I admit, today it’s my weary bones that inspire me. That’s the usual aftermath of one hour spent on horseback, working hard on making the horse do what I want it to do. (I ride English style, for those in the know.) And I work very hard to try and make him move in a way that’s good for him and his back. And did I say work?
I usually team up with this “flea-bitten” grey (yes, that’s the official name for his color) named Lennox. I often call him Mr. Scarface, because he bears lots of scars on his face, and he’s also often of a grumpy disposition. And I call him a “he” even though he misses certain essential male equipment (in other words, he’s a gelding). I don’t care, he’s a person, in a way, and not an “it”.
Now, every week, I get to compare my riding experiences with the exploits of some riders as they are written in fantasy and other genres. Admittedly, things have improved. It’s rare now that people gallop around on their horses all day long, while the animals survive on what little grass they can crop during the night. (I can recall a lot of that from a famous German author, Karl May.) And as my body can attest, riding all day long is not nice on human anatomy. I can accept that one can get more used to it than I am who just rides for an hour once a week, but still.
Most people are also not aware of the fact that horses are fairly delicate creatures. Oh, they have a big body, tough legs and lots of stamina. However, their weakest point is their digestive system. It’s huge (they lack the intricate stomach system of bovines), it’s big and it is easily upset. The worst word for any horse person is “colic”. It’s surprising how rarely it comes up in novels. Horses are build to browse from morning to night. Which they cannot do when ridden all day. See where the fantasy riding cliché starts to fall apart?
A long distance rider suggestes breaks at least every two hours. And consider this: Even with a well-trained and excellently conditioned horse, one cannot expect to cover more than 50km (31m) a day. More likely are 30km (18m) a day when a horse also has to carry a lot of gear in addition to the human. This is when you’re riding the same horse for more than one day, of course. And interestingly enough, humans on foot can also expect to cover up to 30km a day, depending on gear weight.
The gait most used is actually the walk. A gentle trot is also useful to cover distance, while canter and gallop are very rare. The daily riding time is about 6 hours, plus breaks. The horses will need the rest of the day to rest and eat. Also, a horse should be given one full rest day every three to five days, or it’ll gradually lose its stamina.
(Source: “Der Wanderreiter und sein Pferd”, Sadko G. Solinski, sadly out of print)
As you can see, even if horses are the fastest mode of transport in your fantasy world, they cannot carry their riders like a modern car does. Even a bicycle would be faster (100km a day is quite doable for a trained biker), but of course, bicyles need paved roads … so there goes the fantasy world. On the other hand, a dragon mount would make for much better speed, but we’re not talking dragons today.
Further reading: Horse Blog, by Judith Tarr
And for the horsie people among you, here’s some more Lennox, so you can see who I torture once every week. (And he tortures me back, so we’re even.) Can you tell he’s 24?