Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Writing Fantasy Taught Me About Horses

I come from a family rich in ranching history but I'm terrified of getting bucked off a horse.

Or kicked. I've seen the roped muscles of a horse's legs flexing and bulging as it marched along a mountain trail. There's more power in just one of those thighs than in three of me. I can imagine, with the full verisimilitude that is every writer's curse, how it would feel if that steel-shoed hoof directed its full angst into the fragile architecture of my knee. With an audible split of bone and sinew, my day, week and probably month would be thoroughly ruined.

Needless to say, I don't know squat about horses.

Of course, horses play a key role in almost every high fantasy ever written simply because, since some form of pseudo-medieval setting is essentially a requirement of the genre, they are the only non-mechanical, non-magical means of relatively quick transportation. Working on a project with the goal of a realistic portrayal of fine details requires a painstaking degree of research. Obviously, some whetting of my non-existent horse knowledge was required. Most of this research was centered around horse gait.

what writing fantasy taught me about horses
A horse in a four-beat walk gait (PD US)
What follows is a basic understanding of the specific types of horse gait. Perhaps it can augment the realism of your writing project as it did for mine:

A walk is a horse's slowest pace. It is a four-beat gait that averages around 4 mph (about 6.5 km/h). There is even a specific sequence to a horse's walk: left hind, left forward, right hind, right forward. A horse's head will also bob up and down to help it maintain balance. See the gif to right for an illustration.

Forget your scouts and messengers hauling ass across the kingdom at breakneck speeds, this is as fast as your riders are going to travel (unless of course you have one of the Mearas, like Shadowfax, with wizard-like wit and stamina). A trot is known as a horse's "working gait" as they can sustain it for very long periods of time. It averages around 8 mph (13 km/h). It is a two-beat gait, as the horse moves its legs together in diagonal pairs.

The canter is like a slow gallop, except it is a three-beat gait that averages 10-17 mph (16-27 km/h). Like a gallop it cannot be sustained. The term canter is thought to be short for "Canterbury gallop." It would behoove you not to make the mistake I once made and interchange this word for its homonym "cantor," which has a very different meaning....
a horse's 4-beat gallop
A horse's 4-beat gallop (PD US)

It is a common trope (and complete falsity) of Hollywood that a horse can sustain a gallop for long periods of time. In fact, like a human sprinter, a horse can only gallop in short intense bursts. This is exactly why the track for the Kentucky Derby is only 1.25 miles long. The gallop is a four-beat gait that averages around 25-30 mph (40-48 km/h) with the fastest ever recorded clocking in around 55 mph (88 km/h). The gif to the right illustrates the gallop clearly, showing the four-beat pattern and the moment of "suspension" when all four hooves are off the ground.

There it is, the basics of horse gait. The things we learn in the labor of our books! If you are a thorough researcher, you probably knew all of this already. Or perhaps you didn't care. It's fantasy, after all, why would it have to be accurate? For me, however, a bit of realism in certain aspects of a novel helps suspend my disbelief for others.

I have other rambling, barely coherent blog posts on things like pre-writing for your novel, surviving your rough draft and more. Sign up for my weekly email updates and I will love you forever (or least reciprocate by checking out and signing up for your blog!)

BONUS: Here is a video of a cat who spent too much time around a barn watching dressage horses:

find us on facebook

All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions


  1. I've been kicked by a horse (in the ankle while I was riding another horse). I don't think it broke anything, but it really freaking hurt.

    Fantasy writers also tend to forget how much horses need to eat - how long they need to graze if they're living off grass. It really cuts into riding time.

    1. You are right about the feeding! I came across this information when trying to figure out a realistic time frame for messengers to move across the very large kingdom in my novel. I suppose that is why books like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones find ways around horse-driven messengers (i.e. owls or ravens). Thanks for reading!

  2. I was walloped by both hind legs straight to the gut. Cost me a spleen & some recovery time. Gave me an abdomen scar to die for (but I didn't). Overall, since the ambulance came quickly, it wasn't so horrible. It did not put me off horses, not one bit.

    Speaking of puns ('bit' = part of bridle in case any non-horsey people are reading)...and the real reason I wanted to comment: your use of 'behooved' was a delight.

    1. Omg, that sounds horrendous! I'm glad you're all right.

    2. Wow! They are powerful animals to be sure. And beautiful animals. Part of me kind of wishes I had been alive during the time when they were the primary movers of our transportation world. Thanks for reading and for the comment!