Whether your setting is gritty medieval-esque fantasy, stonepunk suburbia, or just plain bizarre, you’ll probably need animal transportation and labor. Only in the past 100 years has overland transportation been dominated by smoking, oil-drinking abominations of gears and glass; throughout history, most humans have relied on some manner of large beastie to haul around their stuff or themselves.
So let’s take a realistic look at the animals that can provide overland transportation. Which animals would a culture use to get around, and why? A complete answer requires looking beyond direct comparisons of different animals. We must invoke anthropology, geography, and engineering to understand why some animals became mainstays of overland travel, while superficially equivalent large animals did not.
But before we look at our options for overland transportation, let’s be clear about one thing: this was the least-important long-distance travel method of the ancient world. Along coastlines, travel was dominated by ships. Inland, travel was dominated by…smaller ships. Where there were waterways, there was trade and empire.* Overland transportation was common enough, but it tended to be a hugely inefficient method for transporting bulk goods. (Those famous Roman Roads? Mostly for armies.) Only on the drier open steppes and plains were animal transportation options of tantamount importance.
So if boats were so great, why was pre-Space Age Earth so chock-full of beasts of burden? Domestic non-food animals had two important roles: labor and short-range travel. Despite the human proclivity for settling along coastlines and navigable waterways, ships and riverboats can’t get you to your family farm up in the hills. The plot in your low-tech worlds may not always flow along rivers and oceans; your characters are going to have to hire a carriage or buy a mule eventually.
So without further ado, let’s look at the available options:
Ah, yes. The generic staple of every fantasy book. Nowadays when we think horse, we think “proto-car” – this is just how everyone got around before Henry Ford built a version that didn’t semi-literally fill cities with crap.* And basically, that’s what horses were, at least between 600 and 100 years ago: a common overland private transportation method. Of course, the truth is much more nuanced than that, and horses have some oft-overlooked liabilities (and benefits).
Let’s talk speed. Were horses fast? They certainly felt fast; riders are exposed and low to the ground, and more importantly, there were no faster overland transportation methods for comparison.* But top speed on a racehorse is a mere 40 miles an hour. That would have been considered wicked-fast, not to mention impossible to maintain for longer than thirty seconds. Traveling on horseback, an important messenger might manage 10-12 miles/hour, but that’s assuming she was swapping out horses as often as possible. Stuck with just one horse? That horse is going to have to stop to rest and eat. Count on averaging closer to 5 miles an hour, assuming favorable conditions.
Horses in the Roman Empire
There’s a reason horses were rare in the Roman Empire. They simply weren’t as efficient as mules or oxen for any tasks besides specialty transportation. Horses have digestive systems that are much smaller and less efficient than their bovine rivals. This was more problematic for logistics than economics; horses needed to stop and eat much more often than efficient ruminants like oxen, and their diets were more selective. Thus the economics of long-distance horse-based transportation tended to be poorer than the alternatives.
In addition, ancient Rome lacked two key horse-related inventions: the stirrup,* which made horses more effective in war, and the horse collar, which made them effective beasts of burden. Before the horse collar’s invention, yokes were used on horses. Yokes are fine on oxen,* but on a horse, they put a lot of pressure on the windpipe. So the Romans and other ancient peoples simply thought horses were less efficient for pulling carts and plows, when in reality they were just suffocating under poorly-designed harnesses. Add in the smaller sizes of ancient horse breeds and their lack of horseshoes, and one can see why the horse might be underappreciated in the ancient Mediterranean.
Horses In Other Times and Places
On the central Eurasian steppe, horses proved more efficient and essential. There, where the grass was free and ubiquitous, the horse people thrived – and did fairly well at pillaging their (non-nomadic) neighbors.*
By medieval times, horse-related technology had progressed to a point where horses had become much more integral to society – and especially to warfare. The development of a horse collar and larger, more docile breeds led to an miniature agricultural revolution, as horse power finally became more efficient than ox power for plowing fields. Their necessity for both plowing fields and mowing down infantry made them ubiquitous throughout medieval Europe. What does this mean to you, the worldbuilder? If you want your setting to have a more classical feel (e.g., ancient Rome, Greece, Judea) keep horses somewhat rare. For a medieval setting, flood your world with them.
Horses have some practical advantages beyond speed. Their prey instincts make them quick to panic, but also easy to control. They sleep the least of any mammal (4-5 hours a day; not bad) and can get most of this sleep standing up – though they have to lay down for half an hour or so for REM sleep. Even more importantly, they can be boarded in stables for reasonably long periods of time – a highly convenient feature efficient for travelers, farmers, and knights. Many other large animals simply won’t accept this.*
Bovines* make an efficient choice for any farmer who wants to get work done on his fields, or make a short, leisurely trip to market. Bovines are common farm animals the world over* and have historically been crucial sources of meat, milk, and hide for many cultures. They also happen to be large animals that humans can attach things to – things like carts or plows.*
Bovines are giant, living fermentation vats; their four stomachs and bacterial workforce lets them convert even meager, low-quality feed into fuel and protein. Low quality feedstock is problematic for most other species. Horses could spend every second of the day grazing on chaff, and not gain enough nutrition to survive, let alone carry anything anywhere. But oxen can eat chaff, tree leaves, dried hay, mash left over from brewing alcohol – pretty much anything vaguely plant-based that isn’t explicitly poisonous.
Oxen were essentially large, efficient, useful animals that saw a remarkable amount of use in transportation and overland cargo-hauling simply because they happened to be around, and someone said, “Hey look, we can attach stuff to this big animal!” It didn’t hurt that oxen aren’t easily spooked, and can handle difficult terrain – at the cost of speed. Did I mention speed? Speed is a problem. An oxen-drawn cart is the slowest overland transportation method – often even slower than walking. However, oxen were the animal of choice for pulling covered wagons in the American Old West, since they were superior to horses and (to a lesser extent) mules for endurance travel.
Mules are freakish chimeras with the size of a horse and the powerful stubbornness of a donkey. They were among humanity’s first forays into “genetic engineering.” Mules are infertile, and have 63 chromosomes, as opposed to its donkey father’s 62 and horse mother’s 64.* Donkeys were what people used when mules weren’t available for whatever reason (e.g., they predated the mule’s discovery) – for all intents and purposes,* mules were considered superior. Donkeys are also quite small – too small for most riders or large carts.
Mules are stubborn and slow – but famously strong and steady, and generally more intelligent and mild-mannered than horses. They represent a decent halfway point between horses and oxen on the speed / strength efficiency axis. As a result, they were the most common pack animal until they were replaced by steam-powered monstrosities 50-100 years ago. Mules still form a cornerstone of overland transportation in many regions, such as parts of rural China, rural Latin America, and the American Southwest’s Sierra Nevada mountains. However, mules are less-than-ideal riding animals; their niche is endurance-hauling heavy loads in balanced saddlebags across difficult terrain. If you want to get somewhere fast, horses are still the way to go.
An unfortunate quirk: mules and dogs need to be kept apart. Mules do not like dogs, and they can kick their powerful hooves sideways. These legs can serve as handy anti-wolf turrets in a pinch – but they pose a serious danger for faithful Fido.
If your characters find themselves traversing a desert, this is definitely the sort of beastie they should bring along. Camels can last infinity days without drinking or eating.* They can guzzle 30 gallons of water in 13 minutes, alter their internal body temperature within a 10°F span to no ill effect, and their hump(s)* act as a massive built-in fuel tank that allows them to forego eating for months if necessary. But wait, there’s more: a second eyelid and huge eyelashes for sandstorm resistance, specialized foot pads for efficient walking over soft yet burning sand, oblong red blood cells* – you get the idea.
Are there drawbacks? Well, it depends – are you in a desert? Then no. No drawbacks. Just use the damn camels! Are you…somewhere else? Then it gets more complicated.
Though adapted to deserts, camels are by no means limited to them. Plus, they can travel about as fast as horses over long distances, if both animals have moderate loads and aren’t being refreshed or being switched out. Despite their size,* they require only as much food as a large horse.* Though they can’t quite achieve the high charge speeds of horse cavalry, camels were in many ways superior mounts for warfare – especially since their scent spooked unfamiliar horses. (Camel cavalry usually trumped horse cavalry.) One might argue that camels weren’t common in Europe simply because Europeans already had experience with horses, oxen, and mules – and switching to superior camels just would’ve been too troublesome.* But the logistics associated with breeding and maintaining camels can be problematic, and camels did have some drawbacks.
Camels cannot be boarded; they can’t be kept in enclosed spaces for long.* Their higher intelligence and calm demeanor can be an asset, but it also makes them as stubborn as mules and more difficult than horses to command, especially when being led away from “home.” Their height makes them more difficult to mount and dismount, their riding gear is a bit more technical and not interchangeable with gear for horses, they require more salt in their diet,* and their soft footpads are optimized for the desert; they can be damaged by rugged, rocky terrain.*
What happens when you take a camel, shrink it down a bit, remove the hump, add thick luxurious fur, and move it to the icy upper slopes of the Andes mountains? I don’t know – but by a strange coincidence, llamas and alpacas live in the Andes and are close relatives of the camel.*
Humans of the New World had far fewer domestication options than their Eurasiafrican contemporaries; they had to do most of their hauling work under their own power. Yet one example stands out – the single large domestic animal of the New World: Llamas and Alpacas.* Llamas and alpacas were not large enough to effectively carry fully grown humans through difficult mountain terrain, but llamas did prove to be excellent pack animals, and were bred selectively for this purpose.* In practical terms, llamas are half-way between an Old World camel and a mountain goat – but with better meat and hair.
Sidenote: Domestic Animals and Disease
Elephants are strangely unique creatures – and not just because of their size. They are the largest, smartest, and (thanks to their fully prehensile trunk) most dexterous animals humans have ever partnered with. “Partnered” being a reasonably appropriate term, since humans have only ever tamed – not domesticated – elephants.* Of course, “abducted” or “kidnapped” could also be viable terms, since this is where all working and riding elephants come from: captured from the wild. In southern Asia, elephants are traditionally bonded for life with a mahout* – a system that works well due to the elephant’s long lifespan and capacity to form relationships.
Elephants are far and away the heaviest lifters of the animals. Intelligent enough to perform complex tasks, and strong enough to haul heavy loads and uproot trees, elephants are still important work animals today – especially for logging.* Traveling by elephant? They have good stamina, and a single rider doesn’t slow down an elephant all that much; it can still run* at about 14 mph and walk at 4-5.* A key feature for nobility and generals was the high vantage point an elephant offered; from the back of your mighty elephant, you could lord over your subjects or survey your battle, all while staying comfortably out of the fray. Denizens of the lower class would rarely, if ever, see the world from the back of an elephant.*
Of course, it should go without saying that elephants can be liabilities as well. Very large creatures can do more work – but they also require more feed and do more damage. Although Indian elephants captured from the wild can be made tame, docile, even friendly – this all breaks down when male elephants enter musth. Musth is a weeks-long period of crazed rage inflicted on adult male elephants about once a year, via a combination of aggression hormones and a highly irritating secretion that runs down the elephant’s face – seemingly only as a means to piss off said elephant. Musth isn’t even about horniness per se; it’s not true rut (the male equivalent of heat), but apparently a way to inspire male elephants to beat up other male elephants to get to the top of the dominance hierarchy. No other male elephants around? No problem – just destroy whatever happens to be available.
However, elephants can learn cultural norms, so male elephants raised around older male elephants will not cause as much wanton damage during their musth.* Musth is one of the main reasons elephants haven’t been properly domesticated; the infrastructure required to contain hyper-aggressive male elephants is significant and expensive.*
Humans have developed all sorts of technology and machinery to properly harness the power of work animals such as horses and oxen. The carts, bits, collars, saddles and so forth used by modern (and even Renaissance) animal handlers are quite sophisticated – but their ancestors were much cruder implements. These tools were inefficient, or even harmful to the animal.
It would appear that technology designed for elephants still has a ways to go. The howdah, or top-castle, used by passengers riding an elephant has poor load-distribution, and is potentially damaging to their spine or lungs.* It’s possible that howdah design optimization was simply not a priority until modern times. Constantly providing rides for tourists is a fairly recent use for elephants, and most elephants would not have worn a loaded howdah for long periods and days on end in ancient times.
Optimized load distribution doesn’t appear to be a solved problem, but that’s not to say there isn’t a swath of elephant-related technology. All manner of elephant-related implements have been designed, many of them ominously spiky or sharp. Some of these bladed bits were used by the mahouts for training the elephants; others were used by the elephants themselves in war or executions. Elephants are the only animals besides humans who can train to expertly wield weapons: they learned to kill enemy soldiers with spiked balls wrapped on their trunks, blades attached to their tusks, and other, more bizarre devices. War elephants were no mere historical quirk or minor oddity. They have been used countless times by the nations of North Africa and especially southern Asia as nearly-invincible shock troops.* Elephants were also surprisingly competent executioners – thankfully, not a use for elephants that was in any way associated with their roles in transportation.
Dogs are known as humanity’s best friend, and dogs and humans go waaay back. So far back, in fact, that we co-evolved; we can blame our early partnership with dogs for our stupidly bad sense of smell.
Dogs do all sorts of work for humans – guard duty, companionship, hunting partner, accessory – but being a bit on the small side, they’re a poor choice for transportation.* Yet there’s an important exception: dogsleds. As with camels in deserts, dogs are a top choice in snow, and have the added benefit of being more intelligent and “tuned in” to humans.
Dogs were the only domestic animal available to the first North Americans,* and they were used extensively by some northern peoples to pull sleds long before European contact. The logistics involved in maintaining a team of dogs was a bit more complex than simply maintaining a horse, partly because of the larger number of animals required to pull a single rider, and partly because the dogs play different roles – like different players on a sports team.* Sled dogs are the only carnivorous beast of burden. Yet their high position on the food chain is not as problematic as it might seem, since fat-rich meat is reasonably abundant in the far north – especially along the coasts.* One potential complication, however, is that humans (and other dogs) are made out of meat.*
Narrow, bipedal creatures known as “humans” have long been counted among the best pack animals. They’re highly intelligent, easy to train and command, self loading/unloading,* and surprisingly nimble across difficult terrain. They can carry passengers in palanquins or rickshaws – both very efficient transportation methods in urban settings. They don’t poop on the street as much as other animals, either. With proper training, humans can have one of the greatest long-distance endurances of any mammal.* The problem comes when they start asking for a living wage, which is…well, perfectly fair and appropriate. But if your setting has a human population boom driving down the cost of labor, expect many of these creatures to be carrying and transporting things for their fellow humans.*
There are a few other large animals we could consider (like reindeer, the occasional tamed bison, etc.), but we’ve covered all the standard enablers of overland travel. This isn’t to say that more of Earth’s animals couldn’t theoretically do a better job or at least find useful niches, if we could coax them to it via taming or domestication. The easiest way to put “fantasy” animals in your books is simply to domesticate some of Earth’s more fantastic creatures, like giraffes, rhinos, or emu. This may require tweaking the animal’s behavioral instincts or biology – or simply patience, ingenuity, or biotech on the part of the human domesticators. Or it could be as simple as limiting what’s available; modern humans have proven that domestication of difficult animals – like foxes – is possible, but why would an ancient human domesticate foxes when dogs were already available? The zebra is a notoriously difficult animal to tame, but humanity might have ridden pleasant-tempered domestic zebras for thousands of years if the horse had never existed. It’s all about the cost-benefit analysis; the ancients weren’t stupid. The saying “don’t re-invent the wheel,” popular among scientists, could as easily be “don’t re-domesticate the horse”. Especially not from an even more difficult starting point, like the zebra.
Of course, a creative writer of speculative fiction need not be limited by what’s available on Earth. Next time around, I’ll be discussing how to create a fantastic yet believable mount, and exploring good and bad examples of writers who have done just that.
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