All for One and One for All: Horse Herds in Space

One of the comments on the last post in this series of thought experiments wondered if I was projecting from terrestrial horse behavior to equinoid aliens. I replied that that’s the point. That’s what science fiction writers often do: they look at terrestrial species and extrapolate their biology and behavior into alien species.

At the same time, there’s a persistent assumption that equinoid sexuality has to be analogous to the human version. That every species will always have sex on the brain, the way humans do. That’s projection, too, and I don’t think it works with a species based on equines.

A species whose females are seriously Not Interested three-quarters of the time most likely would not prioritize that aspect of its biology to the extent that humans do. If she’s not interested, any attempt to force her to be interested is, in a word, rape. We cannot expect her to want sex, or prioritize it, when she’s not in season. And the males of her species would probably be discouraged, culturally and physically, from trying.

Stallions do run slightly larger than mares, with heavier bone and more muscle mass, but the dimorphism isn’t significant enough to make a difference. A mare, even if she may be a little smaller and less massive, still packs enough firepower to stop a would-be rapist in his tracks. Also, the way the structures are arranged, she can literally castrate him with a well-aimed kick. That’s a fairly handy deterrent.

So basically, seventy-five percent of the time, a mare is sexually neutral. The stallion being naturally reactive, if she’s not triggering him with her pheromones, he’s either ignoring her or treating her like a buddy. Personal relationships are possible and do happen in terrestrial herds; especially if the mare has produced offspring by the stallion, he may help to raise the foal. If she invites him to make another one he will happily cooperate, but if she doesn’t, they get along like any other members of the herd. She may be his friend and even his grooming buddy, or more likely she’ll tell him to piss off, she’s busy.

Mares are very sarcastic.

Gender roles, now—that’s a different matter. Depending on how ossified the culture gets, there might be strong pressure for a mare to be mother, teacher, philosopher, leader, and for a stallion to be locked into either the military or the bachelor scout force. Intersex individuals and individuals who don’t fit the mold might struggle to find roles that suit them.

Where does a genderfluid individual go when the culture is so persistently binary? There is the bachelor band, which is effectively neuter, but that’s fairly low status. What if a person wants to aim for a leadership role? If the assigned gender is female, that might be doable, but a transgender individual or one who is truly intersex might run into strong cultural opposition.

And what about a mare who, rather than aiming for the approved female version of leadership, is inclined to defend the borders in stallion fashion, engage stallions in combat, and generally take the stallion role? Is that even thinkable? She could deal with the stallion’s other primary job of producing offspring either through taking on one or more subordinate stallions—as happens in terrestrial herds—or in a technologically advanced culture, through artificial means. In short, it’s possible, but probably would not happen all too frequently unless there were some other factor in play, such as a steep drop in the availability of fertile males.

Stallions stepping outside the usual bounds could run into trouble as well. Stallions can make good fathers, but there might be a scandal if one wants to raise or educate others’ offspring, especially female offspring. There would be sexual connotations: if he takes in a young mare, he must want her for his herd. Taking in colts would not be so complicated; that’s bachelor-band formation.

I can imagine how sticky the politics would get. Say Herd A needs to expand territory in order to support an increase in population, Herd X pushes back. Stallion from A has a school that accepts youngsters from X, X objects on grounds of underhanded imperialism and corruption of the youth. Problems ensue.

Violence might be included in that category. Horses don’t go to war on a human scale, but stallions will steal mares from other stallions, and the result is often bloodshed.

The mares, be it noted, do not participate. They might drive off an invader stallion if they don’t like him, but a mare in strong heat might be persuaded to run off with him anyway. Or he might manage to round up a couple of mares (who have to be willing; he can’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do, there are no ropes or handcuffs in wild-horse land) and take off while the herd stallion is busy elsewhere. The herd stallion may or may not try to get them back, depending on the circumstances.

Equine wars, in short, are conducted and won by single combat. Terrestrial horses don’t form armies, and mares don’t join the stallion fights. They carry on their business while the boys slug it out.

Do they care who wins the herd? It’s been observed that mares have preferences. One or two might opt to stay with the loser, for whatever reasons, but mostly they go along with the winner.

Romantic love is not a horse thing. Sex, as I’ve noted, is only an obsession for a week out of the month, and goes away in most mares once they’re pregnant. The stallion is a means to an end, rather than a life partner. The real focus of mares’ lives is each other.

Herd politics is mare politics. Who makes the babies and fends off the other baby-makers is mostly peripheral. The dominant mare and her favorites decide where the herd goes in search of food and water, how long it stays and when it will leave.

There is a hierarchy, though it’s fluid; temperament determines a mare’s overall position, whether she stays low down or pushes her way up, but there’s also the factor of age, health, pregnancy, presence of a foal, and so on. A mare who is brought in from another herd might opt for a position lower down in order to stay with the new, more prosperous herd. She’d be dominant elsewhere, but here, she accepts the dominance of other mares.

Or she might have been pushed down elsewhere but sees her chance here, and works her way up by out-domineering the other mares. Stallion fights get the big press with all the rearing and biting, but mare fights can be brutal. Mares wield the heavy artillery: they may chase and bite (and bruise or draw blood), but the big battles are butt to butt, kicking the blue hell out of each other until one surrenders.

Usually the fights are short. The loser might keep challenging if she is really determined, but more often than not, the winner keeps her status until someone else challenges her, or she loses health or strength through age, illness, accident, or predation. The herd leader gets there by a combination of age and experience, family connections (alpha mares produce alpha daughters), and plain out out-dominating everyone else.

The mare who doesn’t back down and doesn’t blink is the one who rules. A really good lead mare holds her position by sheer force of personality; she barely needs to back it up with teeth or heels. But everybody else knows that if they step out of line, she will come at them like hooved death.

In a spacefaring species, all of this could add up to a combination of single combat between males of different herds (or ships, or nations) over breeding rights or territory, and internecine dominance struggles between females. Rather than human-style mass warfare, the stallion stands ready to defend his mares personally at all times against other stallions trying to take over the herd, and he’s also on guard against external enemies. Perhaps he’d contract with the local bachelor band—many of whom would be his brothers or sons—to serve as a defense force against an invasion.

This would be the border patrol, essentially. If the invaders break through that, they’ll face the mares in a symbolic herd-circle: strongest on the perimeter, weakest in the middle. Then it’s battle to the death, one on one and en masse. The Home Guard is all female and ready to give up its life for the babies and the young stock.

That’s probably going to be an extreme case. The vast majority of the time, while the stallions are guarding the borders, the mares will be dealing with domestic politics. Establishing and confirming hierarchies. Negotiating trade contracts with other herds and other species. Allocating resources. Determining when and where to expand territory—with the stallion’s defense force taking point.

Would individual mares try to resist the pressure to cooperate within the herd? Would stallions agitate to be part of herd governance, and argue against being driven out at adolescence and forced to join the bachelor herd?

I’m sure there would be examples of both. Stallions who want to stay with the home herd, be teachers, participate in government. Mares who want to go out exploring with, or like, the boys, and mares who don’t want to go on the mommy track, in a culture in which mothers rule both in themselves and through their daughters and granddaughters. There’s the auntie role, which a childless mare can fill, but what if she wants to be a space explorer?

The pressure there would be to join the rest of the aunties, to explore in a group. Not to go out alone—because for a prey species like the horse, solitude is death.

There are terrestrial horses who prefer their own spaces—stallions often, mares sometimes. It does happen. But even those have a tropism toward bonding with something or someone, a human or another animal. A goat, a cat. The truly solitary horse is anomalous in the extreme.

The desire to be solitary might not even be thinkable; if such an individual existed, she would be looked on as perverted or worse. The best anyone would feel for her is a kind of scandalized pity. How can anyone want to be alone? That’s the worst thing a horse can imagine short of being eaten by something large and hungry.

Wanting one’s own space in the ship would be weird, but wanting one’s own ship without anyone else—madness. For horses, togetherness is safety, even if there’s constant jockeying for position. A horse who strongly dislikes her own herd might go looking for another, and in a spacefaring culture, that could be useful in terms of trade and alliances. I could see young stallions raiding for mares, but also mares of allied herds negotiating exchanges—outcrosses—in the interest of genetic diversity.

The herd stallions might actually tolerate this despite their territorial nature, if it were their daughters and granddaughters moving on elsewhere, especially with new mares moving in. Would they object to not having to fight for the mares? Perhaps there would be a symbolic battle with the stallion from the allied herd, a choreographed duel or dramatic performance. Or a religious rite.

And there’s a question for another installment. Would equinoids tend toward religion? Yes? No? If yes, what would it be like?

Next time!

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.

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