In earlier posts we’ve mentioned The Giant Fantasy Horse as being less than desirable in a realistic equine context. Yes, there are a number of normal-sized people riding giant horses, and the horses are lovely, talented, and so on, but giant horses, like giants of any other species, have special needs that may not be conducive to adventures, errantries, or long expeditions through difficult country.
First however, a pause for some parameter-setting, and also for a bit of entertainment. Go watch. I’ll wait. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB-2P5dpxtc
Isn’t that a riot? These are two extremes of horse size–by no means the smallest or the largest of their species, but they are fairly far apart in height. The Shetland pony is fully grown, adult, and extremely well trained. He is 12.1 hands, which is 49 inches at the withers. The Shire is a solid 24 inches taller at 18.1 hands. Notice the difference in agility, lightness, and stamina. The pony originated in the Shetland Isles, where forage is sparse and poor. Smaller animals eat less, and can make better use of what they do eat, than larger animals. A Shetland, as you can see, is still quite strong and can carry an adult human with little difficulty. He is also tough, hardy, and well adapted to the harsh climate of the isles.
The Shire was, so the legend says, bred originally under the order of King John of England as a “Great Horse” for the use of knights in battle and in jousts. He was, therefore, meant to be a tank: large, heavy, massive, and capable en masse of battering down the walls of a city. What he is not is quick, agile, or easy to maneuver. He also needs a lot of fuel, which makes him expensive to keep. He would not have been ridden to those battles or jousts. He would have been very carefully guarded and cared for, because he was worth a literal fortune; the knight would have been riding a smaller, lighter, more cost-effective horse.
Big horses cost a lot to keep, but that’s not the only reason why a giant is a poor choice for the knight errant or the fantasy hero on quest. The structure of the horse is admirably designed for life on the steppe, fueled by large amounts of grass and roughage, and escaping predators with the aid of long legs and a cardiovascular system designed for speed and stamina. Optimal size for this animal is between 14 and 15 hands (56 to 60 inches at the withers). (Horses and ponies are separate subspecies. A pony is not a baby horse. It is its own thing, and tends to average around the size of the Shetland in the video, up to somewhat over 14 hands and down to the “minis” who can be as small as 20 inches–though they are an extreme and often suffer from dwarfism.)
If the optimal size is at or below 60 inches, a horse that is 18 hands–72 inches–is pushing its luck as far as bone and muscle structure and cardiovascular system are concerned. His system will function less efficiently; he may be subject to problems related to size: arthritis and other bone problems, lack of stamina or carrying strength, and of course fuel efficiency. A very large or heavy rider is actually better off not riding a huge horse; a horse that big has all it can do to carry itself, let alone anything else. A better option is a shorter and very solidly built horse with a deep barrel and substantial legs and feet. Such a horse is called a cob. He will be around 15 hands, stocky and sturdy, with plenty of carrying power.
This type of horse is also a good option for travel overland, because he tends to have high fuel efficiency and good stamina. The really great endurance horses are smaller and lighter–Arabians are the breed of choice here–but a good cob can go all day on low rations. He may not be flashy or glamorous and he’s probably not much for speed, but he’ll get the job done.
So, what to do to satisfy the desire for magic and fantasy? You don’t need to mount everybody on sturdy old Dobbin, though your obnoxious young knightling with an inflated sense of his own worth may produce some useful conflict if he is forced to ride something “beneath” him. The simplest answer is to size your fantasy horse down into the functional range, and emphasize other traits such as beauty, intelligence, stamina, and speed. Basically–Shadowfax. Tolkien was not a horseman, but he was wise and he understood. His horses of Rohan are admirably written and designed for what they are and do. He’s definitely on my short list of Authors Who Get It Right.
Oh, and? Shadowfax? Not horribly far off the norm for the baroque breeds (Andalusian, Lusitano, Lipizzaner), when all’s considered. There’s a nice model for the fantasy horse, tested and proved in the real world, and successfully enchanting humans since at least Roman times. In later posts we’ll look at other possibilities as well, including the Arabian, the Mustang, and yes, the old-fashioned Quarter Horse.