Worldbuilding With Horses: Ponies in Space!

Ha! Thought this would be all about fantasy and historicals (pre- included) and preindustrial societies, didn’t you?

In the process of interacting with the public for my Kickstarter project, I’ve been riffing on (and offering to write a story about) Ponies! In Space! The project as written does not actually have any Space Ponies, though it does have regular present-day horses. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have any, or that, in revision, it wouldn’t.

Since it’s moderately likely I’ll end up writing the story, I have some worldbuilding to do. Horses are not prime candidates for space travel. But I’m a writer. An SF writer. Making the impossible possible is what I do.

We have several challenges here. One is large grazing animal evolved to run in herds. Needs room to run, or musculoskeletal system will not develop or maintain properly. Can be trained to tolerate confinement, but is a natural claustrophobe–and in a very confined space, with vacuum on the other side of the bulkhead, the possibility of explosion (horse first, metaphorically, then compartment, literally) is well above zero. Something of this nature occurred very recently in a sports-medicine facility in Florida. The horse, and the human who tried to save the situation, did not make it.

Now imagine this in a spaceship.


Another challenge is the equine digestive system. It has to stay in motion or it will stop, and it only works in one direction. What in another species would be a minor stomach upset, in a horse can be fatal. The stress of confinement, and the sheer amount of fodder that has to go into the horse, most of which gets recycled and then comes out the other end, would present serious issues for the ship’s storage capacity.

So Ponies! In Space! is impossible, right?

Not necessarily.

Say you’ve got a generation ship. It’s huge. It may be big enough to contain a few horses–a compartment fifty meters on a side, for example, with reinforced walls. Line it with soil. Develop a special type of grass that firmly anchors the soil and also provides nutrition for grazing animals. If you have artificial gravity, you can designate one surface as the floor/ground and create the illusion of openness and sky. If the ship is weightless, we don’t know yet how horses will respond to this, and are still in the very early stages of learning about humans. But we’re free to speculate.

One thing we’ll have to consider is bone mass and density and how weightlessness affects this. Also, because horses’ hooves are somewhat tricky as far as circulation goes, it may turn out what horses in zero-g develop laminitis (damage to the sensitive laminae of the hooves, where all the blood vessels are, which is extremely painful and if untreated or improperly treated renders the horse unable to stand or walk) and may end up not being able to tolerate a return to gravity. For those reasons I’d be inclined to go with the artificial gravity.

Could we go the other way, toward multiple G’s and a heavy-gravity ship or world? Same problem actually: can the feet and legs take it, and can the horse’s overall musculoskeletal system hold up under the strain? Arthritis would be a real problem, as would founder: collapse of the structures of the hoof.

But that’s supposing we’re restricted to the current structure and design of the horse. One thing we can do even with that is go with smaller horses–supposing that being ridden by normal-sized adult humans is not part of what they’re in space for, or heading to the colony world to do. A mini-horse is the size of a large dog, and if bred sensibly is a sturdy and intelligent animal. It still eats vegetable feeds, but much, much less, with correspondingly less recycling.

Now I’m envisioning gen-ships with farms fertilized by the equine and bovine colonists, and systems fueled by refined forms of said fertilizer. Methane engines? Compost-powered warp drives? Why not? Not to mention the possibilities for terraforming when the ship reaches its destination.

Suppose we want to keep the size and power of the horse for cultural or practical reasons. Luxury trade in racehorses or show horses, for example. Low-tech and self-replicating transport on earthlike worlds in a universe that hasn’t found another large, cooperative animal for the purpose. If we have genetic engineering–and if we don’t, the reasons why not can be worldbuilding exercises all by themselves–we’ve got the capability to adapt the horse to the starfaring life. Revise his digestive system so it goes both ways, and make it significantly more efficient and able to process feed that is cheap and easy to transport and can, ideally, be manufactured on board. Engineer his muscles and skeleton to fit the conditions he’ll be living in, from zero gravity to a heavy-G world. Improve the structure of his hooves so that they’re no longer subject to laminitis and founder–and while we’re at it, gengineer them to retain the soft keratin sheaths that keep a foal in the womb from damaging its mother’s innards; these wear off on contact with the ground, and could do the same in a space horse. Redesign his brain to tolerate confinement and the stresses of shipboard life.

Will he still be a horse after all this? I think so, as long as he keeps the shape and the general purpose, and the character and personality that’s distinctive to the animal.

Some things can even be an asset. The rapidity of the birth process and the ability of the foal to be up and moving within minutes, for example–he still needs some weeks or months of nurture, but he functions independently almost immediately, and adapts rapidly to his surroundings. The intelligence, which is proving to be much higher than common knowledge believes, and the persistence of the longterm memory. A horse can be trained once, and years or decades later will still remember the training. If it’s a complex operation like riding, he might need a refresher, but he’ll pick it up again quickly.

Consider the possibilities. Select a breed with a strong tropism toward humans, engineer its body for space and for life on alien planets, train it for defense off the ship and for useful tasks on board (powering some systems with its energy, providing fuel for the engines), and you’ve got a rather useful companion animal for the starways.

Then if all this bumps his intelligence just enough, and you add some psi powers…

That could get very interesting. Very interesting indeed.


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: Ponies in Space! — 10 Comments

  1. I went with alien llamas instead. They call them goats. Calling them horses would be wrong, since they lack the size and majesty of the original.

  2. Fun! I have often wondered how the Spanish managed to bring horses to the Americas. Tiny wooden ships–not a bit seaworthy by modern standards–Atlantic crossings that were terribly rough and months long. Those were tough horses. Who must, on some level, have had great care. Perhaps your spaceship needs a consulting conquistador? I also wonder whether horses get seasick. Dogs do (I speak from experience).

  3. This brings to mind the most wealthy planters in the Chesapeake region of 1730’s, who imported from England braces of the proper fox hunting hounds and the horses too. These were about 8 planters, which provides further information about the place and times.

    The belief is that the proper red fox was also imported to the Middle Atlantic colonies in the early 1700’s as well, even before the hounds and horses. We supposedly only had grey fox here in those earlier times.

    The key is, as you say: luxury; fox hunting with hounds and horses is a leisure time activity for the wealthy. It’s not only the upkeep of the animals, but the number of trained people who are necessary in so many areas for the activity. That there were only Negroes available in the New World to take the roles of of Master of the Hunt and Master of the Hounds, even had an effect then, upon the development of African American music and the instrumentation of it.

    Thoroughbreds also began to be imported from England by Chesapeake planters in the mid 1700’s.

    Love, C.

  4. Cara, llamas are a great idea. Why call them goats? Because they’re sized down to that range?

    Susan, I did a little googling and found this:

    Looks as if the answer is yes, and colic would be the result, though I would like to know the mechanism by which the “half-digested hay” appears. Personally I’d suspect it’s chewed and then dunked in water, aka hay soup, by anxious horses or horses that like to be hydrated. So not vomited but chewed and spat out. But I would like to know for sure.

    C, thank you! Love those bits of research. Didn’t colonists bring the European rabbit, too? And starlings. They definitely brought those.

  5. I seem to remember a Cordwainer Smith story about an old horse that was given immortality treatment (“stroon”) and then cashiered to a low-gravity environment, and allowed to run and run… as I recall it was one of the stories with Casher O’Niell, but it’s been a while… great story though.

  6. Make the space ship cylindrical, and put a spin on it. Instant gravity, and the horses can gallop around and around the inside of the shell, which you will of course upholster with a proper surface. Keep all the life support/people systems in the central core or at the end caps. See RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA for a model.

  7. Cordwainer Smith! I loved his stuff. “Who knows the which of What-She-Did, she fell in love with a hominid!” And the giant, sick sheep.

    Brenda, yes. That would be excellent. Can you just see the big cylinder ships sailing through space? You could put the horses to work spinning them. The visuals I get there…

  8. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 3/6/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  9. The first thing that came to my mind are the open-plan stables that are no uncommon in Germany and Switzerland (I used to ride in the first experimental predecessor, which was begun by a behaviouralist), which simply provided the opportunity for horses to hang out together and get fed separately.

    The next generation is based on the idea is that you keep horses moving in a small space by providing them with resources in different locations – the horses have an electronic key around their neck which gives them access to hard feed and hay racks, and the water is at the opposite end, so the horses are constantly moving around. From what I’ve heard, most horses can be very content in a fairly small space since they *do* spend a fair amount of time moving.
    For exercise, treadmills – a straight treadmill is not much larger than the horse itself, and most of them learn to trot on the treadmill fairly easily.
    For food, you can grow grass in hydroponics – there used to be a commercial solution for that.