Worldbuilding with Horses: Cultural Directions

As every dedicated worldbuilder knows, any element you add to the mix changes it in various and sometimes dramatic ways. But even subtle changes can affect the whole direction the world takes.

I’ve talked about both what happens when you add horses, and what happens in a world without a large draft and riding animal. Here I’m aiming more at the finer details: what sorts of things horses can do to and for the culture, and how a culture might develop in conjunction with the horse.

The history of the horse on our planet has been, over and over, the history of the horse in war.  Horse cultures have tended to be male-dominated, territorially agressive, and devoted to the warrior ethic: at its most simplistic, Might Makes Right. The horse has been a tool and a weapon for feeding the war machine and the central cultural mythos of domination through invasion and violence.

However the horse was originally domesticated, by the time horse cultures come into the history of the West, they are invading central Asia and far eastern Europe with chariots. These invasions would continue over the millennia, all the way to Genghis Khan and, a few centuries later, the Ottoman Turks. The horse came into Egypt with the Hyksos, the Shepherd Kings, again with chariots–though Egypt fought back in fairly short order and adopted the horse as a weapon of war. For Egypt, feet, boats, and oxcarts would continue to be the main types of transport, but their kings and their high elite would fight and hunt behind their chariot teams.

This pattern would persist in the world of Islam, which came out of the Arabian Peninsula on horse and camelback–with a powerful mythos of the horse, and specifically the horse of the desert, the small, light, fast, and very old breed now known as the Arabian. It crossed the Atlantic into the Americas, lost or liberated its horses onto the Great Plains and created a whole range of mounted warrior cultures that had, until that point, been confined to foot and boat travel. In Asia meanwhile, China had its horses of heaven and Japan had its mounted samurai; in India the horse was a royal animal, and a war animal: one of its greatest works of literature is the Bhagavad Gita, in which a god and a charioteer carry on a profound and widely ranging conversation in the middle of a battlefield.

Even much less prominent or well-known cultures have tended to treat horses as war machines. What we know of “Amazon” cultures in central Asia–cultures in which women were apparently raised and trained to fight–indicates that these women warriors very likely were horse archers. The argument there is that horses would reduce or eliminate the difference in size between women and men, and the bow would do the same for women’s lesser upper-body strength. A woman on a horse with a good compound bow is a deadly opponent.

The question then becomes, if horses gave women enough of an advantage in war, why haven’t we seen more women warriors? The answer, I think, has to do with a large number of other cultural and economic factors, and wanders far down the contentious corridors of women’s history.

I tend to think that the horse was a tremendous help to maintaining male power. He made a man bigger, faster, and stronger, and gave him an overwhelming advantage in war. But I also tend to think that the first cultures to adopt the horse were already heavily balanced toward the male. The horse was a tool rather than a catalyst for this cultural development.

I don’t believe that this development is inevitable. It happened here, but need it happen in the world I invent? I think it’s both possible and plausible for the horse culture not to follow the standard male-dominant model, and also for the horse to be something other than a weapon of war.

A culture might regard war as at best a necessary evil and at worst as a thing not to be spoken of, and accord the plow horse or the carriage horse the position of the highest respect. Great leaders might be shown plowing perfect furrows with their horses, and instead of wars, nations might compete in horse races. Short races for instant settlement of disputes, grueling long-distance races to discipline the youth and weed out the undesirables. All the resources that might go into a national war machine would go into the horses and the trainers and the races instead.

There’s another point here as well that can go in wonderful directions when creating a world. Gender equality becomes a much clearer proposition with the horse as equalizer. In modern times, the one Olympic sport in which there are no gender divisions at all is Equestrian. Male and female of both species compete on a totally equal footing, and the females quite often win. A worldbuilder can extrapolate this in all sorts of ways.

It can also be useful to study what has happened to horse cultures with the advent of mechanical transport. Cultures that still rely on horses as transportation may be heavily male-dominated, but where the horse has become a companion or a luxury item, the number of women riders and trainers and handlers has soared. When boys go off toward the machines, girls develop a powerful tropism toward the equines.

I’ve often wondered if this has always been the case, but girls in earlier eras have been actively discouraged from giving in to it. Then once the boys moved on to other symbols of masculinity and status, the girls finally were able to express their natural inclinations. Or is this a modern development, and if so, what would have caused it? Why girls and horses, and why now, after all these millennia?

Those are the sorts of questions a worldbuilder can ask–and in answering them, find new directions in which to take the invented culture. A horse culture without war, a culture in which women hold higher status and reserve the horses to themselves, a culture that builds its religion and its social structure on the herd structure of the horse…

Endless possibilities. Which is what worldbuilding is all about.


For more 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: Cultural Directions — 9 Comments

  1. Oh, good one! Paul, that gives me ideas. Jean, that’s just evil. And oh so plausible.

    Imagine the uses that could be made of such a saddle for…neutralizing enemy males.

  2. My daughter rode horses in girlhood. In retrospect it was perhaps unwise, to teach her how to control larger, stronger, hairier beings with boot and spur.

  3. I actually did create a society in a fantasy world where men did not ride — it was considered too dangerous to the continuation of the species! But I haven’t talked any editor into buying that yet.

    Taking that further, where the women use horses to up their height and eliminate differences when fighting other tribes. Hummm……

  4. The fundamental problem with women warriors is not strength but infant mortality, which the horse can’t help with.

    Nomadic cultures would appear to be more likely both to be horse cultures, and to be warlike — hard to set up stable institutions to adjudicate instead when you don’t know who you will deal with, or on what land.

  5. Mary — horses might help a bit, in that a nomadic culture would potentially face a lower hazard from infectious diseases (which just loooooove cities). But yes, in general that’s by far the biggest limiter on the gender situation.

    Jean, Judith — anybody want to help out the uninitiated by explaining the McClellan saddle thing?

  6. Incidentally, it does actually take a good amount of upper body strength to be a good archer. The bows’ pull is measured in pounds, after all.

  7. But a woman on a horse with a bow has a better chance in a fight than a woman on foot with a spear or sword, and her bow can be built to her measure. It gives her a long reach. Add the horse for speed in the getaway, and it’s a better choice for the woman warrior than many of the other options.

    As for infant mortality, if you mean women of childbearing age are needed to make babies (rather than that so many babies died that nobody could be spared to fight–which would exclude the males as well), that still leaves the adolescents and the post-menopausal women, supposing the latter had anything left. Which they might, if they were well enough nourished and kept fit.

    Speaking as a worldbuilder. Though I agree with the arguments in real-world terms. There are solid reasons for the ways in which various cultures developed. What we do when building worlds is ask what changes could be made, and how.

    Marie, the McClellan saddle is this thing:

    It’s got a channel down the middle. Room for the male rider’s equipment, and heat from the horse percolates upward. It was designed to fit the horse better than the alternatives at the time, because it’s crucial that the saddle fit–otherwise the horse becomes sore and can’t be ridden, and while he’s in the process of becoming sore, he may buck his rider off. Not things you want when you’re commanding cavalry.

    It’s not what you’d call terribly comfortable to ride in. Here’s a critic who knows what he’s talking about: