So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 1

I’ve been writing horse books for the past six years, and every year I get emails from readers asking for advice on getting started in the genre.

Now, to be fair, it’s a pretty new genre. What we’ve started calling Equestrian Fiction didn’t used to exist, and if you ask a big book retailer, it still doesn’t exist. That’s why Equestrian Fiction dominates non-fiction categories like Horse Care, and Equestrian Sports on Amazon. We have the most popular books for equestrians, but no real category.

That’s a gripe for another time.

Equestrian Fiction is growing by the month, with 2016 seeing a true explosion in titles. Established writers are continuing their series, and new writers are showing up with fantastic reads. Do you want to join in the fun?

Gray horse Thowra_uk

Let’s talk about horse books.

I’m going to write a blog series on Writing Horse Books — the good, the bad, the downright terrible. There are a handful of highs and a truckload of lows when you write your first novel (and your second, and your third, and your fourth…) and when we’re marketing our books directly to our readers, we have no choice but to face the criticism head on. While some writers with major publishing deals can say lofty (and probably untrue, but whatever) things like, “I never read the reviews,” if you’re an independent writer sharing good reviews to try to drum up good press, you’re going to have to read the reviews.

All of them.

And some of them will make you cry.

That’s okay, your dressage (hunter/jumper/western pleasure/fill-in-the-blank here) trainer has made you cry and you still ride, right? We’re equestrians, we’re used to pain equaling gain. We’re used to falling down, dusting ourselves up, and mounting again. Maybe that’s why we’re hanging on, growing, and actually thriving in such a difficult industry.

It’s just really hard to mash down a determined equestrian.

Writing for any audience is tough, but writing for equestrians is exceptionally challenging. In 2012, I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley for the equestrian lifestyle site, Dappled Grey. Jane Smiley stormed into the equestrian scene with her massive racing/showing novel Horse Heaven, and became as common a barn name as any big name trainer. I remembered working at the Ocala, Florida Barnes & Noble when Horse Heaven was at its height, selling copies one after another to well-known hunter/jumper riders in town for HITS. I was actually star-struck by some of the luminaries who walked in and asked for the book by name.

But Horse Heaven didn’t get a follow-up. Instead, Smiley began a children’s series, beginning with The Georges and the Jewels, which taught excellent horsemanship, but didn’t get into the complicated and very adult lives of modern riders, trainers, and owners in the racing and showing business–something I loved because it reflected the world I lived in so beautifully.

So I asked Smiley, why did she stop writing equestrian novels for adults, when Horse Heaven was such a hit with her own crowd?

Here’s what she told me:

“The horse audience will toss the book out of the window if the voice isn’t expert. The audience isn’t big, and they’re critical, although they’re enthusiastic when they’ve committed. Sometimes you can make it work and sometimes you can’t. It’s not an easy audience to write for.”

Imagine writing huge multi-generational trilogies, imagine winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and having your novels turned into movies, and then finding equestrians too picky an audience to continue writing for. That’s what you’re up against when you decide to write a horse book.

But that’s okay. There are ways around this. There are ways to find your voice. There are ways to prove yourself to your audience. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this blog series.

I’m currently getting ready to start the edits on my eighth equestrian fiction novel, Courage. This seems like both the best and the worst time to get into the hows and whys of writing for the genre. So I decided to go with “best,” and just jump in. Watch this space for a post each week on writing horse books. Feel free to chime in, comment, and ask questions. Send me an email if you don’t want to go public with your writing aspirations; I promise confidentiality. Let’s talk about writing. Because honestly? I want to read your books. I write for this genre because six years ago, sitting at my computer, I realized that all I wanted to read was more Horse Heaven. And no one was writing it.

So I wrote the book I wanted to read.

I’ve come a long way since my first novella, The Head and Not The Heart. I’ve made it through bad reviews and good, vicious emails and heart-warming messages, and even found myself in Lexington, Kentucky accepting runner-up at one of America’s richest book prizes before flying to Pimlico for a festival-day book-signing. This fall, I’ll be speaking about the horse in fiction at Equine Affaire in Massachusetts. I love my writing life; I’m grateful for my writing life, which readers grant me every day when they choose to read my novels, and I want to encourage, nurture, inspire, and help new writers join the ranks in any way I can.

Let’s talk horse books, and writing them, together. I think this is going to be a good time.

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17 thoughts on “So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 1

  1. Are you interested in discussing horses in fantasy as well? Because hoo boy, *that* is another tough audience. You have about equal numbers of horse people and non-horse people reading and writing the genre, and it’s pretty obvious when someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I will say that within the sf/fantasy genre it’s a common truism amongst writers that horse and gun people are the pickiest about getting things correct.

    And–ahem–I do have magical horses in my new series. Trying to create a believable magic horse that is Not The Savior Of All or the Practically Perfect Palomino can be a challenge. Too much of what I see leans toward the anthropomorphic with not enough of actual horse behavior to make it believable. With Mira, the lead magical horse in the first book, I had her telepathically projecting buffalo poop on humans and horses she didn’t like. I’m editing a book right now by a non-horse person who has a magical horse who comes and goes as he pleases, and hopefully helping the writer to get some horsey quirks put into the characterization.

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    • Well when it comes to fantasy readers appreciating equestrian facts, I don’t think that is any different whether you’re writing genre or contemporary lit. So I’m happy to include it in the conversation! One thing I do plan on discussing is choosing settings – do you use real details like breed organizations and actual horse shows, or do you make those things up? So that’s probably not related to fantasy, but horse care topics definitely will be relevant to any genre.

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      • Settings are also huge in fantasy/sf. One of the most interesting treatments I’ve encountered has been science fiction, not fantasy–C.J. Cherryh’s nighthorses in RIDER AT THE GATE and CLOUD’S RIDER. Carnivorous, telepathic mounts who link for life with one rider–and help humans remain sane in the face of a world filled with telepathic wildlife.

        Fantasy issues tend to circle around portrayals of the horse as nothing more than a motorcycle with four legs. LOTS of panelage about this stuff at genre conventions, and still the mistakes end up getting made. There’s also the trope of Horse As Magical Device (cough-cough Mercedes Lackey cough-cough, ducks and runs from the hordes of Lackey fans).

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      • I don’t even know how to react to the idea of carnivorous, telepathic mounts, so I’m just going to say that I won’t be covering that topic in this blog series (lol).

        I’m looking more at “Should I reference the Hampton Classic or should I make up a horse show because that opens a whole can of worms about qualifications for double A shows and actual classes offered and table IIB jumper specs, etc. etc.?”

        Those are more of the settings I’m planning on talking about!

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  2. Thanks so much for this, Natalie! I have a couple of drafts collecting dust, in spite of all the inspiring writer’s workshops and courses I’ve attended/taken. None of my instructors/coaches, except possibly Pam Houston, understood why I was writing from the rider/owner’s point of view. I was always relegated to the “genre” room.

    Yet, as you point out, the genre doesn’t even exist on the retail end of things, which is so important.

    Someone who has really inspired me is Tami Hoag. Yet when I talk to publishers and agents, they cling to Jilly Cooper as the writing style/plot model to emulate. (Palm smack to head)

    Onward!

    PS Can I blog about you blogging about this?

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  3. Hi I am a UK based writer and I write stories for YA and Adult – with horses in them – horses are part of my life and they are part of my characters lives irrespective of the genre – ‘timeshifty’ YA Historicals, Contemporary YA or Adult Romance or Suspense. As more of us write and publish I guess the genre tags will catch us up – I would like my work to appeal equestrians but I will indie publish to appeal to a wider audience as well TBH. I am neither Dick Francis nor Jilly Cooper in style though I always enjoyed their books I am simply not part of either the racing nor from similar society to Jilly’s characters that she does so well… Thanks for this post 🙂 Natalie 🙂

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    • I think it’s so important that we find ways to write about real equestrians – not high society and not racing detectives – that’s the cornerstone of equestrian fiction’s popularity. So if you have that connection to the sort of people you’ve always ridden with, and you can make your readers feel that you connect with their world and their struggles, that’s when your writing will truly hit home with riders.
      Looking forward to chatting with you more!

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  4. Thank you for planning this series, Natalie. I’ll be talking it up, too. Ebooks opened doors publishing experts insisted were dead-ends. Granted, ebooks aren’t the express train to Easy Street, but readers are out there. No one wants to disappoint them once we have their attention.

    Anyway, I hope all this attention doesn’t “create a monster” for you. Of all people, I’m all too aware of how social media needs can gobble precious writing time. Still, I’m glad I delayed abandoning Facebook so I could find out about your blog series.

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  5. Wow, hello Natalie! I’m a lifelong horse nerd. I’ve read many novels that feature serious riding activity and it’s clear the writer has clearly never put their butt on an equine. It’s about the hardest thing to fake, even if you learn the terminology. I’m interested to see what you cover in this series!
    Anyway, if we’re introducing our literary credentials, I’ve written a horse book of my own – a futuristic fable set in the last scrap of countryside. Really it’s a love letter to my own giant equine. It was longlisted for the World Fantasy Award (though it isn’t fantasy) and is now up for the People’s Book Award.

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  6. Hi all,

    I am new here (well, new-ish – I generally stalk, rather than contribute…)

    Firstly – thank you for this discussion! I work in the racing industry and contribute to a racing newspaper based in South Africa. Although I’m not a fiction writer, some of the stuff that happens in racing should really qualify, as much of it is stranger and more wonderful than any fiction I have read.

    I Googled equestrian fiction and came up with this handy list:-

    https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/equestrian-fiction

    Some I’ve read, some I’ve never heard of.

    I’ve been horse mad since I came out of the womb and discovered reading not too much after that. I think Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series was one of my first introductions to equestrian fiction, then came The Black Stallion (I had THE biggest crush on Alec for most of my formative years). There were the Pullein-Thompson sisters and I also remember finding the most beautifully illustrated children’s story book about mustangs in my local library which I read until I wore the pages out. I think it was simply called Mustang, but I have searched and searched and haven’t managed to lay my hand on another copy. My first ‘serious’ read was Mary O’Hara’s Thunderhead. O.M.G. And of course, Jilly Cooper was passed around furtively at high school.

    As a breeding / racing / dressage / jumping / NH horse fan I’m fairly omnivorous in my reading material. I LOVE Mark Rashid’s way of combining teaching with story telling with his whole zen/aikido thing. Equally I love Paul Belasik’s philosophical approach to training and developing dressage horses (and riders) and the same goes for Michel Robert with jumping and Phyllis Lose with her breeding manual. I also enjoy racing biographies and autobiographies – I think Horse Trader is one of the best racing biographies I have come across and I love love loved Seabiscuit. Interestingly I was lent Horse Heaven to read by a non horsey friend. Jane also wrote an autobiographical follow-up A Year At The Races, which I loved too, so I was interested in her reasons for not wanting to do any more equestrian writing for adults.

    I don’t know that I can honestly answer what I think people like to read, because most days I don’t have the first idea, so I just tell them stuff I think they ought to know or at least think about. But often things that I think are fantastic get ignored and stuff that I think is awful gets passed around like hotcakes. I think anything that is done well is interesting and entertaining to read. I enjoy interesting stories about interesting people, horses or events. I like to understand what happened as well as why it happened. But for anything to ring true, it has to be written honestly and as Ms Smiley points out, we do cater to a highly informed audience who are not kind or patient with uninformed gaffes. However, it’s difficult to make the correct judgement in exactly how informed the audience is and one can assume a certain level of knowledge and end up leaving out vital detail. But if one is honest and true and writing about something you know, then it’s usually pretty hard to go wrong.

    Equestrian fiction is a very niche market and therefore we’re talking (relatively) small volumes, so I would humbly suggest that the most practical solution is to aim for some sort of cross-over which appeals to non-horse audiences as well (which Jilly Cooper did so successfully). Unfortunately I have no idea what non-horse people like (odd creatures!)

    Thank you again for the discussion – I look forward to reading all the contributions 🙂

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    • Thanks for coming over and commenting!

      Luckily equestrian fiction is a successful new niche, so if you want to write for it, go for it! I think a lot of us have always read cross-overs and thought, “this would be even better with more horses.”

      I do get reviews and messages from non-equestrians who let me know how much they love my books, which I think is wonderful, but I ONLY market to equestrians and I put “equestrian fiction” right on my media so everyone knows exactly what they’re getting!

      However if you do plan to write cross-over fiction, I think you’ll find the discussion handy nonetheless. We have to get those details right!

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  7. Reblogged this on Retired Racehorse and commented:

    Have you been putting off writing your horse book? Are you in the middle of a manuscript? Or do you have a finished draft and you’re not sure what to do with it next?

    Join me at NatalieKReinert.com, my author site, where I’m beginning a multi-part series on writing equestrian fiction. Even if you’re writing a memoir or non-fiction work, we’ll probably discuss something of interest to you! Come join the conversation, at So You Want To Write a Horse Book.

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  8. I’m laughing, because I’m both one of those who started writing at, uh, eight years old, because I wanted to write the book I couldn’t find (as much as I loved Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry!)…but I’m also one of those that will throw the book out the window if there are inaccuracies. I’m working on that, haha, because it’s really more important to support the genre, isn’t it? My own “late, great, novel” has been re-written and edited more times than I care to admit…maybe one of these days I’ll get my act together and put it out there. I’ve got a pretty good flame suit, after thirty years as a professional artist! I know all about rejection!

    Thanks for writing this – love the voice in your novels. It’s getting hard to keep up with all the new work coming out from everyone! Not a bad problem to have, right?

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