How horses inspired a historical novelist – Linda Lafferty

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By Linda Lafferty

Horses. As a child, no other word thrilled me as much. And now I see how my love for horses has crept into my historical novels, an alchemy of memories and emotions transforming into stories.♥

Even though I had a real pony (OK, it was my older sister Nancy’s pony) in our backyard, I still rode an imaginary pony named Peanuts to school — and out onto the playground at recess. I can still make a ridiculous neighing sound and paw with my foot, the way Peanuts would.

“Galloping” through the schoolyard, already preparing to be a novelist.

When I was six and my sister was nine, we lived on Whidbey Island, an island between the Olympic Peninsula and the mainland shore of Washington State. We had friends who had extra horses so we would all canter off together — bareback, wild girls! — to explore our island.

Riding a pony bareback for three years is a great way to develop your skills. It also prepares a writer for rejection — I tumbled off our pony over and over, landing hard and getting back up. I tumbled with rejection for twenty-seven years.

Solitary moments on leaf-dappled paths. My lips moved as I told my pony stories.

We galloped our horses to the driftwood-strewn beaches. We ate sand-sprinkled tuna fish sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, squashed from being stuck in our pockets.

I don’t know what my parents were thinking letting us run wild, jumping every log and fallen tree on the island. The only rule was to be back by sundown in time for supper.

We swam our ponies in the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest and laughed like gleeful maniacs.

The stormy blue waters, the snorting of a horse’s breath, his head held above the surf. What if I set a novel in Napoleonic Russia, with scenes from the Imperial cavalry? Fording a river on their way to battle? I am writing that chapter now.

I started formal riding lessons when I was eleven at my uncle’s barn in Fairfax County Virginia. I had a series of instructors, mostly teaching German dressage and hunter discipline.

Foxhunts, Point-to-Point Rides, all-day trail rides over the hills of Northern Virginia.

The rhythmic clop clop clop on a wooden bridge. A man riding home to Cesky Krumlov over Barber’s Bridge. An image in The Bloodletter’s Daughter.

I worked at the barn every waking hour, mucking stalls, cleaning tack, pitching hay. As long as I was around horses, my life was filled with joy.

The spinning motes of hay dust, golden in shafts of light through cracks in the barn door. A moment in The Shepherdess of Siena.

My uncle was Colonel Jim Spurrier — a name that was well known at the time in horse circles. Uncle Jimmie was an Osage Indian and he served in the U.S. Cavalry as an instructor. He was the captain of the US Army polo team that accompanied John and Jackie Kennedy on visits to Pakistan and India.

guardA rider with a polo mallet high above his head, standing in his stirrups. The crack of a willow ball flying through the sky to land a hundred yards away on the green turf. A novel set in Turkey? A scene in The Drowning Guard.

Although I worked my uncle’s polo ponies as well as the hunter/jumpers, Uncle Jimmie didn’t believe women should be on the polo field. (But I played my first tournament at age 17.)

Girls’ hair spilling out of their polo helmets as they and their horses collide against an opponent, struggling for control of the ball. A glimpse in The Drowning Guard.

When I attended university at Lancaster, England, I landed a spot on the Lancaster University riding team. We traveled throughout England competing in cross-country jumping, stadium jumping and dressage. I won first place in 1976 in the War of the Roses competition between Lancaster and Yorkshire.

A five-foot gate ahead of us on a foxhunt in Scotland. “Take it!” the owner of my hunter-jumper said. “Take it!” I remember soaring over the obstacle as if it were a stick on the ground. Weightless.

In the opening scene of The Shepherdess of Siena, it was no longer me who was soaring, weightless, but the expert equestrienne Isabella De’Medici. Every jump I’ve ever taken, each gallop down the polo field is a resource for my novels.

In The Drowning Guard, the harem women play polo by torchlight — summer evenings in Virginia combined with my memories on the field.

Once a stallion attacked one of our dear family friends, sinking teeth into his chest and hurling him across a fence. In real life our friend survived the stallion. In a scene from The House of Bathory, the character did not.

Horses. . .The Shepherdess of Siena, I realize now, is the essence of who I am as a writer, what I admire the most. The passion of the Siena’s horserace and the supreme underdog — a fourteen-year-old girl who rode it in 1581, bareback, against all odds.

Horses have always been associated with intuition and freedom. To dream of a horse can be interpreted as a releasing of creative energy and an exploration of new frontiers.

I never realized until now how horses were preparing me to be a novelist.


The daughter of a naval commander, Linda Lafferty attended fourteen different schools growing up, ultimately graduating from the University of Colorado with a master’s degree and a PhD in Bilingual/Special Education. She taught at the American School in Madrid and at Aspen High School as an English as a Second Language and Bilingual American History teacher.

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