“Tarns, who are vicious things, are seldom more than half tamed and, like their diminutive earthly counterparts, the hawks, are carnivorous. It is not unknown for a tarn to attack and devour his own rider. They are trained while still young, when they can be fastened by wires to the training perches. Whenever a young bird soars away or refuses obedience in some fashion, he is dragged back to the perch and beaten. Rings, comparable to those which are fastened on the legs of the young birds, are worn by the adult birds to reinforce the memory of the hobbling wire. Later, of course, the adult birds are not fastened, but the conditioning given them in their youth usually holds, except when they become abnormally disturbed or have not been able to obtain food.“
“The tarn is guided by virtue of a throat strap, to which are attached, normally, six leather streamers, or reins, which are fixed in a metal ring on the forward part of the saddle. The reins are of different colors, but one learns them by ring position and not color. Each of the reins attaches to a small ring on the throat strap, and the rings are spaced evenly. Accordingly, the mechanics are simple. One draws on the streamer, or rein, which is attached to the ring most nearly approximating the direction in which one wishes to go. For example, to land or lose altitude, one uses the four-strap which exerts pressure on the four-ring, which is located below the throat of the tarn. To rise into flight, or gain altitude on draws on the one-strap, which exerts pressure on the one-ring, which is located on the back of the tarn’s neck. The throat-strap rings, corresponding to the position of the reins on the main saddle ring, are numbered in a clockwise fashion.”
“You will come to know your tarn, and he will come to know you. You will be as one in the sky, the tarn the body, you the mind and will. You will live in an armed truce with the tarn. If you become weak or helpless, he will kill you. As long as you remain strong, his master, he will serve you, respect you, obey you.”
The above three passages are taken from the much maligned and heartily misunderstood novel, Tarnsman of Gor, published by John Norman in 1966. They are a detailed account of how an animal, vaguely corresponding to a large, mounted hawk or eagle, might be domesticated in order to be used for war and for travel. The conceptualization is thorough, detailed and quite practical, assuming such beasts might actually exist.
You will note that the animal cannot be controlled without the use of tack. Without the harness (and many other pieces of equipment that are described in the book but not included above), the tarn could not be controlled and would as described kill the rider. This is in keeping with the technology of horseback riding, which exists far less from a skill in managing the horse as it is a technology, the creation of the tack by which a horse may be managed. It is also technology in the genetic development of horses, as for thousands of years they have been bred to reduce their violent prehistoric dispositions.
An example you may have read about primitive control of horses is that American Natives would control a horse with a thong looped around the horse’s lower jaw. It helps to remember that horses were not native to the North American continent, but were left there by Spaniards in the 16th century – so that American Natives were in fact taming a horse from domesticated lines.
It is very different when one considers the wild animal that faced cultures ten thousand years ago. It would have taken much patience and effort to obtain first those comparatively gentler members of the species and domesticate them – followed by methods of weaving bits, bridles, harnesses and other means to protect the animal’s hooves and spine. Just as space travel created considerable technological leaps, horse travel must have compelled clever inventors to improve leathercraft, blanket weaving and animal husbandry (particularly in terms of hygiene and reproduction). In return, it may have been initially that for several thousand years the principal return for all this effort was merely a reliable source for dung, which serves as both fertilizer and fuel.*
Early horseback riding, prior to the development of the stirrup, meant the horse in battle could be used only as a means of reaching the melee – although I’ve spoken earlier about the horses’ application to the chariot. Rather than covering old ground, in which I’ve talked about horse combat, I’d rather move off in a different direction in keeping with the manner in which I began this blog post: riding unusual animals.
The Civ IV technology obviously doesn’t refer to diverse mounts, but the technology’s application to D&D insists that the subject be considered. I am always being asked by players if they can ride bears, dragons, rhinoceroses, pegasi, sea lions or nightmares. My answer is usually no, mostly because such creatures are not often for sale at the local ostler’s. However, there is a greater consideration. Even given the reality that a black bear could support, physically, a character halfling, how would the halfling manage the beast? How would it compel the bear to pull left or right, or climb, or charge? It is usually thought by players that some method could be worked out by pulling the bear’s hair, in a Ratatouille-like fashion ... which I can accept from a cute film but which is patently ridiculous in terms of how I view my D&D world.
If we can consider the three quotes beginning this post, there are three problems which must be overcome with any creature. First, how is it trained? Second, how is it manipulated? And third, what is the relationship between the rider and its mount? These are all things which we understand intuitively regarding horses (and donkeys and mules, with similar characteristics), because they are familiar to us from our real-world observation or experience. But what are their counterparts where it comes to pegasi, perytons, giant eagles, hippogriffs, griffons, wyverns and dragons, just to name a few?
Naturally, there is the assumption that somehow these creatures will happily allow a character to jump on their back and go for a ride. That is how it is generally sold in fantasy fiction, for it is more convenient as a writer to have the dragon haul the protagonist’s carcass to the Tower On The World’s Rim than to walk there (Tolkien notwithstanding – he still didn’t make them walk back). Since a full chapter on dominating the mount would slow the story, we are blessed that mounts are terrifically cooperative and simply know exactly where the characters might want to go – Korgoth’s pigeons, for example.
Therefore, if you as a DM are prepared to invent cultural traditions for the catching and training of axe beaks, or complicated but feasible methods of harnessing six diminutive Cerberus-clones onto a dog sled, or psychological relationships between kobalds and whopping big mice, then I say go for it. If your party is clever enough to answer these principals, goddamn, tell them to lay down and get started.
But if what you’ve done up to now is to give them a free rein to ride around on any damn creature that takes their fancy, supposedly with a bit and bridal fashioned for horses, then slap yourself three times on the wrist and have that creature break free for the horizon. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and you’re doing your campaign no good at all by giving them one. A practical farm designed by a player in order to raise a truly demented cavalry can be a worthy and rewarding campaign theme, but free rides to the dungeon are bollocks.
Now, how you might solve these problems is up to you. Magic, limited in supply but very effective in application, is a fair solution (though weak in terms of creativity) – after all, it was the one Belerophon used to tackle winged Pegasus. Institutional social custom is fair also. As Rohan was the land of the horse riders, so too can be your goblin race mounted on dire wolves, or xvarts mounted on war chickens.
It is up to you. But be thorough and have the rules and limitations ready.
And remember – anything smart enough to cooperate with the players probably won’t want to for long. Moreover, it may not quite be willing to drop down into the combat exactly to the place where the character specifies. After all, it has its own ideas how to fight a melee. Treat such cooperative associations with the recognition that no intelligent mount appreciates a back-seat driver ... and sometimes, the rubbernecker can just get the fuck off and walk.
* What manure might other animals produce, and what qualities might that manure produce regarding plant growth?