Worldbuilding with Horses: Basics

As the year winds down, my creativity circuits wind up. I don’t do NaNoWriMo because my process doesn’t work that way, but the hum and buzz of creation is all around me. But even before NaNo, I used to fall into a heat-sodden funk in the summer, then wake up and rev up in the fall.

One thing I really love to do, apart from torturing characters, is build worlds. Worldbuilding is fun. It’s also challenging, because every “What if” and “Wow, cool” has to be supported by the logic of the whole.

Since this is the Horseblog, naturally my mind turns to the art of worldbuilding with horses. There are numerous ways to go about it, from incorporating them into the background as transportation to making them the main characters to basing alien cultures on them.  But there are a few basics that every writer needs to know before she builds them into her fantasy or science-fiction world. I’ve talked about many of them before, but that was a while ago.  Let’s look at this as a prerequisite post: essential elements for the horse, or horseazoid, in your world.

Horses as transport

If your world has non-mechanically-powered wheeled vehicles, or even a form of well-lubricated sledge, it will want a large, strong, docile animal to pull it. You can use some form of ox, but the horse has a combination of speed and strength that the ox can’t match. A single horse or a team of horses can run fast and pull hard, and get your stagecoach or your chariot or your load of logs where it needs to go.

The horse also has a back structure that is fairly comfortable for a human to sit on. If you look at the back of an ox, or an elk or moose, or most other non-equids of suitable size to carry the weight of a human, there’s not a really clearly defined space for the human to sit on. Camels and elephants (and even oxen and cattle) are ridden in their parts of the world, but it takes some modifications to make their backs sittable on: camel saddles, howdahs for elephants, horse saddles adapted for the back of a cow or steer.

Horses by contrast have a back of just about the right size, and there’s that little dip right behind the withers where the human can fit. They’re also easy to steer, with a relatively nonflexible neck compared to the camel, but a much more flexible one than than elephant’s. They’re generally much shorter than elephants or camels, as well, therefore easier to mount, but sturdy and square and able to support weight.

When you’re worldbuilding, you’ll want to consider all the alternatives, but if the world will support a horselike animal, that’s one of the better choices for non-mechanized transportation.

So what’s the catch?

Of course there is one. Every vehicle needs fuel, and every animal likewise. The big advantage of mechanized transport is that it can travel a long way at considerable speed before it needs to tank up. (We’ll skirt around the issues of how, what, where for fuel, manufacturing, etc.–that’s a worldbuilding issue for another blog.)

Horses are living organisms, which means they’re prone to fatigue, physical and mental breakdown, and disease. They also have their own distinctive quirks. In evolutionary terms they’re a very simple animal, which means their digestive system does not include the failsafes of more complex animals such as the ox or the canine, or for that matter the human. Food can only go one way. They can’t vomit. If they’ve eaten something toxic or something that will damage the structures of the gut, or if for some reason what they eat becomes impacted in the literally hundreds of feet of digestive system, they have no easy way to get rid of it. For a horse, a bellyache (known as colic) can be a death sentence.

Even under normal conditions, a horse’s digestive system can be an issue for the handlers and the worldbuilder. The horse is a large herbivore. He eats, mostly, grass. He has to eat pretty much constantly in order to support the size of his body (the average horse weighs in at around half a ton), and also because if he stops eating, his gut stops working. Then see above re. bellyache. He needs to eat a lot, he needs to eat often, and he needs a lot of water to keep it all moving through and to keep his body hydrated.

Keeping the horses fueled–fed and watered–is a nonstop preoccupation for the horse’s handlers. They can’t be fed once a day and left to it the way dogs can–intake has to be steady or the horse becomes sick or even dies, and the amounts have to be fairly substantial. 15-20 pounds of forage per day for a horse in light work, going up and up from there depending on conditions, workload, and metabolism. Plus water: 10 gallons and up to 50 or more under very hot or dry conditions. They can tolerate some degree of starvation, and the likes of Mongol ponies can live on very little food or water at all, but they’re still big herbivores with digestive systems that run extremely poorly on empty.

Then there’s the issue of what to do about what comes out the other end. I would never want to live in a world without horses in it, but I’m well aware of the down sides. They are large, heavy, complicated to keep and train, inclined to freak out and take off on next to no notice, and they have a distinctive, slightly musky odor that is not pleasant to everyone, though to horse people it’s ambrosia. They generate massive amounts of poop (all that forage goes in, gets processed, and most of it comes back out), which does have the benefit of being great fertilizer, but it can become a major public-health hazard: there’s literally tons of it, and it generates huge populations of biting, swarming, and disease-carrying flies.

In short: wherever you have horses, you have a whole lot of hay or grass or similar fodder going in, lubricated by many gallons of water, and a whole lot of prime fertilizer coming out, which has to be shoveled, moved, and if you’ve got an active farming society, spread on the fields to feed the crops.

And let’s not forget what’s between the ears

Most writers can get away with treating horses as objects–bearing in mind the fuel requirements and the consequences thereof. But horses are sentient creatures, which means they have personalities. That means opinions. It also means quirks, some related to biology, others to individual variation. And quirks are great plot drivers.

I’ve said many times before and will say again: a horse is not a dog. He doesn’t make a lot of noise on his own. He doesn’t fawn on humans the way a dog may–he’s more likely to knock you down with a swing of his head, or to use you as a scratching post, or to slobber water all over you. He doesn’t form a pack, and he doesn’t have a predator’s instincts and reactions. He’s a prey animal, designed to run first and ask questions later–with the exception of the bred and/or trained war horse, who is able to suppress those instincts to a large extent and will, through training or natural inclination, go toward a threat rather than rapidly away.

The tendency of a horse to startle and bolt is the basis of many a Western or romance plot: the runaway stagecoach, the dramatic rescue. At the same time, the gifts of the war horse–to stand by his human, to wield hammerlike hooves and powerful kicks to devastating effect, and to use his weight and speed both individually and en masse in a cavalry or chariot charge–have made the horse a preeminent partner in war.

A horse can be basically a piece of equipment, or he can be an intelligent and opinionated partner, depending on his breeding, training, and the way he’s treated by the humans around him. A smart horse is well up there with a smart dog. A stupid one, or one that for various reasons is not processing data in a way that benefits the human agenda, can range from frustrating to actively dangerous.

It’s a great art and science to keep all this working in humans’ favor–and for the writer, that means a lot of good, solid, useful plotting. I’ll be talking in more detail about this in the next few Horseblogs; so if you have questions, or clarifications, or additions, please let me know. I’ll be happy to address specific issues, and to answer particular questions, as well.


For more precise details about the topics mentioned in this blog, check out Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Questions answered, terms defined, and links, many links, to further investigations. With copious illustrations. Just $4.99 in all the popular formats (including Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-reader) from the Book View Cafe e-bookstore.

Or if you’d like to see one way in which horses can be portrayed in fiction, try A Wind in Cairo, the magical story of a prince, a Turk, and an Arabian stallion. And for further historical delights, try The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades and its prequel, Alamut.




Worldbuilding with Horses: Basics — 14 Comments

  1. Thanks for an interesting post.

    The world of Tekumel, created by MAR Barker for roleplaying (and he has written a couple of novels set in the world) has no horses, and only has an equivalent of oxen for the inhabitants to use.

    The lack of horses is an interesting handicap to this society and Barker makes full use of that handicap.

  2. Even people who lived and worked with horses all their lives are on record as sometimes completely blowing it. How on earth did Robert Scott get the idea that you could use ponies in Antarctica? There’s not a blessed thing for an equine to eat!

  3. Ah yes, what to do with all the poop–a worldbuilding dilemma often overlooked in fantasy writing, because our lovely, lovely plumbing whisks away the reminders of mammal biology.

  4. Flies — the bane of farm life.

    Things that destroy flies can also poison the animals and the foods they feed on and the foods one is growing to feed oneself.

    Ah, do I remember ….

    Love, C.

  5. Paul: Great addition, thanks. Deleting horses has very interesting and sometimes complicated consequences, doesn’t it? Makes you realize how highly dependent on equines many cultures are and have been.

    A real-world example of horseless but still quite advanced and mobile societies would of course be the pre-Conquista Americas. These didn’t have oxen, either. The largest beast of burden any of them had was the llama.

    Brenda, that really is a classic example of not thinking things through. He doesn’t seem to have really thought about horse feed–got as far as “small, tough ponies eat less” and then stopped short of “maybe there will be NOTHING for them to eat.”

    Foxessa, these days we have a non-poisonous alternative: tiny wasps that prey on fly larvae, such as these:

    It’s also possible to use essential oils, vinegar, and even some dish detergents to repel flies. In a less high-tech culture, the oils and herbs would be accessible. Not perfect, but the modern versions aren’t, either. I use the recipe from this page myself, and it’s as effective as anything else:

    The nasty chemicals make me sick, so I had to find an alternative. As a writer, I’m delighted, because these are viable options for fantasy and historical works as well. 🙂

  6. I wonder if they work with an extensive hog operation, plus cattle, plus poultry?

    We’re talking of 100 animals and more, at least of each.

    We worked very hard to keep the place as clean of manure as possible too. That manure spreader was trundling out of the place to put the stuff on the fields more than once a week during high summer!

    After fall sales and the butchering we turned out the coops, etc. scrubbed top to bottom with hot water and soap, then vinegar. The pens and pastures were plowed under — worms and all that, you know.

    Our animals were healthy.

    Our house was set a serious distance away from the barns in the middle of a very large lawn, so the flies didn’t infest.

    Love, C.

  7. O, and the horses and ponies had their own barn and pasture. Rightly or wrongly, Dad believed that species could catch stuff from each other so he segregated them.

    I had the great pleasure of cleaning the horse barn when I was old enough because I was the one who wanted them. They were in a pasture most of the year except for winter. They were local stock, not any particular breed. There would never have been vet bills or yoga for them! The big health thing was that they be worm free. My mom was a fanatic about animals not being infested with worms. She was the one who wormed the horses … Dad wouldn’t have paid a vet for anything like that!

    Love, C.

  8. My science fiction world has horses, but in the two published (Homecoming and Tourist Trap) primarily as means of recreation (as they are in most of the developed world today.) It’s been fun to invent horse sports. The trilogy I’m working on now has horses as major characters, but they are horses and act as such, and on one world they are an important part of a nomadic society. Manure isn’t such a problem when horses are grazed over a large area, and I have automated stall cleaning for the stabled horses on developed planets. Don’t you wish!

  9. Please send me an automated stall cleaner. Thank you very much.

    I’m planning to talk about sf worldbuilding with horses, a blog or two down the line. Watch this space!

    Foxessa, the predators work for all livestock; they have recommendations for different numbers, concentrations, acreage, etc. With chickens you have to hang the bags high or the chickens have a nice and very expensive snack. ;>

  10. Scott had been to Antarctica before, so he knew perfectly well that there was nothing there to eat unless you were a carnivore. Also, for some reason he got the idea that white ponies tolerated the cold better than dark ones.

  11. Some previous expedition brought ponies of all colors, and more dark ones died. On this one data point Scott erected his theory. I think they were also driven by culinary considerations: it was OK to eat a dead horse, and they did. But to eat a dog was simply Not Done; a gentleman would rather starve.

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  13. As a guy who doesn’t ride horses, and yet writes fantasy fiction, I don’t want my horses to be four-legged motorcycles. So I really appreciate all the horse people out there who write posts like this one. Thank you!

    I particularly liked your reminders about food and digestion. That’s not something that we writers think about enough– even for our human characters!

    Anyway, if you don’t mind my asking, what are the biggest or most common horse-related mistakes that you wish you could correct in fantasy fiction?