5 Horse Facts for Regency Writers to Know

There are many great resources and blog posts out there covering the difficulties of writing about horses. So I know you know all about the post-Regency introduction of the leaping horn, the necessity of assistance for a lady mounting and dismounting from her horse, and that fox-hunting was a popular country activity from November until March, when the fields were fallow.

But here are few horse-centric facts that you might not know! Drop them into your text when necessary, for a little extra detail that will add depth to your historical fiction and romance.

Mounted Lady in Sidesaddle

Properly mounted. From “The Young Lady’s Equestrian Manual.”

1. A horse’s walk sways from side to side. At the walk, the horse moves at a “four-beat gait,” that is, each of his hooves hits the ground at a different time. The motion of his hindquarters from one side to the other actually sways a rider gently from left-forward, back, to right-forward, back. An accomplished rider lets her pelvis do the swaying; a more posed rider will show it in her abdomen, sliding forward and backwards, which can give the horse a sore back.

2. Long journeys called for rented horses. Horses could not go all day long, and required resting, as often as every two hours. A gentleman would not ruin his good carriage horses by sending them across country. Posting inns would provide a change of horses at each leg of the journey. Using one’s own horses would result in a prolonged journey.

3. Corn isn’t corn. When feeding a horse his “corn,” an ostler or horseman was feeding him cereal grains: most likely oats, although horses were also fed other grains such as barley. It would be inadvisable to feed a horse a diet solely of maize (corn in American terms) because it contains so much sugar it can lead to serious health problems. 

4. Ladies held their reins in their left hand. In a fairly impressive show of horsemanship, especially by modern American standards, a lady was taught to hold the reins, even if the horse was in a double bridle with two bits and two sets of reins, only in her left hand. The horse was directed to turn by what we call “neck-reining” today – instead of drawing back the left hand to turn the horse’s head, for example, the right rein was pressed against the horse’s neck and the left rein was slackened. All of this was accomplished by adjusting the left hand’s position. The right hand was left free for the whip – a necessity since there was no leg pressure on this side of the horse.

5. Stable odors. Manure has an earthy odor that lots of writers love to mention in their books. What doesn’t get mentioned is the ammonia smell of urine. This might be a nice touch for a dirty inn or a street with broken cobbles. Horse urine is infinitely more offensive to the nose than manure. Horses themselves can have a musky odor, especially if they have long winter coats, which clings to clothing. Horsemen tend not to notice it all, even when they will smell a dirty stable, but for more delicate noses, it could be noticed and perhaps remarked upon.

I hope these little extra details are helpful to you! Happy writing, and happy riding to all your heroines!


Sporting Pursuits: Epsom Downs and the Derby

The Epsom Derby (globally, the “Epsom Derby”) remains the “derby” by which all over “derbies” are measured – a horse race run at the Classic distance of a mile and a half (in America, the  Classic distance is now a mile and a quarter) – for three year old horses.

In America, of course, we have the Kentucky Derby, which is offered for three year old Thoroughbreds (primarily colts, or young male horses), and, the day before, the Kentucky Oaks, which is offered for three year old Thoroughbred fillies (or young female horses). The Kentucky Derby is considered the “big race,” receiving top billing and plenty of network coverage on its Saturday afternoon spot, while the Kentucky Oaks gets considerably less coverage and a less desirable Friday afternoon post-time. Although, admittedly, efforts to tie in the filly race with breast cancer research have given it a little more publicity, it’s the boys that get the most coverage on Derby weekend.

Which is why, in researching the history of the Epsom Derby for my work-in-progress, I was interested to find that Lord Derby’s first horse-racing brain child was not in fact the classic race which would bear his name at racetracks around the world. Instead, it was the little sister of the Derby, the Oaks.

According to Epsom Downs’ website, in 1778, Lord Derby and a group of friends at his house, The Oaks, decided to offer a race at the 1779 Epsom meet for three-year-old fillies. The mile and a half race would be named for Lord Derby’s estate, and the first Oaks race was born. The race was such a success that in 1780 a race open to colts and fillies was planned: The Derby.

The website continues with a bit of fortuosity:

Legend has it that the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury (the leading figure in the Jockey Club, who was staying at the Oaks) spun a coin as to whether the race should be called the Derby or, the Bunbury Stakes. The first running of the Derby Stakes was over a mile and although Lord Derby won the toss of the coin, it was Sir Charles Bunbury who owned the first winner – Diomed.

We can all be thankful we are not celebrating the winners of the Kentucky Bunbury every May. To say nothing of the Florida Bunbury, the Ohio Bunbury, the Pennsylvania Bunbury, the United Arab Emirates Bunbury… I could go on. There are more than 140 “derbies” run around the globe.

James Pollard, Epsom Races: The Race Over, circa 1835

Massive crowds. By the late nineteenth century, Epsom would draw spectators from every walk of life.
James Pollard, Epsom Races: The Race Over, circa 1835. Via Wikipedia

Throughout the nineteenth century, horse racing would continue to reign as one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the British Empire. Already a carefully regulated sport by the early 1800s, with official stud books and stewards attending every recognized race, the British people continued to display their cultural affinity for a good horse.

Even, it turns out, paying as much attention to the fillies as to the colts.

Watch for more horse racing history as I continue to do research for an upcoming historical romance with the exciting Epsom Derby in the backdrop. I’m having a wonderful time with this one. Oh, I have to read about horse racing for research? Poor me, life is so hard!

Especially desirable for Lady Drivers

While looking for something completely different on Flickr today, I happened across a few very dramatic advertisements for rein-holders.

The security rein holder, for carriages, vintage advertisement

“And especially suitable for Lady Drivers.”

“Invaluable in fly time.” I have a vision of a horse snapping his head around to bite at a fly on his abdomen, pulling his reins loose from the box, and then trampling on them, frightening himself, breaking the reins, and disappearing down the road… Something typically horsey!

How dramatic it must have been to be entrusted with a strong horse in a time when women were regarded as delicate flowers in every other way! As a horsewoman, I’m always aware of the potential at any given moment for a horse to do something unexpected, dangerous, and usually both. And driving to me feels much more precarious than riding. I’m always nervous when driving or riding along with someone in a carriage. Let’s face it: you just don’t have the same control over the horse when you’re sitting behind it, rather than sitting on it.

And yet ladies, who could not be exposed to any number of daily dangers, including knowledge of their own bodily functions, could drive horses.

Rearing horse, security rein holder vintage advertisement

Oh dear, he’s trod on his reins.

The images from Thomson’s Security Rein Holder advertisements are a reminder of the sort of trouble horses can get themselves into. Imagine leaving your nice quiet cob at the gate while you just pop into the milliner’s to pick up a length of ribbon. And while you’re in there, a dog runs under your cob’s hooves, causes him to spook, the reins come loose from the box and he treads upon them, which sends him into a panic… it’s no good! Now you’ve caused a disturbance and everyone in the village is out to offer their opinion on what sort of horsewoman her ladyship is, and meanwhile you’ve got a broken rein and an upset horse.

If only you’d had a Thomson’s Security Rein Holder…


A happy horse is a horse with a security rein holder!

A happy horse with taut reins. Flickr/Boston Public Library

What I find especially impressive is that we read of many young ladies driving phaetons, which were a two-horse conveyance. Ladies, for all that they were not given very much credit by males in society, were entrusted with two half-ton animals to draw them through the park or the countryside, and only their reins to control them. It’s really something to think about, especially if you’ve personal experience with horses.

This ad brought up some interesting questions for me. It looks like the Thomson’s Security Rein Holder was patented around 1870, so before that, I wonder what happened with your horse if you didn’t have someone to stand at his head. I believe you would have wrapped the reins around the whip socket. Tying the horse by the reins is an invitation for a broken bridle – if the horse can’t relieve pressure on his mouth easily, he will panic – so I assume if you could tie your horse to a ring or a carriage weight, you were using a lead that attached to the bridle’s noseband, not to the bit. Perhaps you just told your horse to stand and hoped for the best. Or perhaps drama with reins wasn’t as common as Thomson would like you to believe.

For a simply wonderful look at the variety of horse-drawn conveyances used in Jane Austen’s era, see this article at the Jane Austen Society of North America, complete with images and text references.


Go to the notebook

I was talking with an author friend on Twitter the other day (we snuck into direct message, sorry tweet-droppers!) and the topic of writer’s block came up.

Not “Oh my god I don’t know what to write” writer’s block, because neither of us really suffer from that.

More like “Oh my god everything I write is so stilted and awful” writer’s block. Maybe we could call it “Quality Writer’s Block,” as in, nothing quality is happening here.

Moleskine notebook

Hello gorgeous notebook.

Now sometimes I’ll just push through it and continue with my scene, regardless of the fact that it’s stilted and awful, because I’m going to edit anyway, and usually it’s in my editing process that the flowers really start to bloom, so to speak. I write my first drafts in a hurry, eager to get the story down on paper, because I know that once my plot is in place I can come back through and pretty everything up to my heart’s desire.

It’s a two-part process: first I build the house with a sound basic structure, and then I put on my interior decorator’s house and I make it gorgeous.

Yes, now I’m a construction worker and an interior decorator as well as a writer and a gardener. Do keep up.

At any rate, my friend told me her secret to curing stilted writing: grab your notebook.

I don’t have a notebook, I said.

Get a notebook, she said. Stop being so obtuse. And get a nice pen while you’re at it. These things matter.

So I had to go to the store and get a gorgeous Moleskine notebook and a nice gel pen with dark black ink that glides onto the page with a very satisfying feeling. Because these things matter.

And I started writing.

And then I started scribbling. That’s how fast the words were coming out of my head. My fingers could scarcely keep up with them.

And that, my wise friend said, is the reason why notebooks work so well: on a computer, a typist hauling along at seventy words per minute the way she was taught in grade school is going to get the words on the page too quickly. If your brain isn’t feeling up to the task, or is feeling sluggish, or you just haven’t had any coffee all day and nothing seems to be firing, then you are going to be discouraged by the pace at which you’re typing, and you’re going to feel like a Big Fat Failure, which will only compound the Quality Writer’s Block. You’ll have words, but they won’t be satisfying.

When I wrote in my notebook that afternoon, I was still producing a structure, but it was a more sound one than the stilted writing I’d been typing earlier that day. It was already prettier. Some of the design elements, you might say, were built right in.

Since then I’ve been writing in my notebook more and more often, and it feels really good. It’s also more portable than my computer; I’m not really comfortable opening my computer on the subway, for example, but I can write in my notebook, making great use of the time I’m underground, far from social media, and really have nothing better to do besides read someone else’s book.

Of course, the transcribing part isn’t the most fun, but it’s also a unique opportunity to spot-edit bits of the first draft, giving little tweaks to the twists your story took while you were away from the entire manuscript, or your notes, or your research.

So I’m definitely a fan of the notebook! Do you ever write your stories in long-hand, or are you die-hard computer users? What are some other methods you use to liven up your brain and improve your writing on days when everything feels stale?

Revising is editing is deleting

I have been editing all morning, working on the second draft of my new novel (we’ll call it the Cowboy Romance) and had to make some big, bold moves.

Which involved the delete key.

A lot of the delete key.

Editor Cat gets it.

Why will my story insist on changing so dramatically?

It’s amazing to me the way a story can evolve from the nice little outline that I write so blithely in a notebook, sipping coffee and thinking “this is just going to fly out from my fingers. Look! I have it all worked out! This happens, and then this happens, and then this, and voila! The end!”

And it just doesn’t happen that way at all.

Even when I am a taskmistress and make myself write precisely to the outline, denying myself any fun or fancy free, the doubts come creeping in. Should he really be going there? Should that character even exist at all? She seems too angry for this scene, does she have a reason to be so angry? Should I give her a reason to be so angry, or lighten her up? What’s that, go back and give her a reason?

And so when the revisions begin and I start giving free rein to my persistent inner voice, crazy stuff starts happening. New chapters appear (meaning I have to renumber all the subsequent chapters as I get to them, which is actually how I remember where I left off from day to day. If one chapter is “eighteen” and the following chapter is “fifteen” then I know exactly where I stopped the day before). Characters grow, gain bigger personalities and quirks of their own.

And I delete things.

A lot of things.

There was a time when I didn’t use an outline at all, but just wrote seat-of-my-pants style from start to finish. I’m not sure that saved me any time or heartache when it came to revisions, though. A story just evolves from your initial concept no matter how you wrote it out the first time.

What do you think? Are you pretty free with the delete key when you’re revising your work?


Confessions of a terrible blogger

Hello! I am a terrible blogger.

It’s not even that life gets in the way, it’s just that I don’t set the time for it. I could be blogging, but I’m absently scrolling Facebook. I could be blogging, but I’m looking at things I am never, ever going to cook on Pinterest. I could be blogging, but… other stuff! SHINY THINGS!

But I plan on doing better, and this blog post that I just read this morning is a big part of why.

I want to get to know people.


We don’t necessarily have to sit outside and watch clouds together, but you get the basic idea.

From Kristen Lamb’s blog comes this great reminder about building relationships. It’s part of being an author… if we want to make a living at it.

“Entropy is REAL and Author Careers Need Feeding DAILY”

I encourage writers to blog. Heck, it should be an area of strength—WORDS. Writers write. Blogs have the power to create long-term passionate relationships with…readers. Only about 8% of the population defines themselves as avid readers. This means 92% of the population still needs entertaining and informing. Most of them have smart phones, and a lot have tablets. They won’t go to a bookstore…but they will buy on-line.

It’s not always easy to keep connected, especially when your real drive is just to write and write and write at your work-in-progress, but this is a nice reminder that it’s necessary… and also that treating your writing as your career, with demands that include things like blogging, helps it maintain its central importance in your life.

I know that for me, keeping writing as my central focus can be difficult. That’s partially because I write from home and it’s very easy to fall into this trap of thinking that just because you’re home all day long, housework has some place in your work-day. It doesn’t. Your work-day is just that — your work-day! If you don’t have time to do the dishes before you have to leave for the office, you come home and do the dishes later. If you’re working from home, ignore the dishes. You can do them later, after you’ve finished work!

Adding blogging and social media into the mix isn’t always easy, of course, sometimes I just want to write! But I’m going to be better at scheduling it in, at the very least.

It’s partially because I want to make a career out of writing, I admit. But it’s also to build relationships with amazing writers, with brave over-achievers, with other people who might be sitting cross-legged on their sofa for six hours at a time, typing away all alone while the world goes spinning by outside their windows.

So I’m going to blog more, and tweet more, and maybe even, if I really have to, Facebook more! Because I want to get to know all of you fabulous people! Say hi, share your blog, and let’s be friends!

Good Morning, Mrs. Bennet: Lost in Austen

Last night I discovered Lost in Austen on HuluPlus.

I’m probably the last one to the party and every one has already seen this sweet little show. That’s usually the case. I’m only on season 2 of Game of Thrones, in case you’re wondering, and I say to myself twice a week or so, “I should really watch Downton Abbey.”

Stop! Don’t leave! I promise I’ll watch it!

But anyway, Lost in Austen.

Is adorable.


Lost in Austen photo

I just wish she’d do something with her hair. Photo from Lost in Austen

Amanda Price lives in London, has a typical job, has a typical life, has a boyfriend who maybe is not the best that she could do, has a mother who is maybe not the the most hopeful or helpful of women, and really just wants to lie on the couch night after night with a glass of wine and Pride and Prejudice. 

And then one night, after having fended off a drunken proposal that was possibly the single least satisfactory proposal of marriage any lady could receive, whether she dreamed of assembly rooms and courtship or not, she opens up her bathroom and finds her favorite imaginary friend, Elizabeth Bennet, standing there smiling at her.

A few foibles later, Amanda finds herself in the Bennet house, with Elizabeth doing God knows what in Amanda’s own London flat.

Of course everyone who has ever loved romances or Austen or fancied herself a lady in the wrong century has to watch this show. It’s too much fun.

Imagine going to bed in 2013 and waking up in Jane Austen-land! The sunlight streaming through the wavy glass in the wood-framed windows! The scents of tea and toast wafting up the stairs and down the hall outside! Mrs. Bennet wailing downstairs over some imagined disaster!

Oh, right, Mrs. Bennet.

The thing I suppose I forget, when I am having one of my own Lost in Austen fantasies, is that Elizabeth Bennet and most of Austen’s other heroines had a really, really rubbish home life. Mrs. Bennet in particular was an absolute nightmare.

And she isn’t terribly fond of Amanda.

Watching Amanda, now Miss Price, stumble through the courtesies of the early nineteenth century is really cringe-worthy. I can’t help but think that if she’s read Pride and Prejudice so many times, she ought to be able to make a better attempt at mimicking the language and customs of the company she finds herself in.

I can’t help but think I would have done a better job.

But I suppose finding oneself suddenly deposited into the plot of a Jane Austen novel would throw anyone off their game.

But maybe she could have tried a little harder. Maybe pulled her hair back. Maybe not called Mrs. Bennet “a real ball-breaker.” I don’t know.

It wouldn’t have been as much fun then, I guess!

I’m anxious to find out what’s happening to Miss Elizabeth, too, on the other side of the wall in modern-day London. I found it really striking how strange her formal language sounded when she was shown in Amanda’s flat. You know, sometimes you read nothing but 19th-century authors for days or weeks or months on end and you start thinking in terms of that beautiful old style of speaking, and it doesn’t seem that odd at all.

Then you think, maybe you should talk like that aloud! To other people! Just as an experiment!

Don’t do that. Watch this and see why. It just… it just doesn’t work.

I’ve only watched one and a half episodes but I am definitely excited to watch the entire mini-series. Lost in Austen. Hulu. If you are one of the six other people on earth who haven’t seen this, go and watch it!