7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Horses - Sounds, Posturing, and Temperament

By Susan F. Craft
Author, An Equestrian Writer’s Guide

For writers interested in or doing research about horses for their novels, the following are excerpts from the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation’s An Equestrian Writer’s Guide. This is copyrighted material and should not be reproduced without the permission of the Long Riders’ Guild. (Visit the website at www.lrgaf.org for more information.)

Sounds/Ear Positioning/Posturing

Neigh – a loud squeal followed by a nicker, with head high; done when looking for other horses  or people, also called a “whinny.”
Nicker – 
vibrating sound with mouth closed using vocal cords; means “hello” when made softly  and moving toward a person or horse; means he wants a mate when made more intensely and accompanied by shaking of head; a mare will nicker very softly to her foal.
Resting foot
 – When a horse rests one foot slightly on the hoof tip, it generally means he’s relaxed and comfortable with you and his surroundings.
 – while fighting with another horse.
Snort – 
exhaling through the nose with mouth shut and producing a vibrating  sound in the   nostrils; often with head up; when accompanied by a stare, he is checking for danger.
Squeal – 
squeals with his mouth shut; usually means “no.”
Hollywood Fantasy
 - Movies often add horse calls as sound effects in the most unlikely situations.   These cinematic horses who neigh and scream on a regular basis are largely fictional.  Horses are generally rather silent, though they will whinny if parted from their fellows, or nicker softly in greeting at feeding time.

Blow – exhaling through the nose with mouth shut, when curious, when meeting nose to nose another horse in greeting; if done gently followed by nuzzling, the horses are friendly; if accompanied by a nip at other horse or stomping of front feet, striking out or squealing, horses are enemies.
Breathing – A healthy horse at rest should breathe in a slow, rhythmic manner. Accelerated breathing means he's either in the midst of physical activity or he's becoming anxious.
 – Horses will rotate their ears towards whatever their attention is focused on.  They can hear high and low pitched noises that humans cannot hear; picking up sounds from further away and long before humans.
Ear position – 
alert and interested (ears are up and pointed forward); sleepy, tired, unwell or submissive (ears are pointed out to the side, almost v-shaped to head); relaxed, unwell or bored (ears are pointed up and to the side); angry and aggressive (ears are back and pinned flat against the head).
Eyes –
 Fearful horses will generally have wide eyes surrounded by white; a soft, relaxed eye indicates confidence.
Head position
 – A nervous or excited horse will hold his head high with tense neck muscles.

Horses rear, jump, backup, paw, move sideways and diagonally, buck, and frolic.  Horses can also be playful, graceful, reluctant, bored, uninterested, uncooperative, afraid, and upset.  Many have a very strong flight response to the unknown – for some horses, plastic grocery bags and blue tarpaulins are very scary.

Note also that if you have a group of horses, they have to be allowed to work out the pecking order, as they all have different personalities.


A horse that is happy and trusting will move in a fluid, loose manner. If a horse’s neck, back, or leg muscles are tight and rigid, it generally will indicate a quick reaction or flight.

Horses require an average of two and a half hours sleep in a twenty-four hour period. They don’t need an unbroken period of sleep time, but sleep in short intervals of about fifteen minutes. They do need to lie down occasionally for a nap for an hour or two every few days. If not allowed to lie down, they will become sleep deprived in a few days. They sleep better in groups, while others stand guard to watch for predators.

Wild horses run in herds, governed by a head mare, who leads. Stallions are there to protect.

Horses are creatures of habit and love to maintain the same pattern.

Question for readers: What is the favorite thing you like to know about horses in colonial stories?  


  1. Very helpful details for writing scenes with horses. Thank you!

  2. Great article, Susan! Thanks so much for sharing this with us!

  3. That's a great post, Susan. I'm certain the information will be handy when dealing with our horses in our stories. Sometimes I think authors may get excited about using horses and its good to know correct terminology and characteristics for those unfamiliar with them.

    What I want to know...more about the rider...didn't a woman's back get sore sitting in a sidesaddle on a long trip like that?

    Another question. In 19th c westerns I see them tie a string from tree to tree and tie the horses there in a line at night. Did they do the same thing in colonial times if a group was out in the wilderness?

  4. I didn't know that about a horse's sleeping habits, and that they can get by with so little sleep. Thanks for all this great info, Susan.

    I have a question that pertains to a scene I'm working on now. How long can a horse travel during a day before it needs to graze, or be fed? Moderate terrain, cold weather, plenty of water along the way.

    Will a horse lick snow if that's the only moisture available, or will this make it chilled or ill?

  5. Susan, Wow! What great info! I usually deal with horses in my novels in the most general terms since I have much to learn but I do love naming them:) I'm ashamed to admit, being a Kentucky girl, that I was bucked off a horse at age 12 and never got back on one. Sadly! When I asked my husband recently if we might get a horse he said he refuses to keep an animal who's smarter than we are;)

  6. Thanks, everyone. Lori, to answer your question: How long can a horse travel during a day before it needs to graze, or be fed? CuChullaine O’Reilly, a founder of the Long Riders Guild, says, “Horses should be fed in the morning, before setting off, allowed to graze at lunch, and fed again at night.”
    Here is a direct quote about these issues taken from the legendary lady Long Rider Ella Sykes, who rode across the Takla Makan desert of Central Asia in 1914.
    "The rule was to rise at 5 a.m., if not earlier, hastily dress, then emerge from the tent to attend to the horses. As soon as they began their morning meal, we ate our breakfast in the sharp morning air. The horses were then saddled and loaded. When everything was adjusted, and everyone ready to start, then we would walked out of camp leading our horses for nearly an hour before we began to ride. We usually marched for five hours and then halted for our lunch. We would lie by the water, in the shade of a tree if possible, as the sun by noon was very powerful. When the worst of the heat was over, we would ride for another three hours to camp. After dinner we turned in to dreamless slumbers."
    And here's another example from the forthcoming Horse Travel Handbook.
    "Give your horse a good feed of grain at sunrise. While he eats, pack up your camp and take a light breakfast. As soon as you have both eaten, saddle up. Give your horse frequent breaks, and consider the cavalry system of 10 minutes’ grazing every hour. By starting soon after daybreak, you will have completed that day’s journey by early afternoon. Only Long Riders understand that you need the afternoon to make arrangements with the locals, find a good campsite, and obtain food for yourself and your horse. Your work starts when the horse stops!"

    Yes, thirsty horses will eat snow.

  7. Susan, so, pretty much when the rider would stop to eat, the horse needs to eat too. I guess it wouldn't kill the animal to skip a meal of they are all on the run, like it wouldn't kill the rider?

    I don't mean run, literally. I know a horse can't gallop for long stretches. They're just pressed to keep moving.

  8. Susan Craft said… Carla, strangely enough, according to the Long Riders, the side saddle, even though it looked awkward, was very comfortable. About tying up horses, in colonial times, if trappers had several animals to graze, they probably would have picketed or high lined the most dominate animal and hobbled the rest. Two-leg horse hobbles are typically enough restraint for most horses and mules to keep them close by.
    High line method --A ring is attached to a long rope for each horse being tied. Tree saving straps are attached to two trees (make sure these straps are high on the tree) and the rope is tied to the straps and drawn up tight. The horse is then tied to a ring (or a knot). If more than one horse is tied, make sure that the rings/knots are far enough apart that horses can’t get tangled. Make the tie long enough so that the horse can drink and lie down without being able to get tangled by stepping over the rope. It has enough give that even if the horse spooks it is not so confining and allows enough give that it usually eliminates the panic.
    Tethering horses (tying them to a stake in the ground) close together is not appropriate for horses. It’s not safe.

  9. What great information! Thank you so much, Susan. I also didn't know horses could get along on so little sleep. My horse file is growing. lol!

  10. Thanks for the great post Susan and also for the additional info you posted in response! I think I see a Spinning Room all about horses soon!

  11. Wonderful information. I can definitely use this in my writing. Thanks for the post!

  12. Fantastic, Susan! Thanks for the great answers.

  13. I love watching horses doze--eyelids closed, and those long lashes over their faces. And they will usually rest a foot as described here, too.

    I didn't realize when running in bands, they actually had a rather "matriarchal" society! :)

    Another fallacy--that horses rarely lay down to rest! Thanks for the great info, Susan!


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