Elaine Walker: Writing Horses

Elaine Walker - Virtual writer-in-residence - October 2012
Elaine writes fiction and non-fiction about the horse. Her work has been featured at The Guardian Hay Festival and translated into several languages. Her book The Horses, mentioned in this piece, is an excellent post Apocalyptic story, in which a family who have been holidaying in remote Scotland find that everyone who lived in any community numbering more than a few is dead. The family are trying to survive on a Scottish farmstead, but life is desperately difficult, particularly when the family’s father dies. And then the horses come...

As well as lecturing in Creative Writing and English Literature, Elaine offers bespoke courses and mentoring in Creative Writing. Mention Jane Badger Books for a discount on courses and copies of Elaine's books - you can contact her via her website.

Writing horses

Following on from last week, reading about horses can easily develop into writing about horses. If you're already a writer, you'll be familiar with the advice to 'write what you know'. If you're not, it's likely to come up not only in the first 'how-to' creative writing book you pick up but also in every one after that and any creative writing course you choose! That's because it's very good advice, though not as simple as it seems.

First of all, what you know can be so familiar that it's easy to overlook its value. Even if you don't want to write about a horse you struggle to catch every day, there's a huge amount of resource in that situation, from frustration to ingenuity, that could feed into a piece that doesn't feature horses at all. But assuming you do want to write about them, your own experience can add authenticity, which is always a good thing for a writer. However, as knowledge is shaped by individual perception and interest, a personal 'skills audit' can be very useful.

I learned to ride in traditional BHS style from the age of 5 but I've now been a western rider for over 20 years. I keep up with developments in understanding horses as herd animals in the way we manage and train them. My Appaloosas and donkeys live in a herd and they are all barefoot. I also know about the roots of classical riding through years of research on the first Duke on Newcastle. These are the things, in horsey terms, that I know and can write about confidently. But to write about a show-jumper or carriage driving in the 18th century, I'd have to do a lot of research. My own knowledge of horses would be a good general starting point, but I could make serious mistakes if I relied solely on it. Writing what you know has to be supported by finding out what you need to know and adding that to the knowledge store. 

Reader knowledge is also something every writer on any subject needs to take into account. I remember reading a novel where a previously healthy horse died overnight - the owner took one look at its body and decided it had died of founder. My faith in the whole novel was undermined but it was a good reminder for me as a writer - any feature of a story that stops the reader reading is a problem. Better to have the shock of a mysterious death to shake up the hero's journey than explain it with something that makes no sense to anyone who knows what it means.  

While it's clearly not a good idea to use terms we don't understand when we're writing outside our own area of expertise, even what we think is accurate can trip us up. It's very common to read that dressage has its roots in training for the battlefield - I accepted that myth myself until I started working on Renaissance horsemanship manuals and realized how untrue it is. Thorough research is key to making sure we don't trot out common misconceptions - and before you rely on Wikipedia, try using it to look up a subject you know really well. Then when you've stopped laughing, search out information written by named subject experts, or websites run by universities or organisations that catalogue reliable websites on specific subjects. Pictures can be useful for historical research and story ideas - eBay is a great source for original images.

And talking about trotting things out - writing about horses is rife with cliché. Avoid this like a horse that's advertised as 'in need of experienced rider'! Cliché is reliable as a means of easy communication and its familiarity can be a writer's comfort blanket. Some clichés, like the thunder of hooves, are accurate, just overworked.  But some are both worn out and unhelpful. If I say my horse runs like the wind, you're likely to understand that she gallops at an impressive speed. But do you really get the feel of her movement or do you just know what I mean? If I want my reader to share the experience, I need to create the situation in the mind's eye, not just tick some 'quick recognition' box in the brain. I try to do that by remembering an experience vividly and getting to the feeling of it. In The Horses (p. 138), Jo says that Grey took off at the gallop, 'his back legs thrusting so hard to power his movement that I could feel his hip joints right beneath me'. That is rooted in the memory of my own horse, Darius, leaping away up a bridlepath because, just as I asked him to canter, a herd of cows came lumbering up to the hedge!

If you don't know horses but you want to write about them, you have a different challenge. The cliché of silky manes is a good example - adult horsehair is typically quite wiry, unless it's conditioned and brushed regularly. But silky sounds more romantic than, 'he had a mane you could slice a finger on'. There's the problem - horses have a romantic image created largely by writers!  We want them to gallop out of the sunset, glimmering in its fiery glow, just as the hero needs to leap into the saddle (and how many riders can do that?!). As the sun sets, my gang are more likely to be mooching around the field covered in mud and they might wander over if they spot me to see if I'm dishing out haylage. Real horses are a delight but they're not romantic. Yet far from undermining their image, their real-ness is what offers the writer something to work with - horses can be in tune with their human in a way that goes beyond any romance.  Writing from the senses rather than the imagination can help keep our writing grounded and there are several ways to do that. 

If you don't have real horses close by, try searching online for genuine footage of horses. Watch like a writer and look for the filter system the director's eye has created. Can you spot romanticism, elitism or even dislike for horses in the way they are presented?  But even in the middle of a city, you can often find urban horses and watching how they move and interact can be helpful. Talk to owners - most people love to talk about their horses and will happily give you far more material than you'd bargained for! 

If you can, talk to horses - many horses will wander over to inspect a stranger but be careful. While bad-tempered horses are usually made, not born, you don't want get on the wrong side of one with emotional baggage! Avoid approaching strange horses in a herd in the open as they might start milling around out of curiosity and you could get hurt - or chased by a suspicious owner. From a safe position on the far side of a fence, quietly offer the back of your hand for them to snuffle at. Horses get to know one another by scent so let them smell you. If you want to be scientific about it, you can avoid wearing anything perfumed that day. Don't pat them - horses usually prefer to be stroked or scratched. Listen to the sounds they make and watch the way they interact - jot down in your writer's notebook (because you always carry a writer's notebook, of course) words that come into your mind. Don't work at this, just write them down. The worst excesses of over-writing come from working too hard at being imaginative. Trust your imagination to kick in without help once you feed it. 

Horses provide good food for the imagination. They are big enough to be impressive but friendly enough to engage with. Watch them under saddle - are their heads strapped down or are they moving out freely? Are they fighting the rider or relaxed? Are they shod or barefoot? Do they put their ears back at other horses or people or prick them up? Are their tails still or swishing continually? What can you learn from that? Be careful that your own prejudices or snippets of received information don't mislead you. If you've known them all your life, try to un-imagine - what if everything you know is wrong? What if you were seeing them for the first time?

Writing about horses can help us see them more clearly, whether we've known them all our lives or only ever encountered them in a book. Writing offers perspective, challenges our assumptions and opens up doors in the mind we probably didn't even know were closed!

From reader to writer - for your own pleasure or with serious aspirations about publication - it doesn't matter why you want to write about horses, but once you do, really get to know them then don't work too hard at it. They'll almost write themselves if you let them.

Elaine Walker
All images © Elaine Walker, except Coldingham Beach, © Jane Badger

Next week: 
Writing horses 2 - poems inspired by my own horses

Previous posts:
Reading Horses


What an enjoyable post--thanks! I've been chuckling about the "silken manes" all day. Deceptive things--groomed manes *look* silky, but they don't feel that way! I think this post will serve as a vaccination for writers...I know I will think twice before mentioning silken manes again! I enjoyed this peek into the writing process (love the pictures too).
Christine said…
A great post! I did have a chuckle about the comment about using Wikipedia to look up a topic you're very familiar with - too true!

I'm writing a novel currently and some information does indeed write itself! Others require research but I want to know I have things right!
mokey said…
Silken manes exist! LOL - my good friend has a gorgeous palomino gelding who has extremely silken locks!

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