Why do writers abandon the ordinary horse for the extraordinary fantastic animal?

As I was wrapping up my other long-running series, Andre Norton Reread, I mentioned a theme that had plagued me for a while. This is how Norton collaborator Lyn McConchie portrays horses as opposed to magical and, at least physically, horse-like Keplians. I mentioned in my post that I had seen this before in the works of another favorite author, in Anne McCaffrey Dawn of the Dragon, when horse trainers become dragon riders. Once the fantasy creatures take over, the horses are cast off.

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons and excuses. Dragons are predators on steroids, and herd animals are their natural prey – and the “runnerbeasts” of the early books are modernized into mildly mutated descendants of early settlers’ horses. Of course, once you become a Dragon Rider, you have to give up your horses for their own safety. Otherwise, they will be eaten.

Keplians are nowhere near as deadly as dragons. Their problem is that they are very intelligent, very high on the human scale and perhaps beyond, and have nothing but contempt for poor, stupid, non-telepathic horses. Naturally, once our heroine mentally bonds with the Keplians, she’ll still be using the pony she’s riding for most of the book, but her focus will be entirely on the tall, bright, spectacular, and highly intelligent magical beings.

This is not an uncommon theme. Mercedes Lackey’s companions look like horses but are actually magical creatures of great power and intelligence. Horses are an essential form of transportation in Valdemar, but mentally and emotionally they just can’t keep up.

I like magical beings adjacent to horses. I love the unicorn by Peter S. Beagle The last unicorn, and was just as horrified as she was when the wizard who could have helped her turned her into a human. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a dragon rider. I was on Team Pooka in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaksand if The Key of Keplien existed at the time, I would also have gladly joined the Keplian team. As for the companions, well, I managed to find myself with the equivalents of our world.

And that’s when I start to stop the whole train. For a long time, I bought into the idea that horses are nice and all that, but dragons and keplians and companions are nicer. Bigger. Fancy. More shiny. And much smarter. They can to speak yours. In your mind, yes, but they use words and they carry on conversations.

I see the attraction, and also the frustration. Humans in general are very verbal and very invested in the power of spoken language. I remember the often acrimonious debate over whether sign language for the deaf was even a language. A language is spoken, says the opposition. Humans speak, and it is this speech that distinguishes them from animals. (The implication about the deaf was not subtle.)

There is a long tradition in the literature of talking animals. Either they are supposed to, or they are endowed with human speech by magic or divine intervention. Fables about beasts feature animals acting and speaking like humans, with human culture and institutions. The story may feature a fox or a rabbit or a lion or a donkey, but the point of view – the gaze one might say – is always human.

Real animals of course don’t talk, with the exception of some birds (and there’s a lot of debate out there about whether they understand what they’re saying – hence the word “parrot” which means ” repeating words or ideas without understanding their meaning”). It’s frustrating for humans who wish they could Explain things. Or have them explain things instead of having to guess.

Hence, in fantasy, the favorite trope of the telepathic animal companion. The voice apparatus may not be suitable for human speech, but mind-to-mind talking solves the problem. Very often, then, because humans value intelligence, or at least human-like intelligence, the fantastic beast will also be able to think and reason on a human level.

I don’t have a problem with that. It’s fantasy. If we want to have a conversation with a dragon, a unicorn or a Keplian, why not? They’re great characters, drawn with love and care, and the relationship between them and their humans is one of the best things about the books and stories they appear in.

I start having a problem when the imaginary animal is compared to a non-imaginary animal, and the non-imaginary animal suffers from the comparison. Oh, says the author through their characters, we love our regular pets, but they’re just not as great as our fantasy pets. Poor things, so dull and plain and ordinary, and really, they’re not very bright. They can’t talk to us like our fantastic animals can.

And then our fantasy characters drop their poor dumb, boring beasts. Or use them and exploit them, but focus on the fantastic beasts, the way the pony is treated in The Key of Keplien. For all his good and loyal service, he gets a life of hard work. Then he is abandoned when the human he served so loyally is allowed to ride the Keplians.

I’ll give McConchie one thing. She takes to heart her mentor and collaborator Norton’s fascination with extraterrestrial intelligence and tries to show us how alien the Keplian mind is and how difficult it is to communicate with it. It’s a beautiful construction of the world. But despite all her visible knowledge and affection for horses, she doesn’t make the same effort with the horse.

Our understanding of animal intelligence has come a long way in the decades since the novel’s publication. Science is developing a broader and deeper understanding of how animals think and how much they think. There are still a lot of studies to be done, but it seems that animals are smarter than we thought. It may not be the same kind of intelligence as ours, but it is there, sometimes to a much higher degree than we suspected.

Horses tend to be classed as low gloss. They are prey animals; they frighten the shadows. They live in the moment. They don’t think about the future. You may love and admire them for what they are, but when it comes to basic intelligence, they fall short of, say, dogs. And for fantasy purposes, they can’t talk to you in your head. They cannot.

That’s how McConchie’s horse is. Gentle, loyal, hardworking. No question. But not much is going on in his head. Not like the flying, snapping synapses of the Keplians.

So of course, once the protagonist gets to know the magical animals, she continues to use the horse for transportation, early, often, and every day, but she never tries to see if her expanding mental powers might actually work with it. She doesn’t even think about it. She concluded from the start that he was not capable of it.

The same thing happens with McCaffrey’s proto-dragonriders. They are expert and dedicated horse trainers, but horses have no inner life to speak of. Of course, it’s dangerous for them to be around the dragons, and they are completely freaked out by the giant flying predators. And yet, there are not enough regrets from the coaches. Not enough mourning, perhaps, that the horses are closed to them by their connection to the dragons. No, it’s that meme that’s all over the interwebs, the guy walking down the street with his girlfriend and turning away from her to whistle the passing (and almost identically) random human woman.

In the dragon world, humans who do not or cannot bond with the greats can win the consolation prize of one or more fire lizards. It’s very cool and I wouldn’t mind it myself, but there’s horses on this planet. McCaffrey was a horse person, quite; she lived on a horse farm in Ireland. But even Piemur’s pony-zoid is called Stupid and is anything but brilliant. He is played for comic relief, not as an actual animal companion.

Perhaps as we understand animal cognition better and learn to respect it more, we will respect our real-world animals more in fantasy contexts. By all means, bring the dragons and keplians, but also give the horses their due. Find ways to balance the shiny new fantasy animal and the boring old real animal – which isn’t really boring at all, if we let ourselves see it.

Judith Tarr has always been passionate about horses. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as e-books. She wrote an introduction for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, with a herd of Lipizzaners, a host of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.