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Horses in Fantasy: Which Breed Is the Right Breed?

Today's post is inspired by my NaNoWriMo WIP, a fantasy with a desert culture based on ancient Egypt that also depends somewhat heavily on its military, and thus its war horses. (Also by the stupid Friesian in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. I mean, come on man!)

When it comes to fantasy, the default seems to be Tolkien-esque medieval style fantasy with knights in shining armor and big, badass horses that could give little kids nightmares. There's nothing wrong with this kind of fantasy as long as the setting is appropriate. All aspects of the setting. 

Let's look at Tolkien. He did his research, horse-wise. The Hobbits and dwarves rode horses that resembled Shetland ponies, the Elves had some damn elegant horses (Arwen even rode an Andalusian in the movie, if I remember correctly), and the Rohirrim had horses suitable for carrying them and their armor bravely into battle.

Others haven't done so well.

The one that sticks out most in my mind is the damn Friesian in the Prince of Persia movie. Sure, it looks pretty, but in reality, a Friesian would never last in the desert. The Friesian breed originated in Friesland, now a part of the Netherlands. Climate wise, the Netherlands is temperate, cool summers and moderate winters, with the highs in the upper 60's to lower 70's in the summer and lows around freezing in the winter.

Related: An Overlooked Aspect of World Building (as exemplified by War Horse)

Now, compare that to Persia, which spanned from Egypt to parts of India and as far north as Turkey and even a little bit of Greece. The city of Alamut, location of Princess Tamina's home, is in modern-day Turkey. The climate there is, eh, okay, but since so much of the movie takes place in the desert, it stands to reason that a desert-type horse would be a better choice. Not a horse meant for heavy labor in the Netherlands.

This was one of the spawning ideas for my latest WIP. I wanted to write some badass fantasy that wasn't Tolkien-esque or medieval in any way, horses included, so I turned to my favorite historical time period: ancient Egypt. I also tacked on the old adage "write what you know," which is horses, obvs.

Now, there was some research involved. Growing up, my best friend showed Arabs, so I'm moderately familiar with how they behave. That wasn't enough for my novel, though. I spent a while reading up on the history of the Arabian, a breed specifically designed by the Bedouin tribes to not only survive, but thrive in the desert climate of the Arabian peninsula. Not only that, but included among the many breeds the Arabian contributed to developing over the centuries is the Straight Egyptian Arabian.

So of course, I was like, duh! I'm gonna use the Arabian in my story! Sure, I'll call it something different (this IS fantasy, after all), but the concept will still be the same.

Fun fact: The Bedouins prized mares more than they did stallions because, when taken out on raiding parties or hunts or the like, mares were far less likely to nicker or whinny at the enemy's horses, in turn alerting the enemy of their location. Stallions, on the other hand... Well, every stallion I've ever met, Arab or otherwise, has been a real talker.

You can bet your ass that I'm including that little fun fact in my novel! To be completely honest, I'd never thought of that, and reading about the ways the Bedouin tribes selected, bred, trained, etc., their horses lent a lot to my world-building. Like the fact that they often lived in tents with their most prized horses, keeping them safe from harsh weather and raiders. Come on, how neat is that? (Tbh, my inner 5-year-old is squealing at the idea of living with my horse like that. #StillAChildAtHeart)

The trick is going to be combining the horse-centric cultural aspects of the Bedouin tribes of old with the overall culture of ancient Egypt. But, of course, this is fantasy. I have this nifty thing called "creative liberty".

To wrap up, a little bit of research goes a long way. If you're including horses in your novel, think about the location your world most closely resembles. Then, do a bit of research to find out which breeds are common in that area, or maybe some of the breeds that are a little less common. (I could have used the Kathiawari, Marwari, or the Akhal Teke as reference breeds because all of them were bred for desert climates, but I'm partial to Arabs. Though, the first two's curved ears would be cool!)

Even if you switch up the names or only keep some of the basic points, understanding why a certain breed of horse is successful in a certain region and how it was developed can lend a metric crap ton to your novel's success and enrich your world.

If you want to read on further, I wrote a follow-up post to this one that you can find right here. I also put together a little checklist you can download there, as well. (Or, if you've signed up for The Tack Trunk, hop over, drop your password, and snag it that way.)

What do y'all think? Have y'all read any books that were especially accurate horse breed wise? Or especially inaccurate? Have I left you with more questions than answers? (I'm always happy to help out!)

Catch y'all next time!