Worldbuilding with Horses: The Human Element

The incorporation of horses into a world can do interesting things to the shape of a culture, right down to the way roads are built and the places where people either have or choose to live. But the effect can also be much more personal. When horses enter the equation, they change the human dynamic, sometimes in profound ways–and not only for the effects they have on war and transport. They can change the way humans interact with each other and the world.

As I was getting ready (somewhat later than usual) to start this blog, my twitter feed brought me a lovely piece of synchronicity: an article, actually a doctoral dissertation, titled From Destrier to Danseur: The Role of the Horse in Early Modern French Noble Identity (PDF). This for me is a kind of Peak Geek. Medieval! Renaissance! History! Horses! Culture! And best of all, an illustration, in full and proper academic form, of the subject I was planning to talk about this week.

The article’s thesis is that as both culture and technology changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so did the nobility’s perception of itself–and the horse was a key factor in the change. The heavy war horse of the medieval knights, built and designed to wield its weight and mass against enemies in battle or in the joust, transformed into an equine dancer: a lighter, faster, more agile animal who could be trained to a high level of art. The nature of the art of riding changed, and so, according to the article, did the way the aristocracy approached both that art and its role in the world.

I’m not here to get into specific details of the article’s thesis, to argue either for or against. Rather I want to point to it as an example of how the horse can be both a vehicle and a catalyst not just for cultural change but for a change in the way members of that culture perceive themselves and the world they live in. He can embody the way the culture itself is changing, the level of technology, the worldview, everything that distinguishes that culture from others around it in both time and space.

In this case, the horse as armored tank gives way to the horse as martial artist. This means that the rider also changes, as does his relationship with the horse.

Some things do stay the same. The horse is still extremely valuable–a well-trained destrier could be worth an entire lordly demesne and most of what was in it; a well-trained school horse was (and still is) a very expensive commodity–and highly valued. All the way back to the early Middle Ages, in the Song of Roland for example, horses, like paladins and swords, were named and their histories considered worthy of mention. I don’t doubt that some knights developed strong bonds with their war horses, and probably with their everyday riding horses as well. But these horses were military equipment. They could be won and lost in tournaments, and injured or killed in battle. The knight would have be to psychologically prepared for this, and equipped to deal with it when it happened.

When the medieval warhorse turned into the dancer in the riding school, his life became much less challenging, and his life expectancy increased dramatically. That gave his rider time to develop a longtime partnership, and if anything made the horse even more valuable because of the length and intricacy of his training. Horses could still be lost to injury, illness, financial or social collapse, and so on, but their riders would not be expecting, every time they brought the horses out to do what they were trained for, that that might be the last time they spent with a particular horse.

Most horses of course continued to be farm equipment and transport, Their lot in life, and their relations with humans, stayed pretty much the same depending on the stability of the world around them. Even in the noble manege however, if the horse failed to come up to standards, he could be sold off or slaughtered. People for the most part could not afford to be sentimental. Horses, like everything else including people, had to fulfill a purpose.Those that failed to do so would have to be disposed of.

For a writer building a world and populating it with characters, these factors can be very important. A knight would look different, act different, and think differently than an early modern mounted nobleman. He would also ride differently. A big, heavy horse designed to carry the weight of armor–both on its own body and that of its rider–will drive like a truck. He may also be somewhat low on stamina, which means he can’t be used for very long periods without risking exhaustion or collapse. The rider has to get the job done strongly, firmly, and as quickly and efficiently as possible, while keeping himself alive and unmaimed.

The manege horse on the other hand is much more lightly built and much more hairtrigger in the responses, and gifted with greater stamina. His rider can afford to be smaller and lighter, and he can also afford to spend years refining his art and the art of his horse. Where the knight, like his horse, was a powerful fighting machine, the cavalier was an artist and his horse was a dancer.

The personalities might also be quite different. For the knight, strength and ruthlessness would be vital to survival. For the cavalier, lightness and subtlety, and also a considerable degree of patience, would be important assets. These traits can extrapolate to the rest of the culture, and affect the ways in which all the characters relate to one another. There is also scope for a clash of cultures: strong and ruthless meets supple and patient, and story ensues.

This is just one example of how a writer can build not only a world but a whole range of characters around a particular type and use of horse. There are numerous other ways to go about it.

Nomadic tribes, for example, are not all alike. The Mongols under a single brilliant leader transformed in a generation from bare subsistence to world rule. Their horses were notoriously tough, hardy, and challenging in temperament–much like the Mongols themselves. For these particular nomads, the horse was transport, war machine, and food source–milk, blood, and meat–all in one. There appears to have been little or no sentimentality in the relations between horses and humans, and no romance of the rider and his steed. It was a profoundly practical interaction.

The Bedouin by contrast lived under even more marginal conditions, and yet for them the horse was much more than a tool for survival. She (they preferred mares) was fundamental to their cultural identity. She might even live in the human’s tent, and be regarded at least as highly as his children. Her lore and lineage were a matter for song and story. She, in her culture, was tool and weapon but also, to a considerable degree, a person.

For the writer developing a world and a culture, the way that culture treats horses can help to develop characters on both sides of the question: characters who act in culturally appropriate ways, and characters who don’t. A Mongol-like tribesman who killed and ate his beloved horse would be doing the right thing in his cultural context: times were hard, the tribe needed food, the horse provided it. Whereas a character from a tribe based on the Bedouin who did such a thing might be regarded as a murderer. If the Mongol-type did not kill his horse but allowed himself and his tribe to starve, he would be perceived–by himself as well as the rest of his culture–as both weak and morally reprehensible.

The writer can use pretty much any domestic animal for this, of course (the dog would be another very interesting example of different views across different cultures); but the horse adds an extra dimension of size, strength, and mythic resonance.


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: The Human Element — 4 Comments

  1. This is great stuff. I wonder, though, if there’s more of a repurposing element here re horses. Of course, they were still used in cavalry after gunfire came into wide use, and stayed that way until WW I. (Though there were cavalry units even then.) But you get this sense that the bond of human and horse had to redefine itself because it wasn’t going to go away, even if tactics requiring the heavy destrier became outdated.

  2. Sherwood, yes, you can go back and forth on whether the thesis is accurate. It’s very aristo-centered and doesn’t consider other kinds of horses at all, but then it doesn’t pretend to be.

    Gunpowder wasn’t the defining moment for cavalry. That was the internal-combustion engine. But it did change the nature of cavalry. When the big bad on the battlefield was a crossbow bolt, you could build armor against it. Once the emphasis shifted to bullets, armor was no longer feasible or effective. You needed a lighter, faster horse with a lot less tack to drag him down, and a rider who operated by speed and superior firepower rather than by weight and mass.

    Which democratized cavalry, really, and made it possible for units to be much less expensive and much less highly trained. Meanwhile the aristos spun off into art, which they had the time and financial resources to do.

    The thesis focuses on France. I wonder how it would approach Iberia, where bullfighting created a culture of its own with horses to match. Those were the horses that moved into the manege. With the rise of the English Thoroughbred (an Arab-local farm type cross), the French took a different direction in terms of horse type–but that was a century or so later than the thesis covers. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the ideal horse was what we now call a baroque–the horse of Iberia, which spun of later into the Andalusian, Lusitano, and Lipizzaner. (The Friesian is a different type–bred to pull funeral coaches rather than to be a danseur. It’s been claimed as “baroque” mainly because of its looks and hair. Some call it one of the “Romantic” breeds, along with the baroques, which I think is more accurate. Not referring to Romantic poets etc. but to romantic as in beautiful, dramatic, heart-stopping, mythic, etc.)

    The bond is a striking aspect of the whole thing, isn’t it? Like dogs and cats, horses have created a symbiosis that humans just can’t let go of. Once they stopped being essential for transport in peace and war, they could have gone extinct except for a few historians or enthusiasts. Instead they became companion animals (and sports equipment). And there’s no indication that they’re about to lose that status even in a crippled economy.

  3. Fascinating as always, thank you. 🙂

    I’ve been burying myself in a couple doctoral theses on the horse in the Iliad lately (Charles Collomia’s “On such horses Gods and heroes ride” and Ryan Platte’s “Horses and horsemanship in the oral poetry of ancient Greece and the Indo-European World”) and there’s some fascinating insights into the relationship between horses and humans (specifically, of course, the aristocratic hero) in those.

    Just take the fact that the poet asks the muse, at the end of the Catalogue of Ships, to let him know who the best men and horses were.