Get it right, people! Horses and Fiction

I just finished Diana Gabaldon’s Written In My Own Heart’s Blood. Diana is a darn good researcher; her books are a joy to read, not just for their details, but for their characters. I cried; I laughed; I will miss them until the next one comes out.


There was one tiny error in the book which jarred me out of the world entirely. One tiny little error that didn’t need to be there at all. That could have been corrected oh so easily with one tiny fact-check.

She said that a horse was “a chestnut with a black mane.”

Okay. I know that to most people, this wouldn’t even be an issue because most people don’t know anything about horses. But for us horse people, it’s irksome. It’s a pebble in a shoe. And it could be so easily corrected with the tiniest bit of research!

I remember another book from a long time ago in which two characters were planning to steal a couple of horses to make their getaway, and one character told the other not to pick the white one, because it was an Arabian. When the other character asked how he knew, the answer was, “Because all Arabians are white.” Hmm. Tell that to my chestnut Arabian mare, please — or to my loud half-Arabian Pinto gelding!

If you’re including horses in your book, get it right, people! How would you research anything else in your book? The proper gun for your law enforcement officer to carry, and the proper way for him to carry it? The right way to prepare haddock in the 18th century? What a hospital smells like and sounds like? What the Battle of the Somme was like? You’d research. You’d read up on it. You’d make sure every last detail was right, knowing that if you make even one small error, readers will let you know about it. It’s the same thing with horses!

So I thought maybe I should give a brief run-down on colors and some quick terminology for horses. Just in case.


DeuceChestnuts:  Chestnuts are, essentially, brown in color with a similar-colored mane and tail. In a Western, redder ones will be referred to as “sorrel,” but this is not a term recognized by many breeds, including Arabians. This is my 28-year old mare Deuce.




Bays:  Bays are red with a black mane and tail. alex and bodie 1 - 2They can be “blood bays,” or they can be darker red in color. They can also be darker brown in color. This photo shows two of my guys, Alex and Bodie. Alex is the darker (chocolate) bay on the left; Bodie is the blood bay on the right. Often, bays have black legs that extend up to the knees, but just as often they can have white socks.




tasha and isabeauGreys:  There are no white horses, unless they’re albinos, which is extremely rare. Even if a horse looks white, it is really grey. Greys can be dark, dappled, light, and – like my old mare Tasha, here — “fleabitten,” which means they have flecks of red, roan, and black in their coats. (BTW, the filly with her, Isabeau, went grey as she got older. Grey is a dominant gene.)



Fox2008Paint/Pinto:  Although these terms are often used interchangeably, it’s not accurate to do so. Paints and Pintos are both a color and a breed registry. Paints must be of Quarter Horse ancestry, and be able to prove it; they must also display the typical Paint coloring. Pintos, on the other hand, can be of any ancestry, so long as they have the color and pattern.



Palomino:  Palominos are both a color and a breed. Think of Trigger, Roy Rogers’ famous horse; he was palomino. They are gold in color with a flaxen (lighter-colored) mane and tail. — this is the website for the Palomino Breeder’s Association, and you can see great photos of a Palomino on the home page.

Appaloosa:  Appaloosas are, again, both a color and a breed. They must display the hallmark spotted pattern. There are different patterns — “leopard-spot” Appaloosas have spots all over their bodies, usually on a white field, while “blanket” Appys only have spots extending from the hindquarters forward to a certain point. Some have spots only on the hindquarters; others have spots extending to the shoulders. — this is the website for the British Appaloosa Society, and the page I’ve given you is a direct link to images of the different coat patterns.

There are any number of great books out there with color photos and better descriptions of horse breeds, color, tack, etc. One of my favorites is The Horseman’s Bible by Jack Coggins ( Another great place to look is in the children’s section of your local library. Those non-fiction books are chock-full of great descriptions, good photos, and accurate information. And I think that I will also continue to post small things here about horses — grooming, tack, breeds, etc.

Just as you would with anything else, getting it right with horses is imperative. Especially if horses are an integral part of your story, readers need to know that you’ve taken the effort to get it right. One tiny flaw will ruin the experience — and worse, you WILL hear about it from your readers! Do the research. Get it right. Your horse-owning readers will thank you!