Equestrianism is a major feature in many 7th Sea games—from the dreaded hussar cavalry to the nomadic Khazari horse tribes. This month, we interviewed editor, writer, and lifelong equestrian enthusiast Jaym Gates about horses in 7th Sea.
Jaym had wonderful insights to share about horses throughout history, realistic horseback travel, and the powerful bond between horses and humans that has “shaped humanity in a way no other creature can claim.”
Q: Thanks for taking the time to share your equestrian expertise with us, Jaym! Can you tell me about your own history with horses? What drew you to equestrianism and how long have you been riding?
Jaym: Man, there’s no real ‘entry’ point for me. There was never a point where horses weren’t part of my life. My family has been involved with horses for centuries, literally—my ancestors were knights and jousting fanatics in England in the Medieval era. The first picture of me on horseback was when I was a few weeks old and my mom was holding me. I understand horses more than humans.
Q: Humans have domesticated horses to support our work in a variety of ways, from racing and long-distance riding to plowing and war horses. Can you talk about the different types of horses bred for different types of work and what those horses look like?
Jaym: So, first off is breaking out the main categories: you’ve got donkeys, mules, ponies, and horses, in order of hardiness. Donkeys aren’t pretty, and most are small (‘mammoth donkeys’ are the exception, but they’re still smaller than a lot of horses), but they don’t need much food, they’re incredibly smart, and they can do a hell of a lot. Mules are the next rung up. They can be lovely animals, but tend not to be very fast, and it requires a lot of intelligence from the human to make them respect you, but mules are smart, strong, and powerful.
Then you have ponies, which are not just a height classification, but a type. Ponies are built in a more sturdy shape, with shorter legs, heavier bodies, and more durability. They take less food, can work longer, and survive more. They jump extremely well for their size, are very sure-footed, and are typically highly intelligent. The horses I grew up with were half Welsh Pony, half Arab mares, and the matriarch of our little herd could open any gate or rope that a human could, and taught her daughter the same.
Ponies cover a pretty broad range though, from the stumpy little Shetland to the massive Cobs—which are basically draft ponies—to the slim little riding ponies that are as expensive as any horse.
Horses can be divided into roughly three categories: riding horses, carriage/cart horses, and draft horses. Draft horses are your big Budweiser Clydesdales, bred to help break inhospitable land to human use, haul huge loads of materials, and yet be gentle enough to take care of the kids. Draft horses are still used in a lot of Europe and the Americas for farm and logging work, and can often access places closed to vehicles.
Riding horses are the ones most of us are familiar with, and they cover hundreds of breeds. Some of the best-known are the Greyhound-like Thoroughbred, and the small, fiery Arabian. Other popular breeds include the Andalusian, which is a Spanish breed used for dressage and cattlework, and Quarter Horses/Paints/Appaloosas, which are also cattle horses.
When you combine the bloodlines of a riding horse and a draft horse, you get the intermediate carriage-type horse, which is usually called a Warmblood (riding horses are ‘hot’, drafts are ‘cold). They tend to be a little stockier than a riding horse, but much lighter than draft horses. They were made to be strong, but also often to be attractive enough to pull an expensive coach, so some of them are quite flashy. This is also the type that is often used in equestrian sports. These range from Hollywood’s favorite black Friesian to the athletic Oldenburgs and Trakehners. Most Warmbloods that are bred as independent breeds come from Europe, many of them from the areas around Germany and England, which had strong breeding programs for cavalry horses.
Q: The domestication of horses dates back long before the timeline of 7th Sea, which is set around the late 17th century. When (roughly) did humans first begin domesticating and riding horses? Are there any major landmarks in the history of equestrianism, like the invention of new techniques or technologies, that might enter into a 7th Sea game?
Jaym: Domestication of horses was waaay back before the Assyrians and Egyptians, before we really have good records. Horses were similar to cattle for a long time in that they were food that could be domesticated and moved. At some point, someone figured out they could move a whole lot more and started riding them.
Around the 17th century, you started seeing some real interest in getting the most out of a horse. The Spanish in particular were leading the way in taking the horse’s ability as a weapon and codifying it into an art form called ‘dressage’. Middle Eastern and Moorish bloodlines were moving north, and the Thoroughbred began its journey around this time, based on Arabian blood. So you could absolutely have noblemen who’re bringing expensive trainers in to teach them this new ‘dressage’ sport, or schemes around priceless breeding stock being imported from foreign lands. Look up the Godolphin Arabian if you want a good idea of some of the intrigue there!
Additionally, wealthy Englishwomen in particular were beginning to develop a fascination with the Middle Eastern horse, and many of them made incredible trips into the Middle East to find and bring back the amazing horses there. For a time when women were barely allowed outside, some of these adventures were pretty incredible. Look up Lady Anne Blunt if you want a good idea of the things they were getting up to.
Q: In a 7th Sea game you might encounter the Khazari, a large nomadic horse tribe from the northermost part of Ussura. As you can see in the maps below, the nation of Ussura is already pretty far north. Would you see many differences between warm and cold climate horses? How about differences in body shape or stature between more formally domesticated riding horses and horses ridden by nomadic tribes?
Jaym: One of the really fun facts of history is that the Mongolians conquered a vast amount of the known world on tiny horses that were little more than scrubby ponies. They certainly wouldn’t win any beauty awards—short-legged, pot-bellied, hammer-headed, scraggy-maned—but these little guys were exceptionally tough and able to survive on very little food.
However, you get a little farther north (the area that would correspond to the Khazari), and you start getting into an ecological niche that produced a really fascinating group of unique horses, known as “The Heavenly Horse” in China and Russia. The Akhal Teke is the best known of these, but the horses of the Eurasian steppes were pretty much alike—tall, thin, long-legged, with sparse manes and thin coats, roman noses, and an almost miraculous ability to survive and thrive on next to nothing, while having incredible endurance, intelligence, and loyalty. Additionally, their coats have a unique property that gives them a metallic sheen.
Similar to the Bedouin Arabians (and related to them), these horses were raised in such close proximity to humans that they were more giant dogs than horses. Stories abounded of their care of wounded riders, their ability to find their way home from great distances, and their prowess in war. The stallions were tethered near tents and blanketed in heavy felt blankets, while the mares and young horses foraged. Before war, the horses were put on sparse diets to prepare them for the minimal food and water of a long-distance raid. During the journey, they were fed solely on cakes of mutton fat, butter, and dried fruit.
Have you seen the movie Hidalgo? The closest real race to that is a 2600 mile endurance race through the steppes. Akhal-Tekes are the only horses who run it.
Steppe tribes needed their horses to be almost uncannily smart, loyal, and capable, and stories abound of the wonder Europeans felt when they met the Eastern breeds. Most European breeds owe their background to the Arabian and Barb horse, but those same bloodlines went north and east and became the horses that Chinese emperors would pay astronomical sums for.
Q: In 7th Sea, your character might choose a background that gives them special abilities when they’re using equestrian skills. One example of this is a cavalry background, which gives you a Hero Point when you apply your riding skills to an uncommon situation. There’s also a special Vodacce background, Ride, that lets you engage in high-speed carriage chases and ride through forests at a gallop.
What would happen if someone without any equestrian knowledge just tried to hop on a horse and gallop away? What should a person be aware of before even trying to mount a horse?
Jaym: To be fair, it’s easy enough to learn to ride very quickly…if you have a very well-mannered, careful horse. There’s a reason so many trail-riding and horseback adventure groups exist. But if you want to do anything more intense, it’s going to be a challenge.
First off, the muscles used. There’s nothing else that really hits the same muscles. Horses are often used as therapy for people who can’t walk because it stimulates muscles deep in your core and back. It requires strength in your joints, hands, wrists, elbows, and arms.
Secondly, balance. Horses ‘roll’ a little when they walk, so even the walk takes a few minutes to master. The trot, the animal’s favorite gait, is hell on earth if you don’t know how to ride it (think of trying to ride two pogo sticks). The canter and gallop are easier, but what may not look very fast on the ground feels awfully fast when you’re on 1000+ pounds of muscle.
It takes courage to approach an unknown animal and open a dialog, and a willingness to learn a new language.
Thirdly, and most importantly, mental. Horses are huge, intelligent, and they have their own way of processing the world. You can beat most of them into submission, but many of them will eventually snap, and some will kill you up front for trying that. It takes courage to approach an unknown animal and open a dialog, and a willingness to learn a new language.
Q: In fantasy movies I’m always struck by the presence of horses on a long journey. Some films address the needs of the horses, and others make it seem like horses can just ride on endlessly with no water, food, or breaks. If a Hero’s going to undertake a long journey on horseback, what special care should they be considering? What should they be bringing along for their horse and how can they make horse travel feel more realistic?
Jaym: As mentioned above, it depends. A normal horse is going to need time to graze, rest, and drink water. Neglecting any of those options leads to a horrible thing called ‘foundering’, which basically means their feet give out and they can’t walk, and to potentials for colic and other illnesses.
If you’re riding at a walk, a horse can go most of the day with just a break at night and a couple of breaks during the day for water and a snack—a handful of oats, a few minutes of grazing, whatever. This can be interspersed with trotting or short periods of galloping, but the faster and longer you go, the more breaks you need, and the more work is required at those breaks. A lathered horse can’t be taken immediately to water, they have to be cooled down (walked, usually) until their respiratory system recovers, and then they need lukewarm water until they are no longer sweating—and only a little water. Too much or too cold and you’ll kill the horse. It’s a fine balance…
However, it’s not unheard of for horses to do 30 miles in a day, with good care. The horse needs to be fit, and the breaks need to be thoughtful, but it’s possible. Exceptional horses can do quite a lot more. The Bedouin Arabians are a good example. A prime horse was put through a rigorous test: run 50 miles without rest, swim at least one river (if you could find one), and come back with enough of an appetite to not only eat a full bag of oats but to not get sick from eating. Tellingly, a horse like that literally could not be sold, blood feuds lasting generations were started, and wars were fought over the theft of such a horse. Fortunes were made from the foals of these horses, or from their prowess in war or on the race track. Their loss to old age or injury was cause for as much grief as the loss of a family member. They could be gifted, but only to the most worthy of people. So the chances of any but the highest-level character owning such a horse is unlikely.
A lathered horse can’t be taken immediately to water, they have to be cooled down (walked, usually) until their respiratory system recovers…
Q: Finally, as a person who hasn’t spent much time around horses, I’d like to know how much horses bond with their owners. Do horses tend to express loyalty to one person, or to a small group of people? What are some of the emotional aspects of horse ownership that might come into play in a 7th Sea game?
Jaym: It really depends on the horse. I’ve owned horses who loved everyone, whether you had a treat or not, and horses who bonded exclusively to one person. The typical horse will bond strongly to its herd, which includes the humans it sees most and the horses it lives with. Horses are extremely social animals, they need interaction, and humans work just fine for that.
I have two horses I’ve raised from the time they were a few months old, and one horse rescued after his racing days were over. They all follow me like overgrown dogs, getting into everything and bickering with each other for attention. They call when they see me after I’ve been gone, and very clearly consider me a herd member. I have another one who, until recently, just didn’t like humans. He had no reason to, they’d never been kind to him. Recently, he’s realized that he’s safe for life, and he’s blossomed. He’s not particularly bonded to a human, but he’s friendly with all of us. The racehorse and the younger ones, by contrast, are very particular about which humans may touch them.
The typical horse will bond strongly to its herd, which includes the humans it sees most and the horses it lives with.
Emotionally, it’s amazing, and awful, and ridiculously hard to describe. Think about it: this 1000+ pound animal, who can live up to (and sometimes more than) 40 years, an animal capable of amazing feats, but this creature regards you as part of its family. It trusts you to help keep it safe, it watches your back, it has a deep emotional bond with you, and it will remember you for years of separation. It’s like a weird cross between a kid, a dog, and a friend.
That sort of emotional bond takes a toll, though. When I was 15, I had to put down the horse who’d raised me from the time I was a baby. Seriously, there are pictures of me, just a few weeks old, being held on her back. She was my best friend, confidant, nanny, and trainer. She had no problem telling me what I was doing wrong and making my life hard, but she also would go to great lengths to ensure my safety. I still miss her, and I still remember every awful time I’ve lost a horse.
I also worked for a while with an equine therapy program. We had kids who had never walked before getting up on these massive animals, and even a normally skittish, belligerent horse would steady down and walk so delicately, so carefully, paying attention to every shift and uncertainty. We had teenagers who gained the confidence to walk simply from a few rides, non-verbal kids who couldn’t stop talking to the horses, and kids who experienced freedom and power for the first time in their lives. We had one kid from inner-city Baltimore who’d had pretty much the worst hand life could give him. He didn’t see the point of horses, and he threw the brush into the pony’s face. A few minutes and one (admittedly slightly overwrought) description from me of what the horse thought of that, and he had his arms around that pony’s neck, his face buried in its mane, and the pony loved on him in return. Horses have a sixth sense for the scared, wounded, and weak.
Think about it: this 1000+ pound animal, who can live up to (and sometimes more than) 40 years, an animal capable of amazing feats, but this creature regards you as part of its family.
And sure, you can just look at it as a beast of burden, but why would you? You’re missing out on a relationship that has shaped humanity in a way no other creature can claim. If you want to experience some wonderful storytelling from someone who knew and loved horses, check out the work of Will James, who wrote about cowponies and the people they knew.