LTER: Writing Horses: Judith Tarr

Been too long – I’ve been eBaying like mad, trying to free up some space and also earn a bit of money to pay for Clarence (the still-hateful Buick).

I received (via email) this book quite a while ago, and it’s just taken some time to finish it.

Judith Tarr is someone who’s been on my List forever; I think the first I read by her was The Hound and the Falcon, which was an astounding and beautiful trilogy. Alamut was gorgeous too, and I wanted a sequel to A Wind in Cairo in the worst way. It was the latter especially that proved to me that Ms. Tarr knows her horses – it was the perfect fantasy + horse book.

So I was tickled to win her Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. This is a book by a woman whose love of horses only grew, and who knows horses through living and working with them 24-7-365, in a way I could only dream of (she breeds and works with Lipizzaners, for heaven’s sake), who has been frustrated by the ignorance writers have shown in writing about horses and decided to do something about it.

That is one happy kid

I was a little smug going in.  I was a horse-girl, so in love with the beauties it came close to obsession.  I drew them constantly.  For fun I would trace the points of the horse diagram in one of my books and fill it in (cannon and pastern and fetlock, and dock and withers and crest and poll).  I knew the difference between a bay and a sorrel, and between a canter and a gallop, and fully intended to be a) a jockey (that was the Black Stallion books, that was, plus I’m short), b) a vet (probably thanks to James Herriot), or c) ride show jumpers (I was SO going to ride in the Olympics).  At a family-and-friends party my family went to a very obnoxious friend of the family challenged me; he’d learned I read all the time and that I loved horses, and decided to put me in my place, I guess, by quizzing me.  He asked me what the biggest breed of horse was.  In a “duh” tone of voice, I told him (Shire).  He shut up.  I was six.  When I was a little older I cleaned tack for free riding lessons (no stalls, though – wonder how I escaped that).  A bit more: my cousin in Newfoundland had a Shetland pony (Candy); I was about ten when we visited, and one of the best moments of my young life was when she bucked me off onto the porch.  She stepped on my foot and left a perfect tiny hoofprint – I loved it.  Another of the best moments of my life was when I was on a trail ride with a class and my horse (Spiz?) ran away with me.  We flew across a field – I stayed on – I loved every second, and was sorry when they caught us.

So, yeah, I never really had much fear of screwing up my horses in my writing.  And honestly I’ve never to the best of my memory come across anything too egregious – I’ve never seen a writer refer to a male mare or anything too idiotic.  I am, however, made very happy when a writer, as Ms. Tarr puts it, Gets It Right.  I love it when a character’s horse is not referred to as “it” – especially when it’s been identified as a specific gender.  I love it when a writer at least names the horses that appear.  If there’s more than that, I’m delighted.  But I am aware that it’s all a mystery to most people (hence all the hairy automata transporting people in so very many books) – so this is a brilliant idea.

The book (an ebook) begins with the very basic basics: a mare is a female adult horse, bay is brown with black mane and tail and points, there are two basic modern styles of riding, and so on; it goes on to give deep and useful detail about the basics (there’s no such thing as an albino horse) and some of the esoterica of breeds and disciplines. I’d say I did know about 90% of what this book explains (though not about the albinos) – but I’m a freak. For normal people who want to write anything in which a horse might come into the picture, this is incredibly valuable – I think anyone would be a fool not to use this book as backup for any mention of horses. It’s wonderfully detailed, insightful, and expert – and funny and well-written. The only thing I wish it had gone into would be a little more of horse personality and communication. Horses speak with their ears: pricked sharply forward means interest, flattened back means you need to back away, slowly and without any sudden moves. Whickers and whinnies and snorts and flaring nostrils and head shakes – I think it would be equally valuable to have knowledgeable insight on all the little details of equine behavior: corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude. Other little things about riding, like how it’s helpful to stand in the stirrups to ease weight off the kidneys if the horse you’re riding needs to urinate.  Speaking of which, some talk about the scents associated with horses – from manure to hay to the sweetness of a horse’s breath – would be a nice addition.  But overall, as far as it goes, Writing Horses is pretty fantastic, and a pleasure to read.  And now I want to reread A Wind in Cairo.

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