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Many fictional worlds have their civilizations (usually the bad guys) ride some sort of carnivorous animal, usually something like a wolf or a creodont. Think something like the Wargs from Lord of the Rings, though this goes as far back as the Thracian Mares.

It has often been pointed out these kinds of mounts are very inefficient because it costs a lot more to feed an animal meat than keep an animal with a simpler, more cost-efficient diet like grass. We all know the real reason why these characters are riding carnivorous animals: because it's cool. But how could this be justified in-universe?

Assume for a moment a civilization has to make use of a carnivorous, vaguely creodont-like mammal as a mount or beast of burden like the Lord of the Rings Wargs. Say this is the only easily tamable animal that civilization has access to that can bear the rider's weight or something, with the other animals in the environment either being too small, too aggressive, not having the right body shape to bear loads, etc. What would be the most effective way to feed these animals?

It is okay if these animals are somewhat omnivorous or can be fed non-animal protein. I am more trying to figure out how to preserve the image of someone riding a carnivorous, wolf-like beast that can eat their targets if given a chance.

Mostly what I was wondering if there is some kind of protein rich food or way of storing animal protein that would make it (relatively) cost-efficient to feed these animals, assuming these animals are technically omnivores but are still primarily predators.

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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
    Apr 24, 2023 at 19:20

16 Answers 16

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They fill the role of Horse, Dog, and Cat in one

We humans started adopting cats because without them our towns get over-run by vermin that eat our food and spread diseases. But orcs don't worry so much about wee little grain hungry rats getting into their food supplies because everyone knows grains are not the staple food item of the Orc anyway. Orc's staple crop is actually the mushroom, and their biggest pest animal is the wild pig. Wild pigs can smell mushrooms from miles away and are drawn to orc camps like moths to a flame... always trying to sneak into the mushroom fields for a free feast, and cats are just too darn small to do anything about it. So, orcs domesticated Wargs instead. The Orcs let them roam the camps and farms at night hunting for pigs the same way that we rely on cats for mice. This makes these large alpha predators as self-sufficient as a horse allowed to graze, while also filling a symbiotic relationship with the Orcs by controlling local pig populations.

We humans also adopted dogs because they make great guard animals. They warn us of danger while we sleep and can put up a pretty good fight while we stumble around in the dark looking for a weapon. Since your Wargs are already patrolling the camp site looking for pigs, they also make good guard animals like a dog.

The fact that the Wargs are so big also naturally makes them a good substitute for horses. Sure, the Orcs could try owning both horses and wargs, but A: it's a bit of a waste of resources to own a horse when you already have a warg, and B: it's hard to keep the wargs from eating your horses. So, when the Orcs have to choose between owning a Warg and a horse, the Warg just makes more sense.

Instead of domesticating 3 separate animals, the Warg is like the Swiss-army knife of domestic animals. So sure, during a long campaign, you may need to pack plenty of meat since the Wargs won't have time to hunt, but in day-to-day life, they pull thier weight so well that it's totally worth it.

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    $\begingroup$ This may be a dumb question, but... Why don't the orcs eat the pigs? $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2023 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Blueriver That assumes orcs are carnivores or omnivores, and that there isn't anything in fantasy-pork which is toxic for orcs. Tolkein's orcs clearly fit that bill, but it's less clear for other orcs (notably the Games Workshop version). You're also assuming fantasy-pigs are the same size as our pigs; and even there, wild boars are dangerous enough that humans bred very large dogs to help us hunt them. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Apr 21, 2023 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ Also, if the wargs are left to patrol the mushroom fields at night, then far fewer orcs have to be posted overnight to supervise (pretty much just one or two to make sure an overeager warg doesn't chase a pig too far off and get lost); otherwise you have to practically put together a small hunting band just to deal with the wild boars, and those folks are going to want to sleep during the day and be otherwise largely useless. $\endgroup$
    – Doktor J
    Apr 21, 2023 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Blueriver In addition to Graham's response, If the Wargs have a cat like mentality, they will be bred to kill pigs whether they are hungry or not. So just like cats like to leave thier humans leftovers as gifts, the Wargs may in fact bring the Orcs dead pigs that the orcs don't even need to hunt themselves. So this could be a case of free meat being better than more meat. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 21, 2023 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ @DoktorJ another possibility is that Orcs are not necessarily as big and tough as humans, and wargs are not necessarily the size of a horse. Something people often forget about Tolkien's Orcs is that they were much closer in size to hobbits than humans. Since a wild boar can be pretty big and dangerous to hunt even for a full sized human, a smaller goblinoid may find them too dangerous to want to tangle with on a regular basis. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 21, 2023 at 16:58
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It's expensive but cool, therefore it is reserved for the elite. If only few can afford to have them, the beasts become even more precious status symbols.

If there is a whole band of warriors riding them, then it means the group is in a league of its own. They are willing to make the extra effort to maintain the image, and, typically, it means that they are making the effort to exploit others.

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1: the Husky route.

Imagine having a large bunch of Huskies strapped in front of your sled and having to feed all of them on your trip. That’s going to be a lot of food on your sled just for them. So the original solution was to just set them loose after the day’s travel and the Huskies would hunt and eat everything they could find and catch, then return to the camp. As long as your area’s are expansive enough and with enough prey animals capable of living there, you can have a group of carnivorous mounts.

2: hunt and preserve. Your mounts can eat only so much, but they can’t preserve food. You can. Training them to bring leftovers, or even to hunt specifically to bring back for the owners to preserve or eat, would be a solid tactic in case not enough food can be gathered at the next stop.

3: Nuts and other high-proteïne food. Most hunter animals can absolutely eat them, wolves and Bears being a good example. Nuts are relatively easy to keep fresh as long as you keep them dry and perhaps roast them.

4: insect farms. Most carnivores can eat various insects. Some insects like grasshoppers could be cultivated in dark boxes where you just throw in plant matter. This would just be a supplement unless you bring ridiculous amounts of these boxes to grow insects. Although this could be simply be part of your non-combattant group that follows the army.

Ways to make it easier to have such animals:

  • hibernate on command. Some carnivorous animals can hibernate, like bears. If your animals can pack away a ton of food and hibernate afterwards you can maintain a much larger population during peacetime or when your area isn’t close to the frontline at that point. Just wake them up in advance, animals that hibernate need to alter their hormones to get back to normal functioning.
  • That’s it, couldn’t think of more options right now.
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  • $\begingroup$ And add to this the method used by polar explorers like Amundsen: just feed the slowest ones to the others. When he reached the coast he had one dog remaining ! Use this method on military raids where speed and discretion is important (no added weight). Or when retreating. You can also feed them your dead... $\endgroup$
    – dargaud
    Apr 22, 2023 at 19:50
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Temporary War Form

Like the salmon or butterfly, these mounts are normally unremarkable, but can transform temporarily into something better suited for war. During war they eat enemy soldiers.

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When the Westerners attacked they rode these big scary pig monsters.

enter image description here

They fed them with our fallen comrades. It was demoralizing. We named the mounts the Demoralizing Pigs.

Once we realised the pigs only ate meat, we used scorched earth tactics to starve them. With no fresh meat, the Demoralizing Pigs rebelled against their masters and we mopped up the rest.

Then we made our own invasion. We were prepared to fight more Demoralizing Pigs (we made special long sticks). But the only pigs we found in the West looked like this.

enter image description here

Not a Demoralizing Pig in sight!

In any case we took all the pigs and brought them home. They taste nice. All was well until one of them got loose in a graveyard. It dug up Auntie May and feasted on her corpse. Two weeks later that pig mutated into a Demoralizing Pig.

It turns out the Demoralizing form is a short lived war form. The pigs are raised and trained as normal pigs. Only when it is time for war are they fed human flesh. This mutates them so they become big and scary. But they also need flesh to live in this form. Good thing we are at war!

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Plenty of Prisoners

Yeah, that's right, we going there.

Trial by Jury? Nope.
Mandatory Appeals? Nope.
Hanging Judges who sentence death at the slightest infraction? Yep.
Sentences carried out almost immediately? Yep.

That's how you keep them fed - by feeding anyone unfortunate enough to be convicted of a capital crime to them. There's lots of crime and the Justice system is much more swift (if not more error prone - but everyone is a sinner anyways, so...)

If you throw in Vagrancy as a crime as well, then you get to kill two problems with one animal - Law and order is maintained and there's no pesky beggars in the street. Win Win!

In addition, Hunting trips for non-game animals (think other, wild predators) that provide sport for the nobility, but also a steady supply of fresh meat for the beasts - and you've pretty much got yourself sorted.

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    $\begingroup$ Also a great way to ensure discipline in the bad guy army: The cowardly, insubordinate, incompetent and weak get fed to the commander's mount. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Apr 21, 2023 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ If half your army is there to feed the mounts, then that's both an expenses problem and a morale problem. I wonder if you can get into enough fighting so you can feed your mounts with your enemy's army instead. I mean, your army's definitely going to have a good incentive to go fight the other guys. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2023 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ What do you feed the prisoners? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Apr 23, 2023 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan - probably bread and cheese. $\endgroup$ Apr 23, 2023 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord I’m not certain, but can’t wolves and bears live on bread and cheese? Putting a step in the middle (prisoner eating it and wasting energy turning it into meat and movement) would be a waste then, and feeding it directly would be more efficient. Prisoners would then simply not be fed and used as supplements rather than main food for efficiency? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Apr 23, 2023 at 7:32
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Meat eating animals can ingest a lot of calories and thus be more powerful. They also need to eat less as meat is energy dense. An elephant eats 150Kg a day, which is a huge mass of food. Logistically it will be much easier to transport meat than a huge volume of grass, even if the food costs more. Taking into account the cost of transporting food, it likely will not be more expensive to supply.

Bonus, you can let them eat the bodies of the enemies you have conquered.

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    $\begingroup$ It is better to not let carnivorous beasts learn that people can be food. Most trainers use learned helplessness and condition the animals to believe the handler is the only one who can give them food. Not that the handler can become food in a pinch. - - - So, no. I don't think letting the beasts feast on the enemy is a very reasonable and civilized thing to do. But if the beast-riders are monsters or villains, then go for it. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2023 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ @MindwinRememberMonica Better, yes, but if someone can control the beasts that feast on people, and not end up being eaten themselves, it makes having them even more fearsome. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2023 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ "it will be much easier to transport meat than a huge volume of grass". Meat rots a whole heck of a lot faster than grass, oats or hay. Thus, it's less easy to transport meat. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Apr 20, 2023 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki humans don't even directly eat salted meats. It must be soaked for days, and then typically is cooked in some sort of soup/stew. (Sailors had it rough back then...) $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Apr 20, 2023 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ "Logistically it will be much easier to transport meat than a huge volume of grass, even if the food costs more." and yet somehow we've ridden horses and oxen and other animals without needing to carry food for them. By virtue of the food being already present wherever you arrive. So, the point made there only makes sense in the absence of abundant vegetation everywhere. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Apr 21, 2023 at 16:30
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Herds of goats

I have crunched a whole heap of numbers for a comparable problem in a story I have almost finished and there is no good solution. The best I could come up with is a significant logistics "tail" for the cavalary consisting of herds of goats that are progressively slaughtered and replenished - goats being the preferred prey animal because they can eat almost anything, with the bonus that there's plenty of goat hair and hide produced for other purposes. (For a consistent society, have goat leather and textiles woven from goat hair as cheap and ubiquitous because the cavalry consume so many goats.)

One of the practical effects of carnivorous mounts in cavalry, as noted elsewhere, is that the cavalry will be a small, elite group because it is simply not feasible to sustain a large force. There will also be a temptation to use it for something all the time because it is just too expensive to be left idle. Consequence for society is that there will be a surplus of mounted couriers, because it is a simple and less dangerous activity compared to the alternative. Idle cavalry will need to be exceedingly rich - with individual riders controlling large estates with herds of goats to feed their mounts - or mercenaries/bandits constantly undertaking high-paying (= high risk) jobs to keep their mounts fed. (An alternative is to have large free range areas where the mounts can go hunting, but this tends to require 3-10 times more area to feed the same number of mounts as can be achieved by goat herding. If you do go the free-range concept, the owners of the cavalry will definitely exterminate any predators competing with their mounts for prey animals.)

Along similar lines, deployments of cavalry will be small and/or for short, sharp actions. Noting that the majority of military actions in ancient and medieval times were sieges rather than battles, the implications should be obvious - cavalry cannot afford to be caught in a besieged city/town/castle or the mounts will quickly run out of food. By the same token, it would require a major logistics effort to feed a cavalry force supporting a siege.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that a besieged city/castle with cavalry is even more dangerous. Chances are, the mounts aren't going to just lie down and starve to death when there's a bunch of little sacks of meat with crunchy outsides running around completely distracted by the siege. $\endgroup$
    – Doktor J
    Apr 22, 2023 at 17:30
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You have a few options.

First remember almost nothing can eat only meat, hypercarnivores are very rare.

  1. If they are more like omnivores, AKA wolves and creodonts, you go with a lot of leftovers. You feed them the leftovers and carcasses of meat animals, mixed with grain and vegetables, think pigs or dogs.

  2. If they really are hypercarnivores, go for fish. Fish are a lot more efficient than most meat animals you can farm. as a bonus many farmed fish can be fed damn near anything. If you are going premodern then you can get massive fish hauls, prior to modern times net fishing could yield so much fish and shellfish would be used as cheap fertilizer.

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What are your characters eating? Chances are, you can feed your mounts the same way you feed your characters.

When your characters go hunting, they butcher their kill and eat the meat. They're left with a lot of less-palatable offal like the heart, liver, and other organs. Some cultures like the Scottish developed limited use for these, but most cultures discard them as unpalatable or even taboo. Your culture does not eat this offal for themselves, but instead uses it to feed their mounts. You could even have the act of sharing your kill with your mount be a sort of bonding experience that approximates the relationship these animals would have with their kin.

When you're on the move and need something you can store for extended periods and transport with you, jerky is easy to make and will keep for a long time. That wouldn't be your primary food source, but you'd use it as a protein supplement to whatever else you're feeding them (grass, scavenged produce, etc).

I don't know what your technology level is, but you could also mirror the way we produce dog food. Mix meat with filler like rice or beans, grind it into a paste, and either can it or make kibble by extruding and baking it.

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It's gonna be hard to explain

Two problems. One, it doesn't make sense for these to be the only animals able to support their weight ─ the largest animals in any ecosystem will always be the herbivores. Two, it doesn't seem like there's any reason for this aside from it simply being cool. And if it's for speed, remember that predators and prey are in an *arms race* ─ neither will be faster than the other for too long (at least in general).

But if you really want an answer...

But if the people riding them are small (e.g. gnomes, halflings/hobbits, dwarves etc), it would be plausible that they could be small omnivorous mounts, too ─ wolf-esque.
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Horses have been known to eat meat. Some societies feed their horses meat on a regular basis. There are stories of man-hunting horses. So, we don't need to invent a new animal. Horses fit the bill already.

https://www.nationalequine.org/feeding/horses-eat-meat/

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  • $\begingroup$ "But tiger fat is now excluded" - classic! $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Apr 22, 2023 at 15:46
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Herding rideable carnivore

As you note, it is harder to feed carnivorous mounts. What makes this even worse is that such animals require more of basically everything the bigger they get. Notably hunting grounds and meat.

We can see this well with two examples. Wolves and tigers. Wolves aren't the largest by far, but because they are often in groups they still need a lot of space to get enough food. For tigers it is much the same, though they are much more solitary. They have huge hunting grounds and tolerate few others. This is a tactic to still have enough food.

A rideable carnivorous mount is near certainly solitary, unsocial and cannot be tamed because of it's size and requirements to survive. Unless it can make due in a different way. For this we can look at one other big predator. Humans.

Most humans used to roam huge swathes of land to hunt and gather enough food. This was reduced by insane amounts by two inventions. Husbandry and farming. Your carnivorous mount can do much the same thing. It can start herding animals to gain enough food. This is best done in a group, laying the groundwork for an animal that can be tamed. They protect the herd from harm, making sure the herd prospers as they eat some of them.

Conclusion

Your huge carnivorous mounts come with a herd attached. You tame the group, which will lead the herd to wherever. It's own travelling and replenishing food source, much like camp followers with an army in many ways.

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Cat that looks a lot like Puss

Cat kibble

You can't ride my cat Puss. She is only a normal (small, actually, she was a runt) sized cat. But what does she have in common with a carnovorous mount?

She can subsist* on kibble that is mostly grains and vegetable protein with a little meat mixed in, if necessary.

Providing there's enough protein and it tastes like meat, mounts will eat it and live. The amount of meat needed is minimised.

Obviously, the mounts are rewarded after battle with fresh meat, which greatly increases aggression in anticipation. Puss becomes like a scale version of a lion, roaring at our other cats which are far larger than her when there is fresh meat to be had. The sonic expressions of aggression out of our tiny sweetie have to be seen to be believed.

  • We don't feed her much kibble; she prefers wet food and, of course, real meat.
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Sledge dogs can be fed sledge dogs, as Roald Amundsen demonstrated on his trip to the South Pole.

In normal circumstances, I guess sledge dogs eat seafood like their masters. Walrus, whale, fish.

Breeding exceptionally large dogs would enable small people to ride them.

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Rabbit Makes a Fine Meal

Rabbit meat can make for a pretty good supplemental food source for dogs, and it could potentially be used for your rideable carnivores as well. Perhaps your people have developed a breed of extra large meat rabbit. And they multiply very quickly as well, so it’s a pretty sustainable meat source.

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  • $\begingroup$ Mice breed faster and more frequently and have a more flexible diet. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Apr 27, 2023 at 0:43
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The mount is an apex predator at the top of a food chain, only "humans" kill them, and only if they use tools, traps and cooperate.

The animal is considerably smart. It learned to avoid humans who don't even taste all that well for all the troubles.

Humans generally avoided messing with them too because it just didn't worth it. Until they found out that the animals really like alcohol (or specific kind of alcohol or something else they can't find/make themselves).

The domestication started. A human finds an animal and gives it some booze, it wants more and follows. Being smart, it forms something like a temporary bond and works for booze. The animals hunt for food, humans give them time for it or get eaten. With civilization being somewhat primitive hunting grounds are never too far. The animal is an excellent hunter and understands that people would get upset if it eats their precious cows and sheep.

There are significant benefits in keeping a single animal long term - both parties learn quirks of each other. Abusing the mount is rather dangerous, but it may accept some hardship if it knows the rider well enough and expects to be rewarded properly.

While booze is not exactly cheap, it still beats keeping a horse which needs lots of food, care and protection. Only losers ride horses, all the cool kids have raptors.

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