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I am writing a fiction set in the 'dark ages', a pre-industrial, pre-gunpowder world. On Earth that would be no later than 800 AD, but this doesn't have to match Earth. There is no magic, and I won't inject any.

It is useful to my story line to eliminate horses as a mode of fast travel. I do mention oxen, cattle, sheep and goats. Those can be ridden, but not for a major speed advantage over just a good human runner. Thus far I have not mentioned anything to do with horses, and I don't intend to introduce them.

So while I can continue to write the story as just "nobody has ever heard of a horse", I was thinking I might try to supply a back story reason, a myth or legend thousands of years old that the characters find a mystery, but the modern reader might recognize as why there are no horses in this world.

Why would horses, and only horses, be extinct? I have already thought of some disease, but I don't know horse anatomy or biology or their origin or history very well. For example, if there is any real-life disease that could be a plague level extinction event for horses.

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    $\begingroup$ Would humans eating all the horses count? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – Bookeater Oct 9 '17 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ They were for a long time in the Americas: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Oct 10 '17 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ America had quite a long period of dark ages (closer to the stone age than the European middle ages, actually), completely without any horses or any animal you could ride on. $\endgroup$ – vsz Oct 11 '17 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe the characters ARE horses, and they have no beasts of burden to ride. Just like horses don't. $\endgroup$ – Grimm The Opiner Oct 11 '17 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ Not directly related to your question, but as a reader, if you crafted a world with no horses in it, then specifically brought up the fact that there are no horses anymore instead of just never mentioning them, I'd be very confused if you didn't at some point have a horse show up in the story or at least have the idea of or horses old become relevant. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Oct 11 '17 at 18:02

23 Answers 23

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The horses cannot be domesticated

You say...

It is useful to my story line to eliminate horses as a mode of fast travel

Well then, that is easy. In your alternate world...

Horses have the temperament of and a (lack of) family structure like zebras.

This video by CGP Grey explains the matter simply: Zebra vs Horses: Animal Domestication

Horses were domesticated in Eurasia, but humans started in Africa which has Zebra. Why didn't the first humans ride out of Africa on the backs of Zebra to conquer the world?

Because zebra are bastards. They live to kick and bite: dangerous in a pre-penicillin world. And Zebra also have a ducking reflex making them very frustrating to lasso.

In addition to being a real pain in the ass animal, Zebra lack a family structure. Horse herds hierarchy -- you can see it when they travel in a line: the male, top female, her foals, second female, her foals, and so on. Humans, by capturing and taming the lead male, become head horse.

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    $\begingroup$ Brilliant. Obviously I knew Zebra were not domesticated, but this is the first rational explanation for WHY I have yet seen. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 10 '17 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ If the horse can't be domesticated, then it's very likely to be extinct, like other tasty large mammals (outside Africa, where they co-evolved with humans and had millions of years to adjust) that can't be domesticated. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Oct 11 '17 at 13:02
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My suggestion is to write the story without horses. In-universe, no one knows what a horse is, so no one wonders why they became extinct/never evolved first place. Meta-universe, if the story is compelling, readers won't question why there are no horses. Unless you find it necessary to introduce myths and legends about an ancient time when there were horses, there should be no difficulty; and if you do, well, a deluge, a rain of fire, a punishment by the gods, or any other mythical explanation would be popular among the people, with no need to make such mythologies more than just that, mythologies.

If you absolutely need an explanation, then they were probably hunted down to extinction (as it effectively happened in the Americas). They are difficult to domesticate and use; they do not give proper traction for work before the invention of horse collars, and they are difficult to ride without the appropriate gear (reins, bridle, bit, etc.) Failure to invent those things might lead to horses being seen as venison rather than work animals.


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You say...

I was thinking I might try to supply a back story reason, a myth or legend thousands of years old that the characters find a mystery, but the modern reader might recognize as why there are no horses in this world.

...

The gods answer your prayers...

The Prairie God summoned the horse, the elk, the deer, and the moose, and told them: I am creating a new beast, which I intend to inhabit the prairie. So I demand that you move elsewhere, to make room to my new creature.

"Fine", said the elk. "I am moving north, to the cold lands Your new creature won't covet, because they are so cold."

"I will go with the elk", said the moose.

"I don't like cold, so I will move to the woods, where Your new prairie creature won't go, said the deer.

"I don't believe any of this", said the horse; "You know what, I am staying exactly where I am".

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  • $\begingroup$ Why would horses be specifically hunted to extinction but not deer, elk, or moose, all of which are difficult to domesticate, ride or use for work. I don't know if there is a non-arbitrary answer to that (I think it arbitrary to say they taste better, or are the right size, or the ancients knew of a trap, etc.) Failure to invent the gear is a good thought, but didn't American Indians ride without any of it? $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 10 '17 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus Deer, elks, mooses, are animals of colder climates and more dense vegetation, and therefore harder to hunt, perhaps? $\endgroup$ – Luís Henrique Oct 10 '17 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ I've read plenty of books that don't mention horses once. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Oct 11 '17 at 20:42
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Read David Eddings' Tamuli - in his books Eddings describes ancient warriors brought back to current times that were devoid of cavalry because their race did not breed (war) horses. Eddings probably relates to warhorses called destriers: bulky strong animals capable of carrying a man in full armor. Hence, horses were not extinct, but simply not suitable for carrying armored knights because they were not yet bred into war horses.

However, 'normal' horses used for 'normal' travel have been bred to perform this task too (see this wiki page).

Also note that the native American Indians didn't have horses not until they were imported by the colonists. Hence, dependent on the colonization status of your world, horses may simply have not dispersed yet outside of their original geographical locations.

You can work your way around things, without dismissing the normal evolution of the horse (Fig. 1). For example, you can also say the evolution of the horse stopped in the late Eocene, leaving horses too small to ride except by little kids.

bighorse Fig. 1. Evolution of the horse. source: wikipedia

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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly horses originally did evolved in North America, then spread into Eurasia and then went extinct in North America. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Oct 9 '17 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed. Horses as we know them aren't any more natural than chickens or dogs or cows. We have bred them into the animals they are now. The ancient egyptians fought in war chariots just because then horses weren't big enough to carry a man on their backs. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Oct 10 '17 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft Do you have a source for that? While smaller than modern horses to my knowledge ancient Egyptian horses were large enough to ride. The main difference was the lack of saddles, without which riding (especially into battle) was much harder. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 10 '17 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ I think the source was one of the Isaac Asimov books on ancient history, but I'm not sure. However, this was in the early Egyptian empire, contemporary to the primitive accadian empire. Later on, bigger horses were introduced in the empire. I think egyptian chariots were made of wicker for the same reason: they had to be as light as possible. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Oct 10 '17 at 14:21
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Plague

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, the hand of the Lord will strike with a deadly pestilence your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites.”‘ The Lord set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.” And on the next day the Lord did so; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not one died. [Exodus 9:1-6, NRSV]

In your world there was a plague in ancient times. Many people died but other animals too - maybe all the cats, or all the ducks. Epidemic disease affecting only horses like equine flu did sweep the world in historic times. A worldwide disease like plague to which horses were very susceptible would probably kill all horses associated with people, leaving only the wild ones out on the steppe.

Your characters might encounter ancient depictions of horses and debate what they are doing. It is the kind of world color that you do not need to dwell on. But a mention in passing is like drawing 3 bricks in the brick wall - given 3 the reader will imagine the rest.

assyrian fresco of horses and riders


I changed my mind about the ducks. But the cats can still go.

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    $\begingroup$ Without invoking smiting by an angry god, a new variety of tetanus that was carried by bot flies could destroy 50-75% of the horse population in a single generation. Repeat year and year and the horse population could die out in a few generations. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Oct 10 '17 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ @GaryWalker Each generation of horses would become rapidly resistant to the tetanus in that scenario though. Losses would be lower each year. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 10 '17 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB Yes, but how long would it take for horse populations to recover? It might be long enough for them to be effectively extinct from the limited perspective of a dark ages society. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Oct 10 '17 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Tim B: If there were low genetic diversity in a relatively recently domesticated population (perhaps domesticated from a limited number of founder individuals) , there might not be any disease resistance polymorphisms present to give rise to the resistant population in surviving generations. It would be like the Irish potato famine, but with horses. $\endgroup$ – Willk Oct 10 '17 at 19:27
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Combination of factors. Revolving around a very small parasite

I propose a sequence of events consisting of a drought combined with a pandemic followed by a severe parasitical infection with a flying vector together with a climate change so it spreads to all of the horse's habitat.

Extinction usually is caused by a combination of factors; first the species is decimated and once in decline with a smaller habitat and reduced viability of individual specimen it soon enters that critical stage where it takes little to finish the species off.

Starting point

Let's assume horses are domesticated and have spread to all continents, to start. Humanity travels, has colonized, but still lacks thorough understanding of the causes of diseases and how they spread.

Setting the stage

Every once in a while due to for example changing weather patterns from el Nino a drought occurs. If this draught is severe enough and coincides with a pandemic of a newly introduced and so especially virulent cattle disease it it can depopulate a fairly large region. Once the stage is set the fields become overgrown with wild bushes providing a hiding place for a disease carrying fly. This population explodes making the area totally unsuitable for horses, killing them off, and badly suited for all other livestock permanently crippling the ability to support mixed farming and thus any population at all.

This gets you a staging area from which to kill off the rest of the horses world-wide.

How to eliminate any escape

Now enter some clueless travelling people and changing (warming?) weather patterns.

People don't like this turn of events and the survivors flee the area. They take with them all they can carry, and all that can walk. So the surviving but increasingly sick livestock carrying the parasites and the flies come along nicely. They flee as far as they can towards all the corners of the known world and maybe discover a bit more along the way.

This scenario works with everything bigger than a caravel up to steam boats and spreads the problem to all continents.

Next have some horses escape, bringing just a few infected flies with them to contaminate the local horses. Due to unseasonal (warm?) weather the vector survives killing off most specimen eventually. The remainder becomes smaller, weaker, rarer and has trouble to breed. Give or take some few decades and the last survivors succumb.

All you need for this is the flies being present in sufficient numbers across all of the horse's habitat.

Background

Sounds far-fetched? Wel... Even today a large part of Africa is void of livestock due to nagana (a sleeping sickness variety spread by the tse tse fly). Horses are particularly susceptible. This came about after a drought that concurred with the introduction of rinderpest to the continent, causing the African big game preserves we all know today. Throw in a bit of Australian rabbit husbandry and extrapolate the horse's extinction in North America and you are almost there already.

References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsetse_fly
http://www.who.int/trypanosomiasis_african/country/history/en/
https://www.alternatehistory.com/forum/threads/sleeping-sickness-resistant-horse-breeds.383852/
http://horseflynet.com/blog/?p=351

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Centaurs

Here is a fun one. Horses existed and were domesticated in the past. Then the horse riders were exterminated along with the beasts!

On your world, horses are rare and hard to domesticate. One tribe manages the trick of it though. Think Mongols, but for whatever reasons, the do not expand into mongol horde like dimensions and Ghengiz Kahn or Atila the Hun never survived long enough to be a threat. They are isolated geographically.

Like the Mongols, they are expert archers. Since the Horses are rare, and likely extinct everywhere else. When they come thundering over the horizon, the combination of horse and rider give rise to legends of Centaurs.

This is "other" enough to make sure the closest kingdoms armor up with pikes and shields and push the Proto-Mongols back behind your equivalent of the Gobi Desert.

They would appear often enough to stay within human consciousness, but would be butchered quickly because the combination of Horse and rider is so very dangerous.

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My suggestion would be to instead have them not be domesticated. If they can't be caught and trained reliably and predictably then there's no use to humans. You can look at zebras for instance, they are much harder to domesticate and are more aggressive, so are very rarely ever used for transportation or field work. And with that they are only seen as possible food or just ignored.

If they must absolutely be extinct instead of not being used, then you could come up with that without human interaction and breeding then they were more susceptible to predators/people for eating. When more people are wanting to hunt and kill horses instead of catching and training them, then you have a recipe for a dwindling population and easily a possible extinction.

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If you're open to it being not Earth, place it on a far off space colony. In a world with no faster than light travel, a lost colony could easily be isolated from other planets and suffer technological regression to 'dark age' tech levels.

The original colony ship had embryonic samples of all the desired species to be seeded onto the world, but some of them were lost during the early terraforming of the world. Maybe an accident, maybe intentional sabotage, whatever the reason, the horse embryos were lost and thus no horses have ever been on this planet.

In terms of myth, the people may have tales of these lost mythic animals, like zebras but domesticated, or cows but faster and more willing to be ridden. There could be many legends of these first men who walked among the stars like gods and came from another world in the sky.

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  • $\begingroup$ A Space colony would be too jarring a change for the reader; from the beginning they are immersed in a dark ages world with no hint of high tech. I think if I added a thread that hinted at them being a colony from another planet, readers would expect it to be resolved, and it would not be. I think my story may end in a bloody political overthrow, for example. (I haven't gotten to the middle yet, my protagonist may think of a better way.) $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 10 '17 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ I can recommend Anne Mcaffreys Pern series for a good example of this kind of tech disjoint. The early books have a medievalesque society and some musings on lost knowledge, later on the series gets it’s science fiction boots on and starts kicking, including pointing out some very subtle hints in the very first book that that was going to happen all along. Similarly there’s Pratchett’s Truckers series, if you fancy a lighter (and smaller in multiple senses of the word) version of the same theme. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Oct 10 '17 at 14:52
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Plague, not on horses, horses are still around and doing quite well but a plague stemming from horses. Smallpox is a, potentially lethal, mutant form of the rather harmless Cowpox. If Horsepox, which is completely harmless to, and virtually invisible in, horses, is deadly to humans and readily jumps from horses to humans in close contact with them then no-one and I mean no-one is going want to keep horses, or maybe not even hunt horses as a wild meat animal.

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Removing horses is easy as choosing different continents. Americas didn't had horses till conquistador brought them.
In Europe, Asia and Africa they were know because region of it domestication was near all those places. Just move your dark age to different continent or move horses to different one. You can have stories of those four legged creatures brought by those brave Vikings who plunder, rape but also does speedboating.

Another way is to use the same belief native Americans had toward people on horses. And connect it with your dark age grimoires. So horses were domesticated by Asians but Europeans thought that person on horse is a centaur-like monster. A horse without rider would be a mutant of that species or some kind of cursed or half dead creature.
Maybe used to move dead bodies but not live ones.

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    $\begingroup$ Not true. NA USED to have horses, in fact it was probably where the horse evolved, but they went extinct in NA 10K years ago, probably a combination of hunting and environmental change. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Oct 10 '17 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonK I would like to add the North American horse was the size of a goat. The term "wild horses" is a mysnomer. Technically they are feral horses and an invasive species. Mentioning such facts will not win you friends at the local hoedown. $\endgroup$ – gwally Oct 11 '17 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ @JasonK Cool, we domesticated horses 3,5K years ago but NA had them but they died 10K years ago. Where to you want to put emphasis on the "horse"? $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Oct 11 '17 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ Point being that if the animal can go extinct on a continent partially due to human interaction once, it can do so again. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Oct 11 '17 at 13:46
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This might be more of a writing answer than a worldbuilding one, but hopefully it'll help.

The two aren't necessarily exclusive. You can have a world where "nobody has ever heard of a horse" but still have an explanation for what happened to the horses or why they never came to be. You don't just have an audience, but also a narrator, and the narrator doesn't necessarily need to be tied to the in-universe world.

For example, in Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery, the narrator is an anachronism. The novel was written in 1975, well after the story takes place. At one point, the narrator actually takes quite a bit of time to explain in detail a conceptual error that a character makes because our understanding of physics had not advanced far enough when the story takes place, and how future engineers would address related problems. In this case, the narrator knows more than the characters or even any possible narrator within the setting.

So myths or legends, while a great option, aren't the only way you can address the absence of horses. You could simply explain to the reader that horses never existed or that they went extinct, or whatever you decide, while still maintaining that "nobody has ever heard of a horse."

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One effect that happens with domestication is that there tends to be less genetic variety; if one breed becomes popular, it can come to dominate the gene pool within a few generations. This can then make the species less resilient to disease. If all the horses on the world are descended from one sire, and that sire is susceptible to a particular disease, then you could have all the horses go extinct.

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Does your world have camels? Llamas, domesticated or free? Kangaroos? Domesticated Elephants? Do you explain why or why not you have any of the above? Or explain why you do have cattle or goats?

In my book, you need no justification for the absence of horses, unless your story is so similar to historical Earth, that for all practical purposes it takes place there, except not by name. And if that were the case, I would say that was a more pressing issue with your story, above the absence of horses.

Middle Earth doesn't take place on Earth, despite their very similar names. How do we know? Well, middle Earth has magic, and orcs, elves, dwarves, wizards, etc., none of which exist on earth. However, almost everything else they share with Earth. There's gravity, sun, stars, and moon, with days and nights; ponies, horses, and Oliphants (but no oxen or donkeys, unless they were never mentioned because they didn't fit into the story); they have tobacco, tea, trees, and other plants; lakes, rivers, and seas. In other words, it's Earth with a few changes, and nothing really needs explanation (though Tolkien does give a fascinating account of that world's creation through in-world myths).

I don't think you have any problem explaining the absence of horses in Not-Earth.

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Perhaps horses did evolve there but at some point went extinct due to climatic changes (as happened to horses in the Americas). Perhaps cows were able to digest certain food stuffs that horses could not and were able to survive in areas that the horse could not.

Perhaps horses were hunted to extinction in ancient history whereas cows were regarded as sacred and survived.

Species specific diseases are entirely possible and even if a disease does affect multiple species it might affect one species much less than another.

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All you really need is a previous empire that REALLY needed horses.

They scoured the known lands for horses to supply their Mongol-like hordes. Every horse was brought in for the mass invasion of XXXX, but that was the year of the Great Cold and no one ever returned. So great was the grief and anguish that the few breeder horses left were slaughtered so the empire would never again strive to venture beyond their borders.

Never underestimate the ability of humans to drive animals into extinction, at least in a specific region. The Romans did it with European lions, so it is pretty easy to imagine that a Dark Age society, presumably one that can't travel the world and bring in species from other lands, would know of something like the horse only through mosaics, tapestries, and old books/stories. If there was an emergent need for horses, such as a military expedition, they very well could strip the land of them and lose them all in some ill-fated campaign. If the raising and breeding of horses was centralized, there could also be a a poorly timed disease like Western/Eastern Equine Encephalitis (spread by mosquitoes) or Equine Brucellosis (animal to animal spread) that could wipe out the remaining herds. This would lead to a collapse of the horse industry of an area, which, if paired with a general collapse of civilization into a Dark Age, could very well lead to the horse going extinct.

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A large part of Africa has no horses due to the Tsetse fly. They used to be in North America as well..

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

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site. Please note that the Worldbuilding community strongly favors detailed answers over one- or two-line answers. Additionally, it is best to include a summary of any external links in case the link breaks in the future. You may want to edit this post to meet these standards/expectations. Otherwise, it is likely to be deleted as inadequate. Feel free to take the tour to get a better understanding of the site. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 11 '17 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ I believe everything needed including an explanation of the link is well covered in 1 line :-). $\endgroup$ – user1496062 Nov 7 '17 at 4:42
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Religion.

The horse is a beautiful and holy creature, sacred to the great god OoomphaLoompha, who once incarnated as such and impregnated the Great Turtle Goddess Iki, who took a couple minutes off from her job of holding the world upon her back to give birth to...but that's not important here. What is important is that anyone who attempts to ride, harass, chase, annoy, bother, draw pictures of, cook, eat, sully the hooves of, or in any way whatsoever impede the passage of a horse in any manner shall immediately suffer death, personally delivered by the Priests of OoomphaLoompha, who shall devour the miscreants soul, removing him from the great Cycle of Reincarnation, and etc!

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There was a book on anthropology at large called "Riffles, microbes, and steel" or something like that. What I learned from that book is that in the Southern hemisphere there was a shortage on animals that could be domestified (due to an evolutionary process, South America and Australia are like time travel for biologists).

So, horses are in Eurasia, Africa has zebras (with foul character), South America has llamas (that do not breed in captivity or whatever), Australia has kangaroos and emus (that plainly do not suffice).

My suggestion is to place the story in the southern hemisphere of Earth or such a part of an Earth-like planet that plainly has no horses.


A caveat of my suggestion: folks from other parts of the planet (with horses, rich iron ores, and demographic pressure) will come over to the region where your story is placed in a conquistador move. Sometime like 15th century in our timeline.

By the way, a caveat of a religious ban for horses (from some answers above) is: folks from other parts of the continent (with weak, but present horses, no iron ores, and demographic pressure) will come over to the region where your story is placed in a Genghis Khan ambush. Sometime like 12th century in our timeline.

Speaking about ambushes, even without horses nothing guarantees that some folks would not visit as an army (even without horses, but with Macedonian phalanx and demographic pressue) as early as 300 BC. Hello, Alexander!

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    $\begingroup$ Guns, Germs, and Steel $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Oct 11 '17 at 14:56
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Religious ban

This could be a pretty simple reason if your world has a religion powerfull enougth to impose such decision. Horses and parents have been extinct some centuries ago by human hand because of their "unholy" nature (for... reason)

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I think there's a simpler solution that many aren't thinking of.

Horses never evolved.

As for the legends, they could simply be legendary creatures in this world, like how we have dragons and minotaurs.

It's not unreasonable for another creature to spark this legend (Unusually tall cow? Disfigured giraffe?), like how we on Earth have unicorns that presumably came from horses.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! This would be a good answer, if only the question didn't state "So while I can continue to write the story as just "nobody has ever heard of a horse", I was thinking I might try to supply a back story reason, a myth or legend thousands of years old that the characters find a mystery, but the modern reader might recognize as why there are no horses in this world.", so would you be able to edit your answer to explain how these myths could still exist, only without any horses? Thanks $\endgroup$ – Mithrandir24601 Oct 10 '17 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Mithrandir24601 Ah, I was looking for where in the post everyone had seemingly seen it say something like that. $\endgroup$ – Feathercrown Oct 10 '17 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ Edited to add in an explanation. It depends on how the legends are explained if it would be clear to the reader that the legendary creatures are horses or horse-like. $\endgroup$ – Feathercrown Oct 10 '17 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ As @Mithrandir24601 said. If horses never evolved, I just don't mention them. My writing concern is that my story has so many elements that ARE consistent with the European dark ages, that readers might be wondering "where did the horses go?" The answer that they "never evolved" is not very satisfactory, I may as well say nothing, but that leaves the reader's question unanswered. So would referring to a horse in a myth: The reader would know (unlike the characters) that the horse was a real thing, so --- what happened to the horses? :-) $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 10 '17 at 17:31
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FAMINE

Look at North Korea a country that is on the cusp of advancing into the Dark Ages. They don't have many horses b/c the starving people would have eaten them a long time ago.

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  • $\begingroup$ You may want to source that answer if you're going to make these wide assertions. $\endgroup$ – Joeblade Oct 11 '17 at 15:43
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A Crusade against technology targeted them as unnatural creatures

Still leaves the possibility of some bad ass character having one while eliminating them the majority of folks.

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Revolt against elites.

Assuming that this world once had horses but now has none (as compared to a world that never had any horses), then, as in our world, they could be bred for labor and transport and become highly valuable.

In a dark ages time period the royalty and other lords could have seen horses as both an asset to themselves for farming and transport, and a liability to the peasants for the same reasons.

The aristocracy, sensing a threat to power could then deem that horses are restricted and privileged property, only for them. Anyone caught harbouring a horse would be punished.

Over decades this could cause deep resentment in the society. This could even stir a revolution. The horses could become such a symbol of the peoples repression and the power of the aristocracy that killing all the horses is seen as a justified action to "level the playing field" of the society. Once the balance of power tips toward "the people", perhaps the surviving aristocracy even kill their own horses, either to become invisible (as anyone with a horse is clearly a target) or to rob attackers of the satisfaction of victory and end the battle on their own terms.

In this world, a phrase like "they're killing their own horses" might mean those who hide from their own deeds, or those who engage a "scorched earth" policy in the face of defeat.

$\endgroup$

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