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Snow-unicorns are massive creatures, reaching as high as 10 feet high at the shoulder, with long, shaggy coats. They are more equine in shape than ungulate, but have wide cloven hooves and a single spiraled horn, which can be straight or slightly curved. Their noses are large and somewhat moose-like in shape, with cavernous nostrils, wide-set eyes, agile lips and broad, dull teeth.
Most snowies are white or light gray, but they do come in a wider variety of colors, including a "blue", a brindle, a charcoal gray and a rarer orange-ish color. Mottled colors are not uncommon, muddy striping is very rare.
The fur of the snow-unicorn is two-layered: a very long, coarse guardhair, and a soft, thick, long-fibered underfur. This underfur is groomed out regularly and spun into yarn that supplies much of the clothing for the villagers. It is frost-resistant and wicks moisture, and for the most part, is not too itchy. It is not as soft as silk-hare fur, but is available in much larger quantities. It is too soft (lacking scales) to felt, but can be spun and knit.
The hide of a snow-unicorn is quite thick and would be salvaged for a variety of purposes, with or without the fur attached. Fur shaved from hides can be turned into stuffing material for bed mattresses and pillows.
The snow-unicorns have a variety of un-horselike vocalizations, including (but not limited to) bleats, chuffing, sighs, squeals, screams, snorts and a 'loud ringing call' something like a hunting bird. They often 'mutter' while walking, and are rarely completely quiet. When content or comforting their young, they have a rumbling sound like a cross between a hum and a purr.
A young snowy is a foal; males are colts, females are fillies. An adult male is a stallion, a female is a mare. For their first year, a foal is a 'yearling,' for their second, a 'twoling.'
Snowies mate in the spring or early summer. Gestation is 11 Torn World months, about 335 days, and foals nurse for about a year, though they frequently continue to supplement their grazing with milk through their second summer and fall. They may lip and chew at tempting solids even as yearlings, though they rarely ingest this food.
The mortality rate of snowy offspring is very high. More than 75% of the young are expected to die within months of birth, most of them before they can successfully nurse for the first time. Many more are stillborn. One viable foal per herd of 25 each summer is actually considered quite good. Even though every female snowy of the appropriate age is bred, the population of snowies is slowly dwindling. If a foal survives its first year, it usually lives to the ripe old age of about 40.
Fillies reach sexual maturity towards the end of their second year, but are often not bred until they are about four - the northerners have to balance their need to keep them breeding with the health of the mares, and more successful pregnancies are usually achieved with older mares.
Only extremely dangerous or undesirable stallions are gelded, or for medical reasons such as infection. The snow-unicorns are far more mellow and less hormonal than their horse counterparts, so generally an un-gelded stallion will not be a behavior problem except in the presence of ovulating mares.
In the summer, they are grazers, ingesting vast quantities of grass and ground-cover plants. In the winter, they are browsers, eating soft bushes like willows, alders and birch tips. Spruce tips provide early spring eating, and during a long hard winter, they can also peel bark from cottonwoods. Because of the amount of food that they require, the full population of snowies is rarely kept in one place for any length of time. Rangers take them in herds of about 25 to nearby areas, stopping frequently and monitoring the health of the land carefully to prevent over-grazing or over-browsing. These trips can often take a week or more of travel, and rangers are often away from their villages for a month or more. Rangers collect game and monitor wildlife while they are tending the snowies, and often travel in groups of 3-10.
Snow-unicorns require a touch-up grooming every few days, to remove saddle and harness tangles from their long, thick coats. This takes about an hour apiece, and once a tenday or so, a more thorough grooming is required, which takes several hours. The underfur is carefully collected for use. They are often trimmed in the spring, to decrease their collection of mud and reduce spring shedding tangles. In the spring, they 'blow their coats' and produce a great quantity of thick underfur in the space of a few days. This is groomed from them by the entire population, not just the rangers who are used to working with them, and used as a reason to celebrate the 'Festival of Combs.'
They are regularly inspected for injury, parasites and hoof problems. Each village has a few snowy specialists who are adept at treating common ailments and more complex injury and disease, but since the snowy population moves around so much and is so important, all rangers know the basics of care and treatment.
Mares who birthed foals, or carried them most of the way to term before losing them, will require milking 2-3 times per day.
Female snowies nurse their spring-borne young for approximately a year and, if well-fed, can be milked year-round even when they lose their young. In the harshest months of the year, if resources become scarce, they may go dry and frequently diminish in what they can produce. Most of the year, they produce about 10 gallons of milk per day and are milked two to three times daily. Foals rarely require more than half of their mother's milk production.
The milk produced by the snow-unicorns is more similar to a camel's than a cow's, with more dispersed fat. It has a sharp, strong flavor, much less mild than cow's milk. A kind of butter can be produced with some difficulty but is only used in certain kinds of cooking. A yogurt is commonly made by boiling and souring the milk. Fermented milk is frequently combined with the alcohol which is a byproduct of sourdough to create a very strong-flavored, inebriating beverage, usually served warm. The milk is often drunk fresh, as well, and is a staple in the diet of the rangers that travel with the herds.
It is commonly preserved frozen during cold months. Cool, buried storage in the summer can keep it fresh for several weeks. Even fermented milk is useful, so very little is wasted.
Milking at a settlement involves large buckets that require two people to move full, which are perched on a stool under a snowy. In the field, milking bags are slung underneath the snowy from snaggles on the saddle or saddle-straps. Milking is a highly physical task which requires most of the action be done reaching above a person's head. It takes a great deal of arm strength. The snowy is usually hobbled for this task, to keep it from kicking or wandering.
Though they are tasty, and can provide a lot of food in a pinch, the snow-unicorns are too useful alive to be commonly harvested as a source of meat. Only mortally injured snow-unicorns would be used in this fashion.
The snowies are big, strong, and used extensively as beasts of burden. They are not useful for anything in close quarters, being rather clumsy and inclined to wander around crushing things, but they can be trained to respond to whistles, and have enormous strength in pulling and carrying. They are used to power primitive water pumps, drag logs and building materials over distances, and other jobs that require strength but not finesse.
Snow-unicorns are trained while young and small enough to shove around (although even a newborn foal is chest-high) and disciplined through tugs on the noserings in their sensitive nostrils. Training begins towards fall of a foal's first summer, or as soon as the mother snowy will allow (in the case of a protective mother). This is also the point at which it becomes accepted that the foal is likely to survive, though deaths in the first winter are not uncommon. The nosering is a piercing made of ivory, hard wood or stone. It is first inserted in a yearling's nose at the beginning of their training and will replaced several times as the snow-unicorn grows.
Saddle-training begins their first winter, with a simplified saddle and light loads. A twoling can be ridden, but it is generally discouraged until their second full winter.
The saddle attaches under their belly and around their chest, with a stability strap around the rump, to perch mostly on their shoulders, rather than at the center of the back. Saddle straps may also be worn by a snowy with no saddle, to provide places to attach gear or sling a milk bag. The saddle is placed on the snowy after they've been whistled to kneel, heaved overhead onto their back, and guided by a second person who pulls it over into place. Saddling a full-grown snowy is usually a two-person job.
Mounting a snowy is done in a variety of ways. Most saddles are fitted with a simple rope ladder that can be climbed. Snowies are also trained to kneel to a whistled command, and although it's still a bit of a clamber, an agile rider can make it to their back from there. This is often discouraged, as rising with extra weight can be hard on the snow-unicorn's joints. Whenever possible, they are loaded in standing position. Smarter and more patient snowies can also be taught to lift a foreleg to allow a rider to climb up - not all of them can be taught this trick. The other alternative for mounting is to find a high natural outcrop or tree to climb on and off from.
Riding a snowy is done with whistled directions. The rider often holds a slack lead to the snow-unicorn's nosering, but this is for emergency correction only. The rein should never supply any tension to the nosering, except for a sharp reminder tug if the snow-unicorn isn't listening or obeying. Whistles can be reinforced with kicks to the sides of the shoulders. With the padding of fur and fat that the snowy has there a good, strong kick is sometimes required. Whips are not used (and would be largely ineffective through the fur!).
Snowy gaits include a shuffle (usually accompanied by trying to browse on vegetation), a slow, gentle walk, a long swinging walk that can be sustained for great lengths, a trot that can only be used for short periods, and a gallop, but only when panicked and for very short duration.
Snow-unicorns are also trained to accept hobbles, which are leather or rope restraints that keep their feet very close together. Hobbling prevents wandering and kicking, and is often used during milking and grooming, as well as during breaks for sleep and browsing. They can be exceedingly dangerous to the animal if it panics, as it can easily break a leg if it thrashes around or falls. Most hobbles have a carefully constructed break-point that will give out and allow the snow-unicorn to go free - it is better to chase down an escaped snowy than euthanize a snowy with broken legs.
Whistled commands include: back, kneel, forward, right, left, more (in combination with any other command), stay, drop it, come, stand, stop and a general 'no'.
Snow-unicorn genealogy is tracked as carefully as human genealogy, meticulously documented and carefully controlled. Despite their best precautions, the population is small enough that inbreeding has become a problem, and is a partial cause of the high mortality rate.
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Animals of the North: An overview of the animals found in (or near) the territory of the snow-unicorn riders.