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How to Write about Horses

This blog post first appeared on http://www.kathleendenly.com, June 4, 2018.

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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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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 .

Artillery

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.

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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.

Ready-for-inspection

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.

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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

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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?