We all get some of our ideas about life from how things look in the movies. They make us think that gunshot wounds are no big deal as long as it’s “through and through” in the shoulder, that the good guys are still good guys if they’re only dealing out massive head trauma instead of immediate death (I’m looking at you, Bucky “I don’t do that anymore” Barnes), and that love triangles are somehow a good idea. Writers who don’t know much about horses tend to draw a lot on what they’ve seen in films, which means they make the same mistakes that movies do. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions that the movies have taught us about horses, and we’ll dive into the actual reality behind it, for all your horse writing needs:
1. The perpetual and inappropriate whinny
Movie sound editors and foley artists like to go a little nuts with the equine vocalizations: they add an awful lot of frantic whinnies every time a horse appears on screen. In reality, horses are generally pretty quiet animals. They’ll snort, nicker, squeal, and whinny, but they’re not doing it all the time. Most horses will only really whinny or neigh — the most common film horse-sound — in pretty specific circumstances, like these ones:
- If they’re looking for or separated from a herd-mate. Mothers and foals being separated for weaning are particularly vocal, and a “herd bound” or “barn sour” horse can get pretty loud when asked to leave home.
- Similarly, if they’re desperate to get to other horses that they know are present, even if it’s a horse they don’t know (like a stallion able to see or hear mares on the other side of the farm and feeling very motivated about it).
- They’re trying to communicate with a dense human (usually along the lines of “hey you’re late with dinner!”), or have become accustomed to their vocalizations getting a particularly rewarding reaction from people.
- If they’re distressed by something life-threatening (like a mountain lion entering their paddock) and are trying to raise an alarm about it either to their humans or their herdmates.
Otherwise, they typically don’t whinny too much, and a horse that does is probably vocalizing more in an attempt to communicate with the humans around them, because the kind of subtlety horses can use with other horses is way too nuanced for us.
Also, it’s kind of creepy how they’re always laying whinny noises over horses that are very visibly not whinnying. Like their faces are completely placid and they’re not so much as twitching a nostril but there’s a frantic whinny sound to accompany that shot. Eerie.
2. Dramatic rearing
Okay, I get it. It looks impressive and amazing. In movies, a horse rearing seems to also be shorthand for urgency; the hero is pushing his horse on so abruptly that it’s got to rear first like some sort of movie-magic power-up.
In reality, a horse that’s considered suitable for riding isn’t typically going to rear unless it’s a trained behavior that they’ve been asked to do, and when a horse is being used for practical purposes like daily transportation, rearing is a behavior a rider (or driver, for that matter) really doesn’t want. Horses definitely rear sometimes, for various reasons, “needed a dramatic hero shot” isn’t usually one of them that’s applicable to daily life. (Also, if you’d also like to be driven crazy by this in your future film-watching, this gif is basically a textbook example of a trained rear. That pedaling in the front legs is a dead giveaway.)
I know most people think the rules for riding horses are “kick to go, pull to stop,” but I blame The Lone Ranger for apparently a whole generation of filmmakers thinking it’s “rear and say ‘hi-yo Silver, away!'” to go. (And then I blame the recent Lone Ranger movie just for… existing, basically. That shouldn’t have happened.)
3. The horse with human intelligence
Everybody loves to anthropomorphize, but in most cases the hyper-intelligent horse just doesn’t ring true, and it doesn’t show much regard for the horse’s own natural intelligence, either. Horses certainly aren’t dumb creatures, but they’ve developed a set of traits and ways of thinking that are very different from our own. They don’t think, react, or behave like humans (and certainly not like dogs, so definitely also avoid writing them like oversized golden retrievers). On the page, the hyper-intelligent horse also just reads like a lazy shortcut: it’s certainly easier if your hero can just tell his horse to meet him at 3pm at the southeast castle gate, but it’s more interesting if that sort of expectation will leave him in a jam, on account of his horse not understanding complex human speech.
Of course, sometimes a truly human-smart horse works out great, when that’s the particular shtick you’re going for. Comet the Wonder Horse on The Adventures of Brisco County Jr is a great example of the principle done right, from “the Wonder Horse” being part of his name and calling attention to this particular horse as being unusual, to the way it was constantly played for comedic effect.
(Yeah, you caught that random whinnying in there now, didn’t you? It’s going to bug you for the rest of time with every horse-filled film you ever watch. Sorry, not sorry.)
4. Galloping everywhere. All the time. Just galloping so much.
Here’s another popular movie trope that comes out purely for drama reasons. You’ve created urgency in the plot, so your characters have to be acting urgently, right? It just doesn’t have the same visual drama if you show them trotting their horses, they’ve got to be at a gallop the whole way! Even if the destination is three days’ ride away!
If people did that in reality, they’d never get where they were going, because they’d be killing their horses. Horses can travel several miles at a gallop (their endurance will depend a lot on their breed and their conditioning), but they’ll be exhausted and won’t recover well without rest. The most efficient way to travel long distances by horseback is at a trot, with occasional periods at a walk. We’ll go into horseback travel in a lot more detail in future posts!
Special shout-out to The Eagle, which is maybe the only film I’ve ever seen that actually demonstrates this sort of riding not working out for anybody involved:
At the end of the film, characters fleeing at a gallop on horseback get into even more trouble when the frantic pace causes first one, and then both of their horses to collapse in exhaustion. (Presumably the horses then died, but let’s all pretend they just rested and then got up and wandered around eating grass.) Sometimes your characters doing the “wrong” thing is just part of the plot, and an additional complication for them.
5. The horse as a motorcycle.
We’ve all seen this trope in action, because it happens in basically every movie that’s ever had a horse in it. The hero gets on, gallops off at a frantic pace, arrives at his destination, jumps off, and just… goes and does his Very Important Business. I then spend the next half-hour wondering where the horse is, whether it’s okay, and how the hero’s going to get to his next destination without a ride, since you can’t exactly expect an animal to remain exactly where you stepped off and abandoned it.
Some horses will certainly stay where they’re put for a variety of reasons — they’ve been trained for that behavior like with ground-tying, they don’t have anything better to do, there isn’t anything interesting around, they’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re the closest thing to a herd, they like you and think it’s cute how helpless you are — but blithely expecting it in all situations with all horses is a recipe for disaster. (Yes, I have known people who’ve made a long walk home on foot because they assumed a horse they didn’t even know would stay where they left it.)
There are plenty more blunders waiting to trip you up when it comes to writing horses, but don’t worry… there’s an awful lot more to come in my horse writing series. Have questions about writing horses? Leave a comment below, or send me a message! I’d love to answer your questions in future blog posts.
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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!