Horses in space? It would seem like a nonstarter. Large, fragile hooved animals with difficult digestive systems and a need for significant real estate in order to develop their muscles and bones properly—and that’s supposing there’s gravity to work with—are poor candidates for interstellar travel. Even supposing we find enough earthlike planets to support earthlike fauna, how are we going to get them there?
Still, there’s something about a horse.
Given the appeal of the species and the passion it arouses in a good number of humans, I believe that if it’s in any way possible to get equines into space, some enterprising person will make it happen.
It will take doing. Most efficient in terms of space on the ship would be to transport embryos, frozen or in stasis. Unpack at the destination, install in your handy all-purpose artificial womb (calibrated to the needs of the current occupant), wait eleven earth-months or thereabouts, voila.
At that point the breeders would have to make sure the foals received their passive immune transfer via colostrum (transported with the embryos or better yet synthesized on site according to the specs of the planet) and were then fed, imprinted, and socialized, which would be fairly labor-intensive initially, but if the project produced multiple foals, they would quickly form a herd and start socializing each other. Within a few years, barring disease (on planet or introduced), accident, predators, or other disasters, the population would be self-sustaining; bringing in new stock every so often to keep the gene pool from collapsing would help, but if the original stock was genetically varied and the breeders were ruthless about outcrossing and refusing to inbreed, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem.
What about bringing in actual horses? That would need a lot more cargo room and probably some form of stasis chamber. A horse on a spaceship, unless it’s a huge generation ship, traveling station, planetoid, or similar, is begging for trouble unless the voyage is fairly short. The fodder alone, what with the horse’s need for lots of fiber, would fill a cargo hold, unless our future society managed to invent a magical expanding fiber pill. Or a replicator.
Horses can be transported in smallish boxes—they’re flown around the planet here and were brought over to the Americas in sailing ships—but the risk to the horse or the transport is not trivial. Horses will tolerate confinement remarkably well, but if they decide they’re leaving, they can become uncontrollable and have to be put down.
There’s also the issue of keeping them healthy when confined. They are highly susceptible to respiratory problems, especially in tight quarters and if they can’t lower their heads to eat. Hence, shipping cough, which can escalate to pneumonia and turn fatal.
Colic is an issue, too. Horses under stress can develop stomach problems, and the equine digestive system being the evolutionary kludge that it is, a simple stomachache will turn complicated very quickly.
My theory is that spacefaring horses will have genetically modified digestive systems. At the very least, the ability to vomit. Less need for massive amounts of fiber, too, and more efficient systems overall, requiring less feed and processing it more effectively.
What about reducing size? Earth horses already come in miniature versions, which makes them much more practical for small spaces including apartments, but seriously, if we’re going there, cats and dogs are even more portable, and dogs can live off human scraps besides.
No, as long as we’re doing horses in space, we might as well go all the way and keep the current size range. That would include minis as pets and service animals (and for pulling carts—a multi-mini hitch can pull a fair amount of weight), but also big Drafts for agricultural work, and riding horses for getting around on the planet. Or, if we’re talking giant generation ships or wandering planetoids, traveling around the ship.
Horses do make a certain amount of sense as transport. They can get into country that wheeled vehicles can’t, they can live off that country, and they’re self-replicating. They don’t need factories to make new ones, or tech to fashion replacement parts. They can even be eaten if they’re no longer able to work. Once you’ve got the population established, and supposing the planet will support them with pasturage, they’re not a bad option for a low-tech community.
Supposing that we start modifying horses to adapt to various extraterrestrial environments, how far can we go before they stop being horses? Internal modifications might improve the essential problems with the structure, but can we change the exterior without losing whatever makes a horse a horse?
Denser bones and heavier muscles for heavy gravity would be natural extensions of the heavier types and breeds of horses. Lighter build for lighter gravity, same story.
Breeding for speed has more or less stalled in modern horses; we seem to have hit a plateau. If we find a way around that, a mutation or modification, will it change the animal beyond recognition? What if longer legs, longer neck, more or less flexible spine, made the horse run faster or jump higher? Would we modify their musculature, so that we created essentially a huge, short-eared jackrabbit? And then what might lighter gravity do to the structure as a whole? Lunar show jumping will be a thing, let’s face it.
As a horse enthusiast, I can see how humans won’t be able to resist messing with horses to make them fit whatever aesthetic they happen to subscribe to. It’s already happening with the downright Norstrilian transformation of the American Quarter Horse into a terrestrial version of Cordwainer Smith’s giant, mutated sheep. The poor things can barely move on those tiny, tiny feet.
Or Arabians—longer and longer necks, tinier and tinier throats, smaller and smaller heads in the shape of itty-bitty trumpets. That’s already scary. Major advances in technology and extremes of already extreme fashion could turn the horse into something unrecognizable as such.
But then, human nature being what it is, I’m sure there will be a backlash and people will make a dramatic point of getting back to the original formula, resurrecting ancestral genes and cloning the great old ones. The basic equine type, the leg at each corner, the mane, the tail, the back one sits on, is likely to endure.
Even in space, if only to get there from here. And on alien planets, where the horse makes sense for work or play. Horse enthusiasts will make it happen, one way or another.
As the man said, “God forbid that I go to any heaven where there are no horses.” Or any planet, either.
Top image: Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (2006)
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed spirit dog.