6 Key Writing Lessons I’ve Learned From Horses

by D. A. Watt

KEY # 1 ATTITUDE

” To be honest, I’ve learned more valuable life lessons from horses than most people. Unlike humans, horses forgive and forget with patient sighs and much lip licking.” D. A. Watt

I’ve still got a lot to learn from my four-legged partners.

Proper communication between horse and rider, or reader and writer, creates partnership. A successful rider (the mere act of not falling off) and writer (a not so mere act of telling a damn good story) use the same central keys, attitude, knowledge, tools, techniques, time and imagination to forge a trusting, ongoing relationship.

  • Are you using the F words a lot? Fear, frustration, feeling like a failure, lack of fun and lack of funds?
  • 80% of all horse enthusiasts break off the love affair with their horse after a year.
  • Only three 3% of writers ever finish their first novel. An agent from one of the big literary agencies receives about thirty-two thousand queries, yearly. From that amount, she’ll usually represent 9 books, only 5 of which get published. Gasp!

See for yourself.

With stats like these it’s easy to freak out, but don’t, after all YOU ARE one of the 3% who has completed the novel, and YOURS will be one of the published 5. Prior and proper preparation makes for peak performance, RIGHT? Attitude, you’d better believe. HUBRIS, if you don’t have it, get it.

Hubris

Now that you have hubris, listen up. Prior and proper preparation prevents piss poor performance. Before setting foot in stirrup, I had better do the ground work even if it means looking foolish. I’ve bounced giant pi-yo balls around the stable, trotted in the round pen next to my horse while  I dream of this.

I’ve ridden without bridle and saddle, holding a four foot carrot stick topped with a plastic bag, and wackier stuff, much to the amusement of horse and human. So what if they snicker? Afterall, any jackass will tell you he’s got horse sense.

Any jackass will tell you he’s got horse sense

Building a foundation of trust with my horse should take less than four ounces of force (that’s half a cup of press or pull) to keep us both safe. For example, on the ground, can I easily pick her feet, or do we play tug of hooves, ending with my toes stomped? And if I can’t move her on the ground in all six directions, why would she listen to me sitting in her saddle like a baby in a highchair?

  • If my story is not worth a reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” as Coleridge wrote, then I need further preparation.  Does your imaginary work enlarge the reader’s sense of reality?
  • So, your heroine can breathe underwater, your hero is a giant cockroach, and the bad guy is really an archangel? Ok, if you’ve done the groundwork, enlarged my sense of reality, made an impossible story probable and touched upon all the zones of craft, I, the reader, will eagerly saddle up for the ride.
  • Aristotle wrote another nugget worth chewing, “That which is probable and impossible is better than that which is possible and improbable.”

Horses are prey animals, food for carnivores, born to run panic-aholics, sort of like big rabbits. Maybe you’ve encountered Monty Python’s killer bunny.If so, that doesn’t count, typically bunnies run from danger, as do horses. Let’s say, you’re riding your horse, cantering a woodsy trail when a wind blown plastic bag zips by. Guess what? If your horse doesn’t trust your leadership, she’ll take charge, and gallop off into the sunset, with or without you. Not quite the way you’d hoped, unless you live a Grimm’s Fairy Tales world.

Imagine the audacity of writing a 400 page novel without prior and proper preparation? As I’ve said before, ‘Any jackass will tell you he’s got horse sense.’ Even if I think my super amazing story is the best thing since sliced bread, I need to do the work. That means learning craft, reading books, attending workshops, classes, conferences, online aids (NaNoWriMo is a great tool and it’s happening right NOW!), and more, so that my story reads with less than four ounces of force.

After all that, I will have to go naked, exposing my opus for review.  It’s not pretty. It’s also not easy, balancing hubris, courage and humility to listen without tossing manure. I’ve learned to lighten up. Over time, criticism looses its bite. I’ve lost poetic darlings. I’ve grieved over the murder of a beloved metaphor, and axed scenes that took all week to write, all because a reliable critic said so. And for this I am grateful.

When I described the inside of my heroine’s upper arm as, “soft as the belly of a baby barracuda,” my critique partners had a good laugh. And when Sharla Rae wrote about “bowels of soup,” I got back at her with hysterics.

Join me next time when we cover the second key, knowledge.  We’ll cover focus, asking, telling, and promising. If the act of successful riding merely means not falling off, then I’ve still got a lot to learn, and if a story is a promise, then I promise, you won’t find bowels of soup or soft baby barracuda bellies in Sharla Rae’s books or mine.

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26 Responses to 6 Key Writing Lessons I’ve Learned From Horses

  1. mE says:

    I am so glad (and looking forward) to your blog. I once was a rider and now at 80 I am still in wonder of the magnificent horse (I even like mules) and there isn’t a moment when I see the remarkable gifts they offer, that I don’t wish I could sit a-back to ride off into the sunset.

    And to top it off I love your sense of humor :0

    Earlene

    • Hi Earlene:

      Sounds like you and I are kindred spirits. I find the horse magnificient as well. I read that George Washington, would go out for early morning rides at 80, and I hope that I will be able to follow George’s hoofbeats!

      My next ride’s for you!

      D. A. Watt

  2. Brilliant comparison! Thanks for the insightful post.

  3. Angelyn says:

    That was a great comparison–when you’re in tune with your horse, you know it (and so does he)–same goes with the reader. Contrived writing is like sawing on the reins. I’ve done both.

    • Ah, yes, Angelyn, I’ve been lazy with my writing, and I’ve sawed on the reins. If my horse could talk, I’m sure she would have given me a browbeating over my heavy hands!

  4. Judy says:

    I miss my horse! And he taught me so much. An interesting comparison. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. Thanks for the smile.

    • Oh, Judy, I can relate. My favorite Arab mare coliced and died 2 years ago. I’d been given forwarning, you see, two days prior to her dying, a young girl at the stables told me about a dream. She’d dreamed that Sensation (my horse) had died and gone to horse heaven. She saw her running and happy with a small herd of dark horses. Sensation was a gray Arab, nearly all white as she aged. I hope there’s a pasture with some horses waiting for us!

  5. Winona Cross says:

    Few animals or things in life give me the joy and simple adoration of a horse. I simply love them and find them soulful to say the very least. I’m one of “those” people, a 60 year old woman still dreaming of owning a horse, still reading about them, still having a form of horse radar that puts my head on a swivel and brings about “horse radar” as my husband calls it. I can sense a pasture full of horses traveling at 80 miles an hour down an interstate. I’ve studied horses. I probably know as much about horses as a seasoned horse owner. I’ll probably never get to own a horse but writers like you can take me on a magic carpet ride through a pasture, in a barn, on the back of a steed, or at a horse show. When I was a young girl the only thing I ever wrote on my Christmas and birthday list was “horse.” I didn’t realize we didn’t have the money or the place. I learned a few years after my daddy died that he used to cry because he couldn’t give me what I wanted most. I still have the dream. I don’t ask for a horse anymore. I do have horses in every room in my home, though. I’ve written from my own soul. Thank you for an excellent post. I look forward to more.

    • Oh, WInona, I can relate to your horse radar. Like you, I used to ask for a horse every Christmas. Everyone would laugh. A Long Island South Shore girl asking for a horse? The idea was funny to them, yet I was serious. Finally, when I turned twelve, my parents grew tired of my nagging, and bought me a 10 pack of riding lessons. Thus began my journey riding these amazing, soulful creatures.

  6. When I was lecturing in Education, I used to tell my students what I learned about teaching children from riding horses. This post then, really struck a chord with me. Thanks.

    • I’d say we play the same sort of musical instrument. I too am an educator. I try to use the lateral thinking approach (how prey animals view the world) that horses have taught me rather than the direct head on approach (like predators, i.e. humans) and it works especially well with strong-willed teens and incorrigible family members!

  7. Rlynn Wilson says:

    I feel as if I’ve found a kindred spirit. Too many times to count, I’ve told my secrets, shared my victories, and cried out my blues to a horse. I’ve also been known to slip out the back door of an over-crowded house to go hang out in the barn. Great post! Thank you.

    • Oh, Rlynn, I know exactly what you mean, and so does the horse. That’s the amazing part, intuitively the horse senses our emotions, the horse knows. I find it curious (and maybe a bit alarming) that when I picture my ideal life, I see a couple of horses, my writing and my art. It has recently dawned on me that people are missing. Ugh-oh.

  8. Vivian Davis says:

    Great post. You’re right about the preparation needed to make it all seem easy. Also, I like the comparison of writing/reading and rider/horse. It’s a dynamic, not a simple one-way transaction.

    You’ve made me very nostalgic for my horsey past. It’s been years now…..😦

    • Thank you Vivian, and you’re right about the dynamic qualities of relationship. It is about communication. If we could all take the time to prepare to communicate and really listen to one and other, there’d be peace on earth in our interaction with all creatures big and small, for sure.

      I didn’t mean to make you sad about your horsey past, but aren’t you fortunate to have had that horsey past! Such a paradox how joys and sorrows go together like a glove in the hand.

  9. Lisa Kessler says:

    Awww horses are the best… I miss my mare, Bubbles so much!

    Great blog!

    Lisa🙂

    • Yep, horses are the best. I imagine Bubbles was happy to have you as her rider. I picture either a pony or a small Arab mare. I wonder?

      • Lisa Kessler says:

        She was a Morgan…🙂 Her registered name was Seaswept Ladyhawke but from an early age, her favorite pasttime was to put her muzzle in her water bucket and blow bubbles so the nickname stuck…🙂

        Lisa

        • What a poetic name, yet the name Bubbles fit. I rode a Morgan in college, her name was Lady, and she fit me perfectly, not too big, not too small, just right. Sometimes when I ride through the creek, my horse will lower her head, drink and blow bubbles and sometimes stomp through the water like a little kid splashing about. Thank you for sharing a special memory with us!

  10. Rlynn Wilson says:

    When I was writing Maggie’s Fall (and as I continue to write the sequels), of utmost importance to me was to depict Maggie’s horses authentically. I’ve been lucky enough to have good models. Maggie’s favorite horse, Sis, is a composite of three horses who had a hand in raising me: a Palomino mare who was my dad’s retired roping horse, a paint mare who had her bluff in on me, and a dun gelding who came to me injured and traumatized. They gave me the gifts of patience, confidence, and compassion. I am ever grateful.

  11. Ok, Rlynn, you’ve got me. Maggie’s Fall is a must read. How anyone could say animals don’t have emotions or personalities or feel pain and sorrow is beyond me. I’d say the horses in your life filled in the gaps where humans weren’t man enough to do the job, right!

    BTW, the heroine in my WIP, a thriller is also named Maggie. Maggie-May from her Dad’s love of Rod Stewart.

  12. Rlynn Wilson says:

    I’m only about half a mile from my parents, and we have connecting pastures. About 2 years ago, I got a pre-dawn call from my mom. From her window, it looked as if we had an injured mare. I ran the half mile in pajamas and muck boots—the mare in question was about 15 days away from delivering her first foal. When I crawled over the last gate, my fears were confirmed, she had lost the foal. There are five mares in that pasture, and they had formed a circle. As I approached, the mares turned toward me, and we made a new circle. Five mares and I put our heads together, and they let me cry. It was a moment of tenderness and loss that I will never forget.
    You are so right. Horses are intuitive and sensitive.

    Please let me know when your WIP is ready. I love that song.

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