BY LAUREN MAULDIN
The inaugural $2,500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest is officially open for entries. We’re so excited to see the submissions coming in, because we believe that not only is everyone’s voice important… but horses are a subject worth writing about! Writing about horses can be a little different than other animals, so I wanted to offer some tips on how to craft horses and the equestrian experience.
Make Your Horse Alive on the Page
Anyone who has read a certain number of generic horse books will be aware of some common equestrian cliches.
Their hooves thundered down the track.
She lifted her delicate head, and whinnied at me from across the pasture.
His neck arched gracefully as he picked up the trot.
It’s not that horses don’t have thundering hooves, or that they never whinny… but the truth is that horses do a lot more standing around than they do thundering. Some might whinny to their owners or friends across the barn, but mostly they are pretty quiet unless the food truck is coming around. When you write about horses, you want to avoid Hollywood ‘esque tropes and instead focus on the real, nitty gritty details of a specific animal.
For horse owners, this is as simple as watching your horse at the barn. Does he shuffle his legs around, walking lazily, or does he strut down to the ring like he’s proud of something? Does he take a deep breath when he’s happy? Do his eyes get big when you pull a treat out? Keep note of these little details, and try to write down the unique things that your horse does. As we know, they’re all individuals.
For people who don’t have access to the real thing, spend some time watching YouTube videos about horses and riders. Avoid any type of TV show or movie, because those rarely get it right. Instead, try to find documentaries about real horses and riders. Better yet, ask a friend who rides what is special about their horse. Chances are, their face will light up and they’ll talk about their animal faster than you can write the details down.
Be Careful of Your Terminology
This advice goes both ways. For non-riders attempting to write about horses, make sure your terminology is correct. A few months ago, I was reading nonfiction submissions for a literary journal and came across a really delightful coming of age essay set in the country. Reading happily, I rolled through the narrative until I saw a huge sin — a character riding around at the cantor. If your reader is a horse lover, seeing a misspelling or incorrect term immediately ruins your credibility. Triple check your terminology.
For horse people, we have the natural advantage for knowing what things are. However, keep in mind that not all of your readers will be riders. You don’t want to saturate the text with the encyclopedia of horse terms. Let’s look at two sentences.
I took my time tacking up, enjoying the cool breeze coming through the barn aisle.
I took my time buckling up the German Martingale and threading the flash noseband through its keepers, enjoying the cool breeze coming through the twelve stall, stamped concrete barn aisle.
Those examples are pretty extreme, but if you have a non horse reader for the second they’re going to be distracted with all the tack terms. I’m not saying don’t go for detail — detail is great! Just be aware that there may be too much of a good thing.
Realize That Nobody Has a “Special Connection” That Turns Them Into a “Natural Rider”
Equestrian works of fiction, whether it’s a movie or a book, fall into this trope again and again. Troubled child meets trouble horse, who nobody else can ride. Troubled child climbs on, horse magically because docile because child is a “natural rider.” Blah blah blah, someone wins a race/rodeo/blue ribbon at the end.
You could write this story in the most beautiful, eloquent prose… and every horseback rider would roll their eyes.
When writing fiction, try to embrace the reality of our world. No horse becomes trained overnight, especially not by a child. Most of them are very common colored, like chestnut (reddish brown with no black points) or bay (brown with black points). They don’t rear nearly as much as you think they do, I promise. Special connections do exist, and we love reading about them, but they take hours of hard work and specific training. Believe us, we want the troubled child to find success in the show ring as much as you do, but don’t let things come too easily on the page.
Stay True to Yourself
There are all kinds of equestrians, even within the hunter/jumper world. Some people have six figure horses, show all over the country and are totally in the know with the elite of our sport. I am not one of those people. Whether writing creative nonfiction for The Plaid Horse, my personal blog or side projects, I’ve always tried to be 100% “me.” I am Southern, have had to work my butt off for average riding ability, spend more money than I should on my horse and have never shown above the local level. Plainly stated – I ain’t fancy.
When I’m writing a personal essay about the horse world, it’s important for me to write it from the perspective of my real life. Do I aspire to float around the AAA ring on a fancy import with auto changes and a perfect step? Absolutely, but right now, in both my writing and my real life, the only person I can be is me — a mid thirties hopeful equestrian who can’t really sit the canter and scrapes together money for local shows.
We hope that everyone gets inspired to write something, whether you submit to the contest or not. To hear more about writing and the contest, check out Episode 82 of The Plaidcast where Sissy Wickes, and Lauren Mauldin, share a little bit about their process and writing philosophy.
Entries for the $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest are open until October 15th, 2018!
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
Read More from This Author »