Form to Function, Redux

pookabridle_bvcI’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.


minicairoJudith writes fiction about horses, too. Read the first chapter of A Wind in Cairo free right here on Book View Cafe. The rest is available at as a trade paperback or a PDF download.




Form to Function, Redux — 8 Comments

  1. I use the sprinter/marathon analogy in writing class; most writers have a natural fiction length that they gravitate to unless trained and stimulated by large per-word rates or book contracts. Unfortunate indeed is the born novelette writer, who has few markets!

    I was impressed reading FARMER BOY (Wilder) to see that the farm family’s Morgan horses were pulling plows, hauling wagons, taking the family on sleigh rides in the winter, and still cutting a fine show on Sundays. If you have to DO stuff that is a practical horse.

  2. Morgans are a super example of the all-arounder. They’re sturdy, smart, versatile, and a lot of them are awfully pretty. They’ve been damaged by the modern show scene–too much breeding away from the old type toward a more attenuated (and often flighty) form, which has been a problem across the board of the “English” show breeds in the US–Morgan, Arab, Saddlebred, and oh god Walkers who have been tortured horribly to get those “Big Lick” gaits. The opposite of that would be the stock breeds, the model for which appears to be a beef cow in spike heels. Some of those are like the sheep in Norstrilia: all body, no legs. They can barely stand without their knees buckling–if they don’t keel over dead from hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP, the genetic mutation that has made a royal hash of these breeds: but it makes huge muscles! they’re all about huge muscles!).

  3. Judith – I’m trying to picture breeding horses for brains, endurance and, for lack of a better term, conviviality. The setting will have the protagonists mostly doing mounted archery; the antagonists have recently adopted the stirrup (and upgraded from chariots with javelins) and are working out the basics of ‘ride someone down with a lance’.

    Root source of conflict is that the protagonist’s culture is being crowded out of range lands by the expansion of agriculturalists surrounding them. They have a significant advantage in having bred horses for their specific needs, and a lot more experience – but every year, the steppes get smaller as the farm land increases around them.

  4. Forgot my actual questions:

    1) It seems the antagonists would be using something like Morgans.

    2) It seems that the protagonists would be using something like Arabians.

    Is that about right?

  5. That could work.

    Things to think about: Chariot horses were often pony-sized (they can be smaller if they’re not being ridden), so the picture I get is Mongol ponies, or a variation that’s a bit larger. Or something like what the Greeks had; again, those were on the small side (and Morgans count–they’re pretty similar in build and size, in the older form). Then again, Arabians would work in that context (that’s pretty much what the Egyptians had, and they seem to have been small–13 hands or so).

    For your protagonists, what you’re describing is the range Quarter Horse, or some form of Indian pony (not necessarily small, though not gigantic, either). Old-style Appaloosa, for example. Those cultures loved a very colorful animal, so selected for spots and patterns, but the basic animal is a sturdy, tough, speedy critter who thrives on short rations and can handle all-day rides across the range.

  6. The other thought I would have is that war is a powerful driver of evolution of all kinds. (Look at the history of tanks to see what I mean.) If it is necessary for survival for the horses to be better at their jobs, they do get better. And it doesn’t matter whether the driver is wolves, eating the slowest horse, or men, shooting him.

  7. Oh yes. And the horse has been a powerful driver of war–with its speed, strength, and stamina. Prior to mechanical transport, the horse was the tank of choice for a Lot of cultures.

  8. To the point where a sort of myopia developed — cavalry charges against machine-gun emplacements during WWI, for instance. (Or, another classic example, taking ponies to explore Antarctica. There is NOTHING for a pony to eat there; every scrap has to be brought in. Whereas sled dogs can and do eat penguins, seagulls, fish, seals, people, leather, and each other.)