Friday, October 7, 2011

Horses in Fiction: How Far Can I Travel?

The response to last week's post was so excellent that I've decided to continue with the series on horses in fiction and how to make them more authentic even if you are not blessed with a horse out your back door to study.

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.
Our ancestors (those accustomed to traveling by horseback) were, in general, much fitter and rode animals accustomed to long days under saddle. They were still constrained by the limitations of the animal and the availability of replacements, so factor that into your fictional journeying. Err on the slow side if you don't want your knowledgeable audience hooting and rolling their eyes at your impossible distances traveled, with horses that never break a sweat and riders that never look frazzled, or smell of horse sweat, or need to stop and pee.

'Til next time!


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Karina Fabian said...

what a great idea, Sue! You should think of making these into an article for a writing magazine.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

LOL, Karina, it never occurred to me. I will check into that. Thanks.

Sarah Avery said...

I was just about to ask if you could recommend some books for horse-researching writers. That might be a whole blog post in itself.

Karina makes a good point. These could work as magazine articles. If you do that, I hope you'll continue to post alerts about them on the Broad Universe list, so we'll know where to look for them.

If the series starts to feel book-length, this might also turn into the kind of project that works on Lulu, Smashwords, and their ilk. The combination of topic and audience is narrow enough you might not find a book publisher confident about selling it, but you know where to find your readers. If there were a bound volume of essays on how to write horses in genre fiction, I would absolutely pay to have a copy on hand.

Anonymous said...

Note that with fit horses used to regular rides and long distances, the ground covered can be impressive. The Tevis Cup is a 100-mile endurance ride through the Sierra Nevada--winning times are around 14-15 hours. For foxhunting, average distance per hour is 16 miles. I've been on a hunt that covered 80 miles in 4 hours; my horse trotted instead of galloping in for dinner the next morning, but was fine by the following day. Supposedly the all-time record for speed/distance on the same horse is 1,000 miles in 8 days, by some Russian in the 19th century. One endurance horse is supposed to have accumulated over 20,000 competition miles, mostly from 100- or 150-mile rides every other weekend--and basically no riding in between.I know of some folks who, in a rare snowfall that closed almost all roads, were able to make a 60-mile loop visiting friends, in one afternoon, with one horse pulling a loaded sleigh.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sarah, I can recommend books, and that probably is a separate post.

Fibitz, I deliberately left endurance riders out because they're sort of a special breed of cat. Like racehorses, those horses aren't called upon to exert that extreme effort day after day after day, and they're incredibly fit. When you start going back through accounts from, say, the Civil War (I'm thinking of a particularly difficult chase by Nathan Bedford Forrest), the horses (and riders) began to drop like flies by the second day because of the pace, the time of year, the lack of forage, and the general condition of the animals. I don't want to give people the impression they can keep pushing like that for days. There are always exceptions to the rule, though, as you've pointed out. If your character needs to get somewhere in a hurry, he can risk his wonderful horse or borrow some special nag, or, like John Wayne in True Grit, run the beast to death.

Sylvia Kelso said...

And add one final variable: what's the rider's seat like? Ie. not how fit is he, but how well balanced, skillful, well seated, in the old terms, is he? A good rider is not necessarily a light rider, but a rider with a good seat rides lighter and his horse will get a lot further with him. It's the difference between a sack of oats and half a sack of oats.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sylvia, you're so right. I touched on that a bit in the "how fit is the rider" category but it could use more elaboration, which will probably get a whole post by itself. The rider who is unable to help his horse, or sits poorly, tires the poor beast out or can end up over a cliff if he's a real idiot, or afraid. I have seen more rider-caused accidents than I can count. Mostly it comes from people who are afraid of their horse or have no clue how to deal with water crossings or bad footing or steep slopes, or chicken out at jumps. And I've seen the horse end up with sores from a rider that sits poorly.