular. And if they’re a large animal veterinarian, a certain amount of jargon is not only inevitable but necessary.) But there’s also a balance to be struck between offering precise details that horse people will recognize, and understandable, context-rich descriptions that will convey the meaning the experience you’re trying to offer, even to a reader who doesn’t know a saddle from a chamfron. (Or chanfron, chamfrein, champron, champion, or shaffron. See why this terminology thing is a nightmare?)

That’s often where your sweet spot will lie: not in always writing with the most “proper” technical terms possible to impress a horse-savvy audience that’s probably going to want to argue the details with you anyway, but in creating horses for your universe that read as real, genuine, and detailed, and are described in context-rich ways that anyone can understand. The goal is to have your reader assume that you are experienced with horses, even when you aren’t necessarily, because you’ve done enough research to make the animals in your story come across as living, breathing, thinking creatures.

Here are a few ways to do that, with some examples:

1. Trade in your technical terms for common-sense descriptions that convey your meaning.

You might be able to flawlessly analyze a horse’s conformation and a rider’s technique on the level of George Morris, but that doesn’t help you much if your readers don’t know what conformation is (or who George Morris is). Readers who aren’t horse people are going to be entirely lost, and we’ve already established that you’re never going to win over horse people with technical terms, because they can’t agree on what the terms should be and are generally unaware of the differences in terms across historical periods, geographic lines, and social classes. (Most people who ride don’t also make a study of global equestrian history.) So my best advice on this subject is to do what writers do best: describe things in a way that’s accessible and understandable to your audience, no matter what their background might be. Give them details that help to make that horse a meaningful individual, and make their traits meaningful to your narrative, rather than just rattling off a list of physical details.

As an example, let’s jump into a scene at the livery stable or horse market. Perhaps our protagonist has lost their own horse and needs to buy or borrow another one to get the plot back on the road. Their options aren’t the greatest, though. First, a description of our Very Terrible Horse using common “technical” terms used among horse people to describe an animal’s physical build:

The horse was uncommonly ugly. She was Roman-nosed, pig-eyed, and ewe-necked. The situation only became worse in the body: downhill, long in the back, calf-kneed, skinny, rangy, base wide in the front and base narrow in the back.

That’s a lot of information packed into a few sentences, and for a horse person it might be somewhat descriptive (the takeaway is “good lord, that horse is a mess”). All of the terms are ones that have been in common use for some time (though depending on the setting of our story, they might not be appropriate to the time period), and in this case the terms are generally fairly descriptive, so even if you’re not familiar with the terms, you might be able to work out a lot through context. (It’s probably easy enough to assume that you don’t really want any part of your horse to look so much like parts of sheep, pigs, or cows.) The more important information here, though, is what all of this means for our hero. Let’s say he desperately needs a horse to get him to a town two days’ ride away, he’s already nursing an injury that will make riding anything painful and difficult, and he’s on an important, time-sensitive mission. If the only horse available to him is a physical wreck, what exactly does that mean for his journey? Is he going to have a successful ride without any trouble, or is a hard ride on a disaster of a horse going to leave him even more worn out and injured than he already is? (Complications are always a delightful way to enrich your conflict!)

Here’s another way of writing the same sort of horse, but with less emphasis on the terms people actually use for equine conformation, and more on just plain rich description:

The mare was uncommonly ugly, as if she had been assembled from base parts by someone who didn’t actually know what a horse ought to look like. Her eyes were small and staring, her nose too thick and bowing outward, her neck put on upside down. Her back was too long, her chest too narrow, her front feet too far apart and her hind feet too close together. Her jaw muscles were well-developed, as if she spent a great deal of her time struggling against the bit, but she was otherwise entirely unfit, her hips hollow and her body on the whole gawky and underdeveloped.

The awkward set of her feet made her sway drunkenly, even when she was standing still, and the bulging, hollow-eyed structure of her face gave her the uncanny look of a back-alley brawler in the final round of a prizefight, nose broken one too many times, just one more blow away from utter collapse. Even if she was well-mannered — and Tadaoki suspected she was not — she would be an exceptionally uncomfortable ride, with her poorly-built back encouraging the saddle to slip incessantly forward, and her ungainly legs producing a bone-rattling gait, even at the walk. Just watching the stable boy lead her out into the yard made Tadaoki’s injured hip throb with the anticipation of an unrelentingly painful journey. If this horse survived the whole of the trek ahead, that would be a great surprise; if she didn’t take her rider with her into the afterlife, that would be a miracle.

Tadaoki sighed, recited a single silent Nembutsu, just in case, and traded his money for the awful creature’s reins.

Here, the conformation terms are replaced with plain description of what those terms mean, to make the text more accessible to readers of every stripe, and it gives the writer more opportunity to describe the horse as an individual animal. It also spells out exactly her physical condition and genetic situation is also a disaster for our hero and a risk to his mission.

This isn’t actually an illustration of my example scenario, but it seemed appropriate somehow.

2. When you do use terms your audience may not know, build additional details around them so their meaning is clear.

As a narrator, you can avoid technical jargon all you want, but sometimes you’re going to have characters who live and breathe that jargon, and it would be extremely unrealistic for them at least to not speak in those terms. Simplifying their language would make them seem unbelievable or just plain incompetent. What you need to do in that case is support their language with your narrative. Perhaps the easiest and most descriptive way to do that is by showing action and reaction.

Here’s a short example:

“I don’t know, I think maybe it’s in the fetlock,” Meg said, crouching low to take a closer look, running both hands down the horse’s foreleg, wrapping palms and fingers around every inch of the limb to search for any sign of the source of Lightning’s limp. The thick forearm and knobby knee felt as they should, and so did the cannon bone and the tendons running along the back of it. But the next thick joint was a little too thick, warmer than it should be and a little swollen. It was the fetlock, after all.

We’re introducing a few words like fetlock and cannon bone that might be unfamiliar to a reader that doesn’t know horses well, but there’s plenty of context built into the narration to let readers know what those things mean. We know it’s the foreleg, which is a pretty easy term that obviously means “front leg,” and we know she’s running her hand down from there, so it’s easy to assume she’s starting from the top. Having her check each part of the leg along the way is not only what you’d actually do while looking for a source of lameness in a horse, it also gives us the basic geography for a horse’s front leg: she starts at the top with the forearm, and goes over the knee (which strictly speaking is more of a wrist, but “knee” is both a commonly understood term and one used by horse people as well, for the front leg). Common sense says the cannon bone is the bone right under the knee, which it is, and then the next joint is the fetlock she mentioned.

That’s showing action: basically backing up the character’s words with her own actions that show the reader what we’re talking about. Showing reaction is the same, really, but instead of basing your description around the character’s specific actions, you’re relying on the reaction of other characters or the horse to give context. If a squire is putting armor on a horse, for instance, and the horse throws its head up in reaction to the chamfron, that will give your reader context that the chamfron is the armor that goes on the horse’s face.

3. Use your details to drive the story forward or enhance your scene, not just to show that you know your stuff

It’s not a bad thing to establish some expertise early on, so your reader can trust your experience and research going forward and fully embrace the suspension of disbelief that you might need from them as your story unfolds. But it’s certainly a good idea to use your details sparingly, to drive the story, reveal things about your character, or create a sense of setting.

You can describe a character putting harness on a horse in painstaking detail, describing the grooming beforehand, the act of putting each piece of harness in place, the details of precisely fitting each strap, and naming every last part. If you’re writing the sort of harness commonly used on draft horses in the American west, it could take you a good couple of pages to get through all that detail, and there are probably very few occasions where your reader actually needs all of that. Most of the time, unless there’s a real reason to be writing a process like that in detail, you really don’t need to (and shouldn’t, unless you specifically want to get your audience to skip ahead a few pages). Occasional details interspersed with other action or conversation that’s actually driving the plot forward can give that note of realism without concentrating on a million tiny details that aren’t necessarily relevant. Here’s an example:

“I’m just saying, it’s not exactly fair,” Meghan said. She ducked under the horse’s neck to fiddle with the harness straps from the other side, and then started shifting the whole thing back, pulling toward the horse’s rump and leaving bits dangling from both sides.

To him the harness looked like an incomprehensible labyrinth of leather, parts going every which way and metal rings and snaps jingling uselessly. To her, it was clearly an orderly, understandable assembly, every part of it waiting to be neatly slipped into place, only needing to be done in the correct order. The symbolism wasn’t lost on him.

Jackson leaned against the nearest dusty wooden post, and crossed his arms. “Not my problem,” he said, and tried to sound like he meant it.

There was a snort that could have been Meghan or the horse, but from the amount of judgment in the sound, it was probably Meghan. She circled around the horse’s rear end, pulling a strap down around the back of the horse’s rump, and using one hand to pull the tail out over the top of it. Every move she made was casual and well-practiced, including the completely unimpressed look she gave Jackson as she passed by on her way back along the horse’s side.

“Keep telling yourself that,” she said, leaning over to fish a strap up from under the horse’s belly. She turned her back to fasten it, like she was finished with him.

Here we’re using the details of a specific task with a horse, which adds authenticity to the action, but it also tells us something about the situation being discussed and the characters’ reactions to it (Jackson is conflicted and confused, Meghan seems to see the problem more clearly), and it tells us something about each character’s level of expertise, too. (Meghan knows exactly what she’s doing; Jackson, our point of view character, is watching her apply the harness expertly, but doesn’t know that much about it himself, so we’re not getting a ton of technical terms in the actual narrative; instead we’re getting general language that most anyone would use.)

4. Establish where and when your story is set, and research the practices specific to that time and place.

This might seem obvious, but I point it out because I think that people on the whole have a tendency to look at popular media set in a given time period — Gladiator for the Roman era, for instance, and various knights-and-jousting films for more medieval settings — and let that inform their writing choices, when those films tend to be rife with inaccuracies of varying levels of seriousness. There are a lot of historical “facts” that we tend not to question, because we’ve seen them so many times in film, but many of them are not only wrong, but perpetuating them even further in your writing really damages our collective view of history. There are things that are done for dramatic effect in movies that give people entirely the wrong impression, or elements of horsemanship that we think of as having always been around that your characters just wouldn’t be dealing with. Double check the things you find yourself assuming, even if they might seem like innocuous details. If you’re writing a story set in ancient Rome, for instance, your characters would most likely not be riding with stirrups, as they really weren’t a thing in the western world until pretty late in the history of the Roman Empire. Similarly, if your character is a British aristocrat on a foxhunt in the 1880s, it wouldn’t be very accurate to describe him leaning forward over his horse’s neck as the horse jumps over a fence; at the time, the conventional method of taking a jump on a horse, in that place and among that social class, involved leaning back, legs forward, and pulling back on the bit as the horse went over the fence. (Were other horse cultures taking jumps differently at the time? Probably. Even in modern times, jump position may vary quite a bit between disciplines. The seat of a show jumping rider and the seat of a steeplechase jockey are pretty different.)

Finding Sources

Sites like archive.org, Google Books, Smithsonian Libraries, Project Gutenberg, and undoubtedly many more, offer free access to all kinds of historical volumes that you may not have even known existed. (In a later post, we’ll dive a little deeper into where to find information, ideas for organizing your research, and how to utilize it.) Wikipedia has some truly outstanding pages that provide an overview of horsemanship and horses in various eras, and bibliographies that will lead you to further reading. YouTube can be an amazing treasure trove of videos like WWI- and WWII-era cavalry training videos, how-tos on all sorts of topics from harnessing to hoof trimming, and modern scientist and reenactor investigations of historical strategy, weapons, riding styles, and more. The sources you do find, you may have to take with a grain of salt; many topics are still hotly debated by historians, historical art may have been drawn centuries later or by people not familiar with horses or their equipment in the first place, and many translations from original non-English languages may be just plain wrong, or poorly interpreted. So just use your judgment and do your best to draw from multiple sources. (My list of recommended reading might have some helpful volumes for you.)

Bear in mind, too, that many “comprehensive” books on historical subjects like knights and armor — like the thick, slick-looking modern volumes you might find in the Bargain Books section of Barnes & Noble — are often compiled by people who are not subject matter experts, the photos may be poorly chosen stock pictures, and time periods and details are often hopelessly mixed up. It’s always good to look to the author’s bio for any actual indication of expertise. If you’re writing about horses and horsemanship in modern times and western societies, however, the “complete” books of horsemanship you’ll often see in bookstores and online may be a perfectly adequate and comprehensive overview of the subject; just be mindful of whether you’re looking at a book that covers the style of riding or horse handling that you’re writing about.

We’ve already discussed how a lot of your audience might argue with or simply not appreciate your attention to detail, but even just learning about the methods used for riding, caring for, training, and otherwise keeping horses in a specific time and place can help make your setting and history as rich as it can possibly be. And when your details are consistent and well placed, even a highly skeptical “horse expert” reader may be willing to concede that you’ve done your research.

If you’re writing purely in a fantasy world, any number of sources from our own world may be useful to you in building yours. It’s very common for fantasy universes to be set in a world not unlike medieval Europe, so researching the horsemanship and history of that era is a great starting point, regardless of whether you wind up somewhere else entirely by the time your worldbuilding is done. (And I highly suggest that you do! The ancient world was full of fascinating, powerful horse cultures, and I for one would love to see more fantasy worlds step outside Europe’s dark ages and call on the rich and varied histories of civilizations from further to the east.)

The most important element of research is not unearthing every possible technical term from the era, but making sure that the details of both horsemanship and era you’re writing are accurate for when and where your characters are supposed to be.

If you want to dive in to some deeper research, I’ve started keeping a list of resources (both free online and books to buy) for recommended reading on the topics I’ll be covering in this how to write horses series. It includes general volumes on horse behavior, their history with humans, travel by horse, ancient and medieval history, and more modern uses of horses in cavalry and agriculture.

In conclusion…

I hope this gives you an understanding of the trouble with reliance on terminology, and the resources to find the technical terms you do need, and use them wisely and judiciously. Please feel free to leave a comment if you have any further additions or questions! I have a great many more posts on the topic of writing horses planned, and I’m happy to take suggestions, so if you have particular questions, topics you’d like to see covered, or observations about the depictions of horses as they’re depicted in media, I’d love to hear from you. You can drop a comment below, or send me a message through my contact form.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me, or using any of my affiliate links to purchase from my recommended reading list on Amazon.

Featured photo by ysmeen on Unsplash

Horse Writing: Avoiding the Terminology Trap

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If you found this information helpful, you might enjoy my book, The Writer’s Guide to Horses! Learn about travel on horseback and by carriage, equine habits and personalities, the basics of riding and driving, worldbuilding a horse culture, creating fantasy horses, common tropes to avoid, and much more. Includes illustrations and quick reference guides to body language, color and markings, and vocalizations. Available as ebook or paperback!

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3 comments

Rosina Lippi April 14, 2020 - 8:07 pm

What a fantastic and useful summary, beautifully put together. I’m an established historical novelist, currently researching a novel set in the west in 1857 which (obviously) means I have to pay attention to horses: how people see them, think about them, interact with them. Finding specific information has been a challenge for me, as I’m known for historical accuracy and I hate leaving anything to chance. Something as simple as somebody climbing up on a horse, for example, can be comically off in terms of time and place. Maybe two percent of my readers will recognize this, but it’s two perfect too many. Your advice on how to layer in technical information with every-day observation is really on target.

I have just bought your The Writer’s Guide to Horses and have begun working my way through your annotated bibliography. Thank you for all the work you put into this material. I hope you’ll keep the series going.

PS My historical novels are published under my pen name, Sara Donati.

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Mac October 21, 2020 - 9:56 pm

I’m glad you found it helpful, and thanks for picking up the book!

I have an extremely long list of publicly available books from roughly the period you’re writing, if you’d like some more reference. Just let me know what kind of info you’re looking for and I’d be very happy to help. I haven’t managed yet to get all of those links up in my reference page because it’s just a LOT. 😀

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Rosina Lippi April 14, 2020 - 8:09 pm

that should read *two percent*

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