When Humans Met Equinoids: First Contact with Space Horses

We’ve been building a spacefaring species of equinoid for a while now, but one thing we haven’t done is introduce the human element. I’ve had that in the back of my mind, as I’m sure many of you have. Now it’s time to see what might happen if our doughty space explorers of both species happen to meet.

I’ve got my own ideas about how that would play out, but there are so many options. I hope people will weigh in in comments with what they think would happen. So, I’m leading off, with what I hope will be the catalyst for some nice, chewy exchange of ideas.

I can think of numerous scenarios for a first contact between equinoids and humans. A lot depends on the nature of the contact, whether it’s accidental—two expeditions happen to meet out on the edges of their mutual territories, or one species happens across a planet or a system already inhabited by the other—or intentional: one or both species have been aware of the other’s existence, and the contact is set up in advance, possibly with another species as intermediary.

If it’s a chance meeting, there are a lot of ways it can go. Has one or both species met another spacefaring species before? Do they have specialists in first contact? Are scout expeditions equipped with at least an AI that can handle meetings with new species? What do they do about language?

I’m going to assume for the purposes of my thought experiment that neither species’ first reaction is to blast the other off the star map. We can set up scenarios in which that happens, but there’s enough ugliness in the everyday world these days. I’m opting for a more optimistic view.

So Earth explorer and equinoid scouting expedition happen across one another while they’re checking out a system. There’s the possibility that one or both will get territorial about it (especially if one has already settled on a planet, or if there’s a squeeze of some sort—resources, territory, war or invasion), but again, let’s assume they each have protocols for first contact, and they’re positively inclined toward the concept.

I would speculate that the Earth explorer would have an AI developed for these purposes, that analyzes all available data on new species and develops a communications protocol. The equinoids might have gone that route in their development, or they might have opted for an organic solution: trained communicators and diplomats, perhaps with artificial assistance, or maybe they’re just that bright; they can pick up languages with minimal help from tech. The fact that horses have extremely good memories would help here. Let’s suppose their memories are eidetic, and trained Rememberers can function as, basically, Mentats.

Where they might need tech is in the actual communication. Equinoid language is unlikely to be based on vocalizations. Much of it would consist of movement, position relative to others, body language and, in person, manipulation of pheromones and energy levels. Some of that might be doable for humans, but much of it would not. Some form of trade patois would be pretty much essential, and would probably lean toward sounds and symbols.

Humans would strike equinoids as loud, clumsy, and oblivious. Lots of noise, poor body awareness, minimal ability to pick up essential cues. One would hope that equinoids would be familiar enough with vocal-focused species to apply filters to their physical signals, and patient enough to wait for the humans to figure out the more obvious-to-equinoids communications.

One that might help is that horses are built to cooperate with each other, and if they accept a non-equinoid as an honorary herd member, they cut that person a great deal of slack. The bachelor stallions and enterprising mares who are likely to be out exploring will be inclined to give the new species the benefit of the doubt; and since they’re horses, they’ll be curious. They’ll want to know who these noisy little bipeds are, what they’re doing, how they feel and think. They’ll want to communicate.

On the other side of the contact, humans have had a long and fruitful relationship with horses on their own planet. The question is whether there’s anything left of it by the time they get to the level of stellar exploration.

I like to think there will be, at least in song and story. It’s not terribly likely the scouts will have horse experience—not if they’re raised in space. But there will be some awareness of what the species is about, if only on the level of “big herd animal with strong social structure.”

How will humans react in person? As it happens, I witnessed a first contact just a few days ago, a neighbor coming by to get manure for his garden. He had never been close to a horse, or touched one.

He was enthralled. He was also wary, to the point of being scared when one of the herd came into his space. “They’re so big!” he kept saying. When the most curious of them, a bright and confident gelding (same hormone level as a bachelor stallion), came in close to check him out, he leaped to the top of the fence. “Too big! Too big!”

That could be an issue with space explorers. Human ships might be too small for equinoids, or too confined, and equinoid ships would seem huge—as would their crews. It would be alarming to come on board the equinoid ship and be surrounded by large, bright-eyed, hooved beings who like to crowd around and get up close and personal, and whose actions and reactions wouldn’t be easily predictable in human terms. An equinoid might convey information that would seem simple and clearly stated to him, but a human would completely miss it. Whereas the human might speak quietly, as far as she knew, and move slowly, but cause a stampede among equinoids who interpreted her vocalizations and movements as screaming and thrashing.

With luck, there wouldn’t be an interstellar incident. I’m betting on luck and mutual desire to communicate and, one hopes, cooperate.

If we’re talking about intentional contact—both species aware of each other, wanting to connect, preparing in advance—things will probably go more smoothly, though there are sure to be miscommunications and more than occasional gaffes. Equinoid diplomats will be prepared for the differences in communication styles. Human first-contact specialists, if they’re wise, might call in another kind of specialist: horse people.

Horse people aren’t fazed by the size of the animal. They see the perspective in horse terms: this one’s little, this one’s big, though both relative to humans are enormous. They’ll be attuned to the smaller details of horse behavior, never as much so as actual horses, but closer than the usual human. They’ll have a sense of when to ramp their volume down—physically as well as verbally—and how to defuse situations that might trigger the equine flight reflex. And they will be thrilled to meet an alien species so similar to terrestrial horses.

There will be caveats there, of course, and Earth’s diplomatic corps will have to be aware of them. Horse trainers can get cocky about their skills, or they’ll get locked into particular styles and patterns of behavior and disconnect from what’s actually happening with the horse. Too much human ego, not enough attention to the horse, can cause Incidents. Especially if the contact person can’t shake the belief that horses are inferior in intelligence to humans, and can therefore be played in ways that will insult or downright infuriate the alien envoys.

Interstellar diplomacy would need an open mind, strong observational faculties, and the willingness to just shut up and listen. It also needs clear respect for the alien whose modes of communication are different but whose intellectual capabilities equal or exceed those of humans. But if it works, humans and equinoids could forge useful partnerships on both sides.

Human manual dexterity, equinoid social structures and tropism toward cooperation. Exchanges of ideas and technology. Just plain friendship. Humans love the large, quiet presence of horses as well as their power and beauty, and horses seem to enjoy hanging out with humans. They’re also quite good at holding the line when humans get pushy.

There might be one point of contention: the role of terrestrial horses in human society. If horses are well treated and highly regarded, that will be good, but if their spacefaring analogues discover abuse of any kind, the human-equinoid alliance will have some hurdles to overcome.

And then one wonders, if equinoids get together with terrestrial horses, whether the horses will be regarded as less intelligent cousins—rather like chimpanzees and humans—or whether, with extraterrestrial sort-of-relatives to talk to, horses will turn out to be way more intelligent than humans realize.

That could get interesting.

What about you? What do you think will happen when humans and equinoids meet?

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 dog.

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