Last time on SFF Equines I talked about the logistics and mechanics of a spacefaring equinoid race. Commenters were extremely helpful in recalling examples from the genre, though it was generally agreed that intelligent equinoids, as opposed to centauroids, are rare in science fiction. Probably the most intelligent equinoids of all appear in classic satire, the Houyhnhnms of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Which may be science fiction in its way, but it’s very much of this Earth.
I have to say I liked the suggestion about prehensile tails for allowing equinoids to perform fine manipulations, build machines, and so on. As for equinoids who partner with other species to do this—either primates or insectoids—and how they would communicate with their symbiotes, I’ll point out that spoken language on the human model is not the only possibility. Telepathy might be an option, but there’s also subtle modifications of movement and body language (compare the language of bees), some form of writing or exchange of symbols, and even combinations of sounds, though equines aren’t constructed for the intricacy of human speech. There might be something done with arrangements of objects, combinations of colors, a sort of Morse code tapped out with hooves—and since horses can understand other forms of communication than their own, including human speech, a sort of macaronic conversation might be possible: equinoids tapping or dancing, symbiotes speaking or clicking or rubbing their wings together. The possibilities are endless.
What about the culture behind whatever language our equinoids might speak (dance, perform, tap, write, draw)? What kind of people would they be?
If we’re basing them on terrestrial horses, the first thing we’ll be sure of is that they’re herd animals. They’re also prey animals, but we can figure that if equinoids are highly intelligent, they’ll be the (or a) dominant species, which means that they’ve found ways to avoid or control predators.
They probably won’t build cities or fortresses. Nomadism makes more sense, between the equine diet, which consists primarily of grass forage, and the equine digestive system, which needs a certain amount of bodily movement in order to function properly. Horses do have their set ranges, and will, absent pressures from other horses, predators, weather changes, wildfires, and so on, stay there as much as possible, moving through the range as the grazing waxes and wanes.
But if they’re going to end up in space, they will need some forms of stationary settlements. Manufacturing centers for sure, and probably trade hubs. Mines, maybe, unless they go in the direction of biological technologies.
Which they well might. Maybe they’ll grow their ships instead of building them from inorganic materials. Their biotech might grow out of their agriculture, especially if they’re using symbiote species as surrogate hands.
What about culture? Herd animals may be vegetarians—mostly—but they aren’t pacifists. Their social order is built around a fluid hierarchy with the senior mare in charge, her favored seconds keeping order, and the herd stallion serving as security force, sometimes assisted by his own second who will breed the superior’s mother and daughters. Outside stallions will raid the herd and try to draw off mares, plus there’s the need to contend with predators as well as rival bands moving in on the same territory.
There is war, and it can be ferocious. Mares get into raging fights, mostly involving kicking (a horse kick is a powerful thing—just ask my dog who caught a glancing blow and now has a plate and three screws in his elbow). Stallions will wage full-on battles with battering hooves and tearing teeth.
Strangers may or may not be welcomed into existing herds. A mare might be brought in by the stallion, especially if she’s the daughter of another herd stallion. Males are not welcome. Outside of the stallion and his very young sons and possibly a second, the unattached stallions (from about yearling age onward) get together to form bachelor bands.
Bachelor stallions would be the first line of space explorers, I would imagine, with the herd stallions taking charge of the military and defense, and the senior mares running things both on planet and on the ships. But knowing how young mares think, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an early and forceful campaign to send these into space as well, perhaps as officers in charge of the headstrong young males. Stallions are quite aggressive and assertive, but they learn from birth that mares rule. Anything a stallion does, it’s because the ladies allow it. The young mares would be a definite check on the foolhardiness of the stallions.
The fact that mares cycle through estrus monthly during warm weather—mostly they shut down in winter, though there are plenty of mares who keep on going—could be useful in a number of ways. Equinoid birth control would focus on suppressing estrus. Well-socialized males would be much less distracted by females out of estrus, allowing them to work together with minimal sexual tension. And since horses are polygamous, most males wouldn’t expect (though they might hope) to mate; a lot of the nonsense humans have run into might not be an issue for equinoids.
Equinoid spaceship crews would consist of bachelor males with female officers, an older male security commander, and an older female captain. Scout ships would not include breeding stock, though they would be extremely large by human standards—horses need their room to run. I could see a living ship, hollow in the center, growing its own feed in fields where the crew takes its exercise. Command works out of the brain or nerve center. Life support revolves around the central fields. Nonessential crew might travel in stasis, or dart off on expeditions in scout ships.
Major-class starships would be actual generation ships. Moons and asteroids adapted into ships, maybe. Or asteroid-sized living ships with a full complement of breeding mares and working stallion. Senior mare is captain. Satellite ships staffed like scout ships. Foals as they mature will move out to the scout fleet, then back in if female. Males will either remain bachelors or go off on their own to win mares off established ships—either taking over the ship from its existing stallion in combat (which might be virtual rather than physical) or negotiating a ship of their own with surplus mares.
Mares would make the decisions here. Stallion can ask, but mare has to agree. A strong secondary mare might go along with an outside stallion in order to run her own ship, especially if she’s her home stallion’s daughter or sister.
What about non-equinoid invaders? Predator species? Equinoids with starships would most definitely equip them with suitable weaponry, and both sexes would have no hesitation about using it. A healthy adult horse can face down just about any predator; it’s the weak, the young, and the old who fall to the wolves and the mountain lions.
Spacefaring predators will have to work to bring down equinoid ships. If it comes to outright war, the herd instinct will mean that the equinoids will pull together, put the young and the weak in the middle, and present a perimeter of hooves and weaponized teeth. Gentle plant eaters they are not. They can and will fight to protect each other.
Dang. Now I want to see how this works in a story. The psychology of a horse is not the same as that of a human, though there are some similarities. Herd structure is different from pack structure, and there’s a level of cooperation that isn’t quite so easy or straightforward for humans. Not to mention the subtlety of horse body language and the tropism toward moving in groups.
Equinoids on the move in a spaceport would be an interesting thing to watch. Badass biker gang, and the boys may be tough, but the girls are downright deadly. You don’t want to mess with either one. But if they decide you’re all right, they’ll take you in wholeheartedly, and fight off anyone who tries to mess with you.
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.