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I think we all know that having an animal companion is one of the most powerful things you could have in pathfinder, and we also know some animal companions are better than others. The horse in particular is very easy to find, raise and justify as an animal companion in pretty much all respects, but tends to fall off later on in the game as encounters tend to get more difficult.

Not to mention between Wolves, Big cats, Elephants, Griffons, Hippogriffs, etc if you are capable of getting your hands on any of them, you know it would be hard to justify sticking with a horse when they have a hard time fighting stairs, and given the Mount and Phantom Steed spells exist, it seems as if horses are just doomed to just fade away into obscurity being regulated to hard labor roles and NPC companions.

But let's say we just ignore that, let's say someone was hellbent on having a horse companion and taking it with them all the way to the end of the campaign, what could they do to make that possible?

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The horse basically isn’t special past 7th level. Possibly not even at 4th, depending on how the ambiguous combat training special quality is interpreted.

At 1st level, the horse is one of the very-few Large animal companions, so you’re usually choosing between either it or camel if you want a mount as a Medium-sized character. The camel is arguably better thanks to the quite-good spit ability, and slightly better stats, but it’s a minor thing.

At 4th level, the horse gets combat trained. No one knows what that means—normally, combat-training an animal with Handle Animal replaces all of its tricks with those of the combat riding “purpose,” but if that’s what it does, it’s not much of a benefit at all. If those tricks are—when gained as part of the 4th-level upgrade—free bonus tricks that don’t count against the limit, that’s better, but nothing says that. The Well Trained animal companion feat does say that, but that’s just outright bizarre when it’s apparently-redundant with what horse animal companions get by default at 4th level.

There is speculation on the internet that combat training is also supposed to make the horse’s hooves primary natural weapons. Combat training does that for “docile” animals, which regular horses are—but horse animal companions are not, strictly speaking. Many guess this was an oversight and this is supposed to be part of the benefit gained at 4th level. Big if true.

Meanwhile, lots of other animal companions become Large and ridable at 4th level, meaning the horse now has an awful lot more competition. But it’s doing fine, really; the others aren’t all that special either. And if combat training is “free” and you get all of those tricks in addition to the others the horse has, and you also get primary natural weapons, the horse is definitely competitive; no reason to worry about it.

On the other hand, if combat training replaces the horse’s other tricks and they don’t get primary natural weapons, you’d probably want one of the other ridable animal companions at 4th.

Either way, though, the real problem is at 7th. Animal companions either advance at 4th level or 7th level, and the animals that advance at 7th level are much better (at 7th or higher) than those that advance at 4th level. Dubious game design, that! But since horses advanced at 4th, they don’t advance at 7th, and since you’re now 7th level, you want one of the newly-ridable animal companions, something that flies or a big cat or elephant or some flavor of dinosaur (not all of the dinosaurs are good—some are even quite poor—but most of the strongest animal companions are dinosaurs).

And the answer to that is... nothing. Well Trained is the only thing horses get that other things don’t, and it’s... not that good. Again, if combat training is interpreted favorably—making Well Trained pointless—then the horse is acceptable, if not all that great. Convenient and easy, certainly. Might have social benefits. If the interpretation is unfavorable, then the horse is really in dire straits. But assuming a favorable interpretation, you can work with a horse.

You just can’t do anything special with a horse. Everything you can do with a horse, you can do with one of the other, better animal companions, and have a stronger animal companion overall. The horse isn’t buying you anything.

So you optimize a horse animal companion the same way you optimize any other animal companion for riding. It just turns out somewhat worse than other options when you do. That’s it, that’s the end of the story.

Optimizing a riding animal companion in general seems beyond the scope of this answer; lots of people have written more extensively about that than I’m going to fit into this answer. So read those, and apply it to a horse, and you’ll have the best horse you can get.

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    \$\begingroup\$ could you post a link or two down here in the comments for those guides you mentioned and or recomended? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 7 at 14:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PlayPatrice I avoided doing that because I’m afraid I don’t have a solid recommendation. They come up with a web search, I consulted a few when writing this answer (to see if anybody knew of a horse-specific option I’d missed), but I haven’t vetted them really, I was just using them for their lists of options. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 7 at 15:15
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Two words: Colossal Warhorse.

But seriously, what is the goal here? Does the player want to have 'Chestnut', their Shetlan pony at their side as the charge into battle against the undying armies of the witch-lich? Are they looking to have their beloved mount just survive the first meteor swarm the group get hit with, or do they want Chestnut to rear up and strike the killing blow as they battle the Tarasque? These are two very differing asks.

If they just want their animal companions to survive, you can give them options to have all sorts of magical protection crafted to boost AC and elemental resistance. This is a great way to give players cool stuff to buy with their loot that doesn't directly escallate the power level of the game. What hero wants to walk back to town carrying a severed dragon's head? I could see a knight wanting to make sure their mount is reasonably protected in combat. That is what inspired the creation of barding.

The second option is all up to you. Do you want a horse mixing it up with dragons and giants? It seems to me that things might get silly if you give players mundane animal companions that actually contribute to the fights. Not sure how you get a horse through the typical dungeon crawl or what it does for the story if you try it, but this is your group and story.

Wait, two more words: Vorporal horseshoes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "vorpal horseshoes" alone \$\endgroup\$
    – No Name
    Commented May 8 at 1:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer should be much clearer that most of its suggestions are potential houserules and homebrew a GM could include in a campaign, rather than official options that a player might expect to get their hands on. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 8 at 2:32
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Time for homebrew!

There aren't a lot of RAW solutions to this, but you can certainly homebrew it.

  • Giving the player magic items that extend their benefits to the horse, or are intended for the horse? Special magic/artificer barding, or special reins/saddle?
  • Start to give it feats as a DM reward, as one might a player character, to represent it's growth and training? (do be careful the other players don't feel shown up or left out, they need goodies too)
  • Perhaps a fey/druid becomes indebted to you at some point in the adventure and magically blesses it to be stronger/faster/more damaging/revivable, or have a aura buff effect?

There's quest material and motivation in here.

Just keep it mind it isn't a player, so it should shine more at support. It supports the players getting the limelight, but doesn't steal the limelight. As long as both you and your players are having fun, you're doing it right :)

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