Most of the horses I depict in the novel are based on horses I’ve owned or known. As I was writing the book, images of horses from my past would pop into my mind. Each time I created a horse character, I visualized the horse he or she was based on. Then I would embellish those images in the context of the story. Writing gurus always say, “Write what you know.” These are the horses I’ve known.
In Dangerous Turf, Gus is described as a chestnut colt with large liquid eyes, short legs, and an affectionate personality. He is based on a horse I rode for the training farm where I worked long ago. The real Gus was exactly the same as the colt described in the book, except that he was actually a racing Quarter Horse. His registered name was Bar Bob Gus. His racing career was unremarkable, mostly because of his short legs and stature. His jockey remarked one day after a race in which he finished toward the back of the pack, “Did you ever feel like you just wanted to get down and help a horse?” Everyone loved Gus. He was eventually sold by his owner and started a new career as a polo pony. I hope he was successful.
I once owned a horse named Jake, but he was nothing like the Jake in the book. No horse I’ve ever known is exactly like the Jake in the book, which is what makes him unique and lovable. I have known horses who like to stick their tongues out while working or racing, horses that would sulk when hit with a whip, and horses that didn’t like men. So I guess Jake is kind of a conglomerate. One incident involving Jake, though, was based in reality. We had a horse named Kingfish, the fastest quarter-miler in the barn, who generally liked people. But this particular day, the trainer had him cross-tied in the aisle while the grooms were scurrying around giving the rest of the horses their dinner. Clearly Kingfish was getting angry watching the other horses digging into their dinner while he was being deprived. The trainer bent down facing Kingfish’s hindquarters and picked up his hoof. The horse was tossing his head up and down and pinning his ears. “Uh, George, I don’t think—”, I started to say. Too late. Kingfish had had enough of this nonsense. He reached down and chomped the trainer’s back, who then jumped up howling. Serves you right, I thought. Never come between a horse and his dinner.
Howitzer, the Appaloosa lead pony ridden by Royce, was based on numerous lead ponies I’ve known on the racetrack. His name pretty much sums up their personalities. The Howitzer is a tank or other large artillery piece. The good lead pony, as they’re called because they lead the racehorses to the gate, is as steady as a tank and worth his or her weight in gold. They have to be calm, not easily annoyed, steady, and patient.
The way I describe Howitzer pretty much sums up the perfect pony horse: “He had a wall-eye on the right side, blue with a circle of white around it, making him look like he was giving the evil eye to anyone on that side. When he led the Thoroughbreds to the gate, his eye seemed to be telling them they’d better behave. It didn’t always work, so with stoic good humor, he ignored their antics and allowed them to slobber and nibble on his neck, remaining unfazed at the shenanigans so common with Thoroughbreds in their pre-race anxiety.” God bless the pony horses.
Sable is the skittish black filly who doesn’t like the starting gate. Alana is riding Sable when the accident in the gate occurs. (That’s based on personal experience, too, but that’s for another post.) In the book Sable is startled, gets loose in the barn area, and runs into a fence. The injury she suffers is actually based on an incident from my childhood. One of the horses in the barn where I boarded my horse tore her shoulder on a nail or some other projection in the barn, and her shoulder was torn in exactly the same way as I describe in the book. I was only about nine years old, but I was fascinated watching the vet sew up that shoulder. It was my first close-up encounter with a veterinarian and one I never forgot. A good equine vet is a treasure.