Would a horse (trained or otherwise) not be wholly spooked by a Dragon merely flying overhead, even more so trying to enter combat with it or just trying to approach it under any circumstances?

What I understand of predator and prey creatures suggests that something that massive and formidable would radiate major predator vibes which would cause most creatures to cower or flee. Yet, I have only seen knights and other heroic character types depicted as approaching and even fighting Dragons without regard for or consequence from their mount's will.

Most particularly, I am wondering about after such a beast is slain. Wouldn't a horse, even a trained warhorse, refuse to approach something that huge/dangerous even after it's dead?

I am trying to troubleshoot a scene where a unit of mounted characters need to approach a felled Dragon (one they did not battle) under a time constraint and I need to know if they would be forced to dismount and approach on foot (slowing them down) to get where they need to go. Of note: these horses, though battle capable, have not encountered Dragons before - they do not have either genetic or actual memory with which to comprehend this with. I have considered that even if they had blinders on, this would not help keep them calm because during approach that giant form would be directly ahead of them and not to either side covered by blinders.

Is it even possible to train a horse to keep its wits around a massive apex predator under any circumstances?

Since Dragons imply magic exists in a setting they exist in, I can concede magic being one possible solution to maintain calm utilizable in a well-arranged military scenario. Magic-capable units could cast some sort of calming spell to keep mounts from panicking, but, that requires some of the best defensive/offensive resources to be rerouted when likely needed for offensive/defensive tasks. I also cannot reliably expect a magic-enabled individual specifically capable of casting such a calming spell to always be around. What happens to the horses of the local town guard during an unexpected Dragon attack?

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    $\begingroup$ I just thought about that scene where Jamie Lannister grabbed a spear and began for Daenerys and Drogon astride his horse. The horse did nothing except for ride them both to their intended deaths. Which was weird, seeing that the horse had not been in contact or seen a dragon (wyvern to be exact) especially of that size. The horse should have been severely spooked, but I guess a horse fit for a Lannister is something else entirely. $\endgroup$
    – user70311
    Nov 17 '19 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ That is a really good contemporary example of what I noticed about the depiction of mounted individuals approaching Dragons. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ Frame challenge: brave, heroic, experienced knights ride brave, heroic, experienced warhorses. That's how fiction works. Since you had to be wealthy to own a horse, if you were riding a horse, you were -- by definition -- either a nobleman, a knight, or both. Thus, the horses are expected to be trained. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Nov 17 '19 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ To get an idea what can be done with trained horses, see Budweiser Clydesdale Horses accident. Just after four minutes into the video, there was a crash resulting in a pile of broken tack, tangled harness, and very large horse. Obviously scary for everyone involved, including the horses. The rest of the video is the handlers keeping the horses calm while they undo the pile, telling each horse when it was time for him to stand up and walk away. $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ You're all forgetting the heaviest period of "see how tolerant to stress we can make horses": Napoleonic warfare. They still had cavalry back then on the battlefields, working side by side with with Musketeers and huge cannons. And if gunpowder explosions (and the smell / smoke) isn't seen as a threat by a well trained horse, then a single dragon shouldnt be a problem either $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 18 '19 at 10:02

While I have no actual experience riding horses around dragons (dragons being uncommon hereabouts), I do have some perhaps relevant experience.

WRT a dragon flying overhead, would you accept a flight of C-130s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_C-130_Hercules or fighter jets flying overhead at treetop (or sagebrush) level as a reasonable proxy? That's happened to me a number of times, without the horses being more than slightly nervous.

For actual predators on the ground, a charging bear (chasing my idiot dog) is about as close as I can come. Here the results are mixed. My friend's horse bucked her off and ran away. My horse wanted to follow, but I managed to get him turned around and between the friend and the bear.

Other threatening objects, like dirt bikes and horse-eating logging equipment, likewise have had mixed results. I've known people to get thrown & horses run away when startled by these things. However, if you just approach them slowly, the horses are seldom more than a bit nervous, and will go ahead and circle around them.

So I have to say that it depends. If the horse has a basically calm disposition, and has been trained/desensitized to unusual/threatening stimulii (even if not to actual dragons), then it should be possible to have it approach a dragon.

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    $\begingroup$ I have also had a small aircraft fly quite low and slow overhead while I was riding, and the horse didn't care. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @SupernalPhantasia: Though my friend is a vastly more experienced rider than I am - she's in her 60s, and has been riding (sometimes professionally) since about the age of 3. I'm a relative novice, and only started riding because her non-riding husband worried about her being out in the mountains alone. But the horse she was riding was pretty green & high-strung, where mine has always been pretty unflappable. Even so, I still don't know how I managed to get him turned around and moving towards the bear. A lot depends on the horse - and as mentioned, they do pick up on human emotions. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 18 '19 at 3:19
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that in our world, there is no flying threat. In a world were dragons roam the sky, horses would be wary of this kind of predator. $\endgroup$
    – ncalep
    Nov 18 '19 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ If your Horses have never had any airborne predator to fear, they will probably not react especially frightful to a flying dragon. Not more than modern horses react to an airplane. Of course if the Dragon starts spitting fire and actively tries to frighten the horses it will be different. But if the Dragon is a predator trying to hunt effectively, he will probably kill fast and silently without warning and not roam the sky roaring and screaming. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Nov 19 '19 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ @SupernalPhantasia: No, horses in general are easily startled by new or unexpected things. For instance, a few weeks ago mine tried to run away when I accidentally dropped his saddle blanket when I was unsaddling him. Plastic grocery bags blowing around are also pretty scary. Amd while ours weren't bothered by those low-flying planes, I've seen others panic when a helicopter landed in the next field... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 20 '19 at 17:20

The older, wiser, more experienced horses might have an easier time of it. The wiser horses will pick up on fear cues from their riders, if they trust their riders. Horses are herd animals. There is rank within the horse herd. Has the group of adventurers that has been traveling together for a while? Have they kept the same horses together for a while? If the herd has been together long enough to establish a pack hierarchy, the younger horses will take fear cues from the horse alpha.

I have seen this happen. I took riding lessons for a few years. I consider myself a mediocre rider at best. My instructor was excellent. My instructor had some young, high strung horses. She had one horse that was 28 years old, which is up there in years for a trail horse. This horse had been there, done that, and didn’t care about much. When the instructor wanted to work with the young horses, to help then build confidence and calm down, she would ride the young horse and would ask me to ride the old horse. I saw those young horses freak out over every bird flapping by, every overhead light that suddenly turned on, every breeze that jostled a leaf. But the old horse was there. The old horse didn’t care. Since the herd leaders weren’t freaking out, and the riders weren’t freaking out, the young horses didn’t totally lose it. They would jerk and shy for a moment or two, but that was it.

I saw the old horse lose it exactly once. We were in the covered arena. The instructor was on foot in the center of the arena. I was on the old horse. We were walking in a circle. Suddenly, one of the big overhead halogen lights exploded. That horse flinched like hell and geared up for a full gallop. Got about one step into a gallop. Then he dropped back into a walk (though it was one hell of a power walk), changed course, and made a beeline for the instructor. He got to the instructor and stopped. She gave him an apple. We stood there for a few minutes. Then we went back to our exercise. No problem. That horse knew I was a rookie rider. He didn’t waste one minute listening to my opinions of the situation. He was surprised and frightened. He was able to control his fear, pick a rational response, and act on it. He responded in a controlled fashion and got close to the person he trusted most.

Those younger horses would have been all over the arena.

In short, horses are social animals with a ranking system. The horses will look to their horse leaders. If you have an established herd of horses, if you have a confident, calm, experienced rider on a strong, old, wise alpha horse, that pair will advance. The rest of the herd will bunch up and do what it takes to stay close to the alpha. That is safety.

If you have a bunch of strangers riding together, and a bunch of young horses who are unfamiliar with each other, and nobody knows who is in charge, you will have panicked equines all over the landscape.

A Pocket Full of Sunshine - Someone right next to the arena did not plan their Christmas decor with the nearby horses in mind. Frantic blinking lights, rotating laser light show, loud music, and a party in full swing. Cars full of loud guests. Doors flapping open and closed. In the dark. Literally 15 feet away from the arena. My instructor was absolutely disgusted. Nobody had planned for this.

I was on the old, wise horse.

My instructor asked me “Do you have your pocket full of sunshine?” This refers to the practice of stuffing your boot tops full of carrots, apple chunks, peppermint candy or anything else that will possibly fit in there.

Yup, my boots were full.

She said “Ride over there and get him used to that crap.”

So we walked around the arena toward the ruckus. When my horse got a little shivery, I would reassure him. I used my knuckles to gently rub the base of his neck. I told him what a good horse he was. I watched his ears. When his ears were pointing back at me, I knew he was paying attention to me and not to the distractions. I don’t mean ears lying flat back. Ears standing upright but swiveled in the direction of the rider means “I am paying attention to you.” When he was ignoring the distractions, I tapped him quickly twice on the side of his shoulder. This means “good horse, have a treat”. He swiveled his head around, close to my boots. I pulled out a chunk of sunshine and fed it to him. We proceeded around the arena in this fashion for a few minutes. Eventually he was more focused on the peppermint candy than on the distractions.

Seriously, horses love those circular red and white peppermint breath mints.

Soon he was cruising around the arena, crunching away on snacks and ignoring the random green lasers in his path. Good horse.

Your cavalry riders weren’t planning on dragons that day. But they know their horses. They know that weird stuff crops up and they might not have the luxury of spending the next three weeks getting their horses used to that weird stuff. They have desensitized on the fly before. A dragon, even a dead dragon, will surely put a strain on their training. It might take a few snack stops. It would put a strain on the rider, sitting on a frightened, shaking horse, yards away from a giant reptile corpse. I could see the rider praying that a breeze didn’t stir a bit of the dragon’s wing, or that a death spasm didn’t cause that snake-like tail to twitch. But it is plausible that an experienced team could overcome their fear and approach. The unknown happens all the time. If you are a professional rider, you don’t ever mount up without a pocket full of sunshine.

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    $\begingroup$ I think it’s safe to assume that skilled humans in charge of a professional horse-based military unit would make sure the horses worked well together. Horses would be trained to work as a group, and if an individual horse didn’t get with the program it would be removed from the roster. The riders would know their horses’ personalities. These horses never encountered dragons, but the group has practiced “unknown and scary situations” in general. Send the three steadiest horses forward and desensitize on the fly. Every smart rider ALWAYS has carrots tucked into their boots. This is why. $\endgroup$
    – Snapdragon
    Nov 17 '19 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ Glad to help! Also, make sure to remove any remaining horse treats from your boots at the end of the day. The apples in particular can be an awful surprise to your toes the next time you wear the boots... $\endgroup$
    – Snapdragon
    Nov 18 '19 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ If the dragon was not expected they may need to reshuffle riders and horses for the desensitization. For that, you want to pair up experienced, calm riders with experienced calm horses, even if normally the oldest horse is looking after some young noble, and the most nervous horse is being ridden by the best rider. $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ @SupernalPhantasia This should be the picked answer in my opinion, though it's always good to wait a few days before picking one. It directly answers the question with real-world examples and actual stories. Great stuff here. You can pick an answer as correct by clicking the check-mark right below the votes. $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ I now have this vision of the trusty knight's last words - "come on Dobbin, it's only a dragon! There's a peppermint candy in it for you if you charge!" $\endgroup$
    – Riddles
    Nov 18 '19 at 14:56

Has the horse been desensitized to dragons? Horses can be trained to accept and keep calm in the face of things that go against all their instincts, even plastic bags.

For example, a predator attacking a horse would be likely to aim to get on its back, near the neck, where it is safe from both teeth and hooves. The horse's instincts say to buck, rear, spin, and do everything it can to dislodge a possible predator. Despite that, with care, and patient work, a horse can be trained to accept a living omnivore on its back.

Generally, the more a horse has been exposed to a lot of different things, and the more it trusts its rider, the less likely it is to spook at something new. A lot would depend on the rider staying calm, so the more heroic and courageous the rider, the less likely the horse is to spook. Just talking calmly can do wonders.

A warhorse has already accepted being ridden and got over its natural fear of the smell of blood. In a world with dragons, a prudent trainer would present a war horse with things that smell of dragon to desensitize it.

  • $\begingroup$ I indicated that these horses have never encountered Dragons before, so no, they have not been desensitized to Dragons, which set me up for this initial condundrum. I did wonder if it is possible to desensitize them post encountering Dragons, by using scraps of a corpse or such? That would solve future needs of people in the setting. I found the way you explained accepting a rider on its back in the first place goes against its instincts really helpful. And that the rider's courage has an impact is really good to know as well. Thank you! $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ As a counter-example on the rider courage issue, my riding instructor told me a cautionary tale about an inexperienced rider who, when her horse spooked slightly, started screaming. The horse thought that meant things were really bad, and it was time to run. You could perhaps have a non-hero character panic on seeing the dragon, encouraging the horse to panic. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ Yes! Counter examples are important and this is good advice. To include this would aid in the believability of the scenario because real life does have mixed reactions all over the place and it would serve double duty in highlighting the capacities of those who do not panic. Better to show, for example, a leader's command of presence contrasting against a new recruit's unseasoned morale than to just say someone is a leader without giving the reader something comprehend the claim with. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ In case anyone is worried the screaming rider incident ended safely. The horse's trainer shouted "Ho!" and the horse stopped. It had been taught to stop on voice command, and trusted the trainer. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ Plastic bags? No chance. And gaps in the hedge! Who knows what a gap in the hedge could be! $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Nov 18 '19 at 8:21

There is honestly no point riding a warhorse into battle if it is not first trained to run towards sharp pointy things, through the smell of blood, loud noises, explosions, scary people, rapid peripheral movement, and fire.

It kinda depends on what you mean by "warhorse", though.

A destrier should be able to charge right up to that dragon and bite it in the face. This is your high-end horse. You need to be rich to own one of these guys, but they're kick-ass. Trained right, jousting shouldn't faze them, and the blood and chaos of the battlefield is their element. We just don't have these kinds of aggressive heavy cavalry horses any more, so little that you know about modern horses will help here.

A courser should at least be able to charge towards it. If you're a knight, you should have at least this kind of horse. More bred and trained for running, less for combat, akin to modern cavalry horses, but still eminently capable.

There's a reason that coursers and destriers are also called "chargers". They are bred and trained to charge into a fray. If a warhorse runs at the first sign of danger, then it's not a warhorse: it will not be breeding stock for the next generation.

If you just mean a regular riding horse or palfrey, a horse that a knight uses for travel but not for battle, then yeah, they mostly won't have the training or breeding to handle that stuff, so their reaction will be down to their temperament and their trust in their rider.

If they have a mild temperament and their trusted, longtime rider seems unconcerned, even celebratory, then they are unlikely to be any more scared of a dead dragon than a modern horse and rider would be on riding up to a beached whale.

If they are skittish and have a new, nervous rider, then they may well lose their head at a lizard, let alone a dragon.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for providing me breed names to research and some more vocabulary to fine tune my research with. This is very helpful! $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 5:10
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    $\begingroup$ I think the medieval terms were more about size, type, and what the horse does than breed names. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines "destrier" as "A war-horse, a charger.". A "palfrey" is "A horse for ordinary riding (as distinct from a warhorse); esp. a small saddle horse for a woman. Also in extended use." $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 9:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, there really weren't horse "breeds", so much as "styles" - but they were bred for each style. Horses from certain breeders and lineages were prized for certain purposes, but were not considered as breeds. Each style changed as time went on and the demands of war changed, too, so there's no one horse you can point to and say "That's a destrier". Even destriers, while strong, were typically rather on the small side compared to today's horses, but grew larger as the armor grew heavier. $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, thank you for the expansion on that. Could have chased breed names for hours without considering functional titles and categories, especially by era. $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 18:20

Train your horses.

Horses are generally okay approaching large non-moving things such as hills, buildings and large trees. The dragon corpse being large is not a problem.

I disagree the corpse is reeking of danger. As you said these horses have not encountered a dragon before. So they don't associate anything with the scent of a dragon beside new weird smell. Being naturally timid, this might spook an untrained horse. But a trained horse should still be able to take commands.

To make this easier I suggest you accustom your horses to the smell of dragon from a young age. Much like real horses are accustomed to the smell of humans, dogs, cows, and car exhaust, and do not see these as a threath. To do this just bring pieces of dragon skin and/or dung into the stables.

A living dragon is another issue entirely. But let's just remember horses can be trained to avoid their natural instinct to bolt when a huge metal box hurtles past them at 40 mph.* So it's believable we could accustom them to large flying creatures moving overhead. The most reliable way to do this is tamed dragons.

This raises the question -- if you have tamed dragons to fight other dragons what are the horses for? I propose the horses are backup. You raise an entire stable of horses with one dragon from birth, and they work together to battle other dragons.

In battle the dragon takes most of the hits and keeps the other dragon busy enough for the horses to surround it with pikes and stab it to death. This works because a wild dragon sees your dragon as trying to steal its territory and is instinctively drawn to fight it off. If you approach a wild dragon with horses alone it will usually fly off as it has no reason to fight.

*Blinders help with this since the car passes right alongside the horse

  • $\begingroup$ From your answer I now understand a horse is intelligent enough that when trained, it would not necessarily be scared of a foriegn smell, that helps me, thank you. I didn't want to assume they wouldn't be still be instinctively timid around something new and worked from the naturally timid idea to start with. "Ignoring natural instincts" are better words I can use to further research, thanks! $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, and I especially appreciate that you touched on what would be my follow up question for whether I could desensitize the horses once Dragons started appearing. What you indicate might be needed for that is significant enough that I would need to cover that in character choices, so this will directly improve what I am working on. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ Intelligence has multiple aspects. Horses do not seem to be good at abstract reasoning. Their social intelligence and ability to read body language and tone of voice are incredible. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 22:06

well.... most horse wont even charge through pointy object like spear wall or phalanx etc even warhorse, except special warhorse breed like destrier as far as i know.

(and they even scared of camel.....)

so i think it may be possible by trying to breed a type of horse that wont fear fire (the dragon can breath fire right? i more concern about that than the dragon appearance scare the horse) and big flying creature

also as other has say train the horse to accustome to the dragon behaviour and fire, i remember about chinese warhorse was trained by letting a monkey wreak havoc in their stable so they wont easily scared went bring into battle fields.

or maybe use drug that can increase their adrenaline and libido to dsissipate their fear

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for mentioning using a drug to increase the adrenaline. I hadn't thought as far as alchemical solutions, and that should be possible in the setting I am building up, so I will research that next. Yes, the Dragons can use fire. And your point about them being smart enough to not impale themselves is one I was aware of which led me to wonder about the effect of there will in this sort of scenario. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ I would be careful about adrenaline. Running away is a horse's main defense from predators, and adrenaline might increase that tendency. $\endgroup$ Nov 17 '19 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ Another solid counter point. I might have risked the believability if I chased that thought too hard without considering it. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 5:12

The last successful cavalry charge, during World War II, was executed during the Battle of Schoenfeld on March 1, 1945. Short version: Polish cavalry overran german defensive positions. Amidst gunfire, artillery and explosions the charge was succesfull and took the city.

Even today horses are still used by some police forces, and their training is rather harsh to prepare them for fire, noise and so on.

Horses have been used in combat for a very long time against a very different enemy. Of course not every horse could do that just like not every soldier can stand up to the pressure, but a early on trained horse should be realistically able to fight. I know this is not as long of an answer as others write it here, but while this is nothing any horse could do and many trained ones might chicken out, an exceptionally trained horse will stand by your side

  • $\begingroup$ A succinct example is just as valuable as a lengthy one. What I gather from this one is a solid proof of possibility and the reminder to show indications of the strengths and weaknesses of characters and mounts before the action that those weaknesses or strengths would influence, so the final work is believable/suspension of disbelief is remains undisturbed. $\endgroup$ Nov 18 '19 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ It's not true that this was the last successful calvary charge. The last one (that I know of, anyway) took place during the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afganistan, in November 2001: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Mazar-i-Sharif $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 20 '19 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf interesting, well, maybe it is not counted since the cavelry role was minor, but i don't know too much about this $\endgroup$
    – Maritn Ge
    Nov 20 '19 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ I will gladly add both examples to my study. Thank you both. $\endgroup$ Nov 21 '19 at 2:38

My family had 12 horses during my childhood and had to experience a variety of characteristics and fears and traits in horses over the years. Horses can be as complex as human with different likes/dislikes. But I agree, that horses overall response to threat would be fleeing away. In the world of fantasy however many things (including heroes and various characters) are going beyond and above what is considered to be normal in the real world. Just like anything else that deviates from reality I would say that's the case for a horse as well. Generally speaking, mares are more calm than stallions. When horses wander in their natural environment stallions are following their flocks, while mares are normally taking the role of leading the flock on the front. In the middle you'll find younger horses and lower ranking horses being protected. So realistically speaking if you look at police and military horses they're dominated by mares and not stallions or geldings (or castrated for that matter). They want their horses as tough as possible, so during your adventures make sure the gender of the horse is a mare to add some "toughness" and be more real about a horse's expectations to danger.

  • $\begingroup$ Ah! A great additional point! Thank you. I will take care to add in this detail. $\endgroup$ Nov 19 '19 at 22:44

For 'historical' precedent it might be worth checking out the various 'Saint George' legends. Saint George is often portrayed as a horse-mounted spear-carrying dragon slayer.


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