Friday 28 June 2013

Want to know and need to know, by K. M. Grant

In the days before google maps provided answers (of a sort) to all essential pre-travel questions - how long? how far? how much? what way? - before, even, motor cars and motorways, you had to know your horse.  How far could you ride it in a day?  How often should you let it drink?  What does it need to eat?  How long does a pair of horseshoes last?  How do you tell if the creature is knackered or just idle?

You also needed a whole raft of other equine know-how, now restricted to very few.  How many people, for example, are needed to harness a coach and four? Does harnessing said coach and four take five minutes, fifteen minutes, an hour?  Does it matter which horse goes in which position?   If a man drives a curricle, is he better with a steady cob or a speedier half-breed?  What, indeed, is a half-breed? More technical questions are of equal importance:  which bit (the steel bar in the horse's mouth) works best when breaking a young horse to harness?  And for anybody who has ever read Black Beauty, the stand-out question:  is there is ever any good use for a bearing rein.

No historical novel ever reflects the hours of time our forefathers and mothers spent discussing these very important matters. All we get is the occasional 'never mind the carriage, take the gig!' when the doctor must be summoned quick quick quick, or men in a dudgeon high-tailing off at a hand gallop even when at such a pace the horse would blow up in a moment.

In many ways, this lack of reflection is unimportant.  Nobody wants meticulously reconstructed hours of horse-talk or any other kind of talk, except about lavatories.  Children, particularly, always want to know about loos.  You could write a thousand words on lavatories, completely unconnected to any conceivable plot, yet still hold a child's attention, since children are always delighted and deliciously revolted to contemplate medieval evacuations.  On any visit to any castle, it's the ancient stains from garderobes that children remember.

Equine knowledge, though more plodding ('scuse the pun), is still pretty essential to the historical novelist.   I've always felt lucky that horses - at least riding horses - are something about which I can write without much research.  I know, for example, that if a modern horse is fit and you ride well, that 100 miles in 24 hours is not out of the question, with neither horse nor rider suffering any ill effects.  I also know that medieval horses were not nearly as fit or well fed as their descendants.  Yet even in past times a horse could maintain a steady 8 miles an hour, though not for 24 hours.  Oh, and you need to calculate in rest time, and throw out of the window the ponyclub frowning on eating and drinking on the hoof.   As for horseshoes, a set can last up to six weeks if you don't do too much roadwork, and if you can't judge whether your horse is knackered or idle, you shouldn't be riding it in the first place.

I'm very lucky:  my knowledge of horses comes courtesy of my mother.  She had ridden all her life and, after a bout of cancer, took up long distance racing on a kill or cure basis.   (It cured her, for a while.)  In 1985, she and I raced our horse from Vienna to Budapest:  my mother rode, I was groom.  The Iron Curtain still drawn tight, we were always bumping into Russian troops who couldn't believe a horse so small (our little mare was only 14.2) could be so fit.

my mother and Miss Muffet, 150km down, 150km to go
Two hairy moments:  one when the horse mistook the border barrier between Austria and Hungary for an obstacle to jump.  She pricked her ears and prepared to leap.  Guns were raised.  She was most affronted.  The second moment was when she stepped gingerly onto a raft to cross the Danube.   Raft?  It was a few rotten planks lashed together.  She placed her feet with great care and kept her nose jammed into my mother's elbow.   The British stiff upper lip doesn't just apply to humans.  If horses trust you, they'll do anything for you.

receiving their prize - my mother and Miss Muffet came 2nd instead of 1st
because, in true British fashion,
my mother stopped to help a fellow competitor in distress
Riding is one thing, harnessing quite another.  Harnessing one horse - at home, we drove as well as rode - took hours.  And I'm a useless coachman.   The horse seems so far away and if it sets off faster than I intend, I slam my foot on an imaginary brake.   I guess, though, that it takes twenty to thirty minutes to harness a coach and four.  As for the bearing rein, well, it's had a bad press.  It's perfectly true that bearing reins stop a horse lowering its head beyond a certain point.  For Black Beauty and Ginger, it was used simply to make cabhorses look good, whilst making their actual job unforgivably hard.  The bearing rein certainly killed poor Ginger.  Sometimes, though, a bearing rein's a safety measure, stopping a horse from lowering its head so far that the bridle catches on the shafts - that really would have fearsome consequences.   Too much information!  Still, one day it might come in handy.

photographs:  copyright Katie Grant


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Great stuff, Katie, and so useful! I spend a lot of my narratives on horses without a tenth of your knowledge and I do worry about getting things wrong. Horses were, as you so rightly say, completely central to life in the past.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you. I have fretted over these questions in the past.

snàth handspun and handknits said...

I'm one of the lucky few, to have kept and worked with ponies/horses for much of my life.
Endurance (long distance) riding was a real teacher, though I never made a really long horse-journey such as your mother's Vienna to Budapest. Impressive! My horse is old and retired now, as am I... Will use the experiences in my writings, though.

Joan Lennon said...

Huzzah for your mum and Miss Muffet - true heroines both!

Mark Burgess said...

Fascinating, and lovely stories about your mother and Miss Muffet. Thank you!

Theresa Breslin said...

Ha! This shows that Mary, Queen of Scots (in)famous seven hour ride over rough terrain to visit Bothwell wasn't as crazy as it sounds. Yay! for your mom and Miss Muffet.