Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Destrier's Tale: Part I -- The Grey Colt

A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part I: The Grey Colt



When I was little, I was just called “the grey colt.” That was because there weren’t any other grey colts at the stables. And, of course, being the only grey it was obvious who my father was. He was the tall, dark grey stallion that frightened half the grooms. They kept him in a special, reinforced stall and when he was let out, it was to go alone to a paddock with double fences. He took an interest in me though. Whenever he saw me following my mother out to the mare’s pasture, he would whinny and make a big fuss. He would run back and forth along the fence closest to us, shaking his head high and low, his tail raised. But my mother ignored him, of course. She had me to feed and look after. She was a lovely black mare with large, gentle eyes and I’m sure I was her favorite, although I had two older sisters and an older brother. She was very proud and protective of me, and wouldn’t let the other mares near me unless she was standing ready to bite them if they weren’t friendly. But they were always friendly and admiring, except for the snobby white mare who thought she was better than everyone anyway and always kept apart. The other mares all thought she got what she deserved when her foal was born brown and ugly.

There were lots of other colts and fillies to play with as I grew up. When we were weaned, we had a pasture to ourselves and we had a terrific time racing each other or just stampeding from one end of the pasture to the other. The pasture lay along the banks of a river, so we always had enough to drink, and on one side the pasture backed up against a sugar plantation. We tried all sorts of tricks to get at the sugar cane as it got ripe. One of my friends actually jumped the fence and got loose in the field, but he was chased out by the hoard of humans who looked after the sugar and was badly beaten when he was caught. I decided not to imitate him — though I’m sure I could have jumped the fence if I’d tried. After all, they brought us the left-over stocks after harvesting and as they harvested the fields successively, we had sugar cane half the year.

After the rains and cold had come three times, I was finally big and strong enough to be taken away from the stud and moved to the other side of the stables that was for the riding horses. There was one groom who took me in hand; the other humans called him Andronicus or “Andy” for short. He was small and slight with dark skin, black eyes and long, strong fingers. He cleaned me up, currying away the dirt and mud of the pasture, and combing out my tangled mane and tail very patiently. I loved it when he used the curry comb on my shoulders and thighs, it made the muscles fell good for hours afterwards, but it tickled when he cleaned my belly and I used to stamp at him irritably to let him know I didn’t like it. When the days got hot, he would lead me down to the river and let me walk all the way up to my belly in the brown waters. That was wonderfully cooling.

Later Andy stood by while I was fitted with my first set of shoes. I would have been frightened if Andy hadn’t been with me, patting my neck to re-assure me everything was going to be alright. It was hard to stand still for so long, especially on three legs, but the farrier was an elderly man, who knew his craft. He didn’t hurt me once, though I heard from some of the other horses that his son wasn’t as good and sometimes drove the nail too deep or at the wrong angle. But I was lucky and it was the master who did my shoes.

It took me a while to get used to the extra weight on my feet, but it was wonderful for walking on the stony path between the pastures. The shoes elevated me just enough so that almost none of the stones reached my frog and I could even gallop without getting any bruises. They were great in the mud too. We had one of those freak, early rains shortly after I was shod, and I remember stepping out cautiously only to discover I could trot and canter without any risk in my new shoes. They give you so much traction!

By then, of course, I had been lunged regularly, learning the commands for “halt, walk, trot, and canter,” so one day Andy went to the head groom and told him I was ready for backing. I knew this was coming because the other colts and fillies of my age cohort were all going through the same training and there were a handful, who were ahead of me. Still I was nervous, but Andy was with me and gentle as always. He started with a quilted saddle pad, which he laid across my back, and then he leaned over my back and bent his knees so his whole weight was on my back. I was surprised by how light he was. After that he added a saddle and made it fast under my belly. That was uncomfortable at first and I let him know it by flattening my ears and stamping. He wrapped a sheep-skin around the girth and then it didn’t feel so bad. After about a week of lunging with the saddle on, Andy called the head groom over and had him hold the off-stirrup while Andy mounted me. It didn’t like the wrenching feeling as the saddle was pulled to the left, but once Andy was in the saddle it was OK. The head groom led me around with Andy on my back and it was hardly any different from not having someone on my back.

After that, the training became more intense. After lunging me with Andy on my back for about a week, they fitted me with my first bridle. Except for the bit, it’s not that different from a halter, and the bit they used was thick and linked so it didn’t press down on my tongue. It wasn’t uncomfortable unless it was left in for too long, which Andy never did. Andy rarely rode more than an hour or two because he had three other colts he was looking after. As the weather worsened, however, the riding became more difficult. He made me ride in circles at both trot and canter, and then in serpentines. I had to learn my leads and to change them on command from the rider. I to learn lateral movements as well, crossing my legs as I moved in one direction or another and to move backwards too.

When I was really good in the ménage, Andy took me out of the stables for the first time in my life. I was so excited! And for good reason! We encountered so many strange things! Houses on wheels pulled by four or even six horses, and little boxes that people carried too! Then I had my first experience on paved streets and learned how shoes, that give traction on dirt, mud and gravel, slip and slide on polished stone. Oh, and I saw my first town with two storied buildings! People kept popping out of the windows frightening me to death. Not to mention that pack of dogs that came chasing out of a side street yapping like the devil was after them! Poor Andy had a hard time staying on my back as I jumped sideways to get away from first this and then that. When we returned home, I was drenched in sweat not from running hard but from being so scared, and Andy fell off my back in relief to have made it home without a broken bone.

The next time the head groom rode me. He was bigger and heavier than Andy and whenever I hesitated for any reason he urged me forward firmly. Even so, a loud noise suddenly erupted on my left, and I bolted to get away from whatever had caused it because obviously anything that made that kind of noise had to be dangerous and hostile! The head groom crashed down onto the street and that frightened me more, so I ran home as fast as I could. Andy wasn’t happy about that. He mounted and made me go back to town. We met the head groom on foot half-way there, and I had to carry both of them. People don’t like getting thrown!

Over the months that followed, however, I started to learn that most things aren’t threatening to horses. Even in the busy towns with lots of shops and houses, dogs, cats and children, we horses are bigger and stronger than most creatures and smarter than cattle and camels. The people in the houses might seem bigger at first because they are above you, but actually they have climbed up inside the houses (like cats climbing trees, I guess), and they’re really just as small as if they were on the ground. I learned that on the whole you can trust your rider to know if something is dangerous or not; if they stay calm, there’s probably no cause for alarm.

When the dry hot season started again, they started letting other people ride me. I don’t mean the other grooms. I wouldn’t have minded that so much, but these men were strangers. When they came, several of us from my age cohort would be taken out and trotted up and down. The strangers would point at one or another of us and then they got to ride us. They weren’t like the grooms. They would get on and then immediately want to canter or gallop, hauling us this way and that, jerking at our necks and mouths, and kicking us with their heels. Some of them even wore spurs and cut open our sides with their vicious kicks. And then they would go away again. It was horrible really. When one of my friends got angry and bucked one of these stupid riders off, he was cornered and lashed with whips. It took him weeks to recover. Another of my friends tried not moving at all when one rider had wrenched him around too much, but they beat him for that too.


I always tried to be good, no matter how bad these riders were, and that resulted in one of these riders deciding to keep me. I don’t know what he said to the head groom, but after a terrible ride with him pounding horribly on back as he threw me this way and that around the ring, he had them take the saddle and bridle off but attached a lead to my halter. He tied the lead to the back of the saddle of the horse he’d arrived on, and then turned and rode out of the stables. I had no choice but to follow, though I protested loudly, whinnying to Andy to come free me. I balked at the gate too, but Andy didn’t hear me or he didn’t care what was happening. Another groom whacked me on the buttocks to make me move forward and so I left the only home I had even known and entered hell.


The story of Centurion's master can be found here:

A landless knight,

                     a leper king,

                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem!

Knight of Jerusalem is the first book of the three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin. It is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.

Buy now on amazon or barnes and noble



Book II in the series covers the final decade of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the fall of the Holy City to Saladin in October 1187:

A divided kingdom,

                       a united enemy,  

                                       and the struggle for Jerusalem!


Buy Now in Paperback!  
or Kindle!

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