Horses in Space: Evolving the Equinoid Alien

When I first got to thinking (as one does) about horses in space, I had in mind Earth horses traveling on spaceships and living on alien planets. There’s another side to them however, if one is a science-fiction fan, and that is the idea of the equinoid alien.

Writers have based their aliens, iconic and otherwise, on any and all species of terrestrial creatures, from lions to lizards (and dinosaurs) and even saguaro cacti. But horses have tended to make their way into space with few modifications, and I haven’t seen or heard of any spacefaring sentients based on horses.

(Yes, please, commenters: if you’ve found them, let us know about them.)

Centaurs, yes, but that’s a semi-humanoid variation. John Varley’s Titan, for example. Even, in a weird way, Larry Niven’s Puppeteers. But no horses as such.

One obstacle might be the fact that horses are hooved animals, and therefore (humans might think) severely limited in their ability to build and manipulate technology. Even the word “manipulate” implies hands and, more specifically, opposable thumbs. Hooves in contrast are literally blunt instruments.

Elephants get around this problem by having long, supple, extremely manipulable trunks with a “finger” or two on the end. Horses don’t have anything close to this, but their upper lips are amazingly flexible and extensible. They have a surprising degree of shall we say dexterity with their teeth as well. I have one who can untie people’s shoes (and he has proved that he knows exactly where to tug, which means he has a sense of the structure of a knot; he also understands English sentences, but that’s neither here nor there, here), and there are horses who have to be locked in with combination locks or padlocks because their lips and teeth can jigger latches and fasteners. Once one of these equine geniuses figures out how to undo it, he’s staged a jailbreak and headed for the feed room. And probably liberated all the other horses on the place as well.

So there’s potential for ability to develop and build technology as humans would conceive it. Probably machines would be large, with very large parts, and keys or levers operable by teeth and hooves. Building would in some ways be easier for equinoids than for preindustrial humans: horses are extremely strong, and can both pull and carry significant weights. Building pyramids, raising standing stones? No problem.

Building starships? Supposing the equinoid has the intelligence to conceive of all the essentials, from life support to propulsion to stellar navigation, she’ll quite probably manage to construct something to suit. Worldships and generation ships would make sense: lots of space to run, and lots of room to grow fodder, fertilized by the crew, with water cycled and recycled through both the crew and the on-board pasturage.

We don’t need to be constrained by the one-hooved model of equine, either. The original horse, the Eohippus or hyracotherium, was a small-dog-sized, five-toed animal. Modern horses keep vestiges of all five toes. They walk on the middle toe which is now the familiar hoof; the nail of a second toe, called the ergot, appears on the pastern joint above the hoof; and a third manifests as the chestnut or callosity up past the knee or just below the hock. The remaining two toes have essentially disappeared; there are faint remnants in the splint bones between the hooves and the knees or hocks.

Hyracotherium illustration by Heinrich Harder.

There are legends of polydactyl horses in historical times—throwbacks with extra toes. Julius Caesar supposedly had such a horse, and a few have been documented in the past couple of centuries. There’s not much evident use in a terrestrial horse with spare toes, but an alien horse might evolve something resembling hands. Then she would have enhanced toolmaking (and using) capability.

Even if that doesn’t happen, there may be other ways to compensate for the lack of fingers and thumbs. Living tools, for example.

Humans and horses have a unique symbiosis: human cares for and feeds the horse, horse carries or pulls the human or helps plow the fields or log the woods. Unlike any other species of terrestrial animal, the horse is regularly and consistently ridden, and riding requires at least some degree of mental connection with the animal.

Now suppose we reverse the polarity. The horse is the one in charge. The rider, a primate or other smaller creature with good eyesight and dexterous hands, executes the horse’s commands. Originally this might involve planting fields of grass or grain, building storehouses for fodder and shelters for horses and their helpers, constructing containers for water and feed, fashioning harnesses, and so on. Later, with developing technology, horses might design and their helpers execute tools and machines and, eventually, starships.

This isn’t as improbable as it might sound. Horses, like dogs, do not have the anatomy for human speech, but they can certainly understand it. An equinoid with high intelligence would come up with ideas and technologies that her physical body might not be constructed to build—but that’s what tools are for.

Once I got to thinking about horse-as-brain, I realized that there are even more ubiquitous and much smaller creatures which might serve in the right circumstances. Horses are a magnet for flies and insects of all sorts. If, on our alien planet, our equinoids found a way to turn pests into an asset, they would have what amounted to swarms of living nanobots.

Think about what ants or bees could do under the control of a highly intelligent entity. Flies are far more random, but they do swarm, and if bred and eventually engineered for specific purposes, could build quite sophisticated mechanisms, all the way to computer parts. They might even, far along in the history of the species, build their own replacements: actual, mechanical nanobots that would, in turn, build starships.

Then we would have our spacefaring equinoids, and a complete planetary infrastructure to support them—though with time and expansion through the star roads, that infrastructure might move into space as well. Traveling planetoids and rogue moons as well as huge generation ships would be more than comfortable for a species that needs ample room to run.

Next time I’ll tackle the issue of psychology and culture, because now I’ve started, I can’t stop.

That’s worldbuilding for you. One thing leads to another leads to another, and before you know it you’ve built a universe. Populated, in this case, by equinoids—and if we’re writing science fiction for Earth humans, that means first contact somewhere along the way. And that, considering how humans feel about horses, would be a very interesting proceeding.

Top image: a direhorse from Avatar (2009).

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.

28 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!