Everyone knows that the chosen one must have a chosen horse, a beast so noble and strong of will that no other warrior can ride it. Or maybe not? It turns out that horses are complicated animals, and they don’t always go along with human plans. Fortunately, we have special guest Kathy Ferguson here to talk horse-shop with us today. We’ll look at some common misconceptions about horses, what it’s like to train a horse, using horses in battle, and of course, elephants. For some reason.
Generously transcribed by Bellis. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
CHRIS: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
OREN: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast on the road. I’m Oren, with me today is…
OREN: And joining us once again is our special guest, Kathy Ferguson.
OREN: Kathy is one of our very generous patrons. Last time we talked about political theory in Star Trek with her, which is her class. Today we’re going to be talking about another passion of Kathy’s, which are horses. So my first question is, Kathy, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, how did they make the horses invisible? [laughter] Like, I don’t really understand that part.
KATHY: [joking] With coconuts they bang together to make horse noise. Yeah, that’s how that works.
OREN: It’s just how it happens. All right. So horses are a big part of speculative fiction, particularly fantasy. You see them sometimes in scifi, but in fantasy they’re all over the place. Cause that’s how you move around when you don’t have a car. So, first thing I figure we can talk about is, what are some really common things that people get wrong about horses?
KATHY: Okay. Well, that’s a great question. I think that the heart of many of the– I would attribute to two things, the heart of many of the really poor portrayals of horses in fiction. And one is just ignorance, that some authors seem willing to just know nothing about horses and kind of think it’s in the “everybody knows that” category when it isn’t.
And so they say things that are elementary mistakes, or they do things that are elementary mistakes. They have their characters do things that would never work, because horses aren’t like that. And those are the ones that just make you roll your eyes. Like I just can’t believe you just had a horse pull a plough straight up and down a hill. A horse would never do that. You’d go sideways, horizontally on the hill, you don’t go vertically up and down a hill.
OREN: Yeah, horses just don’t do great with quick changes in elevation. That includes 45° charges into a bunch of orcs.
KATHY: Yeah, or running headlong down a very steep mountain. Horses wouldn’t do that. They sit back on their haunches, they do what you and I would do going down a hill, only with four legs, they sit back on their haunches and put their legs out and brace themselves and kind of slide. They don’t gallop down as though it were level.
OREN: Mhm, that’s a good way to fall right over.
KATHY: Yeah, exactly. So that’s one thing, is ignorance and a willingness to not look that up. I mean, to not do the research.
And then the other is more philosophical and that is when horses are used sometimes in ways that are thought to be benevolent and sometimes in ways that are more grim, but the horses are used as though they were tools for us to do something with, that they weren’t beings in their own right. That they didn’t have their own, that they didn’t have a world.
Whereas there’s a horse world and it’s complicated and interesting. And we can know it to some degree by getting familiar with it. But they’re not just, it’s not like just a hammer, or any old metaphor. Horses are often used to portray all that is noble and free, but it’s still reducing the living being to what we need it to be.
OREN: Yeah. One thing that I definitely noticed with people who spend a lot of time with horses is that horses have a personality. You get to know them. In the same way that you would get to know a dog or a cat and be like, “My dog has this personality trait that other dogs don’t have.” It’s not all just, you know, equine instinct.
KATHY: And if somebody asks you, how do you know your dog is expressing happiness or feeling afraid? You would answer by showing how you’ve come to know the dog through a relationship, and then you can generalize to some degree to other dogs, but because they all have their own personalities, you couldn’t generalize entirely.
Well, horses are like that too and they have personalities. They have certain traits that they tend to share. They tend to be curious. They tend to like routine. They tend to be easily startled by fast moves or loud noises, although they can be trained to tolerate those things. They’re eminently trainable, most of the time, you’ve got a few that will resist you.
So you can generalize about a horse world, but you also just simply have to get to know the individual.
OREN: I would be curious to know your thoughts on a very common trope that I see a lot, which is that to be the best warrior, you need to have the Best Horse. And so you need to find the horse that nobody else can train. And then you have to show that you can master that horse. And then like, now you are the coolest.
CHRIS: There’s also just the whole fantasy thing about, just like you have a named sword, you need the best– It’s not always like, sometimes it’s like, this horse won’t let any other rider ride them, but you got to tame the horse. But there’s also just like, the king has the Best Horse in the stable. But what is “the Best Horse”?
OREN: Right. Who is Best Horse? Well, that’s my favorite part of Lord of the Rings, is that from what they describe, what you see in the movies and even what they just describe about Shadowfax, Gandalf’s horse, you expect that he came down from fantasy heaven or whatever when Gandalf returned from the grave. But no, he was just in King Theoden’s stables.
CHRIS: He, what?
OREN: Yeah. That’s where Gandalf–
CHRIS: Cause Gandalf is so badass, he has to have a horse that’s the king of the horses. The Best Horse in the entire world.
OREN: Right. And is Shadowfax an absolute monarch or a constitutional monarch? I really want to know these questions. [Chris laughs] But no, in the actual backstory, Gandalf, after he came back from the dead, went to Theoden and was like, “I need your best horse” and then took him–
CHRIS: The Best Horse.
OREN: Best Horse. And that’s one of the things that Wormtongue in the book uses to try to keep Theoden from helping Gandalf is, “Man, that wizard just came by and took your best horse, like he’s the king of horses. He’s not the king of horses. You’re the king of horses!” Cause that’s one of the things about the book that’s better than the movie is that Wormtail is actually kind of persuasive instead of being obviously evil.
But anyway, Kathy, we’ve got a little bit off track.
CHRIS: So tell us about this idea of “best horse”.
KATHY: Well, I think there’s a lot that’s going into that. And one is just the sheer status that the more powerful people would claim. So they need the best horse the same that they need the best robe or the most impressive beard, that it’s just a question of claiming status in the group.
And chances are everybody in that group who has a horse, probably their horse has a name. But we only know the name of the leaders’ horses because they’re the ones that make it into the text.
So part of it is status, but another part of it is function. There are certain things that horses will do without elaborate training. Like they have natural gaits: walk, trot and the canter are horses’ natural gaits. Most horses. But they can be trained for other gaits. And depending on the circumstances, for example, if the horse needs to pull a vehicle of some kind over a long distance, you might want them to pace, which is a different gait. And some horses pace naturally, but most have to be taught.
So that function would be another one. This is more grim, but if your horse is a war horse: Horses, left to their own devices will not attack people. It’s very rare that a horse, even an aggressive horse– they might bite you if you get too close, but they won’t go after you and bite you.
OREN: Right. They’re not predators.
KATHY: No, they’re not. They run when they can. So to get a horse to, say, step on protesters or charge into the ranks of people who are on foot, you have to actively train a horse. So in old westerns where you want somebody to be endangered in a stampede, it has to be a stampede of cattle because cattle will step on anything. So if you fall down in front of a herd of stampeding cattle, you’re literally meat because you’ll get ground up with all those sharp hooves. The horses will part and go around you. They won’t step on you if they don’t have to. So training a horse to hurt a person is an intervention that people have to do. So if the leader needs to go into battle and use the horse as a weapon, then the Best Horse would be a horse that has the size and the agility for that, and the temperament that allows that kind of training.
OREN: And just as a minor note for anyone who wants to write epic fantasy battles with cavalry charges: In most cases – you know, there are never a hundred percent – but most of the time a cavalry charge is used to exploit a break in the enemy line because usually even really well-trained horses will not charge onto spears. Because, first of all, they have self preservation, but even if you could get them to do that, that’s a good way to lose all of your really expensive horses.
So instead what you use the cavalry for is, you see an opening and then the cavalry exploit it and drive a wedge through that opening and break up the enemy formation. Or for pursuing a fleeing enemy. That’s the other thing cavalry is really useful for, but this idea of taking a bunch of heavy cavalry and charging a well-ordered spear line is no. No, no, no, no, no. Don’t do that if you care about your battle being realistic.
CHRIS: So it seems like in this case, a Best Horse would be a really well-trained horse.
KATHY: Yeah. Yeah, and dependable. Horses can be trained. You can anticipate the likely disruptive events that will happen in the circumstances the horse is going to be in and you can retrain them. For a classic one, this was in the first chapter of the old novel Black Beauty, is in Victorian times, horses had to be trained to put up with trains. Because there were a lot of trains. And so you put a horse in a pasture next to a train and the first dozen times they hear the train, they freak out, they run to the other side, they stand there trembling because it’s noisy and it has this loud whistle and it’s scary. And then the horse gets used to it.
Horses are creatures of habit and training a horse means creating new habits. And so it requires patience. And in the old days, I remember when I was a kid, my dad spent some years as a young man as a cowboy and the cowboys used the language of “breaking horses” and breaking is basically using brute force to win…
OREN: Yeah, to wear down the horse’s resistance.
KATHY: …to wear down the horse. But my dad taught me to gentle a horse, not break it. And if you gentle a horse that takes longer, it requires much more patience, but it’s a much more reliable training device in the long run because it builds a positive relation to the horse. And it’s more reliable. The horse is not as likely to go against its training because the training– It doesn’t resent the training.
Horses actually often like to do work. They’re like many species of dogs, they like to herd or they like to hunt or something like that. Well, horses tend to like to do things. And so you don’t have to force them to carry a rider, run long distances, jump over things. You have to train them to do it when and where you want them to.
OREN: Although when you were first saying that, I misheard and I thought you were talking about hunting horses. And I was like, oh goodness, that sounds terrifying. [laughter]
I would also say that gentling a horse sounds like it’s better on the trainer’s mental health, because that way you don’t have to be mean to a horse.
CHRIS: Yeah. I mean the idea of, “I love horses and now I’m going to go traumatize the horse” sounds just terrible.
OREN: I’m not super into it.
KATHY: No. It’s bad, it’s not good for anybody.
OREN: So I actually have more questions about horse training. Cause I remember one of the things that really bothered you about War Horse, the movie, is that when the protagonist wants to teach his horse to do something, he does it himself while the horse is watching as if the horse will understand.
KATHY: [joking] Yeah, like: “Here, do this.”
OREN: So how would you actually do that? Like, train a horse to jump over something?
KATHY: Yeah. Well, the horse really doesn’t care if a person jumps over it, but they might get the idea if another horse jumps over it. So you often train a horse with another horse and that especially works well for babies because they do what their moms do.
But it often works when you’re out on a cross country ride and you have a horse that won’t take a particular hurdle, you have somebody go right in front of that horse. On on another horse, obviously. And so if the willing horse jumps the hurdle, the reluctant horse will come behind and jump the hurdle. So you train a horse with another horse. That’s one big thing.
And then you train them in little steps. Horses don’t like to go from A to F without passing through B, C, D and E. So a little at a time, a little at a time. So you make sure that you get them accustomed to a halter, which is just a simple leather or rope or some material with no bit. Just goes around the head. And you then move to, once they are used to having something on their head– and that’s a huge thing, it’s getting the horse trained to have it’s head touched, because horses are used to being prey. Genetically, they had to survive in a world where they were prey. And so anything coming at their heads, they will shy away from it unless they’re used to it.
And so you go from the halter to the bridle, the bridle has a bit. And it has rains. And then you put a saddle pad on the horse first and get them used to that. And then you put a saddle. And then you tighten the cinch, and then you tighten the cinch a little more. And only after you’ve got the horse used to all those things, would you put a rider up.
And if the horse bucks you off, that means you go back a few steps as opposed to forcing the situation and winning. What you want is to bring the horse along.
OREN: So this suggests to me that those fantasy tropes where there’s the one horse that no one can control, except for the main character can control the horse, that going from the stage of getting the horse to take a carrot from you or something to riding across the desert at a full gallop is maybe a little analogous to like the protagonist who’s never picked up a sword before, but is suddenly a master with it. This is skipping a lot of intermediate steps.
CHRIS: Turns out the protagonist is actually just the most patient person there. [laughter] And there was a bunch of offscreen scenes you didn’t see where the protagonist was like, okay, now put the pad on the horse’s back. You know, nobody was patient enough for this horse.
OREN: Got to do a horse training montage. [laughter]
CHRIS: I’d like to talk a little bit about travel with horses. Because traveling cross-country is a really big thing in fantasy. And I know one thing that I see a lot, that’s kind of funny, is usually when we see scenes of protagonists traveling with horses, they don’t have any bags. You know, it’s traveling, you got food, you have tents, you’ve got the tents, you’ve usually got stuff.
And so, from what I understand you usually need about double the amount of horses as people, because the horse can’t carry both the person and a whole bunch of bags, right. They have a limit to how much they can carry, so you would need, each person has two horses and one horse is just carrying bags.
Is there anything else? I guess they can’t cover all terrain, right? If it’s mountainous, maybe it’s not a great place for horses.
KATHY: Horses can do mountains, but they need to be like people, they need to do them slower. And horses that are going to be on rocky terrain need to have shoes. An unshod horse can run in a grassy pasture, but their feet are gonna split, their hooves are gonna split and they’re going to go lame if their feet aren’t protected with shoes on any kind of demanding terrain.
And then you have to be able to fix that because if you have a horse that throws a shoe, then they’re limping. And if you don’t fix it right away and you make them go, then that foot is likely to be harmed.
So, yes, you need a pack animal for any distance and the pack animal has to carry the stuff the person needs, but also the stuff the horses need, because if they’re really working hard, then just grazing isn’t probably enough nutrition. They’re gonna need grain.
CHRIS: And horses are particularly demanding when it comes to food, right? As opposed to like oxen and other animals, they need actual grains, not just…
KATHY: If they’re working, they need something that’s rich in calories. So a really good quality of hay, but hey is so bulky, you wouldn’t weigh a pack animal down with a ton of hay because it would just be too big, right. But you’d be wanting to carry grain.
Horses– Like my whole childhood, our ponies were turned out into a very rich grassy field and we didn’t feed them hay or grain, but they did very light work and their grass was very rich and they also had a salt block. So if you’ve got a horse that’s working hard every day… There’s a reason why every time you see a horse in the field – not every time, but nine times out of ten – if they’re not asleep, they’re grazing. They have to fill their stomachs all the time, they don’t just eat three meals a day. But if they’re working, then they’re not eating. And so when they do eat, the food has to deliver a better caloric punch, to make up for all those hours that they didn’t get to graze.
CHRIS: Do you know about how often they have to stop and rest? Because humans actually, I think, have a little bit more at least walking endurance than horses do.
KATHY: I don’t know. Horses can be trained to have a lot of endurance. There are endurance rides where people will go 75 miles. And they have horses that are trained to move at an almost effortless jog. So it’s not a walk, it’s not a full on trot, which is bouncy and thus harder on the rider. It’s a jog and you want a horse with a very smooth jog, so you can sit in the saddle, because if you have to rise to the trot for days at a time, it’s going to be pretty tiring on the rider. So definitely horses can be trained to better endurance.
CHRIS: As long as you’re not trying to go at full speed.
KATHY: Yeah, they can’t do that.
OREN: How much can a horse learn? Could you train a horse to do all the things that a war horse has to do, like charge into battle, but then also train them to do this long distance jog or is it just too much for their horse brains?
KATHY: It’s kind of too contradictory. It’s like training– It’s like trying to be extremely good at two very different sports. You need a different body type to carry, especially if you’re carrying armor and you’re charging into battle and you’ve got heavy weapons on you and you have to be willing to – cause we said before that you’re going to run over people or other horses. You have to be able to run at them and not go around them, which any reasonable horse would do.
And so if you’re gonna train a horse to be that aggressive, then to get it to calm down enough to jog along at a mild pace for hour after hour after hour, it would be an unusual horse that would be that flexible. You’ve like revved them up to be the aggressor. And to also then calm them back down so that instead of short bursts of major work, they do long extended periods of less demanding work. It requires a different musculature.
OREN: Right. See, different horses for different jobs. So sort of like why you wouldn’t want an Arabian thoroughbred racehorse to be your mountain pack animal. Like it just wouldn’t be good for that.
KATHY: Be a waste.
OREN: Yeah. Also be a waste of a very expensive horse. [laughter]
So here’s a question. What are some horse stories that you are very fond of? That is, stories that make use of horses in cool ways.
KATHY: In cool ways?
KATHY: Well, I dearly love Black Beauty.
OREN: Mhm, it’s a classic.
KATHY: And the Walter Farley series, the Black Stallion series is done with really fine attention to the horse. And then of course they’re very different, Black Beauty was a late 19th century children’s story. And so the horses are people essentially, they have full on conversations, they analyze their world in the same way that people do.
OREN: Right. They’re fully anthropomorphized.
KATHY: Whereas in the Black Stallion series, what Walter Farley does that is such a fine touch for an author is, he creates relationships between people and horses that let them know each other without collapsing the horse into the world of the person.
OREN: Do you remember, which? Was it in the Black Stallion series where there’s, the characters crashland on an Island with wild horses and the leader of the wild horses is like a supervillain horse?
KATHY: That might be one of the Black Stallion books.
OREN: It was a piebald, I remember that was how they described it, which just sounds like an evil description of a horse, but it’s actually just a kind of coloration.
KATHY: There are elements of several Walter Farley books that have what you described, but I can’t think of one that has them all. So there’s a plane crash in one of them where the main human character has amnesia and his relationship to the horse is what brings his memory back. There’s one where they’re on a desert island, but it was a ship wreck, not an airplane wreck…
OREN: Yeah that might be the one I’m thinking of.
KATHY: …and the horse basically saves the boy. There were others with kind of competing horses. That could be Farley, but I can’t identify which story.
OREN: I just remember how evil this horse sounded, I was like, man, that sounds like a bad horse. Just got to like, what made that horse so mean? Just hanging out on this island.
CHRIS: Can I just share what I think is my favorite funny horse trope, is…
CHRIS: …the instantly appearing horse.
OREN: Oh, yeah, that’s great.
CHRIS: [laughs] Where in a bunch of books and at least in speculative fiction, there’ll be just like a scene with characters around and they happen to be outside. And then when one of them needs a horse, there’s suddenly a horse there. [Oren laughs] And there’s never been established earlier that there’s a horse in this scene.
And usually it happens in books and this can happen with anything but I think it’s just particularly likely with horses. Because they’re first of all, large. So they’re big enough that the reader should know they’re already in the scene and they usually don’t come into play in the plot until it’s time for a character to travel. So as a result, writers have a habit of forgetting to mention them until it’s time for the character to ride their horse, and then, pop, there’s suddenly a horse there.
But I’ve also noticed it hilariously in a recent movie, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. They actually do this in a movie where there’s the Nutcracker, the character that’s called a Nutcracker, [disappointed:] he’s not really a nutcracker.
OREN: No, it’s not a good movie.
CHRIS: But he’s like a guard– Yeah, it’s not a good movie, but that’s what makes it hilarious.
He’s like a guard that is guarding this bridge that’s the border between two realms and he has this tiny little guard post that he stands in. And then the main character meets him, is like, “Hi, I’m the Nutcracker” and they have this whole conversation. Then it’s time for him to go somewhere and he’s like, “Here, I’ll ride my horse”. And it’s like, you were in a tiny guard station! There was no stable here. There’s– Where did this horse come from? [laughs] Just, no…
OREN: Yeah, I think that sort of comes from our tendency to treat horses as if they were cars with legs. This happens a lot, especially in video games. There was one video game that came out several years ago, it was called Shadow of the Colossus if I remember correctly, that got some heat from players because the horse acted too much like a horse. And they complained that you couldn’t just point the horse wherever you wanted to. Cause it would kind of do stuff on its own sometimes. And not like a lot. I barely noticed when I was playing, but I looked at some old reviews that were like, “This horse is too hard to control” and they made it sound like it’s too horse-like, “I would rather it be a car with legs, please”. [chuckles]
Another one weird trick that cavalries hate, if you’re thinking about doing more horse battles, is, a very good anti horse weapon is an elephant. Cause it turns out elephants are actually not that useful for war most of the time, because they are just not really built for it. And they are really big, but they’re actually fairly fragile, so they don’t last very long.
But they really freak horses out. Especially cause you have to train a horse to be used to something. And very few horses are trained to be used to elephants. So if your enemy has a lot of really great cavalry and you’ve got some elephants around, you can really cause some havoc that way.
So actually now that we’re coming towards the end, Kathy, I thought it might be good to mention what your background is with horses, because you clearly have a lot of passion for them.
KATHY: Yeah, well, I grew up with horses. I got my first pony when I was about two years old and her name was Penny. And then as I got older and bigger then my parents got me larger animals. Yeah, I named them rather unimaginative things like Flicka. There was a show, My Friend Flicka, that was popular when I was a child.
OREN: To be fair, almost no one listening to this will have any idea what that is.
CHRIS: Yeah, Flicka seems plenty imaginative to me!
KATHY: [laughs] And we raised horses. So every spring we had a crop of foals and I learned how to gentle a horse from having them sent, literally from birth.
And then as I got older, I became enamored with cross country jumping. And so I took a lot of lessons and whenever I could afford it, I would go to Ireland where they have magnificent cross-country facilities. And you can–
And fabulous horses that are usually, some of the best ones are a cross between a thoroughbred, which is a breed that gives you a lot of speed and delicacy, their bones are delicate, but they’re very fast, with a draft species, like a Shire or a Percheron, which are huge animals and thus not delicate. So when you cross a thoroughbred with a draft horse, you get a great combination of speed and sturdiness. And those horses can jump over just about anything.
OREN: Not going to lie: A Percheron sounds like a fantasy horse.
KATHY: A Percheron is a beautiful, big black work horse.
OREN: So one last thing I want to mention before we end the episode for today, I was actually surprised. I put this in the show notes as something that bothered me about horses, but Kathy pushed back on it a little bit, which is that I’ve always sort of thought that you can’t just get up on a horse and ride it without training. Cause I mean, maybe that’s just because I’m really bad at riding horses, but that bothers me in fiction.
Like there’s an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise where Tucker just gets up on a horse and rides it. And I just assumed Tucker knew how to ride a horse, but he makes a specific point of mentioning that he’s never done it before. And that to me, struck me as extremely unrealistic.
KATHY: It’s one of those– It depends. Tucker’s a pretty athletic guy, he’s in good shape. I’m gonna give him the benefit of doubt and say he has good balance. And half of riding is balance. So he could certainly get up on a reasonably well-trained horse and ride it at a controlled pace.
Now, what he’s probably not ready to do is gallop off into the sunset or trot for a long time, because trotting is a jarring pace, it bumps you up and down. So it depends on how the horse is trained and what other skills the rider has, but certainly to be halfway decent at it, you have to practice.
OREN: Alright, well, that is a good note to end this podcast on. Before we go, I’m going to thank our two most generous patrons. The first one is right here, Kathy Ferguson, so that’s easy.
KATHY: You’re welcome.
OREN: The other one is Ayman Jaber and you can look at his work on his blog at thefantasywarrior.com. And we just couldn’t do it without you guys. We really appreciate it. So otherwise, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise we will talk to you next week.
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