All for the Want of a Nail


Vision 70


All for the Want of a Nail


Becky Burkheart

Copyright © 2013, Becky Burkheart, All Rights Reserved




Many times, horses must be written in stories because they exist in the fabric of worlds such as the American west, historical Europe, and many types of fantasies. It's a shame when these horses are nothing but cardboard cut-outs in the backdrop. In addition to their day jobs, real horses are an endless source of both conflict and humor, so give at least one in your story some personality. Even used lightly, they can deepen your layers, strengthen the base of your world, and add flavor to your characters. At the same time, keep in mind horses can be difficult to write for three reasons:


The first difficulty is that people, having seen horses in movies or read about them in other books, think they know about horses. Most people will agree they know quite a bit about dogs and nothing at all about yaks, but horses fall into an in-between category. Even if they know someone who has horses or have ridden a few times themselves and therefore have a basic minimum of knowledge - horses are both too familiar and too unknown. The danger of this ties into the second difficulty (and the third), which is the unimaginably vast amount of information about horses available through word of mouth, libraries, or Googling. The third difficulty (tying back into the second) is that horses are not widgets; they're strongly individualistic, and horsemen, as a group, tend to be opinionated.


The problem with researching horses isn't fact-finding, but sorting through the myriad and contradictory information, then figuring out how to use it to the best advantage in a story. There typically isn't a “right” answer, only various shades of what should be, depending on the specific situation. This makes it virtually impossible to even know what questions need to be asked, let alone figure out the answers. It's then overwhelming to realize that managing to wrangle out a correct bit of information is only the first step, as most information is geared toward “how to do that” and “what's right”. Authors need that as a baseline, but more important to the story is “how or why this goes bad” and how that can be used to best advantage in the story's elements of conflict, tension and/or resolution. The temptation is understandably strong to leave details hidden in the shadows, but this approach flattens the underlying layers and weakens the base of your world.


Some common misinformation is so deeply ingrained into our collective consciousness that non-horseman tend not to question it; one of the most common is the stone in the shoe. Horse shoes are nailed very tightly to the hoof. If they're loose, they'll typically come off before a stone can get wedged in. It's not impossible, but it is unlikely. A stone is somewhat more likely to get wedged in the bars, the crevices in the underside of the hoof of a shod horse. So a horse being lamed by a stone wedged in its hoof happens, but when it does, the rider simply dismounts, removes the stone and goes on about their ride. What can and does happen if the shoe is loose, is that the shoe can come off. This leaves that hoof broken, tender, and susceptible to pain, which will, at the very least, dramatically slow your hero's pace unless you're on soft ground. It can cause the horse to stumble or get sore if you're riding over rocky terrain, even to the point of your hero needing to dismount and walk, leading the horse. Consider that this is something that will tie into the bigger picture of your hero's characterization. Hoof maintenance is of prime importance; remember the proverb: "for want of a nail, a kingdom was lost." Aside from the emotional bond that tends to be more akin to that of a shield-brother than that of a companion animal, a hero's horse is one of his most important pieces of equipment and is generally well cared-for. An unshod horse could pick up a stone, although a healthy hoof flexes as the horse moves and tends to throw them back out. One point that is underused is that it can tire or lame a horse to be ridden on different terrain than what he's accustomed to. A flatland horse will get sore in the haunches when he's ridden in the mountains; it will strain the legs of a mountain horse to ride fast over soft ground, such as a marsh, a beach, or even a rain-soak grassland.


If your hero is riding to save his damsel, or her lord, they're more likely to be grounded by a bowed tendon or a strained suspensory than a stone bruise. Either of these injuries can easily occur, especially if they're riding harder than normal, and cause lasting, if not permanent, damage. If a noble hero detects a bobble in his horse's gait and finds a warm, puffy area in the tendons or tenderness in the horse's suspensory system, he'll have to find a new mount, as riding on would cause permanent, debilitating damage to his horse.


Another area that seems to have a lot of misinformed common “knowledge” is the offering of treats. Before writing a heroine digging a sugar cube out of her jeans pocket, please consider the composition of sugar cubes.


Treating isn't wrong by any means, although it can be a good source of conflict. Some horsemen are adamantly opposed to the practice because it can teach a horse to be pushy, and snacking inappropriately can lead a horse to be more focused on the treat than anything else. Also consider that some modern lines of horses have proven to be intolerant of processed sugars – consider a sugar-high toddler pitching a fit because he wants another cookie, and imagine he weighs a thousand pounds!


Although it's easy to do, most horses actually have to be taught to accept treats that aren't part of their natural diet. Some favorites include the ever-popular apples, carrots, and sugar cubes, although these kinds of treats need a treat pouch rather than a pocket, as they get very messy. Cleaner options include bits of bread, easily-handled breakfast cereals such as Cheerios or Fruit Loops, and hard candies, individually wrapped, such as butterscotch drops or peppermints. Peppermints, for example, make an excellent training tool. The crinkle of unwrapping the treat gets the horse's attention and can be used as a cue, similar to clicker training, to get the horse's attention or let them know they've done well. Some horses are happy to share whatever anyone has, sometimes even when it isn't offered. Consider how this could add threads of conflict to a hero's life (and humor to your story) if the rescued maiden sweetly taught his warhorse to love treats and it was ever afterward sneaking its way to the campfire and scattering the supplies, looking for snacks. It could even be worked into the resolution, should that horse gain access to the villain's pack.


Figuring out what horses were fed in your story's time and place is a good first step, even if it's only mentioned one time in a novel; but more intriguingly, what happens if the groom is ill and his nephew, who's trying to fill in, feeds the horse wrong, or doesn't feed, or forgets to check the water? Some horses easily learn to untie knots or open latches. The replacement groom who handles the hero's stallion may not know that the mare who is in season can let herself out if he doesn't put a lock on her gate.


Unhorsing your hero and forcing him into a relationship with a new mount is an excellent way to naturally flow underlying conflict and emotional strength into a story. Horses and riders tend to bond tightly over time, so in addition to learning the individuality of the new horse, you'll have opportunity to show his character through the loss of a trusted companion, as he goes through the trials of building a new relationship.


There are many issues your hero could face with in dealing with a new mount. For one, training issues, such as a lack of training in general, lack of training for your hero's specific needs, or even simply a different training process than the previous horse. Many horses that aren't accustomed to traveling won't drink 'away' water because it smells strange; they can become dehydrated and suffer the associated ills. An elderly horse could be well trained, but tire easily, where a younger horse could lack any real training, but have an overabundance of energy. A smallish horse could consistently garner jokes, forcing your hero to defend whatever qualities he's found in the horse - perhaps a stout heart - or that he's very quick, responsive to the aids, and light on his feet. If a hero is accustomed to a larger mount, a very small one will upset his sense of balance. A slightly built heroine on a very large horse could have difficulties with such simple things as not being able to bridle the horse if it's not taught to lower its head to the bit. A recalcitrant horse can quickly learn to raise its head to avoid being put to work. The horse's back could be well over the top of her head, making saddling and mounting difficult. Modern riders use mounting blocks to mount a large horse, but these can be difficult to find in the wilds. A young or slightly-built rider may need to use a lot of strength to rein a large or stubborn horse, and if the horse is very large, the rider's legs may not be long enough for their heels to properly cue the horse's sides. Horses are guided by the rider's hands on the reins, the shifting and use of the rider's body weight, and pressure on their barrels by the riders legs - so a dramatic change, either way, of size and weight could lead to some interesting miscommunications until they get to know each other.


Even something as simple as an odd-colored horse can cause attention and comments because human nature notices such things and, in general, people feel compelled to comment. Also consider that many cultures assign superstitions to horses' coloring or pattern, such as claiming a single white stocking makes a horse unlucky, or that a round spot of color on a white horses chest will shield the rider. There are many common superstitions about horses' eyes, such as a blue eye being blind or a horse with a white ring around their eye being skittish. A quick Google should reveal real life historical information for your time period and culture; of course a fantasy setting offers more creative options. Consider the wondrous potential for conflict if your hero got stuck on an unlucky color of horse, especially if he had a superstitious valet, or in traveling to a new country, discovered that people of that region refused to deal with him because of something about his horse's appearance. The opposite could work just as well. If the horse had a color or marking that had positive meaning in that region, perhaps the children would follow him through the street. People might continually snip off a bit of a lucky horse's tail as a talisman, leaving the proud creature threadbare. These little tidbits add endless possibilities to the threads of your plotting.


In general, it just takes a little attention to a few of the layers of detail to add a lot of flavor to your story. Instead of letting your hero's horse languish in the backdrop, pull him forward to stand beside him. Let him strew plot items out of your hero's supply packs or shamelessly nuzzle the shy maiden for treats. Teach him a trick, such as counting by tapping the ground with his hoof, sticking his tongue out, or sitting down, and see if he performs it in an inappropriate public situation. Your readers will remember him and you, and they'll love you for it. So don't be intimidated. Just consider them as pungent spices in cooking your story. Take a deep breath, do a little research, and stir them in. The flavor they add is well worth it.


Becky previously published fantasy with and non-fiction with various Arabian horse breed publications and has published The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Horses from A Conspiracy of Authors