For Want Of A Nail… Horses and The Historical Novel – Guest Post

I’ve invited a very special guest to write a post for me this time out.

I first met Helen Hollick through her Arthurian books, and I loved her vision of Dark Age Britain. A Gwenhyfar who was fierce and real and very solid, Arthur who was very much un-shiny and probably smelt of horse a lot. And the two horses he likely smelt of – Hasta and Onager. Who may or may not have influenced Tyburn and Doubting Thomas….

Nearly every historical novel has at least one horse in it somewhere. Unless it’s a nautical novel or set in the Americas pre-Christopher Columbus. Although, even sailors came ashore, where they would, one way or another, meet with a horse.

So, horses are important. You are unlikely to read a contemporary novel that didn’t, somewhere, mention a car or a bus or a ’plane … a mode of transport, which is exactly what horses were. Cart horses, plough horses, riding horses, carriage horses, war horses. All of them in a variety of colours, heights and breeds. Big horses, little horses. Fat ponies, thin ponies. (Oh, and donkeys and mules.)

You would think, then, that authors would take more care about their inclusion of the  Noble Equine in their novels. The majority of authors take great care, time and trouble with researching their historical facts, diligently describing within the narrative the accuracy of locations, living conditions, clothing, food, battle tactics. Accuracy adds believability to the characters who move through the text as they love, laugh, squabble – or whatever. But the research and accuracy of fact all too often falls short once a horse trots into a scene.

The thing is, when reading historical novels I can pick up straight away whether the author has, or hasn’t, a clue about horses beyond the fact that they have four feet and can gallop about. Good novels have believable characters doing believable (or sometimes unbelievable in the ‘astonishing heroic adventure’ sense of the word) things. But it is a rare treat to read a novel that has believable horses or horsey scenes. (I might add that TV and movies are even worse for this – including horse-orientated TV dramas or movies!) That luxury carriage, or rough and ready stagecoach, cannot be pulled for miles by a team of horses running at a gallop. Come to that, a single horse carrying a rider cannot gallop for miles without serious consequences. The longest British horserace is the Grand National, which covers a little over four miles … but these horses are athletes, fit, healthy and trained. Oh, and carrying very lightweight jockeys. In North America the Quarter Horse  excelled at sprinting short distances of a quarter mile or less. Think sprinter Usain Bolt rather then long distance Sir Mo Farah. Even when used for hunting, horses would not be galloping about all over the place for hours at a time. (Much of hunting is standing around in the rain or cold waiting for hounds to find a scent.)

So there is speed to consider, and distances – how far can horses go in a day? The answer will vary depending on the nature of the terrain, the type of horse, the ability of the rider. A horse can probably travel about 25-35 miles (40 – 56.5 km) without a rest if it is walking at a steady pace. Maybe about 50 miles (80.5 km) if it is fit and healthy, and again the pace is steady, alternating between walk and trot. An endurance competition horse can manage about 100 miles (161 km) in a day. But most horses of the past were not modern, fit, healthy endurance horses!

Then there is the ‘tack’ – bridle and saddle. Saddles have changed a lot from Roman times to present day, especially where a lady’s side-saddle is concerned. Modern side-saddles have only been around since the mid-1800s. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, it is actually more comfortable and safer to ride ‘aside’, providing the rider is seated properly and the saddle fitted correctly. And men also rode aside: grooms would ride a lady’s horse and wounded soldiers returning from war who had lost limbs could continue to ride with a side-saddle.

Breeds. Ponies and horses are very different – one is not just a smaller version of the other! (Give me a pony every day if you want something intelligent and robust. Horses, however, if you want fences to not be knocked down, hedges squeezed through, and to know that of an evening they will be where you left them in the morning. Harry Houdini is not a patch on an escape artist Exmoor pony!) We have lost many breeds over the years: the warhorse Destriers, the lady’s quiet Jennet… Nor is it realised by many an author that in the earlier centuries, up until about the thirteenth, most horses were under fifteen hands high. (A hand = 4 inches and you measure to the withers. If you don’t know what the ‘withers are – look it up!)

If you look at the Bayeux Tapestry all the riders seem to be riding small horses – that’s because they were riding small horses! In one novel I looked at some while ago, set during the fifth century King Arthur was riding a very large horse with lots of hair around its feet: the description of a Shire horse. The story was, apparently written by a history academic. Well he or she needed to go back to the classroom, Shire horses were not around pre-Tudor.

And as for feed… Horses do eat grass and hay, but to be kept fit, for strenuous use – pulling carriages and carts for instance – they need corn. Note to USA readers: no, this does not refer to corn on the cob/maize, which would not have been known in England before the likes of the Conquistadors and Sir Walter  Raleigh. A ‘corn fed’ horse means one fed on grain like oats and barley.

On the other side of the coin, to read a novel where the writer clearly knows her horses is a treat. I cite mine host here. Ms Logue and her motley crew of (alas fictional) rogues ride believable horses, doing believable equine things.

Black Beauty became such a classic because Anna Sewell knew her stuff, and any horse person will instantly understand the ‘for want of a nail’ quote:

For want of a nail the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost, for want of a rider the battle is lost, for want of a battle the kingdom is lost – and all for the want of a nail.”

I’ll leave you to figure out why just one lost horseshoe nail could cause such devastation.

Horse people will know.

Helen’s Exmoor pony, Mr Mischief  © Helen Hollick


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