Monday, April 30, 2012

A Horse of a Different Color


“We stood in silence, watching horses go by. All my life I’d stood and watched horses go by. There were a lot worse ways of living.”
The above quote is from the Dick Francis book Knockdown and is one of the many reasons Francis will always be one of my favorite (non-romance) authors. I mourn the fact that he’s gone and there will never be more of his stoic, horse-centered heroes. He’s speaking about my life in that paragraph, as well as his own and that of the character in the book.

For better or worse, a life lived that way has given me the ability to spot equine errors in my favorite westerns and western romances as if the ink turns neon in those spots. And the most common equine errors are simple ones as to color. For example, last week I read a description of a horse in a western historical romance by a popular author: “chestnut brown with black mane and tail and legs.” No, there’s not a problem with that—there are two problems with it.

Oddly enough, those problems are the most frequent ones I see in romances that mention horses, and they highlight a confusion about the two most common horse colors, chestnut and bay.

Chestnuts are a uniform reddish brown from head to tail. Shades range from as light as toast to as dark as darkest chocolate. If the mane and tail are a different color from the body, they are lighter. The color isn't darker on the legs; it fades a little close to the hoof. A chestnut can have a blond mane and tail, called flaxen, but if he has a black mane and tail he isn’t a chestnut. In addition to the standard “light” and “dark” descriptors of chestnut, common terms would be washy, bright, copper, nondescript, and muddy. Liver is often used to describe very dark chestnuts these days, but I never heard it as a girl and have trouble imagining coming out of the mouth of someone in the Nineteenth Century. Sorrel is another word for chestnut. Among the horsemen I’ve known, sorrel is considered more a western term and reserved for the reddest of chestnuts.

Bays have that black mane, tail, and legs. Take the same brown body the chestnut has and put on the black points, and you have a bay. That’s what makes him bay. Even if high white stockings cover the black on the legs, the bay’s black mane and tail will give him away. He can be light bay, dark bay, bright bay, blood bay, or mahogany bay, but his black points distinguish him.

So the two problems in that original color description: “chestnut brown with black mane and tail and legs” are: (1) A chestnut horse is by definition some shade of brown. No one who has been around horses would ever call a horse chestnut brown. (2) If the horse has black legs, mane, and tail, he's a bay. No chestnut about it.

Brown is actually a particular color in horses. Think of the brown horse as a black wannabe. At first glance you often take him for a black, but lighter, obviously brown hair around the eyes, on the muzzle or the flanks gives him away. The adjective that comes to me when I think of brown is “plain.” A plain brown horse.

True black horses are, if not rare, a lot less common than the other colors. The true black horse is solid, coal black from nose to tail end except for any white markings. Summer sun may bleach his color out a bit, but his winter coat will come in pure black again, and he will shed out that way in the spring.

Like brown, white is a tricky color (or sometimes, non-color). True white horses are born that way and don’t change throughout their lives. They have pink skin and sometimes have blue eyes or one blue and one brown. However, gray horses start out one of the solid colors, and the graying effect has them losing more pigment in the hair every year until they are pure white. The starting color of the gray horse affects how he is described on his way to white. Rose grays started as chestnuts; steel grays as blacks. Dapple grays result when the graying occurs in patterns that leave dark circles in the coat for a while. Fleabitten grays have specks of the original color left in the coat as it turns white.

For some reason the fancier coat colors such as pintos and paints, roans, duns and buckskins don't seem to cause as much trouble as the plain colors.Are we less inclined to add a bit of contradictory description to a blue roan than one of those plain old brown horses? What pops up at me with the less usual colors are more historical and breed specific errors. For instance, a heroine riding on her lovely palomino Arabian is worthy of an eye roll because Arabians don't come in palomino. If the story is historical, well, there were a few Arabians in the U.S. back in the good old days, but the odds of one showing up in the Old West owned by anyone except a wealthy, self-indulgent fancier were about the same as someone trapping a jackalope.

Ah, then there are the problems with big heroes and little horses and with sidesaddles and all those independent heroines tearing around the countryside in the 1800's riding astride in their split skirts. Another time.

Ellen O'Connell
http://www.oconnellauthor.com
http://oconnellauthor.wordpress.com/


16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info Ellen. It is great to learn new things. I really am enjoying these bloggs and learning as well. Nothing drops you out of a story more quickly than inaccurate or inappropriate content.
Cheers rosheen

Ginger Simpson said...

Even though I'm part of this blogging group, it is a pleasure to be part of such an informative and knowledgeable bunch of ladies. Great post, Ellen. I enjoyed it very much. Shared it on FB and Google, and of course, lots of tweets.

Rachelle Ayala said...

Love it. I've often written horse colors without really seeing it. Glad I never said a chestnut had black hair.

Jacquie Rogers said...

"Liver" just doesn't seem like a good term for a hero's horse in a romance novel. LOL. Thanks for the great post!

Peggy Henderson said...

Love this post. It always makes me chuckle when the hero rides his gorgeous sleek black stallion through the pages of a western romance novel. I've owned three brown horses. Every time someone would comment on my beautiful black horse, I would correct them and say, "no, he's a brown." "But he looks black." "Well, he's not. He's brown." etc.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I looked up horse colours because I knew there were specialized names and I didn't want to mess up. Nothing I read explained the chestnut/bay issue as clearly. Thanks Ellen. I also had a horse pal who I thought was a black but might have been a brown. I'll never know. He used to come see me as I walked through the Aggie college on my way home from classes and that was about thirty years ago.

Lauri said...

I loved this post! Thanks so much for all the info now at my fingertips! (I'm hoping I never referred to a horse as chestnut brown in one of my stories.)

Ellen O’Connell said...

Thanks everyone. I'm glad I wasn't beating a drum everyone has already marched to for a long time. Of course knowing a thing and using the knowledge are sometimes different things. Maybe it's Old Timer's Disease, but I remember editing one of my own books and finding a reference to a horse's "front knee" - rather redundant when horses only have knees on their front legs.

Devon Matthews said...

Ellen, this is great information and thank you so much for sharing it. With this post, that makes twice I've learned something from you I didn't know about horses. :) Running along now to spread the word.

Caroline Clemmons said...

The husband of my elderly English friend was friends with Dick Francis and she said Mr. Francis was a very nice man. I always enjoy reading a book more if I know the author is a nice person.

Paty Jager said...

Great info, Ellen. It's the little details like horse color or body parts in the wrong place that bother me. Especially when it's so easy for someone to look up these days.
My first critique partner became my critique partner because I informed her the withers weren't on the rump. ;)

Lyn Horner said...

Ellen, thanks for sharing your info. For those of us without direct experience with horses, it's invaluable. In my new book, the heroine is new to the west and doesn't know much about horses. I would like to pick your brain about how she learns to ride. Will email you with details.

Kirsten Arnold said...

Love this post, Ellen! Such great information. It's details like this that can really pull a reader out of a story.

Ellen O'Connell said...

LOL, Paty. I remember a book where the horse was measured between the ears, which I suppose means that's where that author thought the withers were, although it didn't say anything quite that specific. Another one had the heroine leaning forward in the saddle and hugging the horse across the withers. No matter how I think about saddle placement, etc., I can't figure a way to do that and never found withers particularly huggable anyway.

Lyn - I've got your email and will answer soon.

Cheri said...

My thanks to you, too, Ellen for such an informative post. I'm sure glad I hitched up with all you cowgirls that know far more about horses than I do! I admire their beauty so much and certainly would not want to ever misrepresent them in my books.

Meg said...

Great post, Ellen! LOL, I'm sure I used bay and probably sorrel before. No idea if I ever said 'chestnut brown' but it seems redundant anyway. Thanks for the info!! :-D