I've been an equestrian my whole life. From the moment I rode my first horse when I was only two years old until now, I live and breathe all things horses. I also love all things fiction, from books to movies to TV shows. And when horses are in said fiction? Even better. It's a double win! However, there are a few things that I can't help but find cringe-worthy when horses are in a fictional setting. And those few things can so easily be avoided if the writers did just a tiny bit of research. I know not everyone has horses (I'm sad for you if you don't. I think everyone should have a horse...or two...or three...) and that a lot of authors base their horse knowledge on what they've seen on TV or read in other books. But a lot of that is wrong. So a cycle begins of misconceptions and myths.
Here are the top ten that I see:
1.) Whinnying and rearing. I'm not sure why these two are often written together. Horses rear out of fear, frustration, when they are in pain, of if they have too much energy. Horses whinny to call to someone, usually another horse or their human. A whinny is not a scream. A horse will not rear in fear and whinny at the same time. I see this in almost every fictional setting horses are in. Why? I have no clue. To add drama, maybe? Whatever the reason, please stop writing this!
2.) Hay and straw aren't the same. If you feed a horse straw, you'll have a problem later. For that reason, stalls aren't bedded with straw. Now, I'm sure some people might still do this, but I've yet to meet someone in today's day and age who beds with straw. Hay is varying degrees of green and smells wonderful (I say so at least). Straw is yellow and not very fragrant. You don't bed a stall with hay either. Hay is food (and expensive!).
3.) Hot horses and water. It used to be believed that letting a horse drink water after riding was bad. We now know this isn't true, and that depriving a horse a drink is bad for them. During exercise, a horse can lose 5-10% of their body weight through sweat. They need to replenish that or risk getting heat excretion, which is fatal if not treated. Don't deprive your fictional horse of water!
4.) Horses only lie down when injured. This isn't true at all! Horses lie down all the time. We had a pony named Bailey who would plop down in the pasture, soak up the sun, and graze while stretched out. Horses like to lie down and rest, and will lay down with all four legs sticking straight out to sleep.
5.) Horses are protective of their people. Okay, I actually hate admitting this one to be false. I love thinking my horses and I have bonded so strong they will take out a mountain lion for me. But in reality, horses are not prey animals. They run when scared. Horses WILL attack back, though. Our mare never hesitates to attempt to stomp on my dog when he gets too close. But if you are walking and something comes out at you, your horse isn't going to act like a dog and put himself between you and said scary object. I will say there are exceptions to this. Some horses are protective of their owners, but overall, don't write a horse like a loyal German Shepherd.
6.) You can't ride a baby horse. Ideally, horses aren't ridden until they are at least 2-3 years old. Putting the weight of a rider on a horse that is still growing is detrimental to their bones. I think this misconception happens because people who aren't familiar with horses think of them as big dogs, and you can train a puppy. Horses are not like big dogs, and the social structure of a herd is very different than a pack.
7.) A stallion is NOT a breed of horse! A stallion is a male horse that has not had his balls chopped off. Nothing is more glaringly obvious that the writer knows absolutely nothing about horses than using "stallion" as a breed. Mares are female horses (you don't spay a horse). Geldings are male horses with no balls. Stallions are males horses with balls. None of those are breeds. Most male horses you run into will be gelded. Overall, stallions are a bit more hot tempered than geldings, though it's not uncommon to have a sweet stallion. And all mares suffer from PMS (pissy mare syndrome) ;)
8.) Being lame isn't a death sentence. Modern veterinary medicine has come a long way. Breaks, sprains, and fractures can be treated and healed. Vet care for equines is very costly, but jumping to grabbing the gun when a horse comes up lame is not likely to happen. I've lost count of the times my horses have come up lame and then recovered. Unless the injury is extremely severe, being lame is not a reason to be put down.
9.) Horses are big, dumb animals. If you're going to write a horse like this, please stop. Horses are sensitive, emotional creatures able to read body language and social cues. They pick up on everything. They remember everything. They have feelings and can think. My TWH, Bob, knows how to let himself out of his stall and how to let the other horses out. He figures out how to take halters, fly masks, and blankets off the other horses too.
10.) Horses are easy to care for. Other than the obvious (grooming, exercise, stall cleaning) horses need to have their hooves taken care of every 4-6 weeks. Temperatures need to be monitored in extreme heat (fans in stalls, frequent cooling with cold water, extra water to drink) and cold (extra food for extra calories, blankets for horses unable to keep warm without). You need to be careful with sun exposure; horses can get skin cancer and sunburn. Wet turnouts can lead to rainrot, hoof issues, slips and falls. You need to monitor spring grass intake and deal with insects. The list goes on and on. Horses take a lot of time and commitment if they are to be cared for properly.
11.) Anyone can ride a horse. I know I said the top 10, but I have to include this one too. Putting anyone on any horse is dangerous. If you have a bomb-proof, push-button horse, then yes, probably anyone can get on and hit the trails with little instruction. But putting a novice rider on a green horse is a disaster waiting to happen. My Arabian, Mystery, was trained and had lots of show experience. But he had a very particular way to be ridden (that took me a while to figure out) and if just anyone got on him, they wouldn't stay on for long. It takes skill to ride a horse.
Horses can greatly add to a piece of fiction...if done correctly. And horse people love to talk about horses, so authors, never hesitate to ask one of us for help if you want to include the wonderful equine in your next novel :)