In Praise of the Hard-Working Fantasy Horse

Yesterday was Labor Day in the USA, which mostly means barbecues, furniture sales, massive tieups on the highways as vacationers return home, and for many parts of the country, a rush to get ready for the start of school tomorrow. Occasionally we remember that the holiday celebrates the worker. And who works harder in a fantasy novel than the trusty and ubiquitous horse?

I have my favorites. I invite you all to tell us about yours in the comments.

Light spoilers for The Lord of the Rings and HBO’s Game of Thrones.

So, to begin, here are three fantasy worlds and the horses whose labor helps to keep them running (and traveling and fighting and hauling and plowing and…):


Andre Norton’s Witch World

Illustration by Laurence Schwinger

Horses in the Witch World are mostly transportation, and almost never individuals. But I have to give props to the rare and unusual breed ridden by the Wereriders.

The common or garden variety of horse cannot tolerate the presence of a Were, as poor misplaced Kethan learns all too quickly in The Jargoon Pard. Clearly horses are picking up the presence of the predator behind the human guise, and they’re not having any.

The Weres’ mounts are different. They’re built differently, and their brindle coloring is distinctive. And most important of all, they don’t mind being ridden by beings who can transform into their natural enemies.

Yes, yes, one of the Weres takes stallion form, but stallions are the enforcers of the horse world, and can be quite aggressive. Add the peculiar magic and the air of otherness that goes along with being a shapeshifter, and you’ve still got a combination of signals that says to a horse, Danger. Run Away.

So Weres are best served by their own breed, which does not share the instincts or the reactivity of the rest of the species. They serve well and with minimal fanfare, and I wish we knew more about them. As, you know, one (if one is a horse person) does.


The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien was not a horseman that I know of; he certainly wasn’t noted for his real-world interactions with the species. And yet he paid attention to them. He gave them names and personalities. He populated his world with different breeds and types. They were more than mechanisms to move people and armies from place to place; they were characters in their own right.

The big blazing star of the epic of course is Shadowfax, the King of the Mearas, which essentially makes him the ruler of the horses of the West. He’s a classic fantasy horse: pure white, royal, exceedingly intelligent, with endless stamina and world-beating speed. And of course, no mere mortal may touch him. He’s a one-Wizard horse, and he and Gandalf are partners through the War of the Ring.

At the other end of the noble-hero spectrum is good old Bill the Pony. He’s a rescue, saved from an abusive owner by Sam Gamgee (who is the same kind of homespun hero), and in his way, he’s as valuable to the story as Shadowfax. He serves as pack pony for the Fellowship, has to be abandoned outside of Moria, but being a smart and practical pony, he finds his way to Tom Bombadil’s stable, and Tom sells him back to a much better owner in Bree. In the end, he and Sam are reunited, and we can presume he lives out his life as Sam’s friend and regular mount.

These aren’t the only named horses in the books. Glorfindel, the High Elf who helps to rescue Frodo from the Black Riders, rides the Elf-horse Asfaloth, who clearly has powers of his own. (I wonder if Elf-horses are immortal, too?) And Tom Bombadil has a whole herd of ponies led by the somewhat insultingly named Fatty Lumpkin.

And of course there are Hasufel and Arod, the horses of Rohan given by Eomer to Aragorn and Legolas. They’re quietly there through much of the story, though Hasufel slides from sight after the Dunedain arrive with Aragorn’s own horse, Roheryn. Arod continues to carry Legolas and the very unwilling Gimli, all the way through to the harbors of Umbar. Then I hope he’s taken care of and returned home to Rohan, though we aren’t told what becomes of him.

Most of these don’t make it into the films, or aren’t named when they appear, but in the extended versions more than the theatrical releases, there’s sturdy and loyal Brego, who had been Theoden’s son’s horse before he was killed, and whom Aragorn claimed for himself in Edoras. Brego rescues Aragorn after the Warg-rider attack, which is excellent service in any universe. (And actor Viggo Mortensen bought him after the films wrapped, which has always made me happy.)

Finally, let’s give a moment’s thought (and prayer) to the horses of the Nazgul, who like Norton’s Were-mounts are distinctively able to tolerate riders who would drive any other horse mad with fear. That’s heroism of a quiet and terrible kind.


Game of Thrones

I’m referencing the television series here; I confess I’ve only read part of the first book. There aren’t any named horses that I’ve observed (though I gather they exist in the books), but the series is still full of horses-as-subtle-characters. Horse people notice; it’s a thing.

Khal Drogo’s wedding gift to Dany: In the books I hear she’s named The Silver, and she doesn’t drop dead the way she does in the series. I’m glad about that. She doesn’t get much air time, but she’s lovely and she says a lot about how the Khal feels about his new wife.

Ser Loras Tyrell’s mare and the Mountain’s stallion: Ouch. Evil trick on Loras’ part, and graphic demonstration that the Mountain has serious anger-management issues. I will note that while tempting a stallion with a mare in heat can work, [a] a properly trained war stallion will have learned to control himself regardless of his hormonal status, so this is a poor reflection on both his trainer and his rider, and [b] the mare would telegraph her own status for the whole world to see, by standing at the end of the lists, throwing her tail up over her back, squatting, and peeing a river at the stallion. With probable sexy sound effects.

Normally I’d say this would be problematical on screen, but this is premium cable and very little else has been left to the imagination. Missed opportunity here.

Jaime Lannister’s white charger: He will do anything for his rider, and in the end he does, in a crazy, suicidal charge against the biggest of all big predators. R.I.P.

With brief salute to the next horse Jaime is seen riding, a rather nice Friesian. (We will not discuss here why this breed is not one I’d choose for a long journey in winter. It’s the optics that count. Black horse, white landscape. Hokay. Also perhaps some symbolism in the shift from white horse to black, but that remains to be seen.)

Uncle Benjen’s horse: First seen carrying the Stark kids’ favorite uncle. Later seen coming back to Castle Black minus his rider. Much later, seen again, more than once, with Undead Benjen, or is it the same horse? And is it alive? Or undead? Last seen in a desperate last-ditch rescue, with one final dramatic return to the Wall. That horse gets around.

They’re dead and presumably long past caring, but the White Walkers’ mounts have a lot of work to do out there in the ice and snow, packing their riders from one end of a large land mass to the other, and doing it at the same funereal pace regardless of where or when they are or who is charging against them.

And last but far from least, a tip of the helmet to the mule pulling the Wight wagon. This tidy, shiny, well-kept equid joins the Were-horses and the Nazgul mounts on the roster of horses (and mule) doing their job against all their natural instincts, hitched to a cart carrying an existential horror, and barely turning a long elegant ear. Respect.


And that’s my shortlist of favorite working fantasy horses (and mule). I’d love to hear about yours.

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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