The Star Trek franchise is a little horse-lite. For those of you new to the series, it’s a bunch of shows (and movies) that take place in space, a place where horses mostly don’t live. I have not yet seen a precise analysis of the challenges inherent in transporting horses into space, but I am unwilling to believe that those challenges are trivial. This explains why the most common reason for the appearance of a horse in an episode of Star Trek is that someone is having some kind of telepathically-induced hallucination. Star Trek characters like horses just fine—Chris Pike rode a little; Jim Kirk rode a little; Picard was passionate enough about it to travel the galaxy with his own saddle, in case he got the chance to ride and found a horse whose back and withers fit his tack. (I know some of you are dying to know—I asked Melinda Snodgrass, and she said it was a dressage saddle. She does not know the maker.) There’s a longstanding historic relationship between military command and horsemanship, and it’s nice to see that Starfleet has officers who maintain the tradition.
It won’t matter much in the end. In the Star Trek universe, real horses are doomed.
Starfleet is a primarily peaceful institution, but it holds technologies that could plant the seeds of destruction if misused, or deployed carelessly. One of those technologies is going to spell extinction for the domesticated equine, and that technology is the holodeck. I can think of a lot of reasons to prefer a real horse to a holodeck one. For example, real horses exist in the world I live in, and holodecks don’t. Score one for the real horse. Real Earth 2017 DOES have rideable fake horses which allow for a programmable experience. They cost around $100K. Even on the super-expensive east coast, that’s roughly equivalent to four years of horse ownership, and the product has not proven very popular. Again, the real horse is winning. But right now, the real horse isn’t up against the holodeck.
The holodeck combines realistic, immersive, three-dimensional simulations with safety systems that prevent injury to users. There are some flaws in the technology—sometimes simulacra get loose and wander around starships. Letting a horse loose on a starship would almost definitely be less catastrophic than unleashing Professor Moriarty, but I can imagine that hilarity would ensue if a riding horse left the holodeck and wandered around the Enterprise looking for friends and snacks. Even allowing for these problems, which are significantly less than the risks of transporting Wesley Crusher around the galaxy, horses are a natural fit for the holodeck; Real horses are both fun and expensive, and the risks of holodeck interactions seem significantly less than the risks of actually keeping them around.
I’m sure the Federation’s horse professionals will stand against the holodeck to the best of their ability. In the world we live in, equestrian sports transitioned away from dry-clean-only materials for competition wear just in the last twenty years (at roughly the same time that they made the transition to truly effective head protection, which is still not required or routinely used in some disciplines). The horse business is great at resisting change. We like reality! When the first holodecks are made available for civilian use, people will cling to all sorts of ridiculous things because they are “real”. They will want to really learn how to sail, to really climb El Capitan, to really date. People think of civilization as being rooted in material culture, which is, by definition, a collection of things that have a persistent physical presence. They’ll want to hold on. But people also like in-home exercise equipment. And they like safety.
Before long, every little girl who has ever dreamed of a horse will have her first pony ride on a holodeck. Earnest parents will then find their way to real stables with real animals, but even the most earnest of instructors will give in eventually, and centuries later when horses become extinct, everyone will look back and blame ponies.
Ponies are conveniently-sized for teaching children to ride, but ponies are assholes. They kick, and bite, and spook, and while they’re hardier than their larger brethren, they have been known to develop lameness and colic. Keeping a lesson pony in good working order requires feed, regular shoeing, veterinary care, and hours of effort invested in stable maintenance and training. A trainer who uses a holodeck in her program can do more with less. She can, for example, give lessons on the holodeck while Fluffkins is kicking his heels in the pasture. The limits of the pony’s endurance are no longer the instructor’s problem. And, she can focus on student skills rather than the needs of the animal. Little Suzy having trouble posting the trot? Holodeck Pony can maintain an even rhythm for as long as it takes where Real Pony would get annoyed, break to the walk, and then refuse to leave the center of the arena. School vacation doubles the number of scheduled lessons, but not the number of horses in the string? No problem. Teenage riders itching to spend an entire summer day creating and testing out challenging jump courses? Holodeck horses can keep up and holodeck safety features will keep the teenagers in one piece. At first, our earnest instructors will end every lesson with some variation on the words “We’ll try this on Fluffkins when you ride next week!”
The death knell for the Real Horse won’t be struck by trainers operating on thin financial margins. Anyone who loves horses enough to work in the business was never working for money anyway. They will breed, raise, train, feed, muck out, groom, wrap, blanket, and ride every day until they can’t go on anymore. The end of the currency-based economy will probably dramatically improve their standards of living.
The moment of doom will come somewhere far away from a stable, somewhere parents gather with coffee, or wine, or whatever exotic adult beverages will claim their allegiance in the post-scarcity Golden Age of the Federation. “What are your plans for this summer?” Someone innocently asks, hoping for some brief comments that will set up a discussion of (their) planned family trips. “Oh, we’re staying close to home,” someone else answers, “but the kids are so excited—we got them a pony!” There’s a long pause as the assembled Good Mommies and Daddies take a thoughtful sip from their Tasty Beverages. Everyone knows reality is good. Going outside is good. They say kids can get addicted to the holodeck, and they’ll never want to come out. Heck, that John Scalzi guy said that back in 2009, and the holodeck hadn’t even been invented yet. The school sent home a notice about the importance of placing limits on holodeck use. The pediatrician everyone likes does evening lectures on going no-holodeck for infants and toddlers. These are good parents, these parents who have obtained a pony. Possibly, everyone else might have to get a pony too, if they want to be good parents. But surely not. That’s ridiculous. It’s so old-fashioned, and those children could break an arm, or their necks. They could get repetitive strain injuries. It’s not the nineteenth century anymore. What is she doing? Has she heard something about admissions at the good middle school? Should everyone be considering ponies?
And then, one mother breaks the silence. “Good for you!” she says. She is enthusiastic. She gushes about neural development and proprio-receptive coordination and letting children take real risks, and learning responsibility and understanding the life cycle. This is not the “Good for you” that means everyone should try it. It’s the one that means “That’s insane.” This “Good for you” is “Bless your heart” wrapped up in 25th or 26th-century non-currency-based tinsel. The conversation moves on to the virtues of overnight camps. “Ah yes,” the assembled parents sigh. Three weeks in the outdoors where Other People get to enforce the holodeck limits. Learning independence. Swimming in real water. Making new friends and getting rained on while Mom and Dad get a rare chance to use the holodeck at home. Educational, socially and emotionally beneficial, virtuous, short-term, reasonable.
They won’t even know that they just killed the ponies.
Goodbye Major. Goodbye Jack. Goodbye Princess and Snacky and Creampuff. Goodbye Rocky. Goodbye Snickers and Many Spots. Goodbye Blue. It was nice knowing you. I’m glad I was here while it lasted.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.