Worldbuilding With Horses: Ramifications

In the last Horseblog we talked about the kind of infrastructure that horses impose on a world. There were some great comments, some of which mentioned the cultures of the Americas. These cultures had no horses, no wheel except for pottery and toys, and no large draft animals of any kind except, in South America, the llama. And yet they built substantial and far-ranging empires–and roads with stairs.

Stairs happen in horse cultures, too, of course, but not for long-distance transport. You can train a horse to climb steps–police horses in cities have mastered this art, and use it to advantage for crowd control. But when you have an animal that large, with that much speed and pulling or carrying capacity, you’re more likely to rely on his muscles to pull you up the steeper slopes, rather than taking the time to cut steps. Steps make bipedal travel easier. Quadrupedal, not so much.

Horses can handle slopes fairly well, but their foursquare structure is much better designed for large, flat or rolling tracts of land. Plus, as noted previously, the need for large amounts of grass-type fodder, which can be scarce in the mountains (and of poor quality when it does exist) and nonexistent at very high altitude. A horse culture will tend to gravitate toward the plains, where the horses can find sufficient fuel, and where their speed and strength offer a significant advantage.

(It occurs to me at a giant mountain goat or bighorn sheep could have…interesting ramifications in an alien or secondary-world setting.)

Horse warfare tends to work best in open spaces, too. Chariots and carts are difficult to get up into steep country (or down, which can be worse), and ridden horses can’t move much faster than human foot pace. They do spare the human’s muscles, and can extend the distance the human can travel, but for fighting on a steep slope, the human on foot is more agile and less easy to knock over and send cartwheeling down into the valley. The horse also presents a large target for ambush, and on very rough or rocky ground, may injure its hooves so badly that it can’t go on.

So, in a horseman’s world, the mountains are accessible but the valleys are more attractive (and the valley sheep are fatter). The desert is possible, if the horse is designed for it–the desert Arabian and the Barb of North Africa have adapted amirably–but the big, heavy horse of the steppe or the temperate lowlands will overheat and die.

The desert calls for a light, fast, fuel-efficient breed–and may have evolved the grey coloring, too. A grey horse is one that is born a normal color but loses that color as it matures, until by ages 6 to 10 the horse appears to be white. But the dark skin that underlies basic horse colors persists. Result: a coat that reflects light and heat, and skin that resists sunburn (though it may be more susceptible to a benign form of melanoma).

If the word for your world is forest, horses are also possible but make less sense than, say, a large, pack-trainable deer. Deer are browsers rather than grazers, and can get substantial nutrition where a horse will barely scrape along. They’re smaller, as well, which means they need less fuel to survive.

However a horse can be useful in a forest, especially if he’s a large, drafty type with plenty of pulling power. This is the logger’s horse, the big, strong work animal that pulls the big ones out of the woods. In the clearings he’ll pull the plow, and his mother will be bred to the local donkey jack to make mules. Mules in general are tougher all over than horses, and make superlative work animals.

It is possible by the way to breed horses to other equids as well, notably zebras. But zebra hybrids, like wolf hybrids, inherit characteristics of their wild half that make them difficult to train and tricky to handle. For basic transport and all-around use, the donkey’s millennia of selective breeding for docility and acceptance of humans will make all the difference.

Importing horses into areas where they don’t already exist has ramifications that the writer should think through–starting with how to get them there. Traveling overland is doable with some means of either finding or transporting feed and water. Traveling over large bodies of water requires a bit more ingenuity.

Horses can swim, and can carry riders or baggage if the weight it’s too heavy and the water isn’t too deep or strong, but there are limits to how far they can swim, and carts and wagons have to either float, be dismantled and carried across, or be left behind. Roads will tend to gravitate toward fords–narrower and/or shallower areas that can be crossed more easily. Armies or polities may build bridges, either temporary or permanent; those will be substantial structures, suitable for carrying the weight of a horse and whatever baggage it carries or pulls.

An army might go for pontoon bridges or large rafts. Said rafts may be adapted for transport, too. Horses can be trained to travel safely on rafts or barges, though they will need to be tied or penned (or held by designated humans). If a horse decides he’s leaving now, he can batter his way through the deck boards, kick down or jump out of the pen, and fling himself into the water to be eaten by crocodiles or drown. He might swim alongside of the ferry or a smaller boat if the passage isn’t too terribly long, but after an hour or two or three, he’ll wear out. Better to figure a way to float him across.

Horse transport across very large bodies of water–large lakes or seas–calls for a sturdy boat or ship with solid decking or a well-built, well-ventilated hold. He can walk on board up a ramp (if trained to it; blindfolding him can help if it’s a long way down to the water), or be lifted aboard (and unloaded, as well) in a sling.

The horse is a world-class, fully evolved claustrophobe who has a biological need for frequent exercise, but he can be taught to endure lengthy confinement. It helps if the boat can stop at night or for an hour or so to unload the horses and walk them out and let them graze (this applies to modern land transport of horses in trailers and vans, as well). For a long sea voyage, optimally there would be enough space on the ship for the horse to be walked up and down a few times a day.

Horses can and do get seasick or motion sick, and their inability to vomit means this is a bad, bad thing. Seasick horses colic, and colic, as we’ve noted often before, can be fatal. They may also, if tied for long periods without the ability to get their heads down, develop respiratory problems or shipping fever, also not a good thing.

The person in charge of horse transport has to be prepared to put a horse down if he becomes ill on the way, and also if he panics to the point that he becomes uncontrollable. On a ship or an airplane, if the horse completely freaks out and starts kicking the hull, he may attain such a state of panic that there is nothing to be done but to put a bullet in his brain (or an arrow in his heart–from a safe distance, because anything within kicking range will get hammered to a pulp) before he takes the whole thing down with him. For this reason, horses may be tranquilized for transport, though the dosage has to be carefully calculated to walk the line between out cold and still able to panic and take the plane or ship apart.

Horses are indeed transported, these days, by airplane, in specially constructed and reinforced stalls. You can even FedEx a horse: they build the box around him and ship him by air freight. This works well if he doesn’t panic; the trip is relatively short, the risks of shipping fever accordingly reduced, and the horse arrives in better shape than if he had been hauling across country for days.

Obviously horses did survive preindustrial long-distance transport–witness the return of the horse to the Americas millennia after the extinction of the native herds–but it was very much of a gamble as to whether the horses would arrive alive and healthy. Once they made it of course, provided there were both mares and stallions on board, they could get to work making more.

That, in the Americas, led to the development of large feral horse herds, the ancestors of which were either released or lost by the Conquistadores. With little competition for their ecological niche and no significant diseases or large predators, horses spread and thrived across the Great Plains.

In sub-Saharan Africa, with so many more large predators and so many other large grazing animals already in residence, the situation was much different–but the real problem there was, and is, an insect: the tsetse fly. Horses are exceptionally susceptible to diseases of the central nervous system, and the tsetse carries trypanosomiasis, which is a scourge on humans as well. Wherever the tsetse ranges, horses struggle to survive. But humans kept them and cultivated them even so, because of the advantages they offered: speed, range, and all the rest. And, for the invading cultures that brought them, they had as much symbolic as practical value.

The horse, for a horse culture, is not just a horse. He represents power, freedom, and above all, status. The horseman will cling to his horse even against the sleeping sickness, and hope to breed lines with some resistance, or develop treatments and preventatives if he can, because the horse helps to define him. As a horseman, he is distinct from the tribes and peoples around him. He carries his head higher; he travels farther and faster. He may, and probably will, fight to keep that distinction.


For more precise details about the subjects 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 some of the ways 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; or Lord of the Two Lands, the tale of Alexander the Great (and his horse Boukephalas) in Egypt. For further historical delights, try The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades and its prequel, Alamut.




Worldbuilding With Horses: Ramifications — 11 Comments

  1. There are many useful historical accounts of traveling with horses. The most gruesome that comes to mind is when Scott was shipping ponies to Antarctica on a small ship; they had to be penned in their stalls for six weeks or so and one died during a storm. The carcass had to be hoisted out through a very narrow hatch, necessitating a stretching and elongating process that I will leave to the imagination.

  2. I just finished reading C.S. Forester’s “Hornblower” series; he doesn’t go into great detail about how horses were transported here and there, as we see them mostly through the eyes of a decided equiphobe. In Europe, it would make sense to ship men and find horses when needed locally. But in South America, characters ended up riding donkeys or very small horses – I can just imagine the logistical and veterinary challenges of shipping a horse around the tip of South America to the Pacific!

  3. The status is one reason why horses are sometimes regarded as taboo for meat.

    The other being that they are very inefficient compared to cows in turning grass into meat, so you don’t really raise them for meat except incidentally.

  4. I think it makes more sense to ride the horses and drink the milk (including the fermented version), though cows are also much easier to milk. The theory that domesticated horses were originally kept for milk and meat kind of falters in the face of logistics (the mare has to be Really tame in order for you to get in at her udder).

    Love the historical notes, Brenda and Deborah. Thanks.

  5. The list of Allowable meats is mysterious (and prime fodder for fantasy universes). Why is it OK in Western cultures to eat horses sometimes, but never dogs or cats? In China dogs are OK on menus but not cats.

  6. Well, then there’s the issue of which cultures eat insects, and which squick out totally at the thought.

    In China they eat many things that are off the menu in the West. Snakes. Insects. Duck webs and chicken feet. Birds’ nests.

    The Aztecs bred dogs for meat, too, btw.

    The history of food conventions and taboos is fascinating.

  7. Chicken feet is particularly weird. (Full disclosure: my childhood favorite was chicken feet soup, with black mushrooms.) Why can’t you eat the feet if you can eat the drumsticks, directly above? I am told that a lucrative export trade exists in chicken feet, which go in big frozen bags to China while the legs and breasts stay here in the US.

  8. This is fascinating. Loved it both as a horseperson and a writer, and marvel at the level of detail. Yes, absolutely, this is the level of detail we need to consider when worldbuilding. This kind of thinking develops real worlds. 😀

    Thanks so much for this piece.


  9. Non-horse person here: many thanks for these posts; and also for the book, which has come in at just the right moment for my big revision job. Very helpful. With this piece, the “horses and mules in forest settlement” paragraph alone kicked me into noticing one particularly silly omission somewhere important.

    An odd area that comes up a lot in fantasy, and on which I’d love to read your thoughts should you post on them in future, is horses as transport for non-riders. People being scooped up and carried off unwillingly, as per Lúthien and Celegorm; willingly but without themselves having any horsey competence, as per dashing knightly rescue; borne off by necessity when sick or halt or struck down, where carriage or stretcher not a useful possibility; riding when actually experienced, but long out of practice, or suffering from extensive wear and tear, or both…

    In any case, thanks once again for the Horseblogs, and I’ll be looking forward to the next one, whatever its focus. You’re committing some serious education, over here!

  10. Carrying a non-cooperative passenger on a horse is surely something only to be managed for a very short time. Once you gallop off over the ridge with her, you need to figure out some other way. Padlock her into a closed wagon? Tether her to a horse litter? And have a couple alert guys riding behind, with crossbows, to nail her if she should hop out and make a run for it.

  11. Tie hands together, feet together, toss her over the saddle. For added security, tie hands (on one side of horse) to feet on the other. She won’t get much of anywhere, and she’ll be better off if she’s also unconscious because in that position she’s going to be hurting.

    The horse had better be on board with that, too. A pack horse would be a good choice, especially if it’s been used to haul large game out of the woods. A riding horse might object to the odd position and balance. If he starts bucking, or she starts cow-kicking at the cargo, the cargo might end up dead (flung off, or kicked in the head, or both).

    Martina and Gray, glad to be of service. 🙂