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How to Write about Horses

This blog post first appeared on, June 4, 2018.


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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

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Christmas on the War Front

Recently, we looked at what Christmas was like on the home front. You can read about that here. I’ve also drawn names for the winners of two WWII Christmas-themed books! Announcing them a little later….

While there’s much about a home-front Christmas, it was a little more challenging to find war-front Christmas information in a way that was, shall we say, pleasant. There are many photos of soldiers receiving packages from home, celebrating tiny celebrations with makeshift trees, and greeting their loved ones on a furlough home.

A friend of mine, Russ Schaefer, who is in heaven now, served in Patton’s Third Army during Battle of the Bulge. He told me he remembers standing guard until his fingers and toes were purple; he suffered hypothermia. Yet, when he’d used to sit behind me in church and we’d shake hands in greeting, his hands were always so warm, so comforting.

But it was anything but warm or comforting during Battle of the Bulge in 1944. American soldiers were spread 75 miles down the Ardennes Forest, and there was really no hope in sight for setting aside the time for celebration. However, on Christmas Eve, the soldiers in Bastonge, Belgium had quite the experience. Upon opening a bottle of champagne, the blackened room the soldiers were in lit up with the affects of a screaming bomb as it dropped from an enemy plane. The unmarked hospital next door was in shambles, killing a total of 20 people, including Renee Lemaire, who had helped in the hospital. Below is a letter of commendation from the battalion surgeon:

SUBJECT: Commendation for Renee Bernadette Emilie Lemaire (deceased)

To: Commanding General 10th Armored Division.APO 260, US Army (Attn: Division Surgeon) Thru Channels:

As Battalion Surgeon, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, I am commending a commendation for Renee Lemaire on the following evidence:

This girl, a registered nurse in the country of Belgium, volunteered her services at the aid station, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion in Bastogne, Belgium, 21 December, 1944.  At this time the station was holding about 150 patients since the city was encircled by enemy forces and evacuation was impossible.  Many of these patients were seriously injured and in great need of immediate nursing attention.  This girl cheerfully accepted the herculean task and worked without adequate rest or food until the night of her untimely death on 24 December, 1944.  She changed dressings, fed patients unable to feed themselves, gave out medications, bathed and made the patients more comfortable, and was of great assistance in the administration of plasma and other professional duties.  Her very presence among those wounded men seemed to be an inspiration to those whose morale had declined from prolonged suffering.  On the night of December 24 the building in which Renee Lemaire was working was scored with a direct hit by an enemy bomber.  She, together with those whom she was caring for so diligently, were instantly killed.

It is on these grounds that I recommend the highest award possible to one, who though not a member of the armed forces of the United States, was of invaluable assistance to us.

Captain, M.C.

Renee Bernadette Emilie Lemaire
Place du Carre 30
Bastogne, Belgium

Source: Battle of the Bulge Memories

Thanks for everyone who entered the giveaway! Now … Announcing the winners of two WWII Christmas-themed books:

  • Lisa H. — wins Ace Collins’s novel
  • Connie S. — wins Barb Warner Deane’s novel
  • Winners have been notified by email.

Photos depicting wartime celebration on the war front, receiving packages at mail call, soldiers greeting their family and girlfriends on a furlough, a wartime wedding, and many postcards that were sent to the men on the front. Oh, and chocolate! Must have chocolate!


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Horses During World War Two

horses-world-war-two-barbara-fox-tisha-martin-historical-fiction-history-horseI’m excited to welcome guest blogger, Barbara Ellin Fox, today because we speak the same language. Horses. We both write about horses in our books, so it’s a double delight to host her!

In my WWII novel-in-progress, my character Laurie wants to help retrain retired cavalry horses with her stepmother.

Barbara’s here to share the history of the mounted cavalry and why it disbanded during World War Two. The cavalry didn’t entirely dispose of their horses, though—continue reading to find out what they actually did with their horses! We’re ready, Barbara!

The United States military has been steeped in cavalry tradition from the days of the Declaration of Independence. The Cavalry represents honor and valor, brave men dashing to the rescue of the weak and saving the day. Officers are the heroes and gentlemen of stories and we picture their bold horses as sacrificial, giving their lives, lying down to provide cover for the soldier under fire, slogging through the mud, and bonding with man on long bivouacs. Needless to say, cavalrymen were passionate about the path to which they devoted their lives and the horses that helped them. And when talk about mechanizing the cavalry and doing away with horses began during WWI, the pro and con arguments were strong and remained so even after the military became totally mechanized in 1942. To read more about these arguments visit In Defense of the Horse .


To have a general idea of the process of going from a horsed military to mechanized, a reader needs an overview of how horses were governed in the military. In 1908 the Congress authorized the formation of the Remount Service to obtain horses, care for and give them basic training before providing them to units. Prior to the Remount Service the Quartermaster Department obtained and trained the animals. The Remount also supervised the Army breeding program from which they selected horses for the military. The Remount supplied horses to the Cavalry and the Field Artillery, as well as any other branch requesting them.

The Cavalry School was at Fort Riley, Kansas, but horses were used at the other forts for military training, and also for competition. Competition was keen between forts in polo, show jumping, cross country, fox hunting and all manner of horse sports, whether competitors be Field Artillery or Cavalry.  Field artillery horsemen rode the horses in addition to horses pulling weapons and supplies. Until the 1950s equestrian Olympic teams came from the cavalry and field artillery horsemen.


Forts housed large numbers of horses. In 1918, Camp Cody in New Mexico could handle 10,000 horses. To see the vast stabling at a base like Camp Cody, Take a peek at this interesting video. At the beginning of WWII Fort Bliss housed 6,000 horses, not an uncommon number. During WWI approximately 571,000 horses and mules went through the Remount system.

The last war the U.S. depended on horses for battle was WWI. More than 243,000 horses were used by the American Expeditionary Forces, but in general, an estimated 8 million horses were used during WWI by the engaged countries, with almost two thirds of the horses used by England and France coming from the U.S. and Canada.

Horses were not only used to carry men into battle, they pulled guns and supplies and also carried the wounded to safety. Horses could pull through the mud and bad conditions motorized vehicles could not. And they were faster and handier through forests where vehicles could not go. At home, cavalry patrolled and protected U.S. Borders and coasts.

At the close of WWI, the Quartermaster Corps had 39 remount depots and could handle just under 230,000 horses at one time.

Voices in favor of a mechanized cavalry began during WWI (1914–1918) and continued through WWII (1939–1945) as the mounted cavalry went through the stages and process of becoming armored. Full mechanization became reality in 1942 but the process of de-horsing took longer.


In 1940 the military horse had been reduced in number to just under 17,000 plus 3,500 mules. 3,000 horses were requested by the Coast Guard for beach patrols but by 1944 they were no longer needed. Mules stayed in demand a bit longer than horses because they were used for pack in jungles and in the mountains.

Horses were not suddenly given up by the military, nor were they completely banished. The government maintains ceremonial horses today.  But the process to mechanization was slow and followed the orders for a unit to be mechanized, such as the 696th Armored Field Artillery Battalion which lost their horses on December 1, 1941. Occasionally units kept their horses until orders were received for overseas assignment as a dismounted unit, as did General Swift’s division in 1943.

Horses and equipment were turned in to the Quartermaster, and were transported to a remount depot in strategic locations in the U.S. Although the government transported horses by truck in convoy, the more common method was by train.  Twenty horses were loaded into each of 25 cars, allowing 500 horses to be transported at one time.  Horses were dispersed through public auctions.

An Act of Congress on July 1, 1948, transferred the Army Horse Breeding Program with all of the depots, equipment and breeding stock to the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Agriculture liquidated the breeding program the next year and sold everything at auction.

There are always unintended consequences with progress or change. Mechanization was hard on the cavalryman who loved his horse and way of life. Sadly, some were so blinded by their passion for the cavalry they were not able to accept the changes and became bitter. And mechanization of the cavalry moved our equestrian Olympic team into a new era in “civilian” hands. The bonus consequence came to the horse loving public by way of an influx of riding instructors with cavalry training and tradition. These cavalry instructors set U.S. horsemanship on a strong course for the future.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Barbara!

For Further Reading:

Lucian K. Truscott, Jr.’s book, The Twilight of the U.S. Cavalry, is an excellent source for further reading on this topic.

Barb Red Vest 2

About Barbara

Barbara Ellin Fox is a life-long horsewoman with a passion for writing. A riding instructor for more than 50 years her blog, The Riding Instructor, offered help to budding instructors for 10 years. Passionate about the history of riding in America she also writes U.S. Horsemanship, a blog to help preserve our riding culture for future generations.

A fiction writer, with a tag line “love, hope, healing and horses,” Barbara writes romance about passionate horsewomen. Rylie loves Grand Prix jumping, Kristi has a heart for America’s wild horses, and Lizzie lives for Thoroughbred racers. Each woman has her own baggage and wounds to overcome. And they all come up against cowboys who are unprepared for the heroine’s unwavering commitment to the horses.

Barbara lives in the MidWest with her horses and husband. Her two grown daughters and teenage granddaughter live nearby. Barbara would love to connect with you on her blogs or social media to chat about horses, answer horse related questions, or talk about love and God.

Connect with Barbara:

Barbara’s Author Page

U.S. Horsemanship blog

The Riding Instructor blog

Barbara on FaceBook

Barbara on Pinterest

The Riding Instructor on FaceBook

The Riding Instructor on Pinterest

Barbara on Twitter


Let’s Discuss!

Reader, thinking about the cavalrymen during the wars and how much they loved their horses, I’d like to know…

What brings you pleasure?

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D-Day Plane Takes Flight + Sundin Giveaway Winner

Sundin February 2018 Winner Announced

This article from The New York Times is perfect timing because today we’re announcing the winner of Sarah Sundin’s latest release, The Sea Before Us! Wow, I am so thrilled at the volume of entries and comments! Thank you for participating and for suggesting some really neat places to visit!

Two Alabama historians purchased a military transport plane that stormed the air on Operation Overlord, June 6, 1944. According to The New York Times article, Doug Rozendaal, the pilot in command for the test flight of “That’s All, Brother,” said every C-47 is unique. “It’s not really an airplane — it’s kind of a person, and you come to know each one,” he said in a video recorded before the flight.

You have got to check out this article! Look at pictures of the 1944 plane, watch a few engaging videos, and see what’s in store for That’s All, Brother!

Read A D-Day Plane Is Flying Again!

There were over 320 entries for Sarah’s latest novel. Thank you to everyone who participated and shared their favorite place to travel.
The winner of The Sea Before Us is:

  • Judy M.

Congratulations, Judy! Enjoy your book!

Next month, we’ll interview Author Rick Barry and you’ll have the chance to participate in another book giveaway and learn of his recent success tied to this action-packed book. Stay tuned! I cannot wait to share!
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Novel Research: Caring for Polio Patients

Tall and Proud book
The book that inspired it all.

I’ve enjoyed exploring YouTube for research information for my #WWII #HistoricalFiction novel in progress. Laurie Adams is a feisty sixteen-year-old who has her life planned. She’s going to retrain retired cavalry horses with her new stepmother. But sometimes life has different plans, and what we want isn’t necessarily what we need. Laurie’s blindsided when she contract polio.

Now she must fight for her health in hopes of reaching her dream.

Enjoy this video of a nurse caring for a polio patient. Laurie’s condition isn’t this severe, but it does put life into perspective when you see what some patients so bravely endured and conquered.

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Perspective: Polio Interview with Starr Tillman

Since I enjoy researching and writing about the WWII American home front and polio, I’m delighted to introduce you to my friend, Starr. I met Starr through the Post Polio Facebook page and I was so inspired by her love for life and her beautiful heart. As I got to know her, it became apparent that a beautiful heart is all about having the right perspective. Starr, thanks for letting me interview you and for sharing your life with us.

1940s wheelchair
1940s wheelchair

My character, Laurie, contracts polio in 1943, a time when America was engulfed in the throes of a world war, but also, fighting a home front war, the war against the crippling disease. What is your polio story?

Starr — Where should I begin. I have thought about it for a long time. I became sick at age 6 months old. I was born to teenage parents, Mom was 16 and Dad 15. They did what all parents do and I was vaccinated on schedule. It was my third dose, which was the live virus which I contracted polio. I have had good times, bad time, sad and happy. But looking back I would not change a thing. It is what made the person I am. It got me to where I am today. I love my life and I feel very blessed.

I know hospitals are not fun, but you’ve talked about some fascinating stories between you and a boy you met while in the hospital. What is your favorite memory?

Starr — This is an easy memory for me. Christmas Eve, the hospital was empty just a few of us there. They would take us to the auditorium and show Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers. We had popcorn and laughed a lot. My husband and I were friends back then. We both were in and out of the hospital and it seemed it was always at the same time.

I’m sure being in and out of the hospital was a love-hate relationship, especially because your best friend became your husband. 🙂

How did you spend your summers after polio?

The Eye of the Mustang
Sister, the Paint Mustang

Starr — Well, I discovered early on that I was different. I didn’t go outside that often, most were spent indoors either at home or the hospital. But I found ways to enjoy the change of seasons. I watched the colors change, and saw life from a window. In my teens, my parents bought a horse, they thought it would be good therapy. And it was, because the horse became my legs. I was able to go where ever I wanted. I know this sounds strange but I would go to a grave yard with a pad of paper and draw nature. And talk to the graves as if they were old friends.

My character had a horse, too, and had to learn how to ride again. Riding is wonderful therapy for anyone.

How did you meet your husband?

Starr — We met when we were six. Both in the hospital for two different reasons. We were on mats in physical therapy waiting our turn. He and another boy were behind me laughing. They took turns pulling on my pig tails. I cried and they [nurses] had to take me back to my room. Yes, and I married him. But there were many stories between then and our marriage.

That’s funny and cute. I’m sure he’s glad you decided to marry him, too.

What is your hobby?

Starr — I have many. I paint, draw, write poems, write short stories, crochet, cook, compose music and play many instruments. I sang and gardened prior to PPS.

I enjoy poetry and the hope it gives. You wrote a poem about “Whispers of Heaven.” I liked this section you wrote:

A life unvarnished rattled with pain

And back to this life I did reclaim

The time has since has passed seeming far away

But still I am here and will remain

thinking of time and that I must stay

For all we are now, and all we’re to be

We must follow the path that leads to thee

I know not where nor do I the time

What life I now have alone it is mine

But knowing what waits beyond is not pretend

For each of us holds to love when it’s our life’s end.

From my research, I’ve learned that Post Polio is a syndrome where the challenges of polio come back after a 20-40 year span. What is your approach to PPS?

Starr — I deal with it day by day. I try to enjoy every day, and am very thankful that I am here. Because I know life can be gone in an instant.

Through your life experience, how have you become a better person?

Starr — I am more sensitive to other people feelings, and am very patient.

People/things that make you happy?

Starr — Well right now it is being a grandmother. I have wanted to be one for such a long time.

Who was instrumental in shaping you into the wonderful person you are today?

1940s ApronStarr — I would have to say my Mom, because she pushed me. She was hard on me, but did it to make me stronger. And also all the staff at the children’s hospital I spent most of my life in.

Encouraging advice to others, and something that I can infuse into my own character’s life?

Starr — Never be defeated, defeat the circumstance. Let go of pain, both emotional and physical. And last is to forgive all those who have hurt you, and forgive yourself. It will lift such a weight off you. I have found that if you allow the sorrow to fill you with hate, you will never have the love you seek.

Thanks for sharing with us today, Starr! Your story is beautiful, inspiring, and a great reminder that we can have confidence no matter what we go through. We all have challenges in life, and I’m encouraged by your outlook on life.


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Wartime Etiquette

social etiquette during world war two

In times of war, drastic measures must be taken, but according to Emily Post, a man or woman must not abandon his or her etiquette just because a war’s on. In her 913-page volume of “Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage,” dear Emily Post devotes the very last section to wartime etiquette because Congress had made new rules regarding social etiquette. And it’s really quite interesting.

In 1943, Congress suggested corrections and additions to social etiquette. Here are a few:

Junior Reserve Officers’ Dislike of “Mister”

The junior officers thought it impractical etiquette to be addressed as “Mister.” On page 876a, “As they themselves put it, they are in the service ‘just to fight’ and they don’t want to wait to be called by their military titles until they have reached senior grade. Therefore, the title “Mister,” always used on certain occasions by the Regulars, is shunned by the Reserves, and “Lieutenant This” and “Ensign That,” or even Ensign with no name following it — is frankly preferred” (876a-876b).

No Man In Uniform Doffs Hat

While a civilian must remove his hat when in the presence of a lady, a military man is not permitted to remove his hat in public (876b).

*This is why the courier does not remove his hat when delivering a wartime telegram to Laurie’s dad in the first chapter of my novel.

Women Wearing Miniature Insignia

Wives, mothers, sisters, and best girls are not permitted to wear full sized insignia under Army or Navy regulations (876b).

*My character Laurie wears a two miniature insignia to support her dad and best friend who serve in the Army and Army Air Corps.

If you have any bit of military etiquette that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Photo cred:


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Vintage Lane: WWII

Along my research route, I’ve enjoyed collecting various items to use as tangible description in my novels.

Left to Right: V-Mail letter from a soldier to his parents; WWII civil engineer uniform; V-Mail reader and desk organizer; Victory garden cookbook; license plates from 1944.

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WWI Novel in Pictures

There are few books–non-fiction and fiction–books on America during WWI, although I’ve seen some crop up here and there in the last several years. I’m in the middle of planning a second novel, set in WWI Chicago and migrating to Fort Riley, Kansas. While my plot is still in the elementary stages, I’ve put together a collection of visual images of items, settings, and characters for the novel.

Left to Right by Row:

  1. Yeast Foam makes tasty buckwheat cakes.
  2. Army barracks, circa. 1920, Fort Riley, Kansas.
  3. Delivering milk.
  4. Preparing apples on the front porch.
  5. Cattle ranch, Kansas.
  6. Farmhouse.
  7. November 11, 1918 newspaper headline.
  8. Oreo “sandwich,” 1913.
  9. Two mischievous brothers breaking the wishbone.
  10. Sugar rationing in WWI. (I wonder, what other sweeteners did they use?)


Photo Credits: Pinterest

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Peanut Butter and Pickles

In today’s fast-paced society where food is easily accessible and readily available, I’ve often wondered what school-age students ate for lunch in the 1940s. Of course, they ate what we generally eat today (minus all the fast-food); but as I was perusing a cookbook from the 1940s, I was amused to see how precise each section was, and especially the chapter on “The School Lunch.” According to The American Woman’s Cookbook of 1940, published for the Culinary Arts Institute, a child’s school lunch should contain all of the essentials so that he/she will be able to prochildren-eating-lunchperly attend to schoolwork. On page 60, the American Woman’s Cookbook states:

  1. [The school lunch] should be abundant in amount for a hungry, healthy child. A little too much is better than too little.
  2. It should be chosen with regard to the nutritive needs of the child and in relation to the whole day’s food.
  3. It should be clean, appetizing, wholesome and attractive.

Each lunch item was individually wrapped in wax paper, with the heavier items on the bottom, and placed inside the lunch box in the order the food was to be eaten first. I wonder, did children know what to eat first?

What stood out to me was that this small chapter devoted to the school lunch emphasized the value of the meal, made “carefully and well” (60). Mothers packed one of every food group in each school lunch. Fruits and vegetables, the book said, “are not always easy to include in the school lunch, yet if the child is to be well nourished, some way must be devised to get them in” (61). Perhaps it was hard to get fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter time, but that’s why gardening and canning was vital to the American family. I appreciated the determination presented in this chapter to find a way no matter what.

It may seem strange to learn a lesson from reading a chapter about preparing a child’s school lunch, but I’m glad there was a time in history when people cared about even the smallest details.

Even though our lunches may not be wrapped in wax paper and placed in a tin box, I think we’re getting back to the organic way of eating, but would you want to try a peanut butter and onion sandwich? Or how about a peanut butter and pickle sandwich?

Photo Credit: