Worldbuilding with Horses: Making the Magic Happen

I still have more to say about science-fictional horses, but I’ve promised the Kickstarter backers a go at that first if we make the next bonus tier, so this week we’re switching genres.

Horses and magic have a long, long history. Where there are horses, there is a mythos of some sort–whether the horse is a goddess, a companion in the afterlife, an immortal companion and servant to a demigod, a symbol of human or natural or divine power, a royal sacrifice…

You can of course let the horses be simply transport and build your world in whatever other directions you please, but if you want to take advantage of the magical and mythical aspects, there’s an overabundance of possibilities. Pick a historical horse culture, file off the serial numbers, go.

But if you really know horses, there are depths of detail that you can go into, and ramifications that might just give you a spin on horse magic that no one else has tried. With our modern obsession with “originality” (which really is modern–historically speaking, originality is more a negative than a positive; respecting the elders and building on what came before has been much more highly prized), the more different or unusual we are, the more respect we tend to get. Provided of course we do it right. That’s always the sticky part.

Horse magic is not actually all that common in modern fantasy. We’ve got Shadowfax, we’ve got a good bit of magical-motorcycle equine transport, and then there are the horsegirls and the horse clans and the mythical beasts–unicorns, pegasi, centaurs, that sort of thing. But horses at the center of a world are pretty rare.

Once you put them there, however, you can build a magical system based on what horses are really like. The nature of the herd, for example. The intricate social network. The subtleties of communication among members of the herd: shifts in body language so small but with results so clearly evident that they look like telepathy. The way the geometry of the herd can speak volumes to both its members and the humans who are tuned into it–who is standing where and in what posture will indicate social standing, emotional status, physical condition, sexual availability or lack thereof.

Now take this and turn it into magic. Telepathy–a given. Position and movement: there’s a whole grimoire of spells there. Social relationships: who rules and who follows; who takes the lead and who submits to the leader. There’s your circle of adepts. Perhaps a human’s rite of passage is be accepted by the elders of the herd, the older mares who make the important decisions such as where and when to go in search of grazing, and which water holes to frequent.

If the human is female, she’ll be more likely to be accepted; and the stallion will defer to her. But if he’s male, he may have to deal with a different dynamic. The mares will expect him to defer to them, and the herd stallion will regard him as a rival. He’ll have to negotiate carefully with the elders and hope he can come across to the stallion as a potential secondary male–one who is allowed to breed (or in the human’s case interact with) the stallion’s mother or daughters.

If you add magic to this, you have a mage of either gender who can ask for and reliably receive the help of the herd to work spells. The herd might enhance their power and aid in directing them. It might win a battle by overwhelming the enemy with a stampede or by either driving off or assimilating the enemy’s horses.

The individual horse can become a powerful ally for the individual human. Shadowfax is a famous example. Tolkien idealized the horse, of course: made him exceptionally large (which I’d advise most writers to avoid–it’s become a bit of a joke in fantasy novels to have ridiculously and indeed impossibly huge horses), exceptionally intelligent and long-lived, and exceptionally resistant to human domination.

These are all real equine traits, including the length of life relative to most other domestic animals. Some horses do have exceptional charisma (which can make them seem larger than they are), and modern science is starting to understand that horses, like many other animals, are much more intelligent than humans used to believe. There is also a tendency for some horses to have a clear preference for a specific human. Put all that together and you’ve got a classic fantasy steed–but based on reality.

There’s even more you can do if you plug in to esoteric traditions. Horses of heaven. Horses as messengers of the gods, the Powers, the Enlightened Ones. Horses as avatars of any or all of these. Maybe your fantasy horse is really Something Else on the other side–a dragon, for example.

Your mage might use a horse’s energy as a repository of power, to store it or draw on it–then the mounted mage might be, essentially and in suitably high-fantasy terms, connected with a half-ton battery. Or the horse might be the mage and the rider is her servant: little and quick and fast with the spoken language, for which equine physiology is not suited (but horses can hear and understand a remarkable number of words–and the human servant will translate and deliver the responses).

Then there’s the horse as healer. In our world, horses are popular and successful therapeutic animals. Add magic to that and not only the traveling herb-healer but the horse she rides in on can save a life or end a plague.

But wait, there’s more. Equine memory is remarkable and may be eidetic. Imagine the potential for a living, breathing, highly mobile and self-defending grimoire or magical archive. Give the horse a choice and she’s not only the archive but the mage who knows how to use it. That’s a powerful weapon and highly useful tool–and she might, being self-aware (horses may have this capacity in the real world; who not in the magical one?), decide she’s going to make her own decisions as to what she does with herself. And with whom she does it, whether fellow horses, humans, or any other magical or mundane creatures your imagination can encompass.

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The “Living in Threes” Kickstarter is on through April 9th. Next bonus tier: worldbuilding before the backers’ very eyes. That’s where I’ll tackle the next round of science-fictional equines for the “Ponies in Space” story. Click to read a few samples and a public update or two, and maybe come on board as a backer.

Interested in more magical equines, and another story based on real-world horse tricks? Have a look at “To Ride Beyond the Wide World’s End,” which is a free sample for the new Book View Cafe anthology of fairy tales transformed, Beyond Grimm.

Nonfiction more your style? Want more horse-related information and details? That would be Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right, also from Book View Cafe.

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Worldbuilding with Horses: Making the Magic Happen — 8 Comments

  1. Have you checked out Steve Stirling’s Sunrise Lands series? Rudi’s horse Epona, his relationship with her, her reaction to him riding other horses, and so on, come across as something rather like what you describe here, or at least, a good start on it.

  2. in the context of Sherwood Smith’s latest, Banner of the Doomed, I’ve been thinking of this, via Edith Wharton, and Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams.

    Wharton, describing polite society, described it as “… a hieroglyphic world … ” one which requires steely nerve and an exquisite ability to read subtle clues and gestures.

    That could describe understanding horses as well.

    Love, C.

  3. Banner of the Damned, (unless that was meant as a zap, in which case, bowing out!)

    I really want to learn more about herd dynamics. Watching the horses communicate is so interesting, but it takes tiiiiiime!

  4. Pat, no, I hadn’t. Thanks for the rec! I’ll have to take a look.

    Indeed, C. Which makes me think terrible thoughts of an equine comedy of manners. (Dare we go there?)

    Sherwood, it does take time. There’s so much to see, and there are so many variations. Very few people have that time, either, or the opportunity–just to sit for hours and days (and nights, too) and watch.

    I think that’s true of any animal in its own environment. There are whole societies out there that humans aren’t even aware of.

  5. O gods. I’ve been reading it as Damned, the entire damned time!

    I took off the dust jacket because they interfere with my fingers.

    Thank goodness you caught it!

    Damn, damn, damn!

    Love, C.

  6. Judy — A comedy of manners starring horses is indeed somewhere we can go. I even did a bit of it — though it was humans’ comedy featuring horses — back in the day.

    Love, C.