My Kingdom for a Horse

Modern authors just don’t know how to handle distance travel.
It’s a broad brush to paint with, but the more I read recent fiction, the more I find it to be true. Distance is a difficult subject to handle in books. It’s something I struggle with, myself. You can draw maps all day to help a reader know how things are situated, but if the actual writing portrays the distance differently, what’s the point?

I first started thinking of it after reading a fantasy story a few weeks ago, in which the heroine covers some 1,200 miles by horseback in the span of a week. I can’t really say it’s impossible, but it’s unlikely that the horses used would live healthy lives afterward. They may not even survive the trip. After all, we’re talking seven days, seven horses, which means not quite 172 miles per horse. It might seem like a paltry distance, but that’s only because of how accustomed to easy travel we have become. When there’s sports cars that can traverse 172 miles in an hour, we tend not to stop and think about how great a distance that really is.

My family lives in central Illinois, while I’m located in western Tennessee. I’m remarkably fortunate that there happens to be a major interstate that runs directly from my city to theirs. The trip is about 370 miles, and if I’m able to run the speed limit the entire way and don’t encounter heavy traffic or road work, it only takes about six hours to get from my house to theirs.

But while my car is a Mustang, it’s definitely not a horse, and being able to travel that far in such a small amount of time is nothing short of incredible. Not even a hundred years ago, mentioning the concept of traveling 400 miles in a day would have had people looking at you like you were crazy. And true enough, you would have been. The first modern automobiles were produced and sold in the late 1800s, but they were virtually unheard of until Ford’s Model T made its appearance in 1908.

Interestingly, the best portrayal of realistic travel by horse I have ever read comes from the around same time frame, and the only reason it’s such a good portrayal is because it’s not a work of fiction. The Little House on the Prairie series is a well-known non-fiction story, and a fantastic glimpse into what it was like to travel by horse. During the time the family was settled some twenty miles from Independence, Kansas, the books recount Pa’s trips to town to trade and purchase goods. If he made good time, his team of horses could get from the homestead to the city in a day. If the weather was agreeable and the city wasn’t too busy, he’d reach home the next night.

This is what horseback travel should be, and when writing fantasy fiction – Which always seems to cycle back to travel by horse – it’s important to remember a few facts. I have the benefit of having worked with horses before, so I’m a little better equipped to know what riding is really like. Even so, just a quick bit of research and the right interest in the subject can turn up useful information on how fast you should expect the average horse to travel. For example…

– The average speed of a walking horse is about 4 miles per hour. This is only slightly faster than the walking speed of a human, but horses obviously have much better staying power.
– A horse’s trot is a bit faster than a walk, but trotting is also awfully uncomfortable for the rider. It’s unlikely that anyone traveling by horse would travel at a trot for more than a few minutes at a time.
– Most horseback travel would happen at a walking pace, or a canter interspersed with breaks of walking or trotting. The average speed of cantering is about 12 or 13 miles per hour.
– While it’s not unbelievable for a horse to gallop at speeds of 35 miles per hour, the average horse (Even a fit, well-trained and well-rested horse) would be exhausted by such a speed after only two or three miles!

What should you expect, then, when writing travel?
Well, it’s good to keep in mind that the average speed kept by the Pony Express, back in the day, was around 10 miles an hour. This was very quick travel, but it also meant frequent stops to switch to a fresh horse. At most, they’d use the same mount for maybe two hours.
When I used to ride, each horse was usually only used for one or two hour-long riding sessions per day. These are average saddle horses, mind you, trained for daily riding – Not endurance. War horses, which were usually heavier, stronger draft breeds, could be expected to stay the course a little bit longer.

Even so, I wouldn’t expect the average fantasy-fiction horse to be able to travel more than 50 miles in a day, and they’d be quite tired after that, likely needing several days to rest.

It’s a pretty far cry from the 172 miles the book I read would require from each horse in a day. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, as I mentioned before, but riding is also a great strain on the rider, not just the horse. Assuming they moved like the Pony Express, that would still be 17 hours in the saddle, which makes my backside hurt just to think of it.

So, next time you’re writing a story where great distances must be covered… Please, won’t someone think of the horses?

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