In the comments on the last SFF Equines Post, as we were discussing the logistics of spacefaring equinoids, Noblehunter had some most intriguing questions.
It would be cool for another post on the more complicated aspects of equinoid society. I get that we’re extrapolating from horse biology but it seems that a space-faring species will have a more complicated relationship with their instincts and basic biological drives.
Are there queer horses? Would there be a drive for gender equality? Resistance to the idea of herd over individual? What does horse religion look like? How far can we use human conflicts to model equinoid ones?
Just exactly the sort of questions I like to ask when I’m worldbuilding. So, let’s tackle a few of them over the next few columns, and see where they lead us.
The first question is many-sided and has many possible answers. Queer horses? Non-heterosexual horses? Horses who aren’t strictly binary? Horses who are transgender?
I say why not? Horses haven’t been studied to the extent that, say, chimpanzees have, and we complicate matters by gelding most of the males. But there’s anecdotal evidence of stallions and geldings who seemed to prefer each other to members of the opposite gender, and mares likewise. Some mares seem very stallion-y in their manners and priorities; some stallions seem to be less aggressive than usual. Observation points toward a spectrum of personalities and apparent gender characteristics in horses.
Could a horse be transgender? Gender dysphoria in humans isn’t well understood, and we can’t ask a horse if she feels more like a stallion than a mare. But I actually have a mare here whose hormones and plumbing are normal, who actively resisted being bred even when in heat (when mares as a rule just Want That Boy Now), and whom in general I handle as if she were an intact male. Slacking off on that gets me physically hurt.
I have no way of telling if she’s gender-dysphoric, but she certainly isn’t in the normal mare spectrum when it comes to her responses. She gets along well with other mares, shows no sexual interest in them. When turned out with the stallion, she got along with him, too—but she wouldn’t let him breed her. She goes into and out of estrus on a regular schedule. Maybe she’s asexual or aromantic? Again I can’t ask, but also again, she’s definitely on a different spectrum.
I’ve met male horses, too, who seemed not to function well with hormones. When they matured from babies into adolescents, they seemed anxious and confused. Once gelded, they settled down with what looked remarkably like relief.
When breeders of terrestrial horses decide who gets to keep the optional equipment (usually a small minority), numerous factors come into play. Pedigree of course, physical attributes (conformation, movement), breed type, personal and ancestral achievements (racing record, show wins, etc.), and that elusive but for riding horses essential set of characteristics called temperament. Performance horses—racehorses, for example—may not be bred for personality; speed is the key. But horses to be used for riding, driving, and other very people-focused activities need to have certain types and ranges of personality. And that means trying to select for it when breeding.
Breeding, then, selects for heteronormative animals. The ones who don’t fit the specs are removed from the gene pool, whether by gelding or culling—which has meant, in various places and at various times, slaughter as well as selling off as non-breeding stock.
If we’re looking at a spacefaring species, certain aspects of the gender spectrum could translate into cultural norms—hence the stallion security forces and mares-in-charge I described last time. But it is a spectrum, and equine sexuality differs from human in several ways.
One, which I’ve mentioned before, is the way in which male sexuality is determined by proximity to females and to each other. Stallions aim to win their own bands of mares, but because the ratio is one stallion to multiple mares, that leaves a large number of males without breeding opportunities. These males run together in bands—and while they do this, their hormones are shut down very close to zero. A bachelor stallion who sets off to steal or lure his own mares will see an increase in hormones—it’s actually observable as he switches from bachelor mellow to herd-stallion “Helllooooo baby!”
The deciding factor here is the mare. She controls the stallion’s actions and reactions. He can bring her into estrus with vocalizations and physical contact, but she says when and if he will breed her. She can also rev up the stallion—just ask the one who decided I was riding her and not the male I was leading out, turning the stallion into a quivering mess of hormonal angst by staring fixedly at him, so that I could not lead him past her and had to return him to his stall and fetch her instead.
Mares are not, unlike human females, in estrus all the time. They’re in about a week a month, on the average, and many go into anestrus in the winter. The rest of the time, for the most part, they have zero interest in sex. Just not playing. And if randy studmuffin tries to push the issue, they’ll scream and clobber him.
If you take this into space, you’ve got a wide range of possible sexualities, and whole demographics for whom sex is at most an occasional preoccupation. Most of the time, they’re probably not thinking about it, and when they are, it’s highly situational.
Kind of like Vulcans, if you think about it. But probably more frequent. And maybe less violent.
Once in estrus, a mare well might prefer another mare, or a stallion might have a distinct preference for another stallion. I have seen very inexperienced young stallions jump on anything that looks like a horse, and not seem to care if it’s a gelding or a mare.
Especially in bachelor bands, I would think male friendships would be intense and long-lasting, though if one of the bachelors struck off in search of his own mares, he might develop a virulent aversion to his former friends. A gay stallion might not run into this issue, but one who was bi would probably have to find a balance. Instinct would drive him to fight or kill other males while among breeding females, but as a civilized equinoid, he might sublimate: attack them in satires and savage dramas, or engage in extreme sports.
As for mares, with sex not being an issue three-quarters of the time, there would be that much more scope for creativity and productivity, even for those engaged in raising foals—since foals are quite independent quite quickly, and mostly just stop in at the milk bar in between adventures with the rest of the kids. Female friendships among horses are firm, and often lifelong. Those are the core relationships. Males are there to make babies. Once that’s done, they’re irrelevant to the mares’ daily lives and preoccupations. I suspect mares would be great philosophers and deep thinkers, running universities while also producing and educating foals.
Mares and stallions do not, as a rule, become friends. Mares and geldings may, which presents possibilities for mares not in estrus and bachelor stallions. In a spacefaring species, I doubt gelding would be a thing.
Then again, you never know where a culture might take itself. Males might choose to be permanently removed from the gene pool, or be removed on religious or political grounds. Since equine society is built primarily around one stallion and multiple mares, there’s a large population of surplus males at any time, and these roving bands of robbers, reivers, and bravos might be subject to some sort of official control.
As unsentimental as horses can be, some cultures might simply dispose of them—feed them to the ones-with-thumbs, or use them for fertilizer. That might make sense in terms of allocation of resources. I have to admit, I’d rather see options that let the extras stay alive and contribute to society.
What about gender equality? Would males rise up against the dominance of the females? Would there be attempts to set up male admirals and commanders and break out of the tradition of males as security and scout forces and females as rulers?
I’m sure there would be, because when sentient individuals get to thinking about their place in the universe, they start to ask why. Bias would probably lean toward stallions being overly emotional and always on edge, and ridiculously easy to tip over, so they would have to overcome that in order to be considered worthy of important or complex tasks. Mares in estrus are about the same, but it’s fairly simple to suppress the hormones and escape the problem. We can do that already, since spaying mares is major and expensive surgery; if we want to shut down their cycles, we give them Regu-Mate.
As for our spacefaring boys, hormonal suppression is about as simple as keeping them together in close proximity. If that’s not practicable, there are drugs that do the job. Either way, our boys really will not be interested.
Really. As I found out when trying to get a stallion trained to breed by artificial insemination, sent him to a stallion station full of stallions…and he made friends with all the boys and ignored the girls and drove everybody nuts. He’d gone into bachelor-band mode. Not even interested when being shown another stallion breeding a mare. Nope. Yawn.
We had to bring him home to the mares he considered his own. Took three hours to ramp up the hormones—we watched, and timed it. After that we’d take him to visit Dolly the Inflatable Date with one of his ladies, and he performed to specs, and all was well. That would translate quite nicely to horses in space (and he would, too; he loves to travel).
Monogamy and that particular range of human sexual mores will pretty definitely not be a thing. Stallions are polygamous by nature. Mares may have preferences, but when they’re ready, any attractive male will do—and for non-heterosexual and nonbinary mares, the possibilities are even more extensive.
What I see when I look at horses and extrapolate is a tendency for the genders to function mostly separately, but to cooperate on an administrative level, and friendships more within genders than across them. It would be easier for females to rise to prominence; males would have to fight harder for fewer positions. In short—the reverse of the current human condition.
For equinoids with dysphoria or nonbinary orientation, fitting in might be a challenge, but maybe not in exactly the way it is for humans. Because most equinoid pursuits are carried on without the distraction of sex, the main stressors would be actual gender bias, beliefs in that each gender should be and do. Individuals and groups would resist, and I’m sure would agitate for diversity and equality.
I’ll talk more about all of this next time, and tie it in with the question about herd versus individual. There’s a whole philosophical debate right there.
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.