Two men, one with broad shoulders and the other lanky and lean, traveled through the forest, riding on their stallions. Green shade sheltered them from the sun above. It was a hot day, the kind that makes sweat bead at your hairline and your cheeks flush with red, and they still had a long way to go.
Suddenly, the man with broad shoulders stopped. He hopped to the ground and pulled a feed bag out of his pack.
“Just a minute, Sir Reginald” he said to his companion. “My motorcycle with hooves ran out of gas. Let me shove some hay in it quick and we can be on our way.”
You want to know something that really bugs me? It’s horses in fantasy. Not just fantasy, actually, but stories in general. It’s like people never take into account what a horse actually is–an animal with instincts, drive, and an individual personality–but put all the focus into their functionality. Yeah, horses are a great way to get from point A to point B, but how often did they interact with you in that journey? Did they spook or buck you off? Did they prance along and try to go faster, just because they’re in such a good mood? Did they “talk” to you in their special way, the way horse people are so familiar with?
I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different horses over the years, each with their unique quirks and traits. It’s something that’s really helped me sculpt animal companions in my stories and, if it weren’t for that, I’d probably be another person writing them as fleshy motorcycles.
And, honestly, this goes for any sort of animal steed or companion. Each one is going to have its quirks and personalities and whether it’s a prey or predator, or a social or solitary animal is going to impact that. Let’s take a look at what really makes up a horse and discuss how other potential animals might act when used as a mount, and, perhaps, I’ll share a tale or two along the way.
Herd Dynamics and Prey Instinct
Safety is number one for horses and there is safety in numbers. The more horses in your herd, the less likely you’re going to get eaten. You’ll often notice when riding with a group of people, the horses want to be close to each other. Being separated stresses them out. That’s why it takes a lot of good leadership to let them know it’s okay to be away from the herd.
Speaking of leadership, if you don’t have it, your horse will…and that’s rarely a good thing. When it’s just a rider and a horse, that rider becomes that horse’s herd. Horses have pecking orders, just like chickens. You have your stallion and your boss mare and then it’s literally a ladder from highest to lowest. The strongest, most assertive horses are at the top and the most timid at the bottom. This is because the rest of the horses know they can count on those at the top to keep them from being devoured by wolves or a mountain lion. As long as there’s a good leader, they’re safe.
Hence, why leadership is so important between a rider and a horse. The horse has to know it can trust the rider, that it’s going to be safe. If there’s a lack of confidence or assertiveness, the horse will take over. I had my worst fall because of such an incident, but that’s a story for later.
So, when creating mounts for your characters, it’s important to keep these things in mind: is your mount a predator or prey animal? Does it live with others of its kind, or does it like its alone time? A giant wolf mount will behave differently than a horse. It’s a predator, so it’s not constantly on the look out with all five of its senses to watch for danger. A solitary cat mount might not worry about danger much either, but unlike the wolf, it’s spent most of its time worrying about only itself; not others in its group, so it might have a more independent streak and need its rider to be just as willful.
Like people, horses are individuals and they come in all sorts of flavors. I’ve been on really chill horses, stubborn horses, timid horses, and bratty horses. Let me give some examples:
Dude was the first horse I ever fell in love with. He was so calm and had an easy gait that made him a dream to ride. You could poke and prod him all day and he’d never get bothered. However, if you touched his ears, that was an entirely different story. He’d make a complete one-eighty and let you know that was not okay, rearing if he had to.
Majesty is easily the sweetest horse I’ve ever met. He had a pretty severe hoof injury and couldn’t be ridden, but his personality made him an excellent therapy horse. Unlike most horses, he was more interested in people than his own kind. He’d protectively stand between a human and the rest of the herd if his pasture mates got too rowdy. He’d often come and rest his head on my shoulder, leaking hay-ridden drool all down my shirt.
Teton was a scaredy cat. He had to be coaxed through the gate every time he was taken out to pasture. Whenever something strange got a little too close, he’d scream in his horse language, “Oh my gosh! What is that?!”–and everything was strange to him. He wouldn’t let a girl ride him until she took off her zebra-striped beanie. He was fine with other beanies, but heaven forbid, not a zebra-striped one.
Tiger. Oh, Tiger. My favorite horse of all time and the only one that’s ever given me any real problems. Tiger is the leader of his herd, so his first priority is always his buddies, not the person on his back. This makes him a great horse to learn leadership on or one to depend on when you’re stuck in rough terrian, but also the must frustrating, infuriating son-of-a-gun you’ll ever meet.
Remember my worst fall story? That happened on Tiger. I was out on a ride with my instructor and some friends and the herd instinct made the horses bunch up close together. Not great for a comfortable ride. So, to teach them to separate, we made them work (spin, trot, back up, etc.) every time they were close together, then separated them and let them rest. Horses don’t like to do anything hard and will always take the easy way out. Our hopes were to condition them to associate the herd with hard work and space with rest.
I took Tiger up on top of a hill. Immediately, his head flicked to each of his three companions in succession, ears twitching as they listened for danger. I felt him shift beneath me, telling me he needed to be down there. What if a mountain lion pops out?
After a few minutes, I signaled him to go and he took off like a bullet. Now, Tiger is a quarter horse, so he is fast! We were probably charging downhill at 30 mph, faster than I’d ever ridden in my life. My body froze up in terror, barely reacting when I told it to tell Tiger to stop, so his leadership won out over mine. I thought he was going to slow down when he reached his friends, but for some reason, he kept going.
That’s when I knew it was all over. He wasn’t going to stop or slow down or listen to me at all. I was going to fall. Just as the thought passed through my head, I saw myself fly up over his neck. I must have flipped over because the next thing I saw was the sky. I was in the worst pain of my life. My shoulder dislocated and the wind was knocked so hard out of me I couldn’t breathe. Literally. I couldn’t breathe! I thought I was going to suffocate and vomit at the same time. It didn’t take long for my back to bruise up and simply standing up hurt like the devil.
And when Tiger came back up to me, I could swear he laughed, “That’s what you get!”
Personality. It’s what adds so much more life to a mount or an animal companion. Think about Hedwig from Harry Potter. Would her death have had such an impact if we didn’t know she’d bite if she wasn’t given owl treats, or that she hated being locked up in her cage all the time? It made her feel real, like an actual character rather than an accessory. This is something I think about whenever I write an animal–what’s going to fill them with life? What’s going to make the reader care about them? If there’s nothing, then why are they taking up so much of that precious word count?
Honestly, I could go on and on about this topic probably for…well, longer than most people would care to read. I’ve rarely written anything without an animal playing some critical part in the story and I’ve always enjoyed making them as colorful as their human/elf/dwarf/etc. counterparts (When I was twelve, I had a monkey character that could lift boulders and would angrily hit people if they didn’t put money in his tin cup).
While I could go on talking about how an animal’s natural environment, domestication, and whether they’re nocturnal or diurnal will affect their behavior, I think the most important things to keep in mind are: is it predator or prey, social or solitary, and what is its personality? These are the things that are going to affect how it interacts with its rider, the other animals around it, and give it substance in a story.
So, go on out there and make a flying deer, put your characters on a giant leopard-fox hybrid, write that gorilla as your protagonist’s best friend! And when you do it, make them bubble with life!