Friday, January 11, 2008

The Big Horse Posts, collected

I'm going to stash this here, because I've had occasion to link to it over and over again, the last few years. Better to store it all in one place, I'm thinking.

I got a pm asking an excellent question--and bringing up an issue that has made me roll my eyes more than once, when reading a story with horses. I thought I'd repost my response here, with a pared-down version of the original question:
1. a) What's a reasonable maximum daily distance that you could expect a horse and rider to travel in a day, assuming that the same horse is ridden for a week or two straight and you don't want to ride the horse into the ground? ... b) Would riding double decrease that distance significantly?... c) Would bringing a remount increase that distance?
That's actually a pretty complicated question, with a ton of variables that can make a difference. Terrain, size and breeding of horse, what kind of gear, stirrups or no, etc.

I rode endurance (extreme distance racing) for a number of years, and trained endurance
horses for a living, and in my experience 20-25 miles a day is going to be a fairly sustainable average, actually, for most people and for most horses. Less, if you're crossing undeveloped terrain, on trails or cross-country.

Terrain, horse breed, proficiency of the rider, and available feed and water is going to drastically
change times and distances. If you check out the Western States Run and the WS Trail Ride, over the same trails, a human running on foot can cover the same 100 miles nearly as fast as the winning horse/rider pair. (It takes the guy on foot about an hour longer.)

Figure for long distance stuff, in moderate terrain, a fast horse, pushing hard, will cover @ 15 miles an hour. An average horse will cover 8-10 miles an hour. The further you go, the more complicated it gets trying to hold your horse together, though.

note: A short sprint is an entirely different pace!

A more leisurely pace would be completely understandable, for standard travel--say cut the above times in half, and cover ground walking and trotting. In that case, if you do slow down, you have an easier time keeping your horse alive and sound (not limping) It would be entirely reasonable to ride 35-40 miles in a 8 to 10 hour day, with a break or two. Not for the faint of heart, though. It's gonna hurt, unless your riders are accustomed to all those hours in the saddle.

One rider with light gear on a fit horse can cover 25-30 miles in about 4-6 hours at a fairly steady trot with some cantering and some walking, to break up the pace--figuring in at least one hour-long rest period . . . you can do that daily, without much trouble, indefinitely. Again, taking as given that the horse is fit, not a horse who has stood in the pasture unworked for months. Also, remember that the more consecutive days you travel, the slower you need to go.

We know this was about average, because the California missions (and many early European towns, for that matter) are located what was considered a day's travel apart -- which ranges between 22-26 miles, roughly.

Your hypothetical rider will spend most of his time "posting" a trot -- from the word "postillion" -- here's a decent description of the technique, if you'd like. It's pretty much the most efficient gait for distance traveling. The Pony Express riders went much faster, but the horses did not have to go out on consecutive days, and they ran in relays so they didn't have to cover as many miles.

Add a remount, and the rider can cover nearly double the ground, without much trouble. If only traveling for 6-7 consecutive days, you could do that on two horses, resting when completely exhausted, and reasonably cover 80-100 miles a day, on roads and good trails; 50-60 miles a day, cross country and on trails; or 20 or so miles of steep terrain with good trails.

But with steep terrain, deer tracks to follow or no trails at'll be lucky to make it 5-10 miles. An extra horse is almost a liability in that situation, and won't really increase your speed or distance.

Add a 100 lb person riding double, you can probably get away with 25-30 miles a day, for 5-7 days . . . but you'll have a very tired horse, trying to go lame, and getting cranky about being saddled. Also probably getting quite sore over the loins.

A horse bred to trot will go more efficiently and even faster, a standardbred or arab, say 25 miles in about 3 hours-- 50 miles in 6-7 hours (that's riding time only, you'll have to figure in at least a brief rest for the horse every 2-3 hours, with a big drink (ideally) and something to eat, even if it's just a few mouthfuls of grass -- but that's going to be pushing pretty hard, and you can't do that day after day. Not at those speeds.

On a rangy, athletic, fit horse, bred to trot, it would be entirely reasonable to cover 40-50 miles a day (counting time to rest) for a week or so, in 10-11 hours a day before needing to have some time off.

The horses bred for endurance can cover around 100 miles in about 12-16 hours (again, just on average) but cannot do so day after day--would need several days to rest afterwards, or you're risking metabolic failure or lameness. (carrying around 190-200 lbs)

A heavier horse (draft or draft mix, like you'd expect of a horse who carried a knight in armor, for instance, will take longer, and need more frequent rest stops. Also, a heavier horse won't stand up well to longer distances than around 40 miles.

2. When you stop for the night, what would you do in the way of horse care? Unsaddle, rub down, blanket (?), check hooves? High energy food if you've got it?
Hydration is actually a big factor--horses will go into metabolic failure fairly quickly, if they become dehydrated and over-fatigued. So you're looking for food and water all day, along the trail. You don't pass water without drinking...ever. You try to let your horse grab a couple of mouthfuls of grass, whenever you can spare the time.

When you put him up for the night, you'll check him over for sores or galls caused by the gear, you'll wipe him down with water (warm if you can get it) to take off the crusted-on sweat and dirt. If you can't get a sponge or rag to rub him down, you're going to brush and curry and brush some more, until his coat is clean and smooth.

You'll check his legs for nicks, heat, swollen places, etc., you'll check his shoes for rocks, and to make certain they haven't slipped or loosened...(if he isn't shod, cut the above distances in about half--cuz he'll wear his feet off too fast, otherwise) note: there are, of course, exceptions to this generalization--the Comanches rode unshod horses for staggering distances. There's an old saying about how far a cowboy, a Mexican, and a Comanche can ride a horse without killing it.

Wish I could remember precisely how it goes.

You'll give him a high-energy ration, soaked, if possible...probably a mix of corn and oats (up to around 10-12 lbs), and then you'll follow with all the good clean hay he wants to eat, and likewise, you'll make sure he has free access to clean water all night. if you can beg a fistful of salt to throw in his grain, all the better.

Yep, if you have a wool blanket, toss it over him--unless it's hot enough outside that he'll sweat with the blanket on. It's that much less energy he has to expend to keep himself warm.

Now - one of the more specific questions I've received:


Here's my scenerio, It's 1864-65, something like that. A Young woman, around 28 I think, is riding across IT (Indian Territory) toward Arkansas with her daughter (about 5 or 6). They don't have much in the way of gear, just what she could tie on the two horses (she didn't want to take a pack horse, probably because she didn't have one). She isn't following a trail, but she is taking time to try to hide her trail. She is being tracked by two men who start out at least 2 maybe three hours after she does. About how far can she travel and how soon can the men catch up to her.

This is what I was thinking, she leaves headed east (the way they expect her to go) they follow her 2-3 hours later. She turns north about the time the men start out. They miss where she turns north at first and lose about 30 min. looking for her trail. About an 1 1/2 hours later she angles back to the southwest (toward the town she left) then in another hour or so she turns back toward the east.

What are the chances she can do all of this in one day, without them catching up to her? And how many times will she have to stop for more than 5 min. for her daughter, and her, to rest and stretch?
How far does she have to get? If the two men are two or three hours behind her, and having to follow hidden trail, unless they are better-than-average trackers, they aren't going to catch up real fast...following trail takes a bit of time, you have to dismount, sort out footprints, etc.

Kids on horseback actually fare better than adults. If I had a five or six year old daughter (what's that 60-70 pounds?) and was an smallish-to-average-sized young woman, I'd ride double with the kid (she's old enough to ride behind me and hold on) leading one horse to trade off when the first got tired.

I'd also keep to either roads (where you can't very well sort one print from another) or rocky, hardpan sorts of surfaces. The creek trick you see in books and movies is all well and good, except sooner or later you must come out again, and riding down the middle of a creek you make much slower time than on regular, firm surfaces, and it's hard on the horses' stamina. Where you come out will be fairly obvious, even if you use a handy gravel bank.

If the woman is a good rider, with a constantly more-or-less fresh horse, she could actually increase the distance between her and her chasers.

If she's used to riding, then she won't have to stop for longer than to water the horses, and she and her daughter can stretch their legs while the animals water and graze--say three or four 10 minute stops over the course of the day. The followers will also have to rest their horses and water, or risk having their horses drop out from under them.

With a two hour head start, and a spare horse? These guys are actually gonna play hell catching up, if she knows what she's doing at ALL, especially if she pushes on after dark. They'll have to stop when the light gets too bad to follow her trail. If they are very good, and push very hard, they might catch her sometime in the afternoon or early evening, the following day.

Does she know she's being followed? Or is she hiding her backtrail because she's in hostile territory?

If, on the other hand, the plot requires that they DO catch her, then she just needs some bad luck to slow her way down--a lame horse would do it, unless she just cut it loose.


More reading:

And if you're curious about distance riding, and up for a little further research, check out: and

A horses in fiction discussion.

Another horses in fiction discussion.

About mules.

A decent FAQ about mules.

About packing in on horses and mules.

The Care and Feeding of a Mortal Mount (well-known Rumor Mill essay)
There are a few inaccuracies, but it's mostly good information. The author clearly isn't a long-distance rider, but for a long time this was one of the most-linked resources for writing about horses on the 'net.

Julia's Horse Fax is another good resource specifically for writers.

I hope this helps, and good luck!

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.