A question I hear a lot is "How far can a horse travel in a day?" Oh, my, do you want the dissertation or the short answer? Since this is a blog, here is a short list of questions to ask yourself about your characters and their horses in trying to decide how fast your group can really travel:
- How large is the group?
The larger the group, the greater the logistical problems and the slower you are likely to travel over sustained distances. The abilities of the horses will vary, and the slowest horse sets the pace, or dies trying to keep up.
- How fit are the horses?
You CANNOT let a horse stand for weeks and months and then leap on him and ride away into the sunset (or even 20 miles) without risking serious consequences to the poor beast. His back muscles need to be conditioned, his wind needs to be built up, and generally all the rules of conditioning human athletes apply to him. Well-conditioned animals, like well-conditioned humans, can go farther and likely faster, but of course they cannot sustain it indefinitely without rest even when perfectly fit.
- How fit are the riders?
Hoo, boy, this one's fun. Even fit riders will feel a long day in the saddle. Fitness, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean conditioned to ride, however, but also how well they ride. A fit rider who doesn't know how to help his horse, or who slumps in the saddle like a sack of grain, will create a sore-backed animal or possibly contribute to a disaster on the trail that might not have happened if he'd had a clue about riding.
- How well trained are the horses?
Are your horses "trail broke" or stable-pampered dandies? Do you have any "green" horses just barely broken to ride? Are you likely to incur bucking, balking, panic, or bolting at every slightly weird situation you encounter? This does not have to be fairy tale monsters; this can be a cow ambling out of nowhere or a small creek running across the road. Good trail horses don't just happen; they result from many, many miles in many different circumstances. The rider can try beating his horse over the obstacle. He may even win. Until the horse gets tired of it, pitches him, and leaves him stranded. I do recall vividly approaching the last jump of a cross-country course and having my horse suddenly start to panic at sight of a herd of distant cows he could see on the other side. His very first cows, and it had to be right there...
- What is the availability of grass and water?
No, it is not logistically possible to carry enough feed with you to sustain a group of horses, or even a lone mount, for more than a few days. The pack animals have to eat, too, leading straight to the law of diminishing returns. Grain is dead weight, and you can't carry enough to sustain an animal that eats 10 pounds of it a day. Plus, grain alone does not give the horse what it needs from a dietary standpoint. He is a grazing animal, accustomed to eating often and consuming lots of roughage, plus he drinks 10 gallons a day on average, more when it's very cold or very hot. Your travelers must take time out to graze their animals. They will get full after an hour on good grass, up to 2 or more if the feed value is low, so there's 2-4 hours of traveling time shot right there, because at a minimum you need to allow them to graze twice a day. Leaving them loose all night risks waking up to find the whole bunch departed for more interesting places come morning. It is well to keep one tied or picketed. Use it to look for the rest.
- What is the terrain like?
You can travel much faster on flat, grassy ground than over steep hills, rocks, and through mud. In the mountains, 20 miles is a loooong day. On the flat, you can average perhaps 30 if the horses are really fit, but you can't keep that up indefinitely on the same horse. If the trail looks like this one (Cascade Mountains), you are going to be moving a whole lot slower. It took us all day to go 7 miles on this trail, between the rocks and the deadfalls.
- What is the weather?
Snow, mud and rain all made the generally poor roads of history even worse. A horse cannot slog through snow up to his knees without wearing out really fast, and slipping and straining through mud is a killer. Ice risks the horse's legs. Hot sun means dehydration. Horses can go a couple of days without water but you're not going to get far, especially if you're asking for an all-out sustained effort.
- How much weight is the horse carrying?
The rider, the saddle, all his junk, and where it's positioned on the horse's back all make a big difference to the rate of travel. Even a light rider has to factor in his food, water, whatever's in his saddlebags, his blankets, pots, weapons, clothes.... You get the picture. The horse has to carry all that, in front of or behind the saddle or draped over the rider. Some will be dead weight.
- How fast does he need to get where he's going?
The Pony Express covered 2,000 miles in 10 days, changing horses every few miles and traveling very light. A letter could travel 250 miles a day over terrain without roads, but the system was in place to achieve that. Your rider cannot ride a single horse that far in a day, or even a significant fraction of it, at a gallop (and he's going to be very sore himself if he travels that whole distance, in a day or two, at a dead run). By varying the gait between walk and fast trot you can cover a lot of ground, but once again, it is not a sustainable effort over the long term.
- Do you have wagons?
Your rate of travel just dropped from 30 miles a day to 15 or so, unless the roads are very good and the weather is fine. Coaches changed teams pretty often to sustain any decent mileage per day. A merchant trundling his goods from market to market likely only had a couple of horses and had to use them carefully, which meant a plodding pace that slowed to a turtle's crawl in mud. Pioneer wagon trains averaged 10 miles a day. Long baggage trains for armies managed about the same.
'Til next time!
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