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.“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.”
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.
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.