I’ve talked about this-world breeds and types of horses in previous posts, and gone into some detail about equine form for various functions. This week I’d like to revisit the topic, but with a more speculative bent: creating breeds and types for a fantasy or science-fiction setting.
The simplest tactic of course would be to file the serial numbers off real-world breeds and types. But if you do that, be sure you get your breeds straight–and understand what traits make that breed suitable for its designated function. Also, be very careful of non-expert sources including film and fiction. Especially film. As lovely as the eye candy of such films as Ladyhawke and Hidalgo may be (and their stars can, indeed, ride), the equine stars are not necessarily the drug of choice for their alleged purposes. That beautiful big black horse would need a pack train to carry his feed, for one thing. And a staff of grooms to keep all that gorgeous hair free of tangles, mats, and burrs. Horses like that do Not groom themselves. And that adorable Paint horse? Not in any way, shape, or form an endurance type or breed. (Though to be fair, the Spanish Mustang they wanted to use was not available; so they went for cute, smart, and flashy. And Viggo bought the horse afterwards. Viggo is a true lover of horses.)
So what does work in specific contexts?
Racing: Lean, leggy, may be built slightly downhill. Can be all about the speed–so not much for doing anything else. A sprinter will be stockier and with a bigger back end than a miler–for getting that lightning-fast start–and the long-distance runner may be quite lightly built, hot and fiery, with the type of muscles that keep going for miles and miles and miles (versus the fast burn of the sprinter). The marathon horse gets fitter the longer he runs.
Warfare: Heavily dependent on the type of armor and weaponry the rider carries. The Great Horse of the knight is a tank, and can be heavy, massive, and rather slow. He’s all about weight and mass. He may not have a lot of stamina. He’s good for short bursts in the charges. By contrast, the mounted archer’s horse, or the light raider’s mount, will be more like your marathon runner (or your polo pony). He’s fast, agile, and light to the rider’s aids, as he may be responding to shifts of seat or leg while the rider’s hands are busy with bow, spear, or sword. Because the rider wears light armor, he doesn’t need to be a big or heavy horse; he can carry less weight, and will be correspondingly faster. (This is how the Saracens ran circles around the Crusaders, in fact.)
Then there’s the cavalry mount of a later period–up to the early twentieth century–which tends to be whatever is cheapest and easiest to get hold of in the area, is sane and sound enough to tolerate the rigors of army life, and is safe to mount a raw recruit on and train him. He won’t have the highly specialized training of the Great Horse or the archer’s mount, but he’ll have solid basics and be able to be ridden by whoever comes along. He can be of any number of types, including Morgan, Thoroughbred, and various flavors of European Warmblood–basically, any kind of solid, all-around riding horse.
There’s a certain frame of mind that war horse needs. “Bombproof” is not a metaphor. He has to be able to tolerate loud, sudden noises, weapons swinging in close proximity to his head and body, and humans and animals milling all around him. A horse can be trained to it, of course, and indeed must, because most of what he has to do is directly counter to his instincts, but he has to start with a calm mind and a willing attitude. If he’s nervous or flighty, he’s not the best choice for the cavalry. I was going to say ornery as well, but a certain level of cussedness can be an asset in a war horse, especially one that’s expected to defend his (or her) rider in battle. This is the horse who will stand rather than run, and fight back when attacked. Mares can be good for this–they will kick the blue blazes out of anything that gives them an attitude, and they will bite, too, if they believe it’s called for.
Farm Work: At the other end of the economic spectrum, there’s the solid working horse that will pull the plow, log the woods, haul the hay wagon, and get the family to church on Sundays. He may be a heavy draft horse, especially the one who’s logging or hauling, but he can be a lighter type and still plow, pull a cart, and do a little trotting racing on his days off. Here is where a mule (offspring of a male donkey and a female horse) may do the job at least as well as a horse, and be tougher, stronger, and work longer hours, too. But a mule has his own angle on things, and that has to be taken into consideration. For one thing he’s really, really smart–and if he doesn’t see the point of something, he may just refuse to do it. A mule is a lot less inclined to put up with human nonsense than a horse is.
The All-Arounder: This is the horse who can do a little bit of everything. He’s middle-sized, middling build, not aimed at any one specialty, but able to do whatever he’s put to. He may or may not be “purebred”–he could be what’s called a “grade” horse, a horse of mixed ancestry, bred for smarts, sturdiness, and general utility rather than looks or specific talent. Your nobleman may sneer at him, but he’ll last longer than the heavy destrier and be calmer and easier to handle than the highly bred and nervy racehorse or fine saddle or harness horse.
He’s the direct opposite of the Ueber-specialist. That’s the horse that has been bred for one trait to the exclusion of others, until he pretty much can’t do anything more than the one thing he’s bred for. If you know show dogs or cats, you know how that can work. If you breed for color or head shape or specific body type, you can lose the other aspects that make the animal functional. Your speed horse is lightning fast but his feet and legs are so fragile that he may not make it past his third birthday. Your color horse is a gorgeous color but his conformation ranges from problematical to nonfunctional. Your “conformation” stock horse has been bred for such extreme musculature in the body that a lethal mutation that bulks up muscles can be considered desirable and actively encouraged, or the horse has feet so tiny and legs so weak that they can barely support the bulk of his body. Your “living statue” has a neck so long and a head so tiny with a muzzle so small that he has difficulty breathing and eating, and his legs are so crooked that they can’t support the weight of a rider.
These follies can drive a plot in various ways, and guide a writer toward various types of drama and conflict. They also serve as an object lesson in why, when creating form, one should never lose sight of its intended function.