I live on the family farm, a riding stable in the Cascade foothills. I organize most of the riding programs, teach horsemanship around my day-job as a substitute teacher, nurse sick horses, hold for the shoer, train whoever needs it – four-legged and two-legged. And write mainstream western romances as Josie Malone for SirenBookStrand. I write young adult realistic fiction under what the kids at the barn call my “real name,” Shannon Kennedy for Black Opal.
Writing what I know means horses show up in most of my books. Because it’s fiction, the horse never dies – unlike real life. According to my veterinarian, Dr. Tim Cavenaugh of All Creatures Great and Small up in Arlington, “We choose to love those who have a shorter life span than we do,” and I’ve lost my share of dearly beloved horses over the past forty years. Last March, my equine companion of almost twenty-four years, Lucky Lady died of cancer and I’m still grieving her.
So, what can I tell you about horses? And how do you make them authentic in your books?
First, remember that although they’re big, they’re also surprisingly fragile in spite of their size.
A horse has one stomach so it is not like a cow, a goat or a deer. The stomach is small, so the horse eats approximately twenty hours a day in the wild and sleeps four hours, usually in naps. Adult horses still lie down but not for long, about fifteen minutes. Lady used to empty the whole barn when she snored. She would lie down for a half hour and her weight; all eleven-hundred pounds would press on her lungs. And she would make an awful groaning sound as if she were dying.I’d run down to the barn and get her to roll up on her chest. Then, she would go back to normal breathing. Of course, once I interrupted nap-time, she would stand up and give me the look that meant “Just where are the carrots, Mom?”
Horses are always hungry and will eat constantly. When they stop eating, it’s a clue that they’re sick. Normally, this means colic – a bad stomach-ache that constipates the animal. Left untreated, the horse will die. And if you want to know what makes a real hero, it’s the guy who stays with the heroine and her horse for the three days it takes to save the critter. The cure for colic is to keep the horse on its feet and moving until it passes the blockage.
Yes, this means pooping and passing gas. We actually keep Gas-X on hand for the horses and I mix it with applesauce and force-feed it during these times. The drug can be used with the muscle relaxants prescribed by the vet. Fun times are the enemas, mineral oil drenches and don’t ask what I do with plastic bread sacks and shortening – you don’t want to know, but I’ll tell you anyway! Yes, I do stick my hand up the horse’s you know what to clean out the poop ~ it’s cheaper than having the vet do it.
Horses have hollow bones when they’re born and this explains why young ones can lie down for a longer period of time. If you don’t know the gender, a baby pony or horse is a foal. And no, ponies do not grow into horses. Ponies are equines but will not be taller than 14.2 hands and are often measured in inches. Okay, so back to baby horses – foals can be either colts which are males, or fillies – females. Most authorities agree that a colt or filly isn’t considered mature until they turn four years of age. Then, a colt is either a gelding if he’s been neutered or a stallion.
However, between the age of eighteen months and two years old, provided he’s fully developed, a colt can sire young. In my book, The Daddy Spell, the heroine and hero have a spicy scene when she discovers that a rescued horse, Paragon is making babies. And the first mare he bred was his mother – ooh, icky! And yes, it does happen. It’s why horse people will separate mares from their foals and if you visit a racing barn, you discover that weaning occurs when the baby is approximately four to six months old.
Personally, I think that’s too young. I can’t bear to listen to the mares and foals whinny and scream for each other, non-stop for days on end. Okay, maybe it’s not non-stop. It just sounds that way. So, I don’t wean my foals until they’re eleven months old. But, then again, I don’t breed my mares every year either. A mare carries for eleven months and twenty-two days. And in the wild, she’ll start driving away the older colt or filly when the new one is expected.
In The Daddy Spell, Paragon’s mother is in labor when the hero arrives and he stays to help deliver the foal. This allowed for some great tension between him and the heroine, especially when he told her that she needed to do a hands-on inspection when she bought a new horse. In real life, we do this all the time. We look at teeth to determine the age of the horse, the hooves to see if the animal is sound, the eyes – can he see and the horse’s body. As the saying goes, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” You’ll quickly learn how old the horse truly is and the older they are, the more care they’ll need.
As for tack and riding, that deserves a column all its own. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t mix up “reigning” and “reining” ~ the one with the “g” is what kings and queens do. “Reining” is how a rider steers the horse. The fastest way to turn knowledgeable horse people off your book is to mix up the two. Of course, living in western Washington on what is popularly known as the wet side of the mountains, I’m also used to “raining” ~ that’s when I put on my boots and slog to the barn to feed breakfast, lunch and supper. So, the hero is the guy who knows the horses eat first and helps feed them before he takes the heroine out for a meal.
I’m running out of space and it’s hard to put over forty years of knowledge into just a short column so if you need to know more, email me, at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll be happy to share what I’ve learned in the equine School of Hard Knocks!
Happy Writing and Riding!
Shannon Kennedy aka Josie Malone
Shannon Kennedy/Josie Malone Bio:
As a child, I loved to dream away the days in an old cherry tree on my family’s pony farm. In my imagination, the tree became a beautiful Arabian stallion, a medieval castle and even a pirate ship. I got in trouble for making my bratty little sisters walk the plank, but hey, they never broke any bones. On rainy days, I headed for my fort in the hayloft. While the rain thudded on the cedar shingled roof, I read books, eventually trading Carolyn Keene for Georgette Heyer. Today, I live on the family ranch in the Cascade foothills. With all the critters on the ranch, I don’t have time for a husband. As for kids, I have to give back the ones who come to learn how to ride at the end of each day. Now, I’m teaching the kids and grandkids of the ones I taught way back when we started. I’ve had a lot of adventures over the years – they number 50 – and in my next 50 years, I plan to write all about them. I hope you enjoy reading about them!
A Woman’s Place BLURB:
Trailing a serial killer, Homicide Detective Beth Chambers is thrust into 1888 Washington Territory where she encounters injured Rad Morgan, a ruggedly handsome marshal who believes A Woman’s Place is behind her man. Now, Beth must save Rad’s life, apprehend the killer, and prove herself capable as a law officer.
Former soldier and survivor of Andersonville Prison Camp, Marshal Rad Morgan faces his toughest challenge in Beth Chambers, a determined woman from the future who’s never learned “her place.” But when he is shot and left for dead, he must put himself in Beth’s hands if they both want to survive.
Can these two headstrong people put their pride aside and work together to find the deadly killer and stop him before he destroys this world and their future? As they fight for justice, love helps them discover A Woman’s Place is what and where she chooses to make it.
Comment and you may win an ebook of A Woman's Place. :-)