When you put your hero or heroine on a horse, besides many breeds, there will also be the question of gender: colts (uncastrated males) and fillies (females) under four years of age; mares (over four); stallions (any uncastrated adult male); and geldings (castrated male).
Some issues are surprisingly hot button to romance readers and writers-- one of them being whether a hero would logically ever choose to ride a stallion given their temperament. Well, the same thing could be asked about choosing to ride a mare given she will come in heat. For those who want to know more about what that means, here's a bit on [how to manage the mare in heat].
In this discussion on horses, I should start with saying that while I know a lot about horses, I am not a horse woman. I've ridden horses off and on since I was a girl but never was that good on them. I am no horse whisperer. I have never had an interest in English riding, dressage, or in competing. My interest has always been in trail riding, and it's the only kind of riding I've done.
Twice, I have experienced going off a horse (both of them geldings). The first time, I was a girl and heading back to the house when the horse started to run. I pulled on the reins, which stopped him quickly. I went right over his head. Fortunately it was a dirt road-- no harm done other than startling him and me. My father was badly allergic to horses, and not long after that, the horse had to go.
The other time, years later, when I went off a horse, I chose it. My husband and I had been on a trail ride in Central Oregon. The horse was barn sour, which means he started to run toward the barn as soon as we turned that way. I had not expected it and knew I didn't have a steady enough seat. Although we were riding on a dirt road (luck again), ahead was a paved road. I figured, with the horse needing to make an abrupt right turn to get to the barn, I was going off-- it was only a question of where. I literally dismounted the running horse and rolled with the only damage being done to a shoulder (wearing a sleeveless blouse) where I got a scrape and had to run into town for a tetanus shot as mine weren't up to date.
Otherwise though, I know a lot about big animals, having raised cattle for almost forty years, having been around horses a fair amount, and having a lot of books about them, their value, and techniques for riding. I find horses beautiful animals and enjoy watching them. Although we have had a few horses on this place, this is a cattle and sheep ranch. Horses need to be constantly worked, and neither my husband nor I have had the time or inclination. You can take a good horse and ruin it if you don't know what you are doing.
Horses, for all their romantic and almost mystical feeling to people, are big animals and potentially dangerous ones-- even those that are not stallions. They are prey species with the same tendencies of self-preservation-- which explains how they can startle. They each have their own personality. Some breeds are known for this or that characteristic but even within that, there will be different qualities-- some due to how they were raised.
Stallions are the ones with the bad rep-- not totally undeserved, although a lot of it comes from people trying to be around them without the skills to do it. Choosing a horse is like choosing any animal. You want the right temperament, and you need to be the alpha animal. If you are not, I don't care if it's sheep, cattle, or a house pet, you are in trouble.
My husband worked on a ranch when he was in high school where they had an Arabian stallion, who was temperamental-- around some people. But there were those who could do anything with him-- one of them being a tiny woman. Yes, a stallion will be excited when he's near a mare in heat. A mare in heat has her own set of dispositions at that time as the above article indicated.
Recently I had reason to look up riding a stallion. I've written quite a few books where horses were ridden. Two of them (one to be published in September) had the hero on a stallion. After reading complaints that stallions were a poor choice (ignoring the fact that Roy Rogers rode a highly trained one), I decided I better research it again.
In the Civil War, the generals mostly rode stallions, but the rest of the cavalry rode geldings. Throughout time, stallions had been considered a requirement for war horses-- until after the Civil War when the cavalry came to believe geldings could be just as good at endurance, training, and not have the temperament issues of a stallion. Not sure many soldiers would have chosen a mare for assorted reasons-- one of which would be if they had to ride long distances.
A few years ago I also learned that it's not good for anyone over 200 lbs. to ride a horse-- too hard on their backs. Romance heroes are often big guys and likely weigh that or more.
The distance you can ride a horse without a break is another debate that has many opinions. I researched it for one of my books and came up with numbers that made sense to me-- but again a lot would depend on the person riding it. Also the cavalry when they rode long distances did walk part of the way to give the horses breaks.
Below are a couple of interesting articles I came across on stallions. The first is in regards to one of George Custer's that he rode into battle during the Civil War. Custer always favored stallions, but this one had a rather unique story-- as well as a good example of how dangerous such a horse can be.
The famed [Lippizans] are always stallions.
This is one of many on what one should expect if they want to train and ride a stallion:
[Riding a stallion]
[Riding a stallion]
One of our neighbors used to breed Appaloosas. He rode his stallion in parades where he'd wear full Indian regalia. The horse had a wonderful temperament. The man though had to have the stallion gelded when his son wanted to compete in 4-H, as they would not permit a stallion in the shows.
The idea that a western hero would never ride a stallion is, in my opinion, wrong. Okay, maybe a beta hero never would *s*. But a hero would ride the animal that best suited his own temperament and needs. I've written heroes who rode geldings more often than stallions-- but twice I was convinced the hero would have ridden a stallion. Nothing else would have suited his personality and need. These men though were not cowboys working on ranches. Ranches will usually stick to geldings, unless they are also breeding horses. They will use all geldings or all mares. The mare coming in heat and upsetting the geldings isn't what they want either.
Whatever animal your characters choose, it should suit their personality and feel like a real animal of that type. Don't give your character a cat if you don't know cats. You don't have to own one. You just have to know what their personalities are like.
Saying that, I have learned, after reading the strong opinions of romance writers/readers, there can be a price for choosing to put your hero on their idea of the 'wrong' horse. Same thing happened to me when I wrote a story where my heroine chose her own path in the 1880s. Some readers had a hard time with that too. They could accept mail order brides or women being forced to run from an abusive relative, but absolutely could not accept a heroine, of that period, who didn't follow the prescribed path and instead chose an adventure. They needed to read a few more memoirs is what I think...
Anyway, as a writer, if you have your hero ride a horse that irks some readers, they'll be finished with the book. You can instead follow the stereotypes that are acceptable... if that's the kind of writing you want to do. Yahoo!