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.