A while back I wrote about the significance of properly writing horses and their behavior into your stories. Too many -- nearly all -- fantasy stories treat a horse as a sort of living motorcycle you can ride all day long and just park somewhere while you adventure.
But there's more to the story, so to speak, than just the horse. Horses require a great deal of care and special equipment. Even if you ride bareback and have no bridle, you still have to care for your horse in a lot of ways which might not occur to the modern author.
|And someone has to sweep up after all this|
To get a proper sense of how much horses dominated public life, look around you at the automobile today. Nearly every street is lined with parking. There are gas stations regularly scattered through the entire city. Bums run up and try to wash your windshield for a handout. Car lots are set up in every town to sell more cars. Business chains entirely dedicated to fixing, selling parts for, and even merchandise related to cars are strewn through every country. Special businesses that wash your car for you are set up all through cities and towns. Kids raise money by washing cars.
That's what it was like for horses. You can't just leave your horse standing outside the shop while you buy your groceries and supplies. That horse has to be put somewhere there's shelter and food if you're going to stop anywhere for any length of time. It has to be rubbed down and cared for. All of that means an infrastructure set up exclusively for horses and riding.
Like the section in the supermarket where they have windshield wipers and motor oil, shops had riding and horse-related goods for sale. In a culture where riding a horse was the only real way to get long distance comfortably and swiftly, learning to ride was as critical as learning to drive today.
Consider a single trip to town.
You get up, and you get food and get dressed. You can't wear your nice clothes, because you have to ride. You have to have something particular on your legs because horse hair chafes, and your legs will get cold danging there out in the open.
Sam sets out
Your horse has been in a stable or barn, being tended either by a stable boy or yourself: fed, brushed, protected. In order to be ready, someone had to fork hay or fill the feed bin with grain enough for the thing to eat, but not too much or some horses will just eat until they are sick or even die. Someone has to provide water for the steed, and that often means carrying buckets from a pump or creek. Horses drink a lot of water: 5-10 gallons a day. Each gallon weighs just over 8 pounds, and someone has to collect and carry that unless you have an enchanted water trough or some rain-fed cistern.
To set out, you have to saddle the horse including a blanket, cinch it all down snug but not too tight (you're literally wrapping this around the horse's lungs, it has to breathe, so there needs to be some flexibility), put on the bit and bridle, and lead the horse outside. This all takes time, its not like leaping into your car and firing it up. Its a good 2-3 minutes at least for an expert to get it all ready, and part of that time is soothing and readying the horse mentally: its not a machine, its a rather skittish animal.
Then you set off. A good horse will work with you and be ready to go, a bad one will fight you and have to be calmed and controlled before you can really ride. Some horses are barely broken: they fight you every single morning, requiring a few bucks and circles to get the ornery out of it before it will set off. This sounds bad, but its actually good for some situations; such a steed has a lot of spirit and is more likely to fight than run. A really eager, strong willed horse can often run further and faster because of that spirit.
And the less gentle and domesticated a horse is, the more keenly aware of its surroundings and dangers it will be: horses have significantly better hearing and sense of smell than humans and a good rider can rely on that for themselves to survive. That few minutes of rough riding can save your life, later; something to consider for your hero's mighty steed.
You ride to town. Overall riding isn't that much faster than walking, because the horse has to rest and water every so often for best long-term maintenance. Horses can go all day like a human, but they suffer just as much as you would doing so, and consider that with a rider on their back, they're packing the equivalent of a 30-40 pound pack on your back. That's like carrying a toddler piggyback all day long while you run. You can do it a while but you're gonna notice that.
Now run for 8 hours, daddy!
So if its a ride of more than a couple hours, you'll want to stop and let the horse rest a bit, get a drink, crop some grass or a feedbag, and you can rest your hips and legs (its uncomfortable to ride for long periods for humans too). Get a lunch while the horse rests. While this is going on, you have to stay near the horse for comfort to the beast and so it can also tip you off to strange things nearby. A horse will look up and perk its ears like a deer when it senses something odd nearby.
And sometimes they will freak out for no good reason and you need to be close by to calm them and let them know you're protecting them. Yes, its a 1000 pound beast that could easily kill you but it doesn't understand that unless its a warhorse. Its natural instinct is to run, not fight, even the stallions.
When you reach the store, you have to park your horse: that is, you either tie it off at the rail outside (rural areas) or if you're in a city, take it to a stable and pay to have it kept there out of the elements. And if its a really lousy day, your horse doesn't like being out in that any more than you do: its not good for old paint to stand out in the thunderstorm either. So you stable the horse even if its just a short stop in a rural area then, too.
While you're shopping, your horse is just standing there. Its a living, thinking creature (to some degree) and is aware of its surroundings. But its tied to a post by its face. So if some kid sets off a firecracker nearby or something bright suddenly flashes in its face, or it gets the smell of something dangerous, it might freak out. But its tied to the rail by its face, remember. So that can be pretty harmful to the poor dumb brute.
Thankfully pretty much everyone in a horse culture understands that and knows horses, so they can and will tend to help out to calm the thing even if you're not around. But again: something for writers to consider. And all the while that horse's digestive system is dumping poo out the back end, filling the street more and more.
Meanwhile, everyone else who rode also has their horse, quite a few usually. This is why so many stables, its like parking lots, you gotta put that horse somewhere, and lots of people need that somewhere. They need food and water for the horse. They need saddles and blankets and bits and bridles and harnesses and boots and riding pants and brushes and horseshoes and all the rest. So a goodly portion of the town is dedicated to just horses.
When you come back out of the shop, you get your horse back and head out, reversing the previous process. Often, goods were delivered to your home rather than packed because you couldn't carry all that much extra on the horse. Its not a pack mule, and its already carrying you, remember, plus there's a limited amount of space and you can't pack some stuff very neatly tied to the back of your saddle.
And when you get back home? You have to drop off the horse in your stable, where either you or someone you pay to do so will remove the saddle, blanket bridle, and all the rest. And that's not enough. The horse's hooves and legs need to be checked; still healthy? The horse needs to be wiped and brushed down like a runner, get the sweat and dust and everything off. Plus the horse really appreciates this and it forms not just a bond with the rider, but helps them relax after the trip and look forward to another ride. This also takes time, quite a bit of time.
Comb my mane, baby
And that's just one short trip.
Horse culture doesn't just extend to a guy riding his mighty steed. It has ripples that affect the entire society, economy, and architecture of a nation. A good author has to reflect that at least with description and worldbuilding, if not outright narrative. Consider those western movies, how much of the town is centered around and structured around horses. All those ranches with the remuda, all the guys who do nothing but train and break horses. The blacksmith, the watering trough, the hitching post, the stables. All basic tropes and patterns in all westerns. That's what your fantasy world has to be like too, if it has horses or jackalopes, or anything people ride.
|When getting hitched was literal|