Writing Thoughts: Distance Traveling in Fantasy

When making up a fantasy realm, or any story involving long-distance trekking, people often include a staple creature: the horse.

LimshHorse

Art by limsh

But not every writer has ridden a horse, and fewer and fewer people have even touched one, let alone taken care of one. I guess there are exceptions, but even in those circumstances that does not make anyone an expert. But still, it’s important to learn whatever you can, when you can. Here’re a few things I’ve come across in my research regarding horses, riding, and how they may be applicable to a fantasy story.

Horses poop. A lot, and pretty often. As grazing animals, they spend a lot of time eating, and that continuous stream of fibrous material means frequent pit stops.

Horses do not whinny or neigh nearly as much as the movies would have you believe. Much like how swords should not be making a metal-on-metal shink! sound when drawn (don’t do that!), this is something depicted often in popular media. Horses communicate with much calmer sounds (as well as an array of body language), and generally only make the iconic sounds we’re used to hearing when extremely alarmed or irate. A battle scene? Sure. Walking along peacefully through the forest with nothing but a rider and some companions? More likely the horse is quiet.

A human can outdistance a horse. As reinforced in this article, humans can outrun dogs, wildebeest, even horses, after a certain period of time. The article gets into great detail…

“…what most sets us apart as runners is that we’re really cool—we naked apes are champion sweaters and can dissipate body heat faster than any other large mammal. Our main rivals for the endurance-running crown fall into two groups: migratory ungulates, such as horses and wildebeest, and social carnivores, such as dogs and hyenas. They can easily out-sprint us by galloping. But none can gallop very far without overheating…”

The way a friend described it to me was this: humans evolved, eventually, into predatory animals, but instead of the route in which lions and wolves took – which involved strategy, yes, but mostly sprinting and catching running animals – we grew not to match or overtake prey with speed, but with endurance. The simple scenario is sighting some antelope or what have you, beginning the chase with whatever tactic you have in mind, and then going after it. Eventually the animal would exhaust itself and all our ancestors need do was walk up to it, weapon-of-choice at the ready.

It can pay to have things like this in mind, whether designing and adventure or a courier system in your world. Here’re some links to excellent resources:

There’s the trope for automaton horses, when they never seem to need food, water or care, and related, blatant ignorance of horse biology. Heck, I didn’t know horses couldn’t vomit, either.

Then, aside from the internet, there are indeed specialized books on the subject.

Happy writing, dear readers! Ever have a horse-related experience you’d like to share, or a certain animal-related peeve seen in stuff you’ve read?

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Experience: Riding

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of a calm trail ride atop a horse. I’ve ridden in the past, but admittedly it’s been some time since I sat in a saddle. That was no obstacle, though; the beast was quite amiable and the environment, though freezing cold, was bereft of stress. A very good experience for myself and the other person with whom I planned the excursion.

But I bring it up not merely so share the joys of equestrian company, but rather I wanted to simply point something out. Riding a horse is something you see often in fantasy settings and movies, and often they’re depicted as majestic, strong creatures – rightfully so. But no movie or book, I don’t care if the horse plays a prominent role like in Hidalgo, can replace the experience of actually being on one’s back.

I’ll tell you one thing though. Riding Maverick, the horse chosen for me, gave me a fresh perspective. An animal like this carried my weight as easily as a man might carry a schoolbag. Of course simple logic can tell you that horses allowed for long distance travel and the transport of heavy loads, but simply being there and appreciating the animal’s strength first hand allows you to really feel it.

Maverick

My steed of the day, Maverick.

As a writer I’ve always believed that successful depiction of anything puts the reader there. I tend to do this to a fault, spending a lot of energy on describing a scene before or while things actually happen. But you can’t expect a reader to believe your character is familiar with horses if you yourself aren’t. You can’t write a convincing cross-country jaunt if you’ve never taken a walk. And my personal favorite, you ought not expect a detailed fight to feel real if you yourself have never seen a real sword, let alone held one. Movies help, but bear with me.

Now, obviously not all of us have access to horses, or an armory, or a mountain trail. I doubt I’ll have an opportunity to go jousting any time soon, so we have to make do with the written or spoken accounts of others. There is nothing wrong with that, but one could argue that the experience is lessened to a degree. You aren’t telling first-hand details you noticed after all, and unless your source is thorough, accurate, and patient enough for questions, you’re really better off making an attempt to it yourself – a horse ride, a sparring match, a trans-Atlantic cruise, a night spent outdoors (WITHOUT anything electronic) – whatever.

The best stories are based off of adventures and experiences you yourself have had. What do you write about? What sorts of things can you do to enrich your writing? And your life in the meantime?