Friday, September 21, 2012

Horses in Fiction: How Fast Should I Go?

Note, dear writers and readers, that the title of this piece is not "How fast can I go?" but "How fast should I go?" If you can discern why that is crucial at this point, congrats! You've probably given thought to the fact that your poor equine beasties are not machines. If you're scratching your head right now, then read on.

I recently reviewed a decent book that had a good story and, to be fair, was not focused around horsey things, but since it used horses as basic transportation I naturally took note of how well the author did or didn't portray them. Alas, in this case, the author fell straight into the Hollywood trap of the bottomless stamina of the saddle horse. His character had a powerful warhorse (naturally) and never... walked... it... a... step. The poor beast never even trotted in the book. The guy cantered or galloped it everywhere, for miles and miles on end. And the horse never seemed to get tired!


When I pointed this out to the author, he was surprised. To his credit, he was perfectly willing to learn, not being a horse person himself. He said that he had assumed the canter would be easier on the rider and so that's why his character cantered everywhere.

Oh, my. He's right in that the canter is infinitely easier to ride for most people than a trot, especially if you never learned to post (rise from the saddle every other stride in rhythm to the horse's trot). But if you want to get anywhere on horseback and have a horse at the end, the speed is not about the rider but about the horse. Back when shank's mare and the old gray mare were your two basic choices for overland travel, the beast of choice was an ambler, a horse or mule with an easy gait like a pace or what evolved into the running walk or slow gait. Breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred, Paso Fino and Missouri Foxtrotter all evolved through conscious search for easy-gaited animals who could offer a comfortable ride for long days in the saddle. For long journeys or inspections of ye old plantation, comfort was wonderful. But rider comfort is secondary in any situation where the horseman depends on his mount. Getting where you're going with a live, healthy beast is more important than whether you get jounced a little on the way.

Running your horse everywhere gets you exactly as far as you get before the horse drops dead under you, which may or may not be your actual destination. For well-conditioned horses, that's a lot farther than the average backyard beast can manage, but there is still that hard limit. Expecting to ride 50 miles a day endlessly is just so not in the cards. Twenty miles in the mountains is a long day (trust me). For well-conditioned horses and riders on decent roads in not particularly difficult terrain, 30 is a good average and still leaves you time every evening to care for your animals. After that, it gets iffy, because rain, snow, mud, availability of grass, group size, and a hundred other factors start to play into the equation. But speed is the issue here, so let's stick to the conscious decision of the rider, who is, after all, the guy controlling how fast his horse is being made to move.

Extraordinary circumstances, such as a military forced march, may necessitate pushing the stock way past what they can handle--and the commander has to accept the subsequent losses as horses break down and fall out along the wayside. This leaves part of your command on foot and the rest with blown, exhausted horses unable to do much at the far end of the march. In normal circumstances, the pace is always set predicated on what the animals can handle for the day, not on how fast Mr. Imperious Rider wants to get there. It really doesn't matter if the road is good and the grass hasn't all been grazed to nothing by all the travelers who've been this way ahead of you. Your horse is simply incapable of running everywhere under your weight without breaks. Even the Pony Express went flat out for just a few miles, then changed horses and sped on again.

A horse's best traveling gait (and easiest on the rider) is a good long walk. Next is a trot, which many horses can keep up for quite a long time. The trot is, however, much harder to ride. The western "jog", which is a vastly slower trot, is easier to sit but, for me at least, induces a screaming sideache pretty quickly and it's not at all speedy. In a natural trot the horse flows freely and carries himself better, which means his back and legs hold up better over longer distances. The rider can help him enormously by not sitting in the saddle like a sack of potatoes, rump banging away against the saddle seat at every stride. Posting puts the rider's weight in the stirrups, evenly distributed across the horse's back through the saddle tree, every other stride. He "sits" just for a second on the second stride, then rises again. This greatly improves the horse's stamina and it's a lot easier on the rider as well. A rider who learns to post does it naturally and can keep it up pretty much as long as the horse can.

If you're in a hurry, trot a couple of miles, walk a while, trot some more, walk, repeat. You can cover enormous amounts of ground this way, much more than if you tried to gallop the whole distance. Case in point: My father once rode his incomparable Saddlebred, Fox, 42 miles in 28 hours in the Cascade Mountains to find help for my grandfather, whose horse had gone over backward on him and broken his pelvis. Fox, being a Saddlebred, had a wonderful natural extended trot, which Dad used to effect on every foot of ground that wasn't straight up and down, and walked the rest to give Fox a breather. He did it in a western saddle, pretty much standing in the stirrups during the trot phases.

So. If your fictional riders and horses are on the move, ask yourself where they're going and when they have to be there. There is no excuse to needlessly push the horses, and if your heroes are in a hurry for a reason, then remember that their poor ponies are not machines. It doesn't matter if the princess is going to be executed at dawn; put your hero a plausible distance away if you are going to have him run his horse into the ground getting there to save her. I don't care how good the beast is, he's not going to cover 200 miles in a night. Overnight forced marches of 50 miles are on record, however. And even then they weren't running their beasts, but likely traveling a good, steady six miles an hour for 10-12 hours, with rest breaks. For the sake of your horse and your groaning audience, give your poor pooped pony a rest now and then.

One good little overview of historical foot and cavalry "standard" march rates is here along with some "notable" marches made by both.

Until next time! I'll be working on Seaborn in between, which I am pleased to report progresseth apace. If you want to catch up on the series, Firedancer and Windrider are both available in print and as ebooks.


Pauline Conolly said...

Wow, I loved this blog. I don't write about horses, but some of my friends do. Oddly enough one female friend writes westerns and I am sure she will be interested in what you have to say. I think people forget how important research is. Will share it share it on FB.
Hope you will visit my own website..different genre etc but I think you will find it interesting.interesting. Please leave a comment, as you know they are aways so wecome.

Pauline Conolly said...

Sorry about repeated words, it was my computer, not me!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Pauline, thanks for the share! I like your blog as well, being a serious history freak with a degree an everything. The books look fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I'm slightly boggled by people not realising a walk would be the best pace for a horse to travel at (provided there is no emergency) - surely all one has to do is find an old western film on TV. The cowboys always walk their horses unless they're being chased!

Thank you for the continuing advice regarding horses in fiction, it really is invaluable!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Sandra, you are so welcome!

Anonymous said...

Another great post, Sue! It makes me miss riding. I always found that the trot seemed to vary the most (in terms of being easy/tough to ride) on the horses that I rode.

Also when teaching riding - when a newbie fell off, it often was when they first learned to trot and they bounced right off.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Oh, that brings back memories, Clare. I remember once as a kid being totally flabbergasted when a friend of mine came over after school and wanted to ride--and proceeded to bounce right off in the first three steps of the trot. Whoops.

The trot varies by horse, for sure. We had a horse once with the world's worst trot, being very straight up and down in his pasterns, kind of like riding a jackhammer. My mare Nellie has a really springy trot; Pilot's is like riding a bike. It certainly is where you can see what sort of a mover they are.

Meriah Crawford said...

Great post! As a horse lover, I'm very alert to horse-related issues in the fiction I read, and accuracy is important to me as a writer, too.

I did want to add that Youtube has a wealth of videos illustrating different gaits and, for example, posting. Well worth a look for people who want more details.

Margaret Carter said...

I'm irresistibly reminded of the desperate trek across the desert to warn Archenland of the Calormene invasion in Lewis's THE HORSE AND HIS BOY. The talking horse informs the two human characters that all that stuff about galloping flat out for hours happens only in stories. Their journey will be walking and trotting, and when the horses walk, the riders get off and walk too.

I love this series of posts. Fascinating information.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Good point about YouTube, Meriah. It's always nice to see in living color exactly what is being talked about.

Margaret, I wish more horses could talk and tell their riders the facts of life!

Sylvia Kelso said...

How far a single horse or a couple of horses and their riders can get fast depends on a multitude of factors, but I can mention two individual cases. When Hannibal was exiled from Carthage he is reported to have travelled - one assumes rode - from Carthage to I think Hadrumetum to take ship, something like a hundred miles, apparently almost overnight.

I wd. think this an exaggeration except a famous Australian bushman - well, cattle-duffer, but by then an older man - Harry Readford, is mentioned as considering a hundred miles between cattle stations in a day a "dog-trot."

I don't think Australian bush horses count as pacers, but the "good horse" in the bush probably had extremely high stamina and easy gaits, and with breaks of walking, trotting, etc, for those accustomed, such wd. be possible.

I have myself covered 30 miles in a day on a friend's Australian stock horse, with pauses to fix fences, have lunch etc., mostly walking, some trotting. At the end of the day I was tired, but not ruined, and the horse was fine. Don't say I wd. have done another such next day, but the day after, yep.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Sylvia,

There is also the story of a Pony Express rider who made an ungodly number of miles in a day (320-something) sticks in my mind) because he ended up having to ride several legs in succession. I would be curious to know if Readford rode the same horse the whole way. Cattle horses were certainly in shape; any horse that is used every day for several hours is going to develop a high level of fitness and stamina. Even the cowboys of trail drive fame, though, rode several horses in a day, which is why the remuda was so big. I agree with you that the 30 miles is very doable, but oh, the aching legs at the end of the day! If you're used to it, you could keep up it for a long time, but I would still bet it would be hard on the horse without a rest day on a regular basis. And you're right that the number of variables determining daily distance is huge!