In a pre-industrial human culture on Earth with slightly altered flora and fauna, where rivers and canals are the major ways of transport, how would an ideal and realistic animal replacement for horses look like?

  • Grown River Horses should be able to draw swimming carriages (i.e. boats or floats).
  • Humans should be able to mount and ride them, even if that’s not the preferred method of transport.
  • They don’t have to be mammals, but should breathe air. They don’t have to have legs and feet.
  • Ideally, they would sustain short routes through salt water as well.

I cannot make up my mind whether to base them mostly on dolphins, seals, manatees, hippos, crocodiles or something else.

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    $\begingroup$ In real life, it was real ordinary horses (and oxen, and people) which were used to tow barges along rivers and canals... You see, the horse does not have to be in the water; a very long time ago, a very wise ancestor of ours invented a marvellous invention called rope. (And most usually canals are much too shallow to allow large creatures to swim in them.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 25, 2021 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP there is no reason to be condescending. The question is an alternative Earth with river horses. A current use of horses does not come into play. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 25, 2021 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ I think using hippopotamuses to pull boats isn't a very good idea. They're widely feared by the local peoples of the areas they live in for a reason - they're responsible for the highest number of killings of humans by animals for any species in Africa! $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    May 26, 2021 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ The word Hippopotamus means "river horse". $\endgroup$ May 26, 2021 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 "slightly altered flora and fauna" could easily mean that hippos have a temperament similar to oxen $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    May 26, 2021 at 12:19

7 Answers 7


Giant Newfoundland

A Newfoundland is a kind of dog. For dogs it ranges between big and colossal. They were bred for rescuing people in the water and can do so on long distances. They can even go into rough seas, but likely they aren't used to stay in rough seas for extended periods. They have webbed feet, long lasting lungs and won't get cold thanks to their thick fur. Even on land they are strong dogs. They are very intelligent, easy to train and very loyal.

In your altered flora and founa, a giant version of the Newfoundland is created. It can haul large weights on the water, including in teams. A giant version might have the spine to allow riders both in the water and outside. Their high trainability helps for a huge amount multiple roles. This can range from land riding and hauling to hunting and guarding.

Dogs are highly "customisable". We've been breeding them for many wildly varying results. Improvements in breeds like better stamina, lesser fur for warmer climates, faster or stronger versions. Smaller ones can be better for hunting, herding and companionship, while bigger ones can draw the water carriages and a whole slew of multipurpose roles in between.

They are carnivores, which might be a problem if not enough fish or other meat is available. Compared to horses they require food to be brought with you. On the other hand, the long trecks with Huskies are working and we've been living with dogs for a long time now while being able to feed them. That being said, it's a slightly altered Earth. Dogs have omnivorous characteristics already, so we can expand them to being true omnivores.

I would think of a wide range of these dogs to help you both in the waterways and outside. Huskies of the river, fish-herder dogs and companions. There's a lot of possibility here.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, but I'm almost certain its just "Newfoundland" (also all one word). A labrador is not called a labradorian and a malamute is not a malamutian. This is also how your linked wikipedia artcile describes them. Also dogs are omnivorous, not carnivorous. Also also, the reason you can't ride dogs has less to do with their size and more to do with how their spine works and moves compared to horses. $\endgroup$
    – Wolfgang
    May 26, 2021 at 6:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Wolfgang thank you for the comments. I changed the name, but the omnivorous nature is debated by experts, with some very good arguments to disregard the few omnivorous characteristics. Although on the altered Earth we can make them out to be true omnivores. I took this liberty with the spine anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 26, 2021 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ Further to this, larger breeds of dog were indeed used as draft animals for small carts in Europe. After Three men in a boat, Jerome K Jerome wrote a less famous (but better IMO) book called Three men on the Bummel about a cycling tour around Europe in around 1900. It's not only very funny, but also a fascinating historical document as a recognisably modern travelogue. He mentions milkmen using dogs to pull carts, in the same way as you might use a pony or donkey. Furthermore, the way he says it implies that all his readers would be familiar with this. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    May 26, 2021 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ Bernese are fairly famous for pulling carts $\endgroup$ May 26, 2021 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ @JourneymanGeek I didn't know! Newfoundland dogs are also used to draw carts, according to several sources, though most on Wikipedia say sources are needed. The sheer size, weight and strength don't make me doubt it. They were used by fishermen to also haul nets in the water for example. In those days you used what you had, so drawing carts or (small) boats with dogs seems logical. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 26, 2021 at 9:14

Teams of dolphins

Believe it or not, there was a study that assessed the ability of dolphins to work together to pull a rope.

...bottlenose dolphins learn to coordinate their behaviors via trial and error and recognize the necessity of performing simultaneous actions with a partner to successfully accomplish cooperative tasks

With generations of careful breeding and a little handwavium, you could have teams of dolphins working together to pull barges just like oxen pull wagons.

  • $\begingroup$ Breza Considering how intelligent Dolphins are, they could be considered people(not humans, but people), and that's forced manual labor, that could very easily be considered slavery. $\endgroup$ May 25, 2021 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ Slavery isn't unheard of in pre-industrial scenarios. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2021 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ @JeremyFriesner Slavery is not unheard of in real life right now, just look at African mining operations in war-torn countries right now. $\endgroup$
    – mishan
    May 26, 2021 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ To be clear, the author could create a world where the dolphins are paid for their labor. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2021 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ Or a world with dolphin-analogs that aren't intelligent enough for it to be considered slavery. $\endgroup$
    – chepner
    May 26, 2021 at 20:28

Horses and other animals like Oxen were used extensively to haul barges along rivers. In quite a few areas were environmental preservation is good, the towpaths along the river banks still exist today or their former existence is still visible in the landscape. There is no problem with the idea of land animals towing barges.

From an energetic point of view it is more effective to use land animals for towing. They are independent of a river current and walking on ground, being more rigid than water, needs less energy than swimming in water. One can easily hold a heavy boat in a moderate current, but doing so while swimming is more streneous.

Of course, if there are river creatures strong, willing and intelligent enough for such a task, and they don't dabble on every occosion, I doubt people would refuse their services :-)


Ignore implausibility-mini whales

Why? A few reasons.

First dolphins are smart to a degree that such a thing as having them haul without pay or any kinds of reparations is arguably slavery. So that's not an option unless that's what you where looking for, Whales themselves are intelligent, but that's halfway due to their large size. If they had a mini cousin, in all likelihood it wouldn't be anywhere near as smart due to the relative volume of grey matter. Whales end to consume a larger variety of foods than some other aquatic creates, with whales consuming krill, fish, crustaceans, plankton, and a variety of plants, which is most important as it allows for cheap feed for livestock.Further, as some whales consume far more than plants due to their large size this makes more complex lifeforms an inherent part of their diet, those with biomass more dense in terms of energy, with the size removed a diet consisting of mostly plants actually becomes feasible.

Or, to repeat what I said exactly again, but in a different format

  • Not slaves due to small size and so less brain

  • Can subsist on a diet consisting primarily of plants due to small size,

  • and further

  • Varies, but a large percentage of a whales body consists of muscle mass enough to be viable as a practical method for hauling cargo

  • You're gonna need some deep rivers

  • Hippo's might also be fine, but that was an entire question, with a link here

Hope that helps some. This answers not very good. You might also be better of with something like walruses

  • $\begingroup$ I like how the walruses bust in on the whale show right at the end. + and + $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    May 25, 2021 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ "Not a slave cus their brain is smaller" ... this question/answers/comments have really made me rethink slavery. And question a lot of people's interpretation $\endgroup$
    – TCooper
    May 26, 2021 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ @TCooper The (working) definition of slavery I used was an intelligent self-aware creature doing involuntary labor. I guess the point that intelligence is not necciciarily a prerequisite which is a fair point. Before now I never considered that., $\endgroup$ May 27, 2021 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ @TCooper Just to be clear I read your comment before I read the comments present on the main question, those I read after posting. $\endgroup$ May 27, 2021 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ @TCooper (repeat in a single comment) The (working) definition of slavery I used was an intelligent self-aware creature doing involuntary labor. I guess the point that intelligence is not necciciarily a prerequisite which ismore than a fair point. Before now I never considered that. Huh., --Just to be clear I read your comment before I read the comments present on the main question, those I read after posting $\endgroup$ May 27, 2021 at 0:41

Giant (small horse/donkey-sized) otters

A close-up of a sea otter, taken in Morro Bay, California in 2016.

(A close-up of a sea otter, taken in Morro Bay, California in 2016., Marshal Hedin from San Diego) (CC BY-SA 2.0, source)

I remember reading (before I got bored of the novel constantly repeating itself over and over and over again only to add a small tidbit and move on to repeating something else) a web novel called Savage Divinity, where the author created a community of almost-nomadic barbarians riding giant otters.

Those otters were very smart, pack-based, and very, very mobile. They can take care of their own food if you release them to hunt in the ocean or nearby forest/river.

The otters regularly pulled carriages and could pull a boat, even if they were not the fastest either on land or in the sea.



swimmers pull boat


Humans are good draft animals. They understand what they are supposed to do and humans have great endurance. Humans are also pretty decent swimmers.

In your world there are human swimmers who pull boats. They are called water horses. Like other old style jobs it is a hereditary thing. Boat pulling is an endurance affair, not a strength thing and so men and women both pull the boats, starting when they are teenagers. The women take a break to have kids and then come back to it when they are old.

The cool thing about this is that there can be water horse characters. It is a different world they live in, the water horses. They have a different outlook. They are happy for the work but in their private lives they might be less friendly to outsiders.


Gaelic "Each-uisge" or water horse is one mythological version that's quite widely reported. It lives not so much in rivers (where the kelpie lives), but fresh water lochs and sea-lochs.

Never having seen one, I can't comment on what they look like... but (inevitably!) Wikipedia reports sightings on Skye, that had a beak like a sea turtle! Which, if they are related, would give them a good broad back for riding on, should you manage to tame one.

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    $\begingroup$ The question says "science-based", not "mythology-based". $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    May 26, 2021 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark And turtles are not mythological, except when supporting elephants. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2021 at 23:23

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