Writing Lessons from Horses
I come from a background of convincing 1,200-pound horses to listen to me, carry me around and trust me enough to jump over obstacles. There is a moment—just as a horse shifts his weight back and lifts his front end to arc over a jump—that if I do not trust him, or vice versa, both of us could crash through the fence. Like riding, writing is the act of convincing an audience to listen to me, carry my story in their minds and trust me to see them through to the end.
When I trained horses, I learned that it is essential to have different expectations for each stage. A young horse requires direction before he can be taught to turn or stop. At first, he will be sprawled out, gangly, stop-and-go like a vehicle with a bad transmission, not unlike a rough draft. Every answer to a young horse’s confusion should always be “forward”, in the same way every answer to should I? in a rough draft should always be yes. Later on in a story, I can make decisions about how I progress through a narrative (the style, energy, pace) in the same way that once a horse is moving, I can adjust speed and direction.
For almost twenty years of my life, riding horses was not so unlike creating art, trying to equate an abstract feeling into visual representation on a page. Every horse I sat on had a different personality. I had to figure out how they moved and learned, what their strengths and weaknesses were. Were they brave, but stubborn? Fearful, but careful? Did they jump best close to the fence or farther away? Would they trust me enough to take a risk? And in the end, could I make all of my cues to the horse harmonious? There was only one way to obtain these answers over and over again: trial and error. No matter how many horses I rode, I always had to go through the process of learning what worked and what did not work for each one.
In every story there is lag time, miscommunication between my feelings and my writing, just like there can be between my thoughts and a horse’s movement. Communicating well takes stages to develop. First I need energy; I get to know the story through forward motion. Then I adjust, finding the story’s strengths and weaknesses like I would with a horse. The best jumpers eventually learn to shorten the length of their stride and shift their weight back to coil their energy like a spring for advanced, technical jumping. Eventually, after revision, a story reshapes time, compresses tension and develops a sense of balance and power. But it’s just as easy to ruin a horse’s good attitude by asking too much at once. Sometimes, my stories rebel when I try to be too clever too soon. Or worse, they will get bored, become lackluster and stuck in mechanical motion. Then I know I have dulled the heart of the story. That’s when it’s time to backtrack and remember the feeling I started with when I sat down to write. Maybe it was an image, or a sound, or a specific scene around which everything else revolved. I let the story recover its balance and joy. Some days, all a horse needed was to run without me telling them anything. I’d perch on their back, stay out of their way and listen to the wind rush past my ears while they remembered the joy of motion.
Horses have taught me that discipline is required, but compassion is necessary. If I show up every day to my writing, even for a brief time, I am more likely to make progress. A story with consistency will find its rhythm in the same way that a horse will figure out its job. And day after day, I form trust between myself and my art, assuring myself that it will come to be, that it must go its own unique way and that every story—like every horse—is its own creature. I trust what it will become, even if I don’t know where it is going quite yet.
That same trust extends through a finished story to the reader. When I remember engaging in some of my favorite books, I remember the way the author implied in the subtlest of ways, “Trust me. Let me take you through an experience. Let me build a world and lull you into believing it is real.” Neil Gaiman builds that trust in Neverwhere by starting with a sentence that is easy to believe (“The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself”) and builds. I believe in a man named Richard Mayhew who is going to London because it is easy to. From that single engagement of trust, Gaiman continues to work outward from it, until I’m believing in doorways that open to the underside of the city.
I always wanted the horses I worked with to be happy and have good partnerships with the riders who would bond with them. Together, they would be a team. If I did not do my job, the horse would do what he wanted and not connect to the rider, often ignoring her. But if I did my job, the horse would help the rider when she hesitated by depending on his own strengths. The rider’s confidence often grew by borrowing from the horse’s. I know that horses lent me courage and focus until I developed my own. I borrowed as much from the books I read and the protagonists I loved: resolve, reflection, love, hope. Creating stories feels like a game of trust between heart and mind at first and then again between author and reader. It takes time and consistency to build; it requires flexibility and exploration. Every story is its own being. So I thank the many horses who taught me their virtues and vices, who allowed me to trust them and who trusted me in turn. I carry their lessons forward on the page.
Sara Knudson is a speculative fiction writer living in Yonkers, New York. Originally from Northern California, she spent twenty years in the equestrian industry as a horse trainer, competitor, manager, and hauler. She is a current graduate writing student at Sarah Lawrence College.