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The story I’m currently writing, is in a fantasy desert setting. It’s gonna be focused on world and city building so obviously the army is gonna play a big role. The technology of the world is based on that of the 13th century, so still largely melee based armies with cavalry, infantry, archers, slingers etc.

However my issue is coming up with a good mount idea for the cavalry, as horses don’t have the ability to survive in such extreme desert conditions like camels do. Their hooves are also very poorly suited for sand as opposed to camels, but obviously camels won’t work either because they lack the speed and maneuverability of horses.

I have gone through some polls for desert mounts used mainly for traveling, but I don’t think lizards (which is the most commonly suggested would work). My reasoning is that they, at least in the suggestions I read and ideas I thought of, would be built like regular lizards. Which means they run with that side to side shake, making a charge with momentum like cavalry soldiers do, less effective. They also wouldn’t have the same blunt force effect of a cavalry horse as it smashed into enemy soldiers, which is why I ruled out the idea of lizards.

So some suggestions on good cavalry mounts for such a desert setting would be appreciated. To have the utility and maneuverability of horses but be able to function in a desert climate as well and if you think of a way some type of lizard could overcome these issues, feel free to comment as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Camelry? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 29, 2022 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ Hang on, giant lizards you say? What else do you have in your world.... it's rather critical for an answer to be possible, else anyone can suggest anything - steam-powered grasshoppers or land-crabs. Can you clarify. $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2022 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ In Real Life horses have been used in deserts for decades. If something terrestrial is what you're looking for, then consider the Namib Desert Horse. If you're looking to design a creature, then we need to know the details of your world so we know what we can modify to rationalize the creation. Either way, VTC:Opinion-Based because, per the help center, we discourage brainstorming questions. Please edit your question to be specific about your needs and goals, then I'll retract. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 29, 2022 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ Camels... Specifically dromedaries (One hump, bred for speed). They are adapted to desert life, bigger, smarter, and stronger then horses. Can run faster over sand then horses can... And have been used for at least 1000 years as the preferred mount $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Dec 30, 2022 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Stef Indeed, even armies that only use horses have different breeds for different jobs: heavy destriers for armored charges, fast coursers for scouts and messengers, sturdy draft horses for hauling supplies. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Dec 30, 2022 at 22:11

5 Answers 5

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obviously camels won’t work either because they lack the speed and maneuverability of horses.

No.

You always use whatever transportation is best for the environment you're going to. You don't discard the option of using a jet-ski on water just because it won't work on a road.

Just the same, modern armies still use camels while on deserts.

Soldiers on camels

Source for the image above: Wikipedia article on camel cavalries

Quoting the Wikipedia article:

The first recorded use of the camel as a military animal was by the Arab king Gindibu, who is claimed to have employed as many as 1000 camels at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. A later instance occurred in the Battle of Thymbra in 547 BC, fought between Cyrus the Great of Persia and Croesus of Lydia.

And a picture of Old School camel cavalry from WW1:

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ An extremely fit long distance racing horse carrying a rider can travel an average of 100 miles per day... A trail horse will travel 50 miles per day. These are not heavily encumbered horses... A bacterian camel carrying 400 lbs of stuff can travel 40 miles per day... A dromedary (Single humped camel, smaller & lighter) can travel between 80 to 120 miles per day. For short distances, a horse can run between 25-30 mph, and sprint up to 50 mph. A dromedary can run between 20 to 25 mph and sprint up to 40 MPH I don't know for a Two hump Camel. and can travel long distances at 12 mph $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Dec 30, 2022 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ As many sources note, camels need significantly less water (and much less frequently) than horses for desert travel and transport. This is of course an important advantage in the desert. $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2022 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ Also camels unlike horses can actually lead you to water in the desert. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 31, 2022 at 4:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Questor a horse can travel 50-100 miles for ONE day, then it needs rest, foot, and water - or your army needs a replacement horse. Camels can go steadily, for days. There are military scenarios for both types, and I'd assume that historical armies typically had camel and horse corps. (Negdo's answer has this right.) $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Dec 31, 2022 at 15:13
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Desert elephants

Capable of surviving in the desert? Check.

Desert elephants or desert-adapted elephants are not a distinct species of elephant but are African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) that have made their homes in the Namib and Sahara deserts in Africa.

Speed and strength? Check.

A war elephant was an elephant that was trained and guided by humans for combat. The war elephant's main use was to charge the enemy, break their ranks and instill terror and fear. Elephantry is a term for specific military units using elephant-mounted troops.

Existed in the 13th century? Check.

Elephants have been used as mounts in war since ancient times.

War elephants played a critical role in several key battles in antiquity, especially in Ancient India… During classical antiquity they were also used in ancient Persia and in the Mediterranean world within armies of Macedon, Hellenistic Greek states, the Roman Republic and later Empire, and Carthage in North Africa. In some regions they maintained a firm presence on the battlefield throughout the Middle Ages.

Works well with archers/slingers? Check.

The Greeks would have their archers fight on elephant-back to give them an advantage in war. Great vantage point and extremely difficult targets.

Bonus: Tough to kill? Check.

Elephants are extremely hard to kill. You would need to run underneath them with a spear while they charge and stab them up through the heart. Basically a suicide mission as you would then be crushed by the falling elephant - and no guarantee you will strike true.

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First you have to decide what you need your cavalry for.

If you want heavy cavalry, you have a few problems. Most important one: armor. Heavy cavalry - the kind of cavalry people first think about when hearing the word, relies on heavily armored riders charging into and breaking infantry formations. And that heavy armor is a bit problematic in a desert heat. Not only would it result in a frequent heat strokes, your mounts wouldn't really appreciate an extra weight. I just don't see heavy cavalry being a big thing in a desert setting.

If you want light cavalry on the other hand, well then there is nothing really wrong with camels. Or giant lizards for that matter. Or specially bred ostriches as someone else suggested. Or giant worms! Can't go wrong with that classic! For scouting (and mounted archery) you don't really need the maneuverability of horses. As long as the animal is faster then mark 1 legs, and can actually function fine in a desert, it should be fine.

But mind that in a desert there is a distinct lack of food for your mounts. So the benefits of cavalry is drastically reduced compared to other settings. Mongol-like hordes of mounted raiders just cannot function in a desert, as there is nothing to sustain them. And by introducing required logistics to feed such an army you lose all the benefits that kind of army actually have. So all-mounted armies are even less plausible in a desert (with the exception of small raiding parties) then heavy cavalry.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course if it were possible to ride giant worms in the setting, I suspect they wouldn't be used for light cavalry. They would more likely to make for a ultra-hyper-heavy cavalry... :) $\endgroup$
    – McTroopers
    Jan 1, 2023 at 10:39
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Sail Wagons

This is a frame challenge of sorts: what you're trying to do is move long distances across a big desert, carrying lots of gear, and maybe fight from a mobile platform.

Lets say that for whatever reason you don't like camels or elephants, and that giant lizards, eagles, ants, worms, etc aren't an option.

The best option may be sail wagons. These are basically wind powered boats on wheels.

Historically, the Chinese were their champions for most of history. They made many small sail wagons, but even made ones that carried up to 30 people! Later on, in the 19th century, the technology was competitive enough with horses in parts of the USA that quite a few people used them.

Some things to consider:

Reliable winds:

If you don't have reliable wind, this either won't work, or soldiers will need to carefully plot routes between oases or rivers / transport lots of water. Getting stranded in the middle of the desert just because the wind stops blowing...blows. From an author's point of view, though, it's a useful way to favour or disfavour characters or nations.

The wind direction is important; ships upwind have more options in terms of speed and directions than ships downwind; all the dynamics of the high seas get replicated on land.

Whikes (i.e. wagons with pedals) are possible.

Combat:

Logistics alone will justify such a technology. But there is also the possibility of combat! If so, you are no longer looking at sail wagons, but at land ships! Land navies! Land frigates! Land pirates!

Imagine two small ships full of medieval Chinese warring soldiers encountering one another. The crews fire bolts from their chu ko nus or other repeating crossbows as fast as they are humanly able. The upwind ship is winning and rams the other, resulting in a desperate hand to hand struggle. The rammed ship's crew fight bravely but are gradually cut down until one heroic soldier among them manages to shoot down both the captain and mate of the boarders with a single crossbow barrage, before slicing down another and rallying them for an amazing, come-from-behind victory.

Chinese sail wagon

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    $\begingroup$ A wagon needs flat terrain. Desert is either full of stones (actually the majority of Earth deserts), which will be too uneven to move quickly, or full of sand, which will make the wheels sink in. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Dec 31, 2022 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @toolforger Fair enough, but a) Rule of Cool and b) The desert can be designed to match the mount. If the desert is a thin layer of sand over clay, and the wagons are designed so that their weight is lifted by the wind, a bit like modern foiling craft, then the wagons will be OK. This is an outside option, remember; it's for someone who absolutely refuses both camels and elephants. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jan 1, 2023 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm... I had the Sahara in mind, but salt pans would indeed work. They can be dangerous, but... (P.S. I don't think that the Rule of Cool trumps everything, it's too easy to overdo and break suspension of disbelief.) $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Jan 2, 2023 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ @toolforger Salt pans are a much better idea. Agree re: suspension of disbelief, but outside options are allowed to take more liberties, that's why they're outside options. I thought camels like everyone else and decided to try to offer the best alternative I could, if it met some minimal bar for plausibility. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jan 2, 2023 at 10:19
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In terms of cavalry that can be used in the desert, I feel like ostriches would be a good option. Although you do seldom hear about ostriches in the desert, they are godly fast. They also can go several days without water, which is another perk. Ostriches are also quite strong and knowing the time period your story is set in, would be great to use with spears.

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    $\begingroup$ Ostriches as they exist would make seriously poor mounts for a warrior. earthlife.net/birds/can-you-ride-an-ostrich They don't have the temperment. And the 200 pound limit is not going to be convenient for a soldier with any type of equipement. You might get somewhere by breeding "draft" ostriches. These would resemble ordinary ostriches in the way that a Percheron resembles a Palomino. $\endgroup$
    – BillOnne
    Dec 29, 2022 at 23:46
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, alright. I think I may not have factored in the weight of equipment from the soldiers. Sorry bout that. $\endgroup$
    – TempzApex
    Dec 30, 2022 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ Ostrich chariots $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Jun 16, 2023 at 20:57

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