Horses in Fantasy Writing

A.M. Burns, author of the popular Yellow Sky and E.S. Peters Investigations series, lives in the Colorado Rockies with his partner, several dogs, cats, horses, and birds. When he’s not writing, he’s often fixing fences, hiking in the mountains, or flying his hawks. You can find out more about A.M. and his writing at these online contacts:

Goodreads author page:
Mystichawker Press Author Page:

Books: Perfect Love, Perfect Trouble, Blood Moon, Yellow Sky, Coyote’s Pup, Dr Gnome. All can be found on a variety of ebook retail sites.

Perfect Trouble: When Connor Wildman opens a portal to another world in his closet, E. S. Peters is called in to find the young man. With his trusty werewolf partner, Dusty, at his side, Ethan enters the portal and finds himself in the realm of Fairie. The realm beyond the portal is in chaos due to Connor’s unauthorized visit. Ethan must fight his way through angry elves and emboldened trolls to reunite Connor with his family, while trying to stop the Fairie Queen from declaring war on Earth. Meanwhile, can Ethan’s assistant Tiffany find the person responsible for the theft of sacred objects all over Dallas? The second book in the E.S. Peters investigations series brings even more action than the first and delves deeper into an elegant cast of characters.

Let me preface this by saying that I mostly write urban fantasy, so there’s not a whole of lot horses in my works, so far, and in the high fantasy I’ve done, I normally use things like griffons that can talk so it’s easy to make them into characters. Normally, they turn out as smart-mouthed characters. But I have some friends that write high fantasy and lately we’ve been having a huge debate about horses in fantasy writing. The debate is this, should they be treated as beloved pets or just as transportation?

There are actually several sides to this argument. To my way of thinking, writing them as just transportation, aka little more than cars, is a cop out. This is a lazy authors’ way of not doing the needed research into the aspects of their writing to flesh it out properly. When you look at published fantasy writing, there are a number of writers, including Terry Brooks, that for the most part, treat their horses as cars or better yet bicycles. They haven’t bothered to find out what horses are all about and therefore just think that they can graze while being ridden, and don’t need a lot of attention paid to them.

The idea that all horses are beloved pets is also a bit of a cop out. I own horses. I know what these critters are capable of. Yes, I love my horses, but there are times, like with any relationship, that they get on my nerves. The Pollyanna mentality that every horse out there is beloved is also a cop out and would get on my nerves quickly. These are also the writers that pay too much attention to every little detail all the time. You don’t need to go into gross detail of grooming a horse before riding it every time a band of adventurers sets off in the morning. A little note that your characters take care of their steeds should be enough to show that they and by extension, you are not completely heartless to the creatures they share your world with and make them more likable in the long run. Look at how Tolkien does horses in his works.

It is possible for a writer to find a comfortable middle ground when writing horses or other critters into their fantasy work. When riding a horse, it’s almost a reflex for most people to reach down and stroke its neck. You don’t have to make a big deal about this, just add it as a dialog tag,  ” He stroked the big bay’s neck. “  Things like this also help avoid talking head syndrome, but that’s a whole nother post entirely. If you have a party of adventurers, the odds are they will share duties when setting up camp. Your characters can have a conversation while caring for the horses. Like I said earlier, don’t throw in the details just to throw them in, sneak them in during plot points. These are the spices that can make a story come alive for your readers.

Also, anyone who rides horses knows that they are going to spot things like predators or even other horses before the riders. This helps make the horses more active characters in your story. So, if your band is riding through a thick forest and the horses start acting odd, little things like a swivel of an ear or nervous glancing to the side, this can alert the riders to trouble. Again, its little details that most readers enjoy.

Horses are like any other character in the story, they have basic needs, and the writer that forgets these needs is showing a lack of caring for the readers as well as the creatures that inhabit their world. I think, this also goes back to writing what you know. Horses are an easy thing to get to know. The odds are that most people know someone with horses. (I know, I’ve lived in Texas and Colorado most of my life and not everyone is lucky enough to have access to farm people.) Even if you don’t have access to horses, it’s not that hard to find a riding stable, or horse breeder to go talk to. Hang out with the horses for a bit, ask questions and find out more about them. If your characters are going to spend many miles trekking across the massive fantasy world that you have spent years coming up with, then take a few minutes and get details that people in our world can relate too. It helps bring more life and more understanding to your writing. It will also help bind readers to you by giving them details they really care about.

So what’s your take on horses? Characters, cars or something in-between? Give us some input.

11 thoughts on “Horses in Fantasy Writing

  1. It depends on the story to some extent, how horses are utilized in my books. I’m an old farm girl, however, and no matter how fond of my horse (and I was), I never thought of him/her in the same category as say, the dog or the cat that slept on my bed. That said, of course the horse requires care. No domesticated animal, not even large ones like a horse, do well when left to themselves. They need food, water, and rest. They require attention and encouragement. They preform a job and should receive acknowledgment, whether in caresses or verbally–or more likely, both. Heavens, I always do in real life. Why wouldn’t any writer put that in her/his book?


  2. There are lots of reasons why an author may choose not to make a horse a “real Character,” but one majorly big reason to round out the horse character is that, among today’s readers are 14 MILLION (1) people in the US that consider themselves horse people. (according to an independent survey commissioned by the American Horse Council) I’ll wager none of those 13 MILLION consider a horse as mere transportation. And I do know that horse people, when not actually doing horsey things, love to read books that have horses trotting through them and will be quick to toss aside books where the “horsey” parts don’t ring tru.

    In the days before motorized transportation, you can bet the SUCCESSFUL farmer, doctor, delivery company, soldier, fireman,pioneer etc. did more than throw their horses a handful of grain and armful of hay. Horses were their partners in life.

    I personally knew mountain lumberjacks who stayed in tar paper shacks for the “work Week,” sharing the shack with their team of horses for the warmth. No leaving the truck at the curb here.

    Yes, I write mysteries set in the horse world. (“Fame & Deceit) No, my horses don’t talk (yet look at the success Jane Smiley’s novel written in the voice of a race horse!) But my human characters acknowledge that horses play a major role in their lives.

    Many of today’s writers that allow a horse or two in their work may not have ever even touched a horse therefore they shy away from too intimate a relationship with a horse. As suggested by Mr. Burns, stopping by a local stable would probably be sufficient research. Horse folks never tire of talking about horses!

    I’ve never been without a horse. You wanna talk horse? I’d be happy to oblige!


  3. In my mysteries I rarely put animals of any kind in them, but when I started writing historical fiction set in the 19 Century I needed horse. Now I love horses and while I’ve never owned one I’ve ridden most of my life and worked with horses — show jumpers and standardbreds so I’m pretty familiar with horses.

    I never put horses in my books as just transportation. In my historical set in 1888 New York I have a Gypsy Vanner/Irish Cob abused by its owner. The MC saves her and they end up driving a coal cart. At the end of the story the main characters are trapped in a massive blizzard (which really happened)and the horse is instrumental in finding shelter in a stable she had been in some time earlier.

    My horses aren’t intelligent, but they are smart and they respond to kindness. We’ve all heard of cases where a horse saves its owner. I definitely believe horses can form strong bonds with people. But a smart person never forgets a horse is a lot bigger than them and they can do damage if you respect them.

    If you go to my website you’ll find a stunning Gypsy Vanner.


  4. I’ve owned horses, trained them, had my bones broken by them but, writing SF and urban fantasy, I’ve used them in just my African fantasy, The Leopard’s Daughter. I guess I have to say that protagonists’s mount was chiefly transportation. I never gave him a name for some reason. He was always “the bay.” It just seemed right, and what the protagonist would do. But if he was a tool, he was a valued one. As car guys do fine vehicles, the protagonist respected him and took careful care of him. Fed and watered him…walked to let him rest…and at the end of the quest when everyone in the questing group was pretty much down to skin and bones, she still made sure he had water and food. And she grieved when he was killed(by the bad guys). Is that a middle-of-the-road approach?


  5. Wow, some great responses. I love stirring up good conversation. Glad folks are finding this an interesting topic.
    C.K. I totally agree with putting a little acknowledgement in for the critters in a book, it gives great little tidbits on a character’s character.
    Patti, I’m always telling folks get it right if you’re going to write it. Faulty details can spoil a book. I’m also a falconer and a while back a read a book where a goshawk was fed mostly fish. It totally ruined the book for me and I refused to read another by that author.
    Pat, I so want some gypsy horses when I have the cash for some. Need to sell a lot more books, but they are awesome.
    Lee, I think by having a character grieve when the horse is killed is completely natural and a good middle ground.


  6. This is for the “other” Pat chiming in on this topic. I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on Gypsy Vanners, but I was under the impression that it was a relatively “new” breed and the word, “Gypsy Vanner” was probably not known in 1888 of your NYC historical novel. So I went exploring and found this on the Gypsy Vanner Registry site:

    “Soon after World War II, a vision was born by the Gypsies of Great Britain to create the perfect caravan horse; “a small Shire, with more feather, more color and a sweeter head” was the goal. Selective breeding continued virtually unknown to the outside world for over half a century until two Americans, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, while traveling through the English countryside, noticed a magical looking horse standing in a field. It was that very horse who became the key to unlocking the heretofore-unknown vision and genetics that created the Gypsies’ “vanner” breed (a horse suitable to pull a caravan)…”

    Once again, I may be all wrong and most likely only those readers that are fans of Gypsy Vanners would catch this. I’ve seen the GV at various equine events and they are very eye-catching. They are exceptional carriage horses and would be very flashy in a city setting.


  7. Great essay, A.M. Thanks!

    I’m not a horse person, but I write crime fiction set during the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, so I have to fake being a horse person well, right? 🙂 I’m a firm believer in hands-on training. There’s only so much you can get from reading about it. Sometimes you just have to DO it. I became a Revolutionary War reenactor to get a better idea of day-to-day challenges for humans in the 18th century. (Loading and firing a musket, starting a fire with flint and steel, etc.)

    I also took one of those “Horses for Dummies” community outreach weekend courses. I groomed a mare, put on her tackle, rode (ha ha ha!) her, etc. Horses are smart. Before I’d even climbed in the saddle the first time, that mare figured out that I didn’t know diddly about horses. That class taught me a lot of respect for horses.

    One thing I sometimes see authors get wrong when they’re writing about horses is the distance a horse and rider can travel in a day, and how many days a horse can carry a rider before you have to give it a “day off.” This also applies to SF&F creatures that characters ride like horses. When you consider that trained cavalrymen rode 35, maybe 40 miles per day, and they and their horses were tuckered out at the end of the day, it puts a lot of things in perspective.

    It takes my criminal investigator protagonist five days in 1781 to ride a horse from Wilmington, NC to Hillsborough, NC. (We drive that distance today in about 2.5 hours.) When he reaches Hillsborough, even though he is exhausted, he cares for the horse before he cares for himself. That shows the value of horses in the days before motorized transportation.

    BTW I also write about raptors. Please email me, and we’ll talk hawk. 🙂


  8. I used to ride but haven’t done so in years, not since I decided I’d been thrown one too many times 😉 I still love them, though, and always feel that having horses in the story adds a lot to it, whether they play the part of warrior steeds or family transportation or beloved companions. I like the fact that they can be very contrary and yet truly loyal, much like people!


  9. The name Gypsy Vanner is new. The horses aren’t. They were called Irish cobs or tinker’s horses.or a variety of other names. I don’t use the term Gypsy Vanner, just that the MC saw tinker horses back in Ireland similar to the horse he rescues. He calls her Peg. The name came to both of us the second he laid eyes on her. LOL


  10. Lelia, I share your sentiment about horses. When a human comes around, they decide quickly who’s the boss. I was darned lucky to get through my six-weekend course without that snarky mare tossing me off. And she had expressions just like that horse that played Hidalgo.


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