This is a post about aliens. It’s also a post about writing the Other–human, animal, or otherwise.
Horses are sentient. There’s some debate as to how intelligent they actually are, but as with other animals, the more scientists study them, the more intelligence and emotional complexity they find. What it means for you, the writer, is that a horse is not a prop. He’s a person.
What he isn’t is a human person.
This is where even lovers of horses can fall into the trap of thinking that everyone is like them. It’s a human trait. You see it in “Star Trek,” where Captain Kirk by jiminy is going to teach that galaxy to live by good old Middle American values or die trying. It’s all over the place in fantasy, with suburban Americans in fancy dress having Exciting Adventures in carefully groomed and CGI’ed worlds. Even history isn’t immune. “Gladiator” is no more Roman than Jay Gatsby.
With animals, we call it anthropomorphism. We attribute to them human traits and motivations, and think of them as blurred and furry reflections of ourselves.
The real art of writing the Other–another culture, another time and place, another species–is to learn to see the Other as it sees itself. That means stepping outside our comfortable box, setting aside our cultural and historical assumptions, and teaching ourselves to think as the Other would think.
A horse is not a human. He evolved in a different direction, and his motivations and instincts, while sometimes comparable and generally comprehensible, do not follow human logic.
First of all, a horse is a herd animal. He’s a prey animal, too, and that is important, but the herd instinct comes first. He lives as part of a group. A horse alone is a horse without support, without protection, and without a gestalt to be part of. At the very least he will be extremely uncomfortable. At worst, he can become psychotic.
That’s why you hear about racehorses with pets: a goat, a cat, a chicken. A horse needs company. His natural unit is a group of some ten to twenty individuals–the numbers can vary widely and rise considerably higher, but practically speaking, a herd’s optimal size is the number of mares and their foals that a single stallion can guard, retain, and breed, or the number of bachelor stallions who can stay together, rove and feed as a unit, and protect each other against predators. Too few and they can’t keep the predators from finishing them off.Too many and they overtax the resources of the area they live in.
Within the herd, each horse is an individual, with her own personality and, yes, feelings. She lives in a complex and hierarchical social system. There is some debate about this,but in general it’s acknowledged that the stallion is not in charge. He runs security; he protects the herd. The real ruler is the alpha mare, usually older, often the daughter of an alpha. She gets the food first, and she will decide where and when to go looking for it. She has favorites, not always dominant mares themselves, who live under her protection and get access to the prime food and water after the alpha is done. The rest of the herd–and this will include the favorites–spends much of its time jockeying for position, with lower ranks trying to work their way up, and higher-ups having to defend their places. There will be a few true omegas, genuine secure-submissives, who stay on the bottom and seem to be content there, but for the most part a herd member’s main preoccupation is getting a better shot at the food and pushing her rivals away from it. That being said however, horses form friendships and alliances that can be very close and devoted, and may rage or grieve when a friend is taken away by death or, in a domestic setting, a move or a sale.
Food is very important to a horse. But so is breeding–especially to a stallion, and to a mare in season. A domesticated horse will also, through selective breeding, have a distinct tropism toward specific skills: running, jumping, working cattle. Horses, especially intelligent ones, enjoy an active physical and mental life and will seek it out if given the freedom to choose. The image of the horse who prefers a lazy life in the pasture with his buddies is not entirely inaccurate, but a well-treated, well-handled horse will clearly enjoy the diversion of work or play with a human.
Is that enjoyment exactly like the human emotion? That’s hard to say. What we can say is that a horse has emotions, has feelings, does feel enjoyment, as well as other emotions that are in some way comparable to the human versions.
They may not come from the same place as human emotions. A human is a predator, evolved from an ape. His physical orientation is vertical and focused on his hands; his senses are generally weak, except for sight, which is predominant. A horse is a herd and prey animal, a herbivore. His main evolutionary protection is speed. His orientation is horizontal, on four legs, and his movement begins in his hindquarters. His senses are keen, especially hearing and smell, and he has a very highly developed spatial sense, so much so that in some ways he’s a live and mobile GPS. Sight is not as highly evolved as the human version, but his range of vision is more extensive, encompassing nearly 300 degrees of angle. Mostly he sees two sides separately; stereo vision is not a horse trait. His brain is also less efficiently connected between the hemispheres; what he sees out of one eye, he may not recognize when it appears in the other. He doesn’t process the two sets of data as well as a human. For him, each eye shows a different world.
To a horse, then, anything new is a probable threat, and his instinctive response is to run–unless he is a stallion or a horse bred as a war horse. Then the flight instinct is somewhat reduced and he may run toward the threat instead of away. Mostly however, it’s safe to assume that if a horse sees something he isn’t sure of, he’ll get the hell away from it. He’s not a coward or an idiot for doing so–that’s a human interpretation. He’s being perfectly logical and perfectly sane in horse terms. Unknown = probable predator = I could die. Solution: Save life. Run.
The exception, as I’ve said, will be the horse who has the instinct to defend another: stallion defending herd, mare defending foal. These will be “brave” in human terms, risking their own lives for others. The instinct can extend in some cases to a human, if the horse sees the human as part of his herd, and determines that the human should be protected like a mare or a foal. This is the instinct that breeders and trainers of war horses would try to foster, to protect the rider and turn the horse into a fighting machine.
Can a horse love? That’s a deep question. I can’t answer it. He can form friendships, develop attachments, make connections that seem to be meaningful to him. He will have preferences in horses and in humans–a horse can hate quite dramatically, and seriously want to kill another horse for no reason comprehensible to a human. I suppose you can say that if a creature can hate, he can also love.
A horse is an alien. He doesn’t think like a human, and he’s not coming from the same evolutionary place. But a he can understand a human, and a human can understand him. The two species are amazingly compatible. Their minds don’t work the same way, but they work well together, for mutual benefit. Isn’t that what symbiosis is?