My pseudo-viking YA fantasy novel moved from seaborne to horse-riding. Yngvild met a cavalry troop and learnt how to ride with them.  Like Yngvild, I’ve had to research how to look after horses, and how far you can travel on horseback. I’ve not done much horse-riding, I’ve been on horseback fewer than half a dozen times in my life. I’ve done it just enough to know that you can take a teenager and give them the basics of horse-riding in about half an hour, but I’m far from being a Dothraki!

Horse-Riding for Writers

An Argentine Lancer, picture credit LRGAF
An Argentine Lancer, this is pretty close to how I’ve imagined the cavalry unit that Yngvild met. (picture credit

There are many good websites for writers interested in realistic portrayals of horse-riding and horse borne expeditions. There are some links at the bottom, but by far the most useful is the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation. The Long Riders’ have decided to document evidence for good practice in horse borne expeditions. They do it in a way that looks after the horses as well as the people.

Realistic Horse-Riding

If you want the horse riding to be realistic in your story then you need to make sure that you avoid the Hollywood portrayal, horses aren’t clockwork and need looking after. You also can’t just jump on one and ride 100 miles, jumping fences, ravines and any other obstacle that gets in your way.

Long horseback expeditions will work best where there are more horses than riders, ideally two riding horses per person in the party and a pack horse per person. The pack horse will carry grain and high-energy fodder as well as tents and other gear. Most of the time horses will walk, they might trot sometimes to help your characters cover more ground.

Horse-riding isn’t something you can just pick up as you go along. New riders will need to be taught how to look after their horse. They also need to know how to saddle it and to check the cinches are tight enough. If they get that wrong they will end up coming off the horse!

How far can I travel by horse in a day?

The top-line summary for horse borne expeditions seems to be that horses are as variable as people, and it all depends on the type and condition of your horse, what load is being carried, the terrain that you are covering and the weather/time of year. That said there are some interesting rules of thumb that you can use to work it out.

  • Switching horses mid-day helps extend range
  • A fit horse (and rider) can do 15-25 miles a day in good weather on most terrain
  • It’s the weight carried that counts most for determining distance
  • Horses need to be watered and fed regularly (see below)
  • Horses don’t like windy weather, they’ll turn away from wind.
  • Heavy snow or muddy conditions slows horses down, there’s also the danger of a lost shoe.

How Fast Will A Horse Go?

There are four main gaits for a horse:

  1. Walk. Horses walk about the same speed as a human, 3-4 mph. The horse moves each foot one at a time.
  2. Trot. The horse equivalent of a gentle jog, around 8-10 mph.
  3. Canter. A three beat run, around 15 mph. Inexperienced riders might struggle with this pace and could fall off if they were unlucky. Even a racehorse would struggle to keep up a canter for any significant length of time.
  4. Gallop.

There are other variations on these, fast and slow gallops, lope, and other words. Most of these depend heavily on the training of the horse and rider and what they’ve got used to. Generally on an expedition (as opposed to a racehorse, dressage or some sort of hunter) you’re only going to use the first couple, probably alternately. British Cavalry used to alternate walk and trot when on the March. They also used to stop for ten minutes in the hour to let their horses graze. Longer stops at lunch, around an hour, were also used to let them graze and drink when not in contact with the enemy.

How long can a horse gallop?

If you characters need to run it will be for a short distance. Medieval knights only galloped their war horses in the last 50 yards of a charge. A (later) cavalry charge proceeded at a walk until it was about 300 yards from the enemy. Then it trotted, cantered and finally galloped in the last fifty yards.

Generally a horse will start to feel tired a mile or so into a gallop, and will be bathed in sweat after a couple of miles. It’s like a human sprinting. Most horse racing, which uses specially bred and trained horses, only covers a couple of miles distance. So don’t have your characters galloping all the way somewhere. Not unless they’re killing the horses off. The fastest gait is to alternate walking and trotting.

Feeding Horses

There’s a great quote from the British Army’s cavalry manual (1908).

“The three guiding rules of feeding are

  • feed after and not before watering
  • feed in small quantities and often
  • do not work horses immediately after a full feed.

As a horse has a very small stomach for his size, he cannot eat very much at a time without impairing his digestion. He should therefore, be fed little and often. On the other hand, a horse has very large intestines; and bulk is, therefore, a necessity in his food. Horses will thrive indefinitely on grass or hay if not worked too hard, but they cannot keep in health if deprived of hay or other bulky matter, however much grain they may be given. Within limits, the harder the horse works, the greater should be the proportion of grain to hay.”

Sources on Horse-Riding and Horses

There are loads of good websites with background info. I found it scattered over multiple places, hence summarising what I’ve found on this page. Hopefully this will also help a few other people find info about horse-riding faster than I did.

  • Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation. The Long Riders’ are documenting evidence for good practice in horse borne expeditions. Their emphasis is as much on looking after horses as well as people.
  • Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages. Wikipedia page on the different sorts of horse types recognised in the Middle Ages. I found this useful because it sorts horses by how they were used rather than by breed. So way more useful if you are doing world-building.
  • World Building on Stack Exchange – an interesting forum where you can ask and answer questions about world-building (or indeed any of the other areas that Stack Exchange covers).
  • Lucky Pony – a great article on how long a horse can sustain a gallop (about a couple of miles).

Let me know in the comments if you have any other good sources of info on horse-riding or horse borne expeditions that are worth adding to my list.