The hippotragines are a small subfamily of antelopes that bear physical resemblance to horses. There are three separate genera--Hippotragus, Oryx and Addax. As grazers, rather than browsers, the "Hippo" in Hippotraginae refers to the slightly horse-like characteristics of body size and proportions: long legs and a solid body with a relatively thick muscular neck. What's more, they are built for environmental extremes and live lives that might be suitable for domestication:

The Arabian Oryx, as the name suggests, lives in the hostile deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, and it lives in mixed-sex herds of 2-15 (though herds numbering 100 have been reported.)

The Scimitar Oryx can go for a long time without water and can even thrive in temperatures too high for most other mammals, hence their natural location in the Sahara Desert.

The Gemsbok lives in herds of 10-40, led by one dominant male alongside a few other subordinate males.

The Addax gets all the moisture it needs from the plants it eats and, like the Arabian Oryx, lives in mixed-sex herds.

So the question is, can any of the listed species be suitable alternatives for horses in the art of domesticating for the sake of cavalry? Or do they have personalities that would make domestication not worth the effort?

  • $\begingroup$ Are you talking about doing this in antiquity or in a more modern setting? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 4, 2019 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ Antiquity, of course. $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2019 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ I had to ask, It is far far easier to domesticate animals in the modern eras, thanks to huge labor surpluses and later genetics. today we can supply specialized expensive food, keep each animal individually isolated, and use machines to handle more dangerous animals. Things that would require several kings ransoms in antiquity. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 5, 2019 at 4:47
  • $\begingroup$ "today we can supply specialized expensive food, keep each animal individually isolated, and use machines to handle more dangerous animals. Things that would require several kings ransoms in antiquity" : none of which could be considered in any way relevant to the animals asked about of course. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 5, 2019 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ I'm guessing you're asking because you want to include them as part of a setting you're building? You received lots of amazing answers but nothing conclusive. If I were you, I would ask myself: What my setting can offer to make this work? $\endgroup$
    – Oren_C
    Feb 11, 2019 at 17:44

5 Answers 5


TL;DR: Probably not, but you could still make it work if you played around with human history enough.

Most anything can be domesticated, and the criteria for early people domesticating an animal really boil down to economy rather than behavior, which changes as both sides gradually adapt their lifestyles around each other. It also heavily relies on culture: not every animal that can be domesticated will be domesticated, otherwise we'd see independent events all over the place very early on.

It's important to note that the first domesticated megafauna were not ridden or put to harness. Even horses were simply livestock in the beginning. After some generations, they became more amenable to carrying packs or even pulling things, and horses developed strong enough backs to be ridden for longer periods of time.

Riding, specifically, will require a minimum wild-type weight to be physically possible. Most animals seem to be able to comfortably carry 20-30% of their weight; this is true for horses, llamas, goats, and dogs. I can't find anything immediate for cattle, although yaks carry about this percentage for long distances and can carry nearly their entire body weight for short trips.

Usage in battle may require a social structure that allows themselves to follow the herd and listen to the rider in stressful situations (donkeys lack this, and will freeze up or flee a battle). And the additional economic factor here would be their performance: speed, stamina, agility etc.

Now, let's look at your antelope. The Arabian oryx and addax are immediately out; a wild Arabian oryx would barely exceed 200 lbs and the heaviest addax barely reaches 300. This is smaller, on average, than the guanaco whose maximum weight goes just over 310. Even llamas, slightly larger, can only carry about 90-100 lbs.

Your strongest contenders for weight are the gemsbok (460-530 lbs - max weight for females vs males) and the scimitar-horned oryx (309 - 460 lbs). The wild-types of both animals are still too lightweight to support a fully grown human. With sufficient selective breeding, they may reach such a size, though it might be difficult. It's hard to find trustworthy data on tarpan weight per se, but a description of the height of the last living tarpan was measured at about 13 hands, which means we can make a semi-educated guess it weighed anywhere from 638 to 770 pounds.

So, both of those will have an even larger curve than horses, but potentially within the range of possibility. The most realistic path to reach this weight would be if they were first bred for food, then pack (or both), potentially even draft (not an option if you already have cows), and bred for size on all of those factors before someone has the insane idea of breaking one to ride.

Both the scimitar oryx and gemsbok seem to have appreciable herd structures; they're very similar to how horses and cattle conduct themselves. They definitely appear very close knit and could be efficiently herded, make good caravans (though, again, donkeys got by for both of those without having such a strong herd structure) and may conduct themselves well enough in war assuming one was large and strong enough to ride.

It would be a stretch, but I'm not saying it's impossible. What will complicate things is that looming economical factor. IOTL, we already had goats and cattle for food and labor. The oryx was only tamed for ceremonial use and for show, though I'm sure it was eaten at some point. Since you won't be able to use these antelope for riding immediately, you'd need them for the same roles already occupied by other animals that have already been domesticated. People will trust an ox over an oryx to pull a plow or transport goods, would rather milk a goat than a gemsbok cow, and will just generally have an easier time with their domestic animals than the wild ones, forgetting entirely what it was like when their ancestors were first making use of the aurochs and ibex. Get rid of those, you might see them with other animals.

If you want to domesticate antelope, you're not exactly limited to these guys. There are other antelope slightly larger, such as the roan, sable, kudu, and wildebeest, and at least two large enough to ride already: the nilgai and eland. Those two I think have the best chance, and I've written very favorably of elands myself in this post.

  • $\begingroup$ Let me ask you another, somewhat related question--in an AH where deer and bison have been domesticated for their meat and skins for millennia rather than decades, would they make better realistic alternatives to mutton and beef? $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2019 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey Hmm, define 'better'. A lot of the advantages bison meat has over beef can be attributed to their 'wildness' and different ways of farming, domesticated bison probably becoming more beeflike but perhaps still marginally more nutritious. I've had both mutton and venison and they have a clearly different taste, but could be a realistic 'alternative'. Farming-wise, deer tend to eat mostly the same thing as goats/sheep but are able to eat many plants considered toxic even to goats (e.g strawberry bush, skunk cabbage), so that's an advantage. $\endgroup$ Mar 2, 2019 at 10:28

Two of them are too small for cavalry, and one was domesticated.

But the problem for the others is IF they can be domesticated, there are quite a few traits an animal needs to be domesticable. Even in equids, horses have been domesticated but zebra have not, despite many attempts. To be domesticated prior to industrialization an animal needs the right combination of traits; the right kind of herding behavior, the right kind of mating strategy, the right kind of territoriality, the right temperament, and the right diet. Without the right combination, you can't breed them in the first place. Very few animals have this perfect combination, and they are the ones we have domesticated in antiquity.

In African plains animals, it can be even harder because many have evolved to respond to humans aggressively because they evolved alongside humans. You need animals that will tolerate humans being close by.

Animals especially prone to running from anything that startles them (spooking) can't be domesticated because trying to shepherd and pen them results in the animals exhausting and/or injuring themselves, sometimes to death.

On the other hand, an animal that will attack other animals in its pen even if otherwise docile is common. They won't be domesticated because it is not economical if each animal needs its own field the sheer amount of land needed makes it impossible. Many herd animals will not tolerate new members this makes breeding particularly difficult.

An animal that is overly aggressive or dangerous will not be domesticated because of the risk involved, zebra are an example, the Dutch Boers tamed them by the hundreds and tried for decades to domesticate them, but they would attack their keepers biting and kicking seemingly at random making handling them too risky. Modern zoos even have special handling instructions because you never know when a zebra might decide to attack. Similarly, you can imagine why domesticating lions never happened, it's hard to domesticate something that might decide to try to eat you if it misses a meal.

Now for the specific animals you are asking about.

The scimitar oryx actually was domesticated in Egypt or they at least made an attempt. depictions on the Tomb of Ty and Abydos. They were used as food, leather, and a sacrificial animal, they are too slight to make good riding animals. The new kingdom gave up keeping them although no one knows why, likely they just were not economical. The also tried to domesticate hyena, but if zoo behavior is any indicator they proved too aggressive to be worth it. There is one obvious problem the length and cure of their horns means that the horn is basically pressed against the riders chest, not a great thing in a combat animal. If the rider leans forward they are serous risk of impalement or losing an eye.

To ride an animal any distance you need a big animal, generally, you want something that outweighs humans by several times. Even donkeys, the smallest domesticated riding animal, weighs 2 -3 times what a human does, the wild ass weighs around 500lbs, although we have bred smaller non-riding ones. The Gembok is the only one on your list large enough to breed for cavalry riding but it has several issues, it has highly territorial and aggressive males (towards humans and each other) and the females also spook easily. So the females are panicking while the males are trying to kill you. People may tame individual ones but they are not going to keep a breeding population.

If you handwave their behavior, (maybe your people found a family of mutants), then yes the Gembok could be bred for calvary. Physically they would work fine, it is only their behavior that makes them unlikely candidates.

Introduction to domestication

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    $\begingroup$ "Even in equids horses have been domesticated but zebra have not despite many attempts" I'd like to see some references for that claim, because they haven't, there have been many attempts to train zebras there have not been any realistic attempts to domesticate them (which involves a long process of selective breeding), once again there appears to be some confusion about what the words "domestication" & "training" mean. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 3, 2019 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ You don't seem to understand how domestication works, you don't take a wild animal and breed it for domestication, the animal needs to be suitable for domestication before you can breed it. Unless of course you have modern industry and genetics to help you. The Dutch Boers tried repeatedly to domesticate zebra, but they are so naturally aggressive it never worked. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 3, 2019 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ "You don't seem to understand how domestication works, you don't take a wild animal and breed it for domestication" You couldn't be more wrong, that is exactly what domestication is, some animals may be more suitable but that only means they're easier to domestic & it's liable to take less time but at the end of the day selective breeding is selective breeding & if domestication is the target you're breeding for & you know what you're doing you will get there regardless of the species. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 4, 2019 at 0:21
  • $\begingroup$ To be able to do selective breeding in the first place (prior to industrialization) you have ot be able to control the organisms breeding, you have to be able to breed multiple generations under human control. meaning by definition it already be domesticated. In antiquity you can't selectively breed anything you want the organism already has to have suitable preadaptations. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 4, 2019 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Worth noting that you can theoretically domesticate almost anything; when we say an animal is "not domesicatable pre-industrialization" what we really mean is that it wasn't worth the time, energy, and resources to do so. I expect someone could have domesticated zebras if they tried really hard and kept it up for multiple generations, but at the end of the day the only reason to domesticate zebras when horses exist is for the novelty value (probably some kings wanted one), and nobody's going to put in that kind of effort over multiple generations for such trivial reasons. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2019 at 6:37

Given enough time and effort, any of these hippotragines could be bred and trained (and it takes both of these things) to make something akin to cavalry.

But your question actually seems to be whether it would be worth the effort. If you have access to anything already domesticated capable of carrying anything, the answer is probably no. I actually think you would be better off trying to selectively breed cows for this rather than starting with these wild animals.

But if nothing else is available, lets try and work out how much effort it would take.

The Russian fox experiment took 30 generations to become domesticated. In real terms, this means that the offspring would consistently not rip your face off given half a chance.

So an oryx female breeding age starts at around two to two and a half years old. So at best, with gestation, 30 generations would be 90 - 100 years.

So after 100 years of effort, you have something you can start working with, train etc. and only now can you begin selectively breeding for size and other characteristics.

Other factors you may need to consider are:

  • how many of these animals you have to begin with (currently some oryx species are on the endangered list)
  • luck, most of the foxes in the Russian foxes relate back to one female with a good temperament produced early on in the experiment
  • amount of people to breed and test all of these animals for suitability to add to the next generation

But honestly, I think most people would give up before 100 years.

  • $\begingroup$ I had forgotten to go into breeding speed in my post - that's pretty important! It may not be as big of a hurdle - wild goats, for example, reach physical sexual maturity in less than a year but don't actually breed until about 3 years. Domestic cattle also come of age in 2 or 3 years, but they're understandably larger. It might still take longer, but not too terribly out of the range of doability. I don't think 100 years is too long at all for temperament selection. $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2019 at 18:56

A Suitable Alternative For Actual Horses?

Of course they are, assuming domestication & selective breeding is involved then any suitably sized quadruped is, if the time it takes to selectively breed to make them large enough doesn't matter then we can even throw out "any size" & just say any quadruped, mouse cavalry anyone?

There are only two possible reasons they might not be.

  1. Their skeletal structure may not be suitable for carrying heavy burdens (aka an adult human) for long periods of time without causing them injury.
  2. Their temperament & tractability may be unsuitable for training.

But neither of those potential problems matter because both can be addressed by selective breeding & the domestication process.

can any of the listed species be suitable alternatives for horses in the art of domesticating for the sake of cavalry?

All of them are suitable, though some of them may need to be bred to be a bit larger.

Or do they have personalities that would make domestication not worth the effort?

Any problem with personality in the species will normally automatically be bred out of them by the domestication process, if still a bit intractable then more selective breeding can always fix it.

The only thing that tends to make domesticating a new species to serve as a mount not worth the effort is the prior existence of an already domesticated animal used as a mount (aka horses) which does make domesticating a new species for the same use a little bit like reinventing the wheel.

To be perfectly clear wild animals are not domesticated even if they are tamed & trained to perform tasks or tricks, that isn't domestication & they are still wild animals, domestication is something else entirely & is only achieved over several (normally a great many) generations of selective breeding.

Some wild animal species may be easier than others to tame & train but that does not make them domesticated & the word domesticated is misused* when referring to a tamed wild animal.

* A prime example of this misuse is the many articles you'll find if you Google "domestication zebras", there has never been an attempt to properly domesticate the zebra & if you read the articles (rather than just their titles & first few lines) you find in every case that what they're really talking about are attempts to tame & train wild zebras to saddle or harness, not comprehensive breeding programs.

A good example of the real domestication process is the Russian Domesticated red fox.

Any species can be domesticated given enough time & it is in this context I answered the question.

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    $\begingroup$ The fact that they have not been domesticated is strong evidence that they cannot be domesticated. $\endgroup$ Feb 3, 2019 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast : I think you're confusing "taming & training" with "domestication", not the same thing at all. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 3, 2019 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore except many places don't have horses, and having horses did not stop people domesticating yaks, oxen, and 2 kinds of camels. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 3, 2019 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ except, horse are used in the places camels were first domesticated in, keep in mind horses are actually fair rare as farm animals until much later in history, they are too expensive and small to make a burden animal. Having one domesticated animal does not stop people domesticating others. the exact opposite people with domesticated animals generally try to domesticate everything because they know how useful and valuable domesticated animals are. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 3, 2019 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ you forget goats, pigs, ducks, turkeys, geese,guinea fowl, quail, donkey, water buffalo, zebu, pigeons and guar. as for hunting, mink, ferrets, and more than one species of dog. we don't domesticate animals or hunting becasue it is generally not worth it. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 3, 2019 at 23:29

Given 5,000 years of selective breeding, I'm sure you could.

That's the trouble with replacing horses, they've been domesticated pack and riding animals for a very long time. They've been bred to be the perfect pack/riding animals for humans.

Could you replace them with another quadruped? Perhaps with any other quadruped given sufficient years of selection. Though we've previously discussed the need to avoid using predators as mounts, mostly due to the inefficiency of feeding them.

It helps that they're herd animals, that means they have the right sort of group mentality that can be exploited by humans. They're all too delicate in the body and fundamentally too flighty as wild animals as they are. By the time you've finished breeding them for strength and temperament you'll probably have something that looks a lot more like a domestic cow or ox than a deer.

The question isn't really "could they be domesticated" as "is there something better"? Deer and antelope as a general rule haven't been worth domesticating, they're too difficult to work with when there are stronger and more passive animals available. You're talking about taking on a project that's going to take generations to complete, look for shortcuts to some aspect before selecting a creature to work with.

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    $\begingroup$ @John, given 5000 years of experience and what we've done to cattle, horses, and sheep over that period, it's reasonable to assume they'll succeed. Of course this is fiction, so we can define them as succeeding, with the understanding that they'll have made some fundamental changes to the creatures over that time. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Feb 5, 2019 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ @John, put a fence round them and breed from the ones that cooperate. You can domesticate anything given enough time. Consider all the zoo antelope around the world, they're mostly effectively domesticated or they'd get too stressed to survive in that environment. Domestication is in itself an act of selective breeding. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Feb 5, 2019 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @John, you can start by following the herds, consider the Sami and the reindeer, first you follow, then you start to control. People use zebra as a failed example of domestication, but did they put in the generations of effort it actually takes or was it a passing Victorian fad? Decades doesn't domesticate, it's the work of centuries. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Feb 5, 2019 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ @John, yet the Russians have domesticated foxes, which took over half a century, and there are Hyena packs in Africa that visit the local butcher for an evening snack, while not fully domesticated they're relatively tame. Perhaps they were doing it wrong. Breeding in captivity is relatively simple, we manage it with most creatures, sometimes you need to know something random like flamingos have minimum numbers in which they'll breed, but putting up mirrors means they think they have the numbers. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Feb 5, 2019 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @John, now you're getting to my primary point of my last paragraph. It has to be worth the effort, most of these creatures are fundamentally useless as domesticated animals so nobody really wanted to put the time and effort into it. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Feb 5, 2019 at 15:45

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