Here’s a post by Judith Tarr at tor.com: Why Do Writers Abandon the Ordinary Horse for the Extraordinary Fantasy Animal?
I actually like real horses very much! I’ve got real horses all over the place in my books, though of course often enough just as a mode of transportation, not as animals with personalities. There’s only so much room to develop characters in a novel and sometimes it’s just not convenient to develop any of the horses. That’s true even though I certainly enjoy the horses in other authors’ novels, such as, oh, Tsornin in The Blue Sword or Copperhead in the Sharing Knife series.
In the Tuyo world, a few of the horses have more personality. I’m sure you’ve noticed that horses are also used to show something about the Ugaro vs Lau cultures: the former always apply gendered pronouns to animals and the Lau seldom do, though every now and then they will. That’s for both domesticated and wild animals. Did you ever notice that neither tends to give animals actual names? I’m sure the cultural reasons for that are different for Ugaro vs Lau, but no one has discussed this, so it hasn’t come up.
Anyway, of course my one true fantasy horse is the fire horse in The White Road of the Moon. What a creature he is! Both when he’s alive and later, when he’s a ghost and becomes a real character. He was a lot of fun to write. I don’t think there was a real reason I put a fantasy horse in this novel. I threw the term “fire horse” on the page pretty much at random and then came up with what fire horses were actually like as I went along, then brought one in as a minor character because it was convenient to the plot. No matter what reasons Judith Tarr may mention in her post, there really wasn’t a big reason for deciding to put a fantasy horse in the story. The dog, now, he was crucial.
So what does Judith have to say? Let’s take a look …
Ah! She’s talking about the attraction of the intelligent, verbal magical horse-like companion — and she’s not pleased with how regular animals are devalued when magical ones appear:
I start to have a problem when the fantasy animal is compared with a non-fantasy animal, and the non-fantasy animal suffers in the comparison. Oh, says the author through their characters, we love our regular animals, but they’re …so dull and plain and ordinary …. They can’t talk to us the way our fantasy animals can. And then our fantasy characters dump their poor stupid boring animals. Or use them and exploit them … the way the pony is treated in The Key of the Keplian. For all his good and loyal service, he gets a life of hard labor. Then he’s dropped by the wayside when the human he’s served so loyally is permitted to ride the Keplians. I will give McConchie one thing. She takes to heart her mentor and collaborator Norton’s fascination with alien intelligence, and tries to show us how alien the Keplian mind is and how much of a stretch it is to communicate with it. That’s nice worldbuilding. But for all her visible knowledge of and affection for horses, she doesn’t make the same effort with the horse.
That may well be a justifiable protest. Ordinary horses are indeed very cool. Now I sort of want to write a story where there are both magic fantasy horses and ordinary horses and both are valued by the same character.
You know who did something like this? Dean Koontz. What was the story with the Golden Retriever? Ah, right, Watchers. I wonder if anyone else specifically noticed that scene at the end where the people settle down with the special super-smart verbal Einstein and also a perfectly ordinary female Golden? Someone asks Einstein if it bothers him that the female Golden is an ordinary dog, not super-smart, and he says, essentially, No, no, intelligence isn’t everything! and dashes off to play with her. I liked that moment a lot, and in that scene Koontz is doing exactly what Judith Tarr wants authors to do when they include a magic horse in their stories.
In fact, Koontz includes dogs as important characters a lot, including a ghost dog in the Odd Thomas series. I don’t think I specifically had that dog in mind when I put a ghost dog in The White Road of the Moon — no, I’m sure I didn’t. The metaphysics is so different and ghosts are everywhere. Very different. But I certainly did like Koontz’s ghost dog.