The Writer’s Guide to Horse Myths: Part 1
Today we are busting some of the most common horse myths that are repeated over and over in books, tv shows, and movies.
As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.
It seems that almost every movie or tv show I watch that has horses in it, the sound artist has a bizarre obsession with adding horse noises. Horses in these productions are constantly whinnying, whickering, screaming, and snorting. Most of the time they will add these sounds and the horse’s mouth won’t even be moving!
If you spend any time around horses you will quickly noticed that they are not noisy animals. In fact, they make few sounds at all and not with the level of frequency that movies and tv depict. The reason for this is because they are prey animals.
Here are some of the noises a horse will make:
Whinny – A loud noise that is usually used to communicate across distances. It is also common for horses to whinny when they know food is coming.
Nicker – A soft low-pitched sound that is usually a sign of affection.
Snort – Self-explanatory. Horses will snort when they see something that scares them.
Squeal – Usually a sound of frustration, like when another horse gets too close.
Blowing – When a horse blows out of its mouth or nose.
Yes, I am covering horse screaming separately. There are so many books I have read that talk about horses screaming. While there are equestrians who will claim that horses don’t actually scream, I think that’s due to how rarely it happens. Horses will suffer horrific injuries and pain without a sound because noises of suffering draw in predators. However, we have soldier’s writings from World War I, the last major conflict to use horses, describing animals with horrific injuries screaming in pain such as this account by Lieutenant Dennis Wheatley. The British Army lost half a million horses in the war.
Cutting the Traces
I have read so many books in which a character has been riding in a carriage, needs to make a quick getaway, and cuts the traces of one of the carriage horses to ride off. It makes me cringe every time and makes it painfully obvious that the writer knows little about horse harness.
Let’s start with the basics. The traces, also known as tugs, are what connect the horse to the vehicle or load it is pulling. For light loads such as a cart the traces extend from a breastband. For heavier loads, a collar is used and the traces are attached to two metal pieces known as hams that are buckled over the collar. Most traces are between 3-5 inches wide (7.6-12.7 cms) and between ¼ to ½ inch (0.64-1.27 cms) thick.
There are two main ways the traces are connected to the vehicle. One way is to have slit or hole in the end of the traces that is slipped over a hook. The second is to have a length of chain at the end of the traces that is attached with a snap. There are also additional straps that connect the breech strap, which runs around the horse’s rump, to the vehicle, preventing it from bumping into the horse if it stops suddenly.
It would be hard and time-consuming to cut through the traces with something like a knife. It’s possible to use a sword as long as the shafts of a cart aren’t in the way. However, it makes no sense to cut through two traces when you can simply unhook them and unbuckle the breech straps.
Just like cutting traces, cutting girths doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Most girths are roughly 4 inches (10 cms) wide and up to 1 inch thick (2.5 cms) due to the padding. Obviously, this would take a while to cut through. It would be a lot easier and faster to simply unbuckle it. Western cinches are usually wider but not as thick but the same issues still apply. Again, it would be easier to undo the cinch strap.
Another misconception I see is that a girth can be sabotaged by partially cutting it. The first problem is that most girths are heavily reinforced and it would take significant damage for it to fail under stress. Another problem is that most riders or grooms saddling a horse are checking every piece for damage or weakened leather.
In Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings,” a character bunches up a girth and tucks it in his pocket. Due to the size, it is very unlikely this could be possible. It would however be plausible if it was a cinch strap, the strap that connects the cinch to the saddle, since it is a thinner strap than the cinch itself.
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