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I'm working for Henry Ford's engineering department and thought I'd gatecrash your "worldbuilding" forum to do my job for me. Our customer research department tell me that our customers want faster horses, and I'm looking in to how to create them.

A few thoughts to get us started:

  • Fuel-efficiency can probably be improved. There's a reason they say "eats like a horse" – they require a lot of grazing land, and grazing land isn't free. The most common gene-hack is creating a mule, largely for this reason, but you do lose speed this way.

  • "Double-null myostatin" is one of my go-tos for genehacking worldbuilding. Could it be applied here?

  • Any other genetic traits that would increase speed? Stronger bones maybe?

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    $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 15, 2023 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ easy: make it a pegasus. why run across the earth when u can lift of into the skies $\endgroup$
    – user59660
    Feb 15, 2023 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ Modern horses do not require a lot of grazing land - they can't really survive on grazing alone anymore. Wild (and less highly bred) horses were far more fuel efficient - we just kept breeding for bigger build and bigger strength, while supplementing the feed with grains etc. That's the cost of a horse, not the grazing. Of course, this was not true of the kind of horses used by, say, the steppe nomads - those were much smaller (and of course didn't farm grains ;)). But it was certainly true of the kind of horses the Europeans (and USAmericans) used. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Feb 15, 2023 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ Still require a lot of land – grain doesn't just grow on trees. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 15, 2023 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ horses are pretty fast, and with a decent post network, fresh ones are always available (mass adoption is a problem, though, and waste is quickly a logistic nightmare in cities) $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:05

13 Answers 13

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Wheels

enter image description here

The horse is a pretty good invention. It can run fast, walk for hours every day, and carry heavy loads. It eats only grass and produces steaming piles of fertilizer for the garden.

The vanilla horse certainly gets the job done. No one will deny it is an adequate mode of transport. But perhaps with the addition of wheels it can be made. . . more adequate?

Edit: Following safety concerns by @clockw0rk see the second prototype. Horse Mk 2.01 if you will.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I upvoted this comment, if only for the Photoshop image. Pure Genius. $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2023 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ This is hilarious $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 12, 2023 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ Couldn't be bothered to create a full answer, but a Flintstones car for horses so they spend more energy moving forward and less on holding themselves up. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Feb 13, 2023 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ Also invent the rollerdisco rodeo. Please $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ The Helmet. I can't. I'm dying with laughter. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2023 at 20:06
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Pedals! A reclining bike is several times faster than walking, even though it has the same (muscle) power as an unassisted human and the combination is heavier. There are even pedal powered airplanes.

Gearing alone will make a difference (here's a horse powered car) and you would put the horse in a suspended harness so it doesn't need to waste muscle power pushing itself off the ground.

For additional gains, a CVT gearbox would allow the horse to run at its most efficient pace at any speed.

The new Ford model H would be a "streamliner" that looks not unlike a shrunken down high speed steam locomotive. It would be made out of aluminium, with the horse's head taking the place of the nosecone. The horse is suspended inside and powers two sets of pedals that transmit power to the wheels using a continually variable transmission. The passenger compartment would be hitched to the back of the "engine", making it easy to swap out or add extra horsepower for heavy loads.

So how fast would this go? A horse can output up to 15 horsepower, which is comparable to motor cars of the era, but only for short bursts. The fastest horse alone can do almost 90 kph, but a realistic top speed for a running horse would be 50 kph with a weight of about 450 kg. A car with 15 horsepower, such as this Rolls, does about 50 kph as well despite being heavier (I can't find its weight, but a Model T can weigh up to 750 kg and I can't imagine the Rolls being lighter). There are no studies on the subject and the relevant Ig Nobel Prize has so far gone unclaimed, but expecting a reasonably sustainable 60-70 kph with a light load would not be unrealistic, which is faster than a Model T and doesn't require adjusting the carburetor after every corner or finding a store that will sell you barrels of fuel oil.

Let's go one trot further with the Model E, designed by Dr. Kiichiro Toyoda's Amazing Hybrid-Electric Carriage Manufactory. Imagine if you could harness the power the horse isn't outputting when you are standing still or moving slowly! To accomplish this, disconnect the pedals from the wheels and connect them to an electric generator which charges up an array of Leyden jars for burst power output. There is nothing stopping you from running this device while parked on the driveway of your estate and leaving with a fully charged battery bank (and the horse likes a daily routine). Some Chinese manufacturers may suggest leaving the entire horse at home and bringing just the batteries, but what do the Chinese know about long running autonomous devices anyway?

Of course, people don't just want to drive cars, they want to race them. Performance carriages would be made out of magnesium for weight savings and may put the horse on its back for improved aero (which would upset Enzo Ferrari to no end). With a world class horse, this could exceed 100 kph over short distances. Eat dirt, Jamais Contente.

Most of all, it would run anywhere, at any time. Feeding the horse would be as simple as filling a tray in the nose with grass or hay. Think about that when your newfangled internal combustion car with "LOL FEED" licence plate runs out of gas, smugface.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for an excellent answer — though I think you have confused Dr Kiichiro Toyoda with his grandson Akio (inventor of the modern container elephant) $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 11:39
  • $\begingroup$ Leyden jars? Why not store energy mechanically, in a spring or canister of compressed air? $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Героямслава An air canister would be a possibility because high pressure vessels are common in steam engines, but it means lots of cast iron which would probably be rather heavy. A spring seems unrealistic for the technology of the time. $\endgroup$
    – Hene
    Feb 15, 2023 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ "A horse can output up to 15 horsepower". For how long? $\endgroup$
    – Atog
    Feb 15, 2023 at 20:02
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So, you've mentioned Gene-Hacking, so I'm presuming we aren't working with 1900s era Tech.

My first thought is to continue on what Horse breeders had been doing with different breeds:

Specialization

The things that make a good Plow Horse are different from a good race horse and are different again from what makes a good inter-city travel horse.

So we start tweaking the Genes for the Horses:

  • Allow the Horse to Sweat (Seriously - this is one of Humans super-powers, we don't need to stop and pant, we can sweat - which is why we can chase down prey that is faster than us, we don't need to stop when they do).

  • Tweak the Horse so that it can eat and drink on the move

  • Bigger Lungs and Heart (not by much)

  • Optimal combination of the different Muscles fibers, perhaps even a new hybrid muscle fiber that has the best of fast and slow twitch.

Cyborg Horses

So, if we have the ability to tweak their Genome, maybe we have the ability to artificially enhance them - things like intravenous fluid intake, artificial hormones (Adrenalin) to trigger faster speed, reinforced joints to guard against clipping and other things that are bad for horses.

If we can gene-manipulate some of the things that cause Horses to die from over-exertion, then perhaps we can Cybhorse (sp?) Cyb-equine (sp?) them.

Other than that...

Strap a big ol' pair of rocket boosters to the horse

I mean, we are working with modern tech - and a Horse with a rocket strapped to it's hind quarters looks cool.

Just don't @ me with all the practical limitations or imply cruelty to Horses from heat/burn injuries - we are using Handwaivium rockets so the horse is fine.

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    $\begingroup$ Horses do sweat, that's why you see them steaming on cold days. Good answer otherwise. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 12, 2023 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ Horses sweat, men perspire, but ladies only glow $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Feb 13, 2023 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix "but ladies merely glow", ladies never "only" anything :p $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ Nah, Gene Hacking was around in the 1900s. He was Head of Research at Ford. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Feb 13, 2023 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ All mammals have glands which produce sweat. (Indeed, mammary glands, the defining feature of mammals, are modified sweat glands.) However, only a few (including humans and horses) use sweating for thermoregulation. Other animals sweat for other reasons. For example, dogs and cats use sweat to keep their paw pads moist and improve their grip. $\endgroup$
    – tobyink
    Feb 13, 2023 at 17:11
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How far are you willing to go?

You can get a lot of mileage out of replacing the horse biology with something more effective. Other commenters have mentioned you could make the horse eat on the run or make the lungs bigger, but consider more extreme alternatives.

Cycling Respiratory System

Pigeons breathe more efficiently by having multi chambered lungs that cycle air constantly through multiple chambers instead of pulling in and then emptying, which would allow your horse to have better airflow.

Whale Myoglobin

Myogolbin storage changes like deep swimming creatures would also allow your horse to store more oxygen internally at one time, it might be simpler than remaking the lungs and heart while also insuring that it can function at full capacity for longer, possibly much longer.

Creatine Changes

More or better Creatine would allow your horse to store more ATP inside each cell before needing to switch to a lower powered mode. Either just make your horse produce more Creatine naturally or feed it something like "Di-acetyl Creatine Ethyl Ester" in the feed.

More Mitochondria

It turns out Mitochondria actually float around the blood and move from cell to cell, so if you work out a more resilient form that has a more efficient energy cycle, you can just inject them into the horse with a syringe and they'll naturally propagate.

These points are fairly low lying fruit that will naturally give you a stronger and faster horse without any change to its food or other lifestyle. But you could probably go much further...

That pesky biology

If you think about it, a lot of your neo-horse is dedicated to carrying around that pesky stomach and its associated waste control organs. But you wouldn't need them if you were able to substitute the horse's energy needs with an external source.

Ketones

You still need a way to get proteins and micro-nutrients into the horse, but one thing you can do is inject Ketones into the horse through some kind of internal (and refillable) vein attachment (cyber fuel tank basically). Ketones aren't as efficient as normal oxygen-glucose processes, but they are fairly self contained and mostly generate only Co2 and water as a byproduct.

Cooling Saddle

Some kind of refrigeration system in the saddle would be useful and would probably make a huge difference to your horse.

Electrification

Certain types of bacteria and some synthetic proteins are capable of doing the proton pump process purely through electrical power. This means that in theory you could generate ATP inside your cells without any input or output products, purely through electrical power. If you're injecting new mitochondria like in the step outlined above, you could modify them with this process and some way to accept electrical power wirelessly, possibly from the saddle or some other implant. If it works, your horse is now at least partially battery powered. You don't even need 100% coverage, as any amount of coverage removes that amount of load from the lungs/digestion/kidneys etc of the horse' biology.

Of course, at the end of the day it's still a horse, which means it needs to run around on four toothpick legs and will fall apart if it sees its own shadow.

But new materials like graphene fiber are far more resilient than regular muscles and tendons. If you had some way to make the horse generate these proteins internally it would be both faster and more resilient. Something that might be possible if your horse has more energy to burn on internal maintenance.

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  • $\begingroup$ i'll say it again: why take on the hassle of beeing earthbound when your horse can lift of into an endless sky. okay that was a bit overdramatised $\endgroup$
    – user59660
    Feb 15, 2023 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ If your priority was just fast transport and not the pesky rules of the racing regulators, you could do all the things they ban, like doping the hel out of the horse with EPO, and using AI to breed $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 15, 2023 at 17:06
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Rubber roads

A horse's shoes add weight and seriously slow it down. By removing the shoes and making the roads softer, you should gain a considerable amount of speed.

Smaller riders

Just as in horse racing, smaller people should be employed as drivers when delivering messages etc.

Powered wagons

For larger loads, a powered wagon would allow the horse to go at its natural pace. There could be a feedback mechanism as exists for electric bicycles such that the more effort the horse puts in, the more the wagon takes the load. If the horse becomes tired, it can be hitched to the back of the wagon or even loaded onto it.

Make all roads downhill

A slight downward incline could be achieved in both directions by having a lift/elevator at staged points. The horse is loaded into the elevator, raised to a considerable height, and then runs downhill to the next elevator.

A supporting cradle

Others have mentioned wheels, but attaching them to the legs would make it very difficult for the horse to balance and especially difficult to adapt its stride. Instead have a four-wheeled cradle that takes most of the weight of the horse but allows it to push with all four legs using the natural galloping motion.

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  • $\begingroup$ Rubber roads actually break the horse's ankles. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Feb 13, 2023 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Trish - Thanks for the info $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ I wish I could +1 each idea and +2 the craddle one. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Trish What about special horse shoes that return energy at the appropriate point in the stride like some running shoes do? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Feb 13, 2023 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael the problem is, that horse feet are made to impact on compressive or hard materials, not on rebounding ones. The soft impact on rubber isn't the problem, it's the rebound that pushes all the force back up and horse ankles don't have a safety margin of 3 $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Feb 13, 2023 at 17:38
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At the time old man Ford said that, genetic engineering wasn't a thing. If I remember correctly the double-stranded structure of DNA had not even been discovered yet.

So I propose a different solution, more in line with the technology of the time: horse-skates. Like horse shoes, but with wheels. You put them on the front legs of your critter and train them to just push with the hind ones.

Your horses may run significantly faster over a plain road... And when going downhill they will become rollercoaster fast!

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  • $\begingroup$ Rather than just the front legs (which produce some of the propulsion), why not have a four-wheeled cradle that takes most of the weight of the horse but allows it to push with all four legs using the natural galloping motion. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly-supportsMonica that's genius! You could put that in an answer and you'll have my +1 :) $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ Genetic engineering was around even in the stone age, it doesn't require knowledge of DNA. It only requires selective breeding. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Feb 14, 2023 at 7:31
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Bigger, taller, horses with longer legs!

Especially if the intention is to pull a carriage or carry riders and their baggage for a long distance.

A larger horse with longer legs will have more stamina to go farther at a higher speed because the relative encumbrance of the weight of their rider or carriage will be smaller. It will be less burdensome for the horse.

More importantly from a mechanics viewpoint, the longer legs also mean that for the same number of strides the horse travels farther. This is important because the stress loading generated by the number of strides a top racehorse can do is already near the physical limit of bone and tendon tissue. Hence why racehorses are so prone to suffering leg injuries.

There will likely be a tradeoff between top end speed and long term sustained speed, because the former would imply very long and thin legs with less inertial mass whereas the latter would imply thicker, more muscular legs that can better cope with the physical stresses.

There's an upper limit to how muscular horses can be and still cool themselves down with sweating due to the square-cube problem, so our hypothetical super-horse will likely need a very long neck, and a longer, relatively thinner, body, to maximize the surface area available for cooling.

All this could be achievable via standard breeding techniques, albeit over the course of several centuries. With advanced bioengineering technology it may be possible to greatly expedite this process or even introduce novel features.

Such as a muscular tail for additional surface area for cooling, or larger, softer, hooves to allow the super-horse to corner better at speed.

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    $\begingroup$ So basically...breed horses into giraffes? $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ @IndigoFenix No, because giraffes are even-toed ungulates, and horses are quite far genetically. $\endgroup$
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Feb 14, 2023 at 15:42
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Passive load-bearing exoskeletons: The exo is integrated with the saddle and supports the weight of the horse, rider, and saddle. The horse feels super light, doesn't wear out its joints, and can run like it's unloaded.

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with 1900s tech, probably for efficiency, you'd want to ranch on a high-altitude plateau for oxygen efficiency and then raise them with techniques to force them to be calorie efficient.

Breed for calorie efficiency too, don't forget.

IIRC if there was a horse-treadmill thing that Stephenson beat out with his rocket. maybe horse-rail could be a thing. Wheels are far more efficient, after all.

If you wanna go full gene editing on it, Humans are pretty good at stamina conservation. Idk about horses but if they can get some human foot mechanics up in there they can save energy by not having to "tip-toe" all the time like the rest of the animals (if horses had human feet in the original horse position, the heels are always off the ground) I'm sure there are other things like having pre/post digesting stomachs, longer intestines, better blood flow assistance by muscles (Skeletal muscle pump is I think what it was called), sweating, and a lot of other things.

Edit2: for your bones comment, you'd want lighter bones for more efficiency. sturdier bones allow for more durability but ultimately cost the horse in terms of extra mass to pull. Then again those horses might be fragile.

If you wanna develop the horse treadmill thing, you can add regenerative brakes (not electric though, lead-acid tech is too heavy) by using a small fireless locomotive with appropriate attachment to the horse-cart. (some pneumatic locos could throw the johnson bar in reverse to use the energy from slowing to compress air back and build more pressure)

Edit: I just got inspiration from the history of the bike. Originally, bikes just supported the weight of the rider and the rider kicked off and coasted. so maybe a sort of adapted carriage frame that includes a space for a horse. At first it would let the horse down to start a carriage using its full weight, but when up to speed, it lifts the horse slightly so the horse can easily just lift its legs and kick occasionally, it and its load can coast freely, driver steering and maybe operating a set of brakes to make sure it doesn't go out of control. Can use a miniaturized fireless locomotive to slow the carriage without burning brake material. (kinetic energy forward would be used to compress air into an air tank and therefore slow the cart down. when starting from a stop, that compressed air could be used to assist the horse into getting up to speed faster)

Still though, selective breeding is probably your best option. Create an environment that requires more efficiency and see how mother nature answers.

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    $\begingroup$ The first railroads were in fact horse-drawn wagons riding on rails. Literally just a road made of rails, nothing else specialized about them. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2023 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ I knew that bit but it didn't solve much of the efficiency issue because the horse itself wasn't on wheels, i.e. the horse itself still had the deficiency of still relying on legs to move around. You make a great point though, with the load on rails, it still made for better hauling efficiency $\endgroup$
    – Harry Mu
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:35
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Stimulants

If you want nerds to work faster, give them coffee. I assume this principle works on other mammals too. Of course, there are other details to work out, like compensating for dehydration when distance running, diarrhetic effects, and finding giant mugs that can be used without opposable thumbs, but those seem tractable. If you care more about speed than retaining horses, there are also higher octane options, like amphetamines.

Please do not try this at your home/farm.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is/was a lot of drugging in animal racing (horse and greyhound). Though often to slow them down, so they get a more advantageous handicap in the following race(s). Also the winner is under more scrutiny than the unexpected underperformer so slowing is safer for the criminal. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2023 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ I love the simplicity of giving coffee to a horse to give it a rush. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2023 at 21:58
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Re: Fuel efficiency... make them into foregut fermenters like cows/camels/etc. Horses (and cows) don't really "digest" grass, instead they have a lot of bacteria that digest grass and then horses/cows digest the bacteria. Horses for some reason do this towards the end of the digestive process--cows, on the other hand, do it very early in the digestive process. That gives the bacteria more time to digest grass and the cow more time to digest bacteria, which means you get the maximum nutrients out of every bite. (You could also make them coprophages like rabbits. There's still good nutrients in that food, give it a second pass through the digestive system. Waste not, want not!)

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  • $\begingroup$ There's a reason horses are faster than cows, and the means of digestion is a significant part of it. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ @JackAidley Cows aren't built for speed, but many ruminants are (pronghorns for example are one of the fastest animals). What benefits are there to hindgut fermentation? $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ @IndigoFenix: The primary advantages are ability to extract nutrition from lower quality feed, and lower weight requirements. As for Pronghorn, sure, they're fast over short distances but they're also much smaller animals than horses - roughly a 10th of the weight. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JackAidley Camels are foregut fermenters and they are in the same speed/weight category as horses (top speed not as fast, but long distance is very comparable). Also, hindgut fermentation requires better quality food than foregut fermentation (the less time spent in fermentation, the more nutrition actually has to come straight from the food). $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ @user3067860: No, that's not correct. Hindgut fermentation allows much higher throughput of food than foregut fermentation and so the animal is able to increase their nutrient intake by spending more time grazing, whereas the throughput of food in foregut fermenters is limited by the time needed for digestion. This means, counter-intuitively, that hindgut fermenters are better able to thrive on sparser feed. This is Worldbuilding, so you could probably get away with making such claims in a book but any knowledgable biologists is going to raise an eyebrow. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2023 at 15:30
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LEGS

MOAR LEGS

six-legged horsey with apologies to the Wikimedia Commons uploader Carine06 UK

By the same principle as a tandem bicycle goes much faster on flat terrain than two single bikes, at horse running speeds aerodynamics really start to matter. For bikes at 30KMH you're already speaking about 70-75% of your effort is wind resistance (rest rolling resistance of tires, internal resistance/inefficiency, etc) so I expect similar gains here. Another inspiration is the rumoured "KFC Chicken" that would have been manipulated to have six legs and two wings.

[EDIT: Other precedent is Sleipnir, eight-legged horse Loki gave birth to, after turning himself into a mare when his father demanded he sabotage the fortification of Asgard in one season, and belonged to Odin. I also thought of the six-legged dog that is on the logo of the ENI fuel brand (Italy) which was the result of a 4000-entry competition.]

Of course you can scale this up to see where the limits of speed gains are as you lose agility (turning circle at 20pairs??) and the brain having to coordinate all those legs (and pairs would clash if too close to each other) so some careful breeding and admixing arthropod DNA will be needed (or mollusc DNA, as octopuses seem to have a help-brain for each leg/arm/tentacle).

Just don't think "Equine centipede" and you will sleep well.

With apologies to Wikimedia Commons uploader Carine06 for messing up their nice photo for my majestic lord of the steppe. (Not sure where I was going with the tail, but it's like the go-faster-stripes on sportscars, cutting out parts makes you lighter hence faster.)

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Mechanical Horse

I mean, why have a better horse, when you could literally have a machine? Joking, but this horse is a mechanical horse, needing no food or need to be cleaned up after. It would be powered by gasoline, so it may even put motorcycles out of business! Though, a steam turbine can also do.

Horses with Reshapes Bones

Okay, this one is more plausible. Sure, genetic therapy did not exist back then, but there we can still raise horses a certain way and give bone surgery. Based on how cheetahs move fast we could apply that to horse legs, and reshape them so they move even faster. Just as they grow over time, tie weights to them, so their bones grow a certain way.

Don't get rid of cars, change their mechanism!

Just build a vehicle with four wheels, place a treadmill on it, and let the horse run! It can also be supported by steam or oil.

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