|Horse detail from Froissart|
One of the major inaccuracies I see in historical fiction are the distances that authors assume their protagonists’ horses can travel and the speed they make their journeys. In our age of cars and high-speed trains, it is hard to imagine a time where travel of any kind was not only pretty much limited to the upper classes or itinerant merchants or minstrels, and was a comparatively slow affair.
When travelling before the age of steam and railways, there were two options – walking or by horse. If you were a normal person you walked. Learning to ride was not something that people just did. It was expensive to learn to ride – where would you get a horse from if you were not wealthy enough to own one? Only the wealthy owned horses – they were as expensive then as they are now. Caring for horses hasn’t changed a great deal, except for vets and I suppose that in that the costs were going to be similar – no vet meant a dead horse and the need to purchase a new one.
To put some perspective on this, a thatcher working around 1380 would have earned around 4 pence a day. To save up to buy a good war horse costing around £80 would take him over 13 years. For a basic labourer who earned around £2 a year, that was 40 years' wages. Even a basic draught horse was beyond their means. A draught horse suitable for pulling a cart, but not a comfortable ride, would cost between 10 and 20 shillings, up to half a year’s wages. And then you have to account for costs incurred looking after it.
|A Lipizzaner in training - note the low belly,|
large head and short, thick legs.
Note also his height.
There are other considerations when thinking about how your character is going to travel around. Medieval horses were not the same as horses today. There were many different breeds, as there are now, but in general they were smaller than modern horses. A good indication is to look at the Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. These horses date back to around 800AD when Berber horses from North Africa were crossed with Spanish horses from Andalusia, and were then bred purposely from the fifteenth century to carry the Hapsburg emperors. This is a fairly accurate idea of what a horse looked like – stockier, barrel-shaped, shorter, around 14 to 15 hands (58 to 62 inches / 147 – 157cm tall at the shoulder).
A common misconception is that all horses are pretty much the same and that because one can do one thing, so can all the rest. That is like saying that because Usain Bolt can run 100 metres 9.58 seconds, so can Chris Hoy. Or Greg Rutherford. Or Nick Skelton. They are all men, aren’t they?!
|Frankel - much taller with a higher belly |
tucked into the hips and long,
slender legs. A very small head when
compared with the Lipizzaner above
Horses, like people, are all different. And horses are bred to do certain things. The basic horse, your standard riding school horse, is pretty average, like you and me. It probably has a decent amount of stamina and a fairly balanced temper. It isn’t going to run the Grand National or the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe. Neither will it be attempting the Puissance wall at the Horse of the Year Show. Frankel was one of the fastest horses ever to run in flat racing. He would never have been expected to jump a round in a show jumping class. Horses bred for stamina are not going to have comparable top speeds to a race horse. And dressage horses are never going to be found taking on the Tevis Cup endurance race. When someone said ‘horses for courses’ they knew a thing or two.
So, when thinking of how your character is going to get from A to B, you need to think of more than just ‘horse’ and getting it up the M1. Who is your character? What resources does he or she have? If they have just one horse, it is going to be an average sort that can do a range of things in an acceptable manner. Needs to run away from danger? Needs to get between various locations fairly quickly? To fulfil these needs, this horse is never going to be the fastest, and neither will it have any exceptional levels of stamina. So think about that when writing your scenes and allow sufficient time for your horse and rider to get where it is going.
Oh, I hear you cry, horses can run up to 40 miles per hour.
Yes, they can. For 3 miles. Then what? Horses need to rest. Horses need to eat. A race horse, like the aforementioned Frankel, can run at around 40 miles per hour. But you have to remember that Frankel did this with a saddle that was barely more than a slip of leather, with a rider on his back who made Tyrion Lannister look like a giant, with shoes made of light-weight aluminium. He had been bred to be light and long-legged, and been trained for speed and only speed over a flat, even surface. Your average medieval knight had a sword, a suit of armour maybe, a large and heavy saddle made of leather and wood. His horse’s shoes would have been made from iron. Have you ever felt the difference between a standard horse shoe and a racing shoe?
Have you ever been on a horse?!
|Left - iron horse shoe weighing 483g|
Right - racing shoe weighing 88g
Even allowing for the difference in size, the
racing shoe is much, much lighter
So, now for some real-life rides:
Roads (modern) and well-maintained trails that are level and with good weather you can make an average of 40 miles per day with an average horse and an average rider. 40 miles. Ride through marshland and that plummets to 10 miles a day.
Again I hear you say you’ve heard of people riding further. OK, yes, I mentioned the Tevis race, a 100 mile race over hilly, mountainous terrain north of Lake Tahoe. The winning times for this race across its history range from 11 hours 18 mins to 16 hours 23 mins. That is pretty impressive but you have to remember that these are modern horses trained using modern methods with modern medicine for stamina and endurance.
Endurance rides in the UK over a single day tend to average around 12 – 14 miles per hour over distances between 50 and 100 miles and include vet examinations at set points followed by ‘holds’ where rider and horse rest.
|General Nelson A. Miles|
A famous ride was made by the aging General Nelson A. Miles who was trying to prove he still had the stamina to serve in the army at the age of 64. He rode 90 miles between Fort Sill and Fort Reno in 8 hours on July 14th 1903. Now, he was proving his stamina, not his horse’s, and he changed horse every 10 miles. He travelled 90 miles in 8 hours – his horse didn’t.
Mongol warriors could cover around 100 miles a day, but they all had 3 or 4 horses so could change frequently and so travel further.
The single longest ride undertaken on the one horse without changes that I can find documented and verified was by a man called Dick King and he rode 600 miles across South Africa on one horse in 10 days. This is the very edge of endurance. But it also has to be noted that the horse had a two day rest during those 10 days because King fell ill. And Somerset, the horse in question, was a highly trained military horse and was not just some average nag that King found. And again there is a point to remember – this is exceptional and certainly not the norm else it would never have been considered memorable.
|Richard O'Sullivan as|
You can see now that the famous ride by Dick Turpin of 200 miles between London and York in 15 hours was actually physically impossible. An article in the New York Times from September 1910 recounting the ride (still firmly in the era of horse-back travel) states the opinion that had Turpin really done this he deserved to be hanged for what he would have done to Black Bess.
In 1202 King John with his army travelled 100 miles in 48 hours between Le Mans and the castle at Mirebeau, where his mother was being held hostage. The speed of this ride caught the garrison off-guard, and these were people for whom travelling on horseback was the everyday normal. This ride was not.
To summarise – an average healthy horse with an average weight, averagely laden, person on its back over level ground and well-maintained tracks can travel around 40 miles a day. Halve that if heavily laden (a knight in full armour for instance), pulling a cart, poor weather or poor ground and any obstacles such as river crossings. Halve it again for mountainous or marshy terrain and very poor weather. And this brings us to similar speeds for a person walking.
An individual rider can go further than this, as long as he could change horses. However, with no change of horse, 100 miles per day is an absolute maximum if all things are as good as they can be, including riding a horse bred and trained specifically for endurance, but don’t expect it to be able to do it again in a hurry, without a significant rest for the horse. Beyond this takes magic!
|A riding lesson in an indoor school|
A last word of advice – if you are planning on writing about riding horses or if you expect your character to rely on one, get on one. Regurgitating someone else’s experience will never be as good as writing about your own.
Understand the tack, how to hold the reins, how the saddle feels, where the buckles are, how to sit correctly, how not to. Understand how the horse moves, how it feels up there when walking, trotting, cantering and galloping; what hurts, what doesn’t. Do you need a mounting block, or can you manage without? How does riding without stirrups feel against riding with? And ask about spurs and whips. Enquire about side saddles.
If you don’t understand anything I’ve just said, go to your local stables and book a lesson or five. And persuade them to take you on a hack to experience riding in the real world – a far cry from riding round in circles in a manège or school.