Science fiction and fantasy have a long tradition of cultures and characters based on Earth animals. Cherryh’s Chanur, to cite one of my favorite examples. Space whales in multiple space operas (I love me some space whales). And most relevant here, Mercedes Lackey’s Companions, who are openly based on horses, and dragons, who are not—but Anne McCaffrey told me herself that the origins of Pern’s dragons are a particular breed of horses and the riders who serve them.
In both cases, we have magical, marginally mortal creatures of high intelligence, who communicate telepathically with their Chosen or Impressed riders. Choosing of Heralds happens usually in young adulthood, though there’s no age limit on the process, and Companions do so in their adult form. Dragons Impress at hatching, again on young adult humans usually. The result is a deep, lifelong bond between the human and the animal, which when broken tends to result in the death of the bereaved partner.
It’s a fantasy, right? Companions are straight-out little-girl dream horses, with their milk-white coats and their silver hooves and their dreamy blue eyes. Dragons are, well, dragons. And with those you even get the consolation-prize fantasy of fire lizards for people who can’t or don’t Impress dragons, but can keep one or a flock of adorable shiny mini-dragons (which make great cosplay accessories).
Real-world horses can’t compare to these creatures of the imagination. Can they? They’re big, surprisingly fragile prey animals with a propensity for spooking and bolting. They tolerate a great deal from humans, submitting to use and abuse as transport, sports equipment, even food. These days a substantial number have taken on the role of pets, especially those bred so far down in size that they’re unridable even by small children, though they’re still used to pull appropriately sized-down carts.
All of that is true enough, but about that inability to compare…
Every companion animal accretes a certain amount of myth and mystique. Humans tell stories, that’s built in, and humans also have a tendency to project themselves on the world around them, including the living things in that world. When those living things have shared space with humans for millennia as dogs and cats and horses have, the stories multiply exponentially.
That doesn’t mean the stories aren’t true.
In the case of Companions and dragons, the story is the bond. The magical animal selects a single human who becomes that animal’s rider and caretaker. The selection is a tremendous honor, carries tremendous responsibilities, and is highly significant to the welfare of the world and its inhabitants.
Now here’s Dobbin in his pasture, dozing in the sun, flicking his tail at the cloud of flies that accompanies any horse anywhere unless the horse’s caretakers go to extraordinary lengths to get rid of them. Totally mortal and ordinary, right? Also kind of stinky unless you’re a horsekid, then he smells lovely. Generating masses of actually stinky manure every day, in which the flies breed, but which also makes pretty good fertilizer.
Along comes his kid. Often a girl these days. Less often a boy. Of whatever age.
Dobbin lifts his head. His nostrils flutter. He might even whinny if he’s in the minority of very vocal horses.
To the objective observer, there’s a scruffy, fly-blown, dusty horse of indeterminate age and lineage, and an equally scruffy, nondescript kid in well-worn clothes that will tolerate a lot of dirt, because horses sure do love to roll in it and share it with all and sundry. But to the horse and the kid, the world is an entirely different place. Swirling rainbow eyes? Shining magical being? Chosen human who hears every unspoken word and would give their life for the beautiful magical partner?
It’s all there. Probably not literal telepathy, though animal communicators might beg to differ. Most probably not telekinesis or time travel, though then again, who can be sure? But the connection between them, the sense of being in sync, the secrets shared—oh, yes.
There’s a very real basis for this. Horses are much bigger than humans as a rule (even mini-horses will outweigh the average human), which gives them a great deal of sheer presence, and their herd-animal psychology predisposes them to form bonds within the herd. It also causes them to be extremely spatially aware, as each individual in the herd has to keep track of the rest in order to preserve the unity and safety of the group, and to be perpetually on watch against threats. Horses generally sleep on their feet, and they’re awake as much as twenty-three hours a day, because staying alive means always being ready to run from things that want to eat them.
Put all of that together and you get a big, powerful, hyperalert creature who is wired to form social bonds. You also get individual relationships within the groupthink of the herd. Horses have friendships and favorites, and can be quite overt about them. If a horse doesn’t like you, you know it—with flying hooves and snapping teeth. Whereas if she likes you, she’ll do things for you that she won’t do for anyone else, and she may protect you against all comers (sometimes with less than happy results of the comer is, say, your boyfriend).
So, you say, horses in most cultures including ours don’t live with their humans the way dogs and cats do, so they don’t share that closeness, do they? Even if you live on the farm, the horses are out there and you’re inside much of the time. You don’t generally coexist in the same space.
It doesn’t matter. When horse and human are together, they know how to make the most of the time. Just being with each other is important to both parties, to the point that if the horse can’t be ridden or worked, he can still share time and space. If the horse can be worked, the ante goes sharply up.
A human can use a horse without paying much attention to how the horse feels about it, and many humans do and have. If you’ve read Black Beauty, you know how that works.
But even in the world of Black Beauty, when horses were still the main form of transport, humans recognized that horses can have an inner life and a distinct intelligence. They also recognized the bond that can happen when a human meets a horse. It doesn’t need proximity. It can persist through years of separation. It’s supported by ample evidence and experience.
So what is it? What does it feel like? Well, that depends on the horse and the human. But mostly it’s partnership, a sense of two minds and two bodies working together to become something bigger than either of them. Which when one of them is a half-ton animal, is pretty big.
For many humans and horses, there’s a sense that the human is the brain and the horse is the brawn. It’s not equal, though it’s strong and productive and makes both sides happy. That’s what most lore and literature about horses presents as How It Works.
But then there’s the other kind.
Both McCaffrey and Lackey based their magical beasts on a particular horse-human partnership: that of the riders and the (mostly) white stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. The horses are called Lipizzaner or Lipizzans in tribute to the original stud farm at Lipica in what is now Slovenia, and have been bred to much the same standard since the sixteenth century. They’re short, stocky, sturdy, strong, and highly intelligent. And they’ve been bred to favor individuals that bond with a single rider for, in the best case, the life of the horse.
The work they do is high equestrian art, and it’s a decades-long process. It needs a horse with intense focus and a strong work ethic, and a rider with the patience and dedication to spend years developing the horse and himself. It’s very much about the horse: the horses are state treasures of incalculable value, and the riders learn from the beginning that human ego is a bad thing to bring to the mix.
These horses Impress. As foals if they can. As adults if that doesn’t happen. They choose a human, and if that human does not accept the choice, the results can range from unhappy to tragic. The human can’t force it, and if he tries, again, the horse might shut down, tune out, and/or erupt in human-shattering ways.
There’s your Companion, white coat and all. There’s your dragon. The mares have had a much less positive press than the stallions, but as those in the breed are wont to observe, they’re all queens.
And they’re all horses. They’re bred specifically for this trait and it’s notably strong in them, but it’s inherent in the species. Dobbin may be more tolerant of human failings and less inclined than Maestoso Borina to launch the failing human with an explosive capriole, but in his heart he’s still a Lipizzaner (and a Companion and a dragon), and his human is Bereiter Lindenbauer (and Talia and Lessa). It’s all there, and to both of them, it’s real.
Originally published in March 2017.
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.