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A fantasy staple, the fantastic mount (TvTropes). People in Fantasy Land ride giant yellow chickens, giant wolves, giant beetles, caterpilars, ants, and other insects, evolved bears, sharks, miniature dragons, wyverns, pterodactyls, and a plethora of other creatures.

But the horse, the ordinary, commonplace, Equus ferus caballus remains present. Why do people still use horses when there's so many other choices?

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    $\begingroup$ Horses are fantastic! $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Sep 13, 2022 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ How are "fantastic" beast different from other non-fantastic beasts? Why do people ride horses when giraffes, rhinos, moose, and kangaroos are available? $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    Sep 13, 2022 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Or why ride horses in this world when people can and do ride donkeys, oxen, camels, and elephants? $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Sep 13, 2022 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ Horses are cheap in comparison. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Sep 13, 2022 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ In a world where people can drive Lamborghinis and Bugattis, why is the lowly Honda Civic still so popular? :) $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2022 at 3:28

14 Answers 14

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Fantastic mounts have fantastic drawbacks

  • giant yellow chickens: incessant deafening clucking, razor-sharp beak is lightning fast; uncomfortable to ride
  • giant wolves & evolved bears: way too dangerous (neither animal is domesticated); if "evolved" means "smarter," then too hard to control
  • giant beetles, caterpillars, ants, and other insects: absolutely terrifying to everybody who is not an entomophile; ants, at least, respond to invisible scent trails; all these bugs are especially difficult to corral because they can climb walls; uncomfortable to ride
  • sharks: not usable on land, and humans can't breathe underwater; also, most humans prefer to not be submerged in saltwater every time they travel somewhere; only practical for people who live on the shore and whose travels are exclusively to other shore-adjacent locations
  • miniature dragons: way too dangerous (dragons are not domesticated, and breathe fire, and are often regarded as having intelligence on par with humans which makes it extremely difficult to enslave them)
  • wyverns: way too dangerous (wyverns are not domesticated, often have magical attacks like breath weapons, and have reptile cunning)
  • pterodactyls: incessant deafening screeching; some people are afraid of heights; like the giant chicken, surprisingly difficult to saddle

I know that video games make it appear that the only difference between a horse, a dragon, and a giant spider is cosmetic, but this is a fatally simplistic perspective. These creatures are very different from each other, and when you make them bigger you also make their drawbacks bigger.

Also, every one of these creatures will produce a lot of gross waste. If you think a pile of horse dung is nasty, just wait until you see the revolting slurry that sprays out of a pterodactyl.

Horses are safe. Horses are good. Horses do not silently kidnap neighborhood children, wrap them in silk, suspend them from the roof of the barn, and let hundreds of little horses literally suck their liquefied organs out for nourishment.

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    $\begingroup$ I would upvote just for the last paragraph. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2022 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, that last paragraph is a broad generalization. It would be more accurate to say that "none of the breeds of horse I am familiar with" kidnap children. For all I know, there's an eight-legged breed of Andalusian that's famous for its silk and prodigious egg sacs. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Sep 12, 2022 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ "For all I know, there's an eight-legged breed of Andalusian that's famous for its silk and prodigious egg sacs" I think I've read that story $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2022 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ Another concern could be maintenance. While horses can graze on a meadow, some of those fantastic animals might have dietary requirements which are far harder to satisfy. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Sep 13, 2022 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ Also, of all of these, horses are surely the easiest to keep fed. Put them out to pasture, maybe collect some hay, perhaps some oats, good to go. Everything else has a rather more specific diet. Some may be favored by evil overlords for entertainment purposes though. ("Feed them to giant centipedes!") $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Sep 13, 2022 at 14:12
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Horses are safer.

A reasonably well trained horse (not the "groom killer" type that some macho riders have sometimes preferred due to a delusion that they're stronger or faster than a well-disposed steed) is loyal enough to make a good dog look like a fly-by-night, will uncomplainingly let a human ride it to death, is about as smart as a dog (maybe smarter, depending on individual variation) -- and far easier to stable, train, and care for then a giant yellow chicken, dire wolf, etc.

Horses are common

Horses are likely cheaper to feed than most fantasy mounts, as well. Although a horse needs oats (or other grain) to give maximum riding performance, when not being ridden regularly horses can live pretty well on less expensive hay or (nearly) free open grazing. Horses have been bred on a routine basis for centuries, while these special mounts are presumably relatively new to the task (else they wouldn't be "special"), and the skills to breed, care for, and train them, as well as to make and use their accessories (saddle, harness, tack, etc.) are common, rather than exotic.

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A Horse is Less Expensive

Fantasy Mount

  1. Getting one isn't easy, or cheap
  2. Taming and training takes time and money
  3. It has uncommon dietary needs
  4. They require custom hardware (saddle, bridle, straps, etc.)
  5. They need specialized stables to house them when your not out riding.

Horse

  1. They can be bought from a breeder or trainer
  2. They are easily trained, and standardized training methods exist, so someone else can do it for you.
  3. They graze just fine, and are cheap to feed when grazing isn't an option.
  4. You can have a single saddle for your life and move it from horse to horse and it should fit just fine.
  5. Everywhere has stables to board your horse.
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    $\begingroup$ Never forget good old economics! there is a reason most people don't ride hummers or Ferrari. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ @John Forget Ferraris. A Ferrari is just a fancy horse. Let's talk helicopters. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 13, 2022 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ Depending on how you tuned it fantasy beasts may end up as the war mount of rich knights and nobles. $\endgroup$
    – lidar
    Sep 16, 2022 at 17:53
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Not everyone drives a dragster. To buy bread a beaten up Honda Civic is more than enough.

Same for your mounts. Why messing with a monster when a horse is quieter, safer and better manageable.

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    $\begingroup$ Let's expand on this: Henry Ford once said you can have a car in any color as long as it's black. His point was at the time his assembly line process focused on creating one car as cheaply as possible to sell as deeply into the marketplace as possible. Today we have cars in all kinds of colors. We have all kinds of cars. We have sports cars and luxury cars and minivans and SUVs - and outside that there are trucks of all kinds and busses and heaven only knows how many other kinds of vehicles. Simplifying an awful lot, they break down into purpose, affordability, and aesthetic choice. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 12, 2022 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ I'd say though that a horse doesn't even have to be better in any quantifiable way, it just has to not be quantifiably worse. If all things being equal you can pick between a horse and giant bug, some people will pick the horse just because why not. Even if the bug has a better spec sheet, it better be a seriously good looking bug for me to pick it over a horse. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2022 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @AmiralPatate Giant millipede is a smoother ride and more room for cargo. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 13, 2022 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Yeah, but, it looks like a bug. I don't want to ride on a bug like I don't want to ride in a Volkswagen, which is to say it's yucky and I'd much rather have a mustang. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2022 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen They're also often covered in nasty irritants. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2022 at 1:25
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Magical animals require magical food.

Magic is very intensive on the body. It requires a lot of fuel to make whatever unnatural body plan work. As such, you need magical food. This food is generally quite expensive and intensive to grow.

Horses eat normal food. As such, they are the reliable choice if you can't source whatever fancy exotic stuff your magical mount needs.

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    $\begingroup$ I will never drive a car that requires high octane fuel. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 13, 2022 at 17:33
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Humans can bond with horses

I'm going with a more emotional approach that can be the basis of logical reasons. Humans can have a special bond with horses and it can lead to a lifetime companionship. The relationship is marked by mutual trust, respect and affection in which humans and horses would see each other as family. Horses are emotional and social animals and they can suffer from loneliness just like us. Even in the wild, horses are pack animals that tend to stick together and have a family structure. This bonding would be the main reason why everything else would work out well.

Humans can't bond with other mountable fantastic beasts like horses and they are not as tameable as horses. With horses, people can also form a cavalry per the pack structure and bonding; where there is strength in numbers.

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Image scource: wallpaperflare.com

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    $\begingroup$ And in a fantasy world, this may be even more so. Perhaps horses that are just more empathetic and/or intelligent than in our world. Maybe throw in some weak ESP, so that the horse and its bonded owner can (silently) talk to each other. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Sep 15, 2022 at 8:54
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Would you take a tank, a tractor, or a helicopter to go to McDonald's?

No?

The same applies here. Giant tigers are awesome for fighting. Rhinos are epic landmowers. Dragons fly you anywhere in no time. But if you're just going to your daily office work, you just need a mount that's fast, reliable, and small enough, without need for special care.

Horses are perfect for this. They won't eat John, the hostler. They won't rampage away randomly, demolishing the pens and then everything in their general direction. They won't burn down the office when they sneeze. They just munch away calmly.

Just as in our life you ron't take a dragster or a Cenessa to go to work, you won't need special magical animals for your daily commute. Every animal breed will have its place in this world, and horses will be your regular Honda Civics.

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    $\begingroup$ "They won't eat John, the hostler." - Perhaps with appropriate training. $\endgroup$
    – Trevortni
    Sep 15, 2022 at 22:55
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I blame the labor unions.

The union representing pegasi has won time schedules that keep pegasus operators from using them as regular mounts. 8 hours of rest after one hour of flight time. Only divine beings (and their representatives) can afford the stabling requirements necessary to meet work-rest hour requirements.

Dragons United demands a wage scale that frankly explains why dragons end up perched on massive hoards of gold. Hiring dragonslayers to eliminate dragons willing to work at below-guild scale helps to keep dragon mounts as something only the wealthiest (and soon to be former) billionaires can afford for now.

The demand by unicorns that their riders be (1) female and (2) either human or elven is currently under litigation in multiple jurisdictions for violating civil rights laws. Spokescreatures for unicorn societies have stated that they will quit the business totally if those requirements are overturned. Spokesorcs for Orcs Are People Two! have promised to continue to fight to overturn such restrictions as they are speciest as well as sexist.

Nightmares Unlimited™ is still committed to overturning health and safety regulations banning flaming body parts during the drought. They also claim that reports of luring young people onto their backs and hauling them off to Hell are fake news.

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Probably for the same reason horses were chosen in the real world: Of the animals that can be domesticated, horses arguably make the best mounts. There are something like 150 real-world species of large land animals, and of these, only about a dozen can be domesticated. The rest might be captured and trained, or possibly raised from infancy and bonded with, but they can't be produced in quantity or bred for specific purposes.

Again in the real world, there are basically six traits that a species has to have to make it possible to domesticate. This is mostly summarized from Germs, Guns, and Steel:

  1. Diet - you have to be able to feed it. Large carnivores generally fail this test pretty hard. 100 tons of grain will feed 10 tons of herbivores or omnivores, but those will in turn only feed 1 ton of carnivore. Horses can eat grass.
  2. Growth Rate - If an animal takes 15 years to reach maturity instead of one, it's going to be cost-prohibitive in most cases. That's why we don't have Ape-ranchers.
  3. Captive breeding - can't do selective breeding if you can't select who it breeds with. Some species just won't breed in captivity. Some need elaborate mating rituals or they won't conceive (ex: cheetahs). Some have complicated territorial requirements (ex: vicunas).
  4. Personality - The animal has to have a disposition you can live with. Hippos will try to kill you just to see if they can. Grizzlies are prone to violent rages when frustrated, and psycho-girlfriend levels of jealousy. Zebras are irascible SOB's, especially as they get older - they'll bite you and drag you around a bit if they don't like something they imagine you did.
  5. Calmness - they can't be too prone to panic. Gazelles have never been successfully domesticated because they will bolt blindly at the first sign of strangeness and either leap over their enclosure wall or bash themselves senseless against it.
  6. Social Structure - There has to be some kind of social structure that a handler can take advantage of. All large domesticated animals have five features in common: a) they live in groups, b) they maintain well developed dominance hierarchies within their groups, c) those hierarchies remain fixed once established, d) they can imprint on the creatures around them while young and accept a human handler as part of the group, and e) they have overlapping home ranges rather than exclusive territories.
  7. Suitable as Mount - On top of all that, if you want them domesticated specifically as mounts then they have to be capable of resting while standing, traveling long distances, carrying sufficient loads, moving fast, etc.

To make room for horses, you just have to select one of the domestication criteria that each of the fantasy mounts fail - or at least compares unfavorably to horses. Giant chickens might fail for the same reason as ostriches (bad basic skeletal structure for long distance load bearing), giant wolves might bond too closely with their handlers to ever raise for sale, etc.

The fantasy mounts will still be used if they exist - giant chicken races could be a thing people bet on, giant ants might be used for mining, and every military will want flying scouts regardless of the price. They will all be breathtakingly expensive of course; your typical farmer won't have one. But even nobles who can afford whatever they want will likely pick a horse over a giant beetle. Kind of like why you would choose to drive a car instead of a backhoe on your daily commute.

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The benefits of the horse over fancy beasties fall into three main areas: it's easier to get, easier to maintain, and more broadly useful, even in a world where other options are common enough that they won't run into issues on that basis alone. While individual adventurers or heroes with unique use cases might ride a fantasy creature, everyone who is not a one-man army will find that the horse is the ideal, well, workhorse of a mount.

Acquiring your mount

You can't just go to the mount store and buy a mount if you're in caveman times and stores haven't been invented yet. Capturing, taming, domesticating, and breeding animals is a sophisticated technology, and societies figure out how to do it for the horse long before they do it for anything else. So by the time society starts to domesticate something else as a mount, the horse is already in common usage.

After horses have been invented, they are easy to produce: their gestation period is relatively short and they grow up quickly. This is important because while a horse is still an investment, they are easy to find and to convince the current owner to part with.

Keeping your mount

You can stable a horse, and it will stay stabled, not fly away or decide to do something more interesting. As herbivores, they are easy to feed - critical for an army on the move. Horses are comfortable in broadly the same set of conditions that we are. They do not insist on being entertained, and will not mind if the rider tells bad jokes. In the cold, a horse is warm.

Using your mount

Horses are herd animals that are well-behaved in large groups (like an army). Horses are about the right size for a human to jump into the saddle quickly, and not to get hurt too much when they fall off. Horses are comfortable moving at a pace that humans find useful - neither crawling slowly nor shooting forward so quickly that they outpace the rest of the army. Horses can walk for as long as humans can. Finally, horses are heavy - in a cavalry charge, the horse's significant weight is transferred into the blow of the weapon in a way that a giant chicken simply couldn't match.

A horse is not just for riding. Horses will pull a plough or a cart. They are large enough to carry multiple riders. A horse's flank will shield you from sight or low-velocity projectiles. As a last resort, a horse is edible, and its remaining tissues are valuable for various crafts.

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Magic leaks

Depending on how magic works in your world, it may not be a good idea to be near strongly magical beings. You could be creating a world in which mana poisoning is a thing - throwing someone weak into an area of intense ambient magic would kill them due to their bodies being unable to handle it.

In a world like that, having a safe, mundane mount would be important for people who are not adventurers that have trained their bodies to be able to handle the intense magic coming off of strongly magical creatures.

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Besides all of the reasons stated in the other answers, never understimate the power of personal preference and aesthetics:

"The supple muscles under the silky coat, the music of the hooves... the velvet of the muzzle, and the inscrutable black sea of their eyes. Ah, the horse!"

Lord Haurchefant Greystone of House Fortemps

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Training

Some animals are much easier to train than others, and are capable of forming a bond with their trainer or owner.

Not so very long ago, there was a guy with a Pet Hippo - that ended up killing him

5 years in, after being together for a long time, the hippo still killed him.

This is not an unusual sort of story - there's actually quite a short list of animals that are really capable of forming the kind of bond with a human that's necessary for them to be an effective and safe animal companion.

Additionally consider wolves vs. dogs. They're superficially pretty similar, but a significant shortage of pet wolves. Why? Their temperament, social dynamics, and acceptance of humans just isn't there in the same way. A few 'tame' wolves exist, but most of them remain pretty wild and prone to letting instinct take over.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolves_as_pets_and_working_animals

They're simply so much harder to work with, especially if you're looking to achieve functional domestication (e.g. able and willing to work with most humans, rather than just the one you know).

There's a reason there's never been any hippo cavalry regiments, despite how they'd be pretty amazing 'warhorses'.

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Familiarity

Everyone is focusing on in-world reasons for horses being so common in fantasy settings, but can we take a minute to think outside the world? Having horses in a fantasy setting gives the audience a connection to the world. I know what horses are, you know what horses are, we've probably seen real horses in our real life. Not sure if I have seen any flying dragons or a person riding a shark in real life.

Commonality between your setting and real life gives the reader a grounding point to truly become immersed. Horses make a pretty good way of having reliable transport, especially when most fantasy settings, when looking at real world history, chronologically appear medieval. A setting that resists any connection to reality will likely be difficult for the audience to immerse themselves in.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome Astreus. Please take our tour and refer to our help center from time to time for our guidelines. This seems to me to be an eminently sensible answer, it would be more suited to our sister-site Writing - or as support for an answer which addresses the issue in-universe. Don't fret, you'll get the hang of how we work. Enjoy the site. (From review.) $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2022 at 15:44

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