Monday, 17 January 2011

What Every Gamer Needs to Know About Horses

The Care and Handling of Horses:


Contrary to popular belief among fantasy and even historical fiction novelists, a horse is NOT an organic sports car. Riding a horse is not simply a case of putting fuel in one end and then steering the thing as it gallops across the landscape at thirty miles an hour for days on end.

In fact, riding a horse is not much quicker than walking. A good horse (with rider) can cover about thirty miles a day in rolling country. Over the same terrain, a fit man could cover about thirty miles in ten hours (A Zulu warrior could famously run fifty miles or so in a day and still be fit to fight at the end of it). While the top-speed of a horse is certainly much greater than that of a human, unlike early human hunters, a horse cannot run all day without suffering from exhaustion and, eventually, death. Like humans, horses sweat profusely while exerting themselves physically. Like humans, but unlike most other animals; horses tend to sweat across most of their body surface, allowing them to control their temperature for longer periods.

However, horses sweat a great deal, as anyone who has every watched the Grand National can tell you. Like human sweat, horse sweat requires the excretion of a great deal of salt. Horses cannot replace salt from their diet as well as humans can, largely because, unlike humans, horses do not eat meat. This makes it harder for a horse to recover from a hard run.

The best policy for speed is to alternate short bursts of running or trotting with a longer period of simply walking the horse. In fact, even better practice for keeping a horse healthy is to get off the damn thing and walk for ten minutes or so after every hour of riding.

The average horse needs to be rested and fed three to four times a day on a long journey. Especially while carrying a human. To avoid becoming ill, a horse needs at least an hour or so to cool down before it can be safely fed. Likewise, after feeding and drinking it requires at least an hours rest to avoid becoming bloated and ill.

This is one of the main reasons why horses tend to drop dead on a forced march much sooner than a walking human. Remember, a human can vomit. Horses can't. Stomach problems can kill a horse, and often do.

Oh, and be sure to give its muscles and coat a good rub down even after a short run. Horses can get muscle sprains and other injuries as easily as you do.


Ancient, medieval and modern military manuals agree that an average horse on campaign consumes 10lbs of grain and 10 lbs of fodder a day. It also needs about 80 lbs of water. That’s right. 80lbs! An ox needs about 150! It’s just not possible for most horses (especially the larger breeds) to survive on grass and forage alone over a long period (by which I mean more than a few days). Especially if the horse in question has to carry the weight of a rider, as well as his gear.

For a long expedition then, a second horse or mule (to carry the horse food, not extra gear for the humans) is essential. A heavily laden pack mule needs about as much food and water in a day as a horse and can carry enough fodder and grain to keep itself fed for about 27 days. So if a rider has one horse and one mule, he can travel for only about 2 weeks before he needs to stop for more supplies for his animals. Let’s hope the horse is strong enough to carry the human’s food as well as the human.


Horses run the full range of personality types found in most animals. But on the whole, they have an annoying tendency to be lazy, stupid, self-destructively curious and even, in some cases, malicious.

The average NPC horse can be developed in a fully fledge character all of its own. In the novel, “Ash,” by Mary Gentle, each of the title character's three horses had it’s own, well-developed personality. Don’t overlook the value and potential of a character’s mount as a storytelling character.

Secondly, from a roleplaying perspective, most horses have a healthy sense of self-preservation. A hero cannot simply jump on the back of any old nag and expect it to charge cheerfully off into battle with him. Horses are stupid – but they're not THAT stupid. Like most humans, they aren’t too keen at the thought of riding into battle. It takes years to train a modern day police horse not to shy away from crowds, let alone rioting mobs. Warhorses were specially trained and bred for battle. A warhorse would be at least three years old before anyone would even consider riding them into a fight. An untrained horse will buck, shy away from, and even throw a rider it has known for years in order to avoid a battle or a fire. Don’t even THINK about trying to take one near an elephant. Not unless you want to be trampled by a very angry dobbin! Elephants terrify horses who have not been raised around them.

That being said, it`s not unknown for even a simple riding horse to stand valiantly over its fallen rider, defending it to the last. The poor thing would be foaming around the mouth in terror at the time, mind you, but it does happen.

Horse Riding:

It can take weeks of practice to learn to ride a horse properly. A very painful experience let me tell you, especially for the inner thigh and, as many writers forget, the calves. The latter can become especially painful if the stirrups are not adjusted correctly or absent altogether. Which reminds me, don’t bother using shock cavalry tactics if the riders are bareback or without stirrups. Charging with a spear poised like lance when you don’t have a stirrup is a sure way to end up on the ground with your opponent laughing at you as he shoves his sword through your gut. Before the invention of the stirrup, cavalry were strictly scouts and skirmishers rather than shock troops.

Most horses are either bridle or stirrups trained. That is, most horses are trained to respond to instructions given either by tapping the bridle against the side of the neck or by poking them in the ribs with your heel, stirrup or spur. A very few horses are trained to respond to verbal commands or pressure from the riders knee or thigh. Some horses may be trained in two or more such methods. Generally, show horses and gentle riding horses are trained to the bridle. Less delicate horses, and breeds trained to military or police service, (or used in some other role where the rider is likely to require use of both hands) are generally stirrup or even knee trained.

So make sure your hero knows what sort of commands the horse will respond to when he jumps down upon its back - perhaps he takes the time to observe how the locals ride while scouting out the scene of his latest escapade, for example. However, the potential comedy value in having a stirrup trained rider jump onto a bridle trained mount to make his escape is immense. It’s one I`ve used to good effect myself more than once.


There’s a reason many cultures (but not all) insisted that warhorses be either geldings (yes, horses can be eunuchs too) or mares.

All too often, the hero of our tale rides around on a big stallion. Owww. Not good. While its possible to ride a stallion, you’d have to be mad to do it. Especially if you happen to be female and aged between 12 and fifty.

Generally a stallion is used as breeding stock and that’s it. For one thing, stallions tend to be a mite rowdy at the best of times and downright uncontrollable around a mare in season. Plus it’s no myth that menstruating female humans should avoid being anywhere near a stallion in heat. Male horses really do pick up on female pheromones, and can become difficult to handle around human females experiencing that time of the month.

So for Red Sonya that horse was all wrong (sorry Howard, you’re a writing legend and one of my literary heroes, but a Texan should have known better). In fact, several historical records feature anecdotes regarding some damn fool who tried to ride into battle on a stallion. Most end with him lying in the dirt inside a circle of his mates all pointing fingers at him and laughing themselves sick. The rest end with him lying in a circle of enemies with a great big bloody spear in his gut.

WHich is not to say that stallions can't be warhorses - some folk see a more forceful character as an advantage in a warhorse. Just not everyone.


So as you can see, horse’s and cars really don’t have a lot in common, other than the fact the crap that comes out of the back end isn’t exactly good for global warming. The best way to find out about horses is to go and ride one. I heartily recommend it to you all. I also hope that this article has been of use to you. Let me know if it has been, in which case I`ll probably do another in a similar vein.

Note: I'm still rather busy in Oman. I came over to visit family/scout out the job market and ended up doing a customer service intervention. This is an older article I wrote for a fantasy/sci-fi writers community a while back. I'll have the next survival guide (and the rest of the Necromancer articles) up as soon as I can.


scottsz said...

Well done, and very useful for campaign material writing.

Jim said...

Great stuff! Thanks for posting! Extremely valuable!

Caliban said...

Good post, Brian. There is one other thing you could do, if you really want to confuse your PCs: show them a horse with a Celtic saddle (the one the Romans adapted). It's too early for stirrups, but it has quite a high back and two knobs protruding at the front sides and top. It gives the rider partial equivalence to stirrups, meaning that some shock impetus is possible, although with a shorter spear than a proper lance.

Better still, have them attacked by a barbarian who turns out to be a bit more lethal with a spear on horseback than they were expecting!

Here's a picture that shows the saddle in use:

I have no idea if a link will come out in a blog comment, but you could try to cut and paste it - hope it works!


David Larkins said...

All excellent points. Particularly the bit about requiring more than one beast of burden for long journeys. I wasn't really aware of that until I started running Pendragon. This illustration in particular (scanned from a kid's book about knights) is a graphic example of the number of horses needed to support a knight and his squire on a cross-country journey.

The bit about stallions and mares reminded me of an anecdote related in Terry Jones' series on the Crusades: the Crusading knights were one of those cultures that favored stallions because they were perceived as more masculine. Too bad for them that the Saracen horse archers rode mares; caused lots of ruckus among the knights' battle lines.

There was an article in an old issue of Dragon that had tables for generating horse personality traits. If I was better about roleplaying the personality of companion NPCs in general, I'd make more use of horse personalities. Something to work on, for sure.

David Larkins said...

One other note about the picture I linked to: note how the knight isn't riding his warhorse. The warhorse would be walked as much as possible in order to keep it rested, only being mounted right before battle.

Pontifex said...

If you want me to throw this post into a PDF so you can post it for download, let me know. High quality stuff here, Brian.

JDJarvis said...

Excellent post. I'm always having to remind my players horse are living breathing animals with a different set of limitations from men.

I've got a couple of tables I use to keep horses acting like horses, some of my players simply hate them, other see no issue at all.

Jim said...

@JD -- Can I see those tables? I'd really appreciate that!

Dangerous Brian said...

Glad you all like it.

@ Caliban: Love that idea. Consider it stored away for nefarious purposes.

@SirLarkins: Yes, you're right. Pendragon was the first product that really got me thinking about horses. Thzt Terry Jones anecdote you mentioned was exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. Imagine trying to keep a steady line when all the horses around you want to head towards the same mare -and get there first. Pure unadultered chaos.

@ Greg Christopher: Thanks Greg that would be great. You're a star. I'd love a pdf of this, but I don't have a clue how to do it.

@ JD: I'd love a look at those myself.

Jay Exonauts said...

I'm late to this party, but very well done! Apart from being useful gaming material it's extremely fascinating stuff. It's great to read posts that illustrate the writer's knowledge about real world stuff.

Rainer said...

Dragon magazine articles about horses:

"Horses Are People Too", Horse coloration, personality, attributes. 191(pg.10)

"Let the Horse Buyer Beware" 92(pg.26)

"Bazaar of the Bizarre: Magical Items for Your Mount" 208(pg.29)

"Through the Looking Glass", Miniature figures: Painting Horse coloration 141(pg.80)

"Dragon's Bestiary, Horse Variants" 149(pg.22)

"Warhorses and Barding" 74(pg.4)

Also, the TSR Manual, "Arms and Equipment Guide", has a chapter on Exotic mounts.

Dangerous Brian said...

Thanks Rainer. Those are very handy links.