Sunday, July 13, 2014

Travel by Horse

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Horses are a staple of western fiction. When writing or reading about them, it’s helpful to understand common terms about the way they move. Whether or not an experienced horseman can see the animal, he or she can tell how fast the critter is moving by the distinctive sound of hooves striking the earth.

A walk is a four-beat gait, meaning three hooves remain on the ground while the fourth moves. The walk is a very comfortable gait for riders. It’s smooth, producing only a slight swaying motion. At a walk, riders have no trouble keeping their butts in the saddle.

Horses can walk all day, even under saddle, but they don’t move very far very fast. The average horse will cover three to four miles an hour at a walk; some move as slowly as two miles per hour.

Trot and jog
Technically, a jog is slower than a trot, but practically—at least in western riding—both gaits are referred to as jogging. Jogging is a two-beat gait in which diagonal pairs of legs move together: left rear with right front; right rear with left front.

Trotting primarily is associated with horse shows (during which judges want to see that a horse can move at variety of speeds on command) and harness racing. Racing trotters often cover as much ground as quickly as other horses gallop. Some harness races require horses to pace, in which the legs on each side move together while the legs on the other remain on the ground.

The jog is a horse’s natural working gait. If left to his own devices (and not escaping a threat), a horse will move at a jog when he wants to cover distance quickly. Horses can jog for a long time without tiring, but many riders can’t take the pace. With a few notable exceptions, a jog can be extremely jarring and puts enormous strain on the muscles in a rider’s legs, back, and abdomen. Working cowboys who spend a good deal of time in the saddle may move their horses at a jog, but pleasure riders generally try to avoid the gait if they value their butts, which slap the saddle with each step until the rider learns to “move with the horse.”

At a jog, horses cover an average of about eight miles an hour. So-called “gaited horses” like the Tennessee Walking Horse and the American Saddlebred don’t jog or trot. Instead, their natural middle gait, a “running walk,” can cover as many as fifteen miles in an hour. Because all four hooves move independently, a running walk is a comfortable gait for riders. Both breeds are primarily pleasure, not working, horses.

Lope or canter
Lope and canter are essentially the same gait, a three-beat movement in which three hooves are off the ground while a rear leg supports the horse’s weight. At a lope, horses can cover about ten to fifteen miles in an hour; some can reach speeds of up to twenty-seven miles per hour.

Note: Horses under western saddle lope. Canter is an English-riding term, possibly derived from Canterbury.

The gallop, a four-beat gait, is the horsey equivalent of run and averages about thirty miles per hour. Horses bred for speed, like Thoroughbreds and racing Quarter Horses, can gallop as fast as fifty miles per hour.

In the wild, horses gallop in order to escape a threat. Most horses can gallop for only a mile or two without risking serious injury or death. (Yes, some horses will run themselves to death at the urging of a rider.)

How far can a horse travel?
How far a horse can travel in a day depends on the horse’s condition, the availability of food and water, and the terrain he is asked to cover. At a combination of lope and walk, a young horse in optimal condition can travel fifty to sixty miles a day in good weather over flat terrain, as long as he is allowed to drink and graze every couple of hours. The faster a horse moves, the more often he will need to rest, eat, and drink.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the longer a horse moves fast, the shorter the distance it can cover in a day. Pony Express riders galloped about 10 miles (or about half an hour) before changing horses and usually covered 60-70 miles a day, but that was an exceptionally grueling pace for the rider. A good average pace is about 40 miles per day, which is the speed the U.S. Cavalry aimed for during the nineteenth century. Over uneven terrain or in bad weather, a horse and rider would do well to cover twenty miles per day. In the mountains, ten miles per day would be a good pace.

Many cowboys carried grain—usually corn or oats—in order to get more out of their horses. Grain provides increased carbohydrate-based energy. Sweet feed, which contains molasses, was not as common unless a horse was stabled. Horses love sweet feed, but it’s not good for them except as a treat.

Remember, too, that most working cowboys preferred—and still prefer—to ride geldings over mares or stallions. As a rule, geldings are much more tractable than either stallions (which can be a handful at best and a nightmare if a mare anywhere in the vicinity is in season) or mares (who naturally establish a pecking order within a herd and can be cranky). In the wild, a mare runs the herd; stallions are tolerated only for breeding and protection.


  1. Absolutely fascinating.
    The moving pictures really make it all clear. I've seen that last one, the black and white, which demonstrates at that speed, all four hooves are off the ground. This was a real education.
    I laughed about horsemen preferring geldings, because mare might be cranky. Even in the animal world, females have a reputation. Funny.
    It was worth the wait, Kathleen. I did make note of the types of movement. Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Celia. The post grew out of a question on the Prairie Rose Publications loop (to which you contributed quite a bit! :-) ). I added a little more information here after a conversation with another historical author who was confused about the various gaits and the differences in terminology between western and English riding. (For some reason, folks like to stick "canter" into westerns. No, no, no! :-D )

    Next up: the various kinds of saddles, their parts, and for what each kind historically was used. Military saddles, working saddles, and sidesaddles were very different. Making matters worse, there were several varieties of each! :-D

  3. WONDERFUL POST! I know nothing about horses, and this "visual" of the gaits is just priceless. Thanks so much for the research you put into this! It's going to help, just in details.


  4. Great post, Tex! When I started writing I had to get the "how far could the horse go" information from my dad who knew more about horses and knows every piece of Wyoming.

    It always made me smile how many authors put their hero on a stallion. But I must admit I put one of mine on a stallion. I wanted this horse to be a sire for the future of the horse ranch.

    The next post on saddles sounds interesting. They say the McClellan saddle was supposed to be more comfortable for the horse, but looking at them...ouch for the rider. :)

  5. Cheryl, I was surprised to find those animated GIFs on Wikimedia Commons. It does help to see the various gaits, doesn't it?

    If you ever get the chance to ride a horse, take it. There's quite a bit to be said for experiencing first-hand the things we write about. :-)


  6. I always get tickled about writers putting characters on stallions, too, Rustler. For some reason, some writers also believe women should ride mares. Go figure. :-D

    The McClellan saddle issue also came up recently. Evidently, a lot of people don't know both Yanks and Rebs rode McClellans during the Civil War. Rebs even manufactured their own. More about that later. :-)

  7. Nice post - thanks for the information!

  8. Kathleen, this is a very helpful post for us western writers. Thanks for the visual aids to go with the post, too.

  9. The only thing I'd add is that a jog can sometimes be tough on a male rider's, um, low-hanging fruit.

  10. Great article! And a must read for editors everywhere. You know, the ones who insist the hero must ride a stallion.

    Loved Troy's comment. It supports my theory that some man thought up sidesaddles for women: a form of subtle revenge.

  11. Thank you so much for the informative post. I always love when I learn something new.

  12. What an informative post, Kathleen. I've never seen the different motions so this was an eye-opener for me.

    Thanks for the info!

  13. LOL, Troy and Kit! I didn't even think of the, uh, "jewels" angle, Troy, but yeah -- I bet that would be a bit of a problem! :-D

    Sidesaddles actually can be quite comfortable once a person gets used to them. If you're accustomed to riding astride, a sidesaddle just feels wrong. There's a certain amount of security, though, in hooking a leg around the top pommel, and ladies in long skirts did look elegant sitting a sidesaddle (which also enforces posture). The big drawback, as I see it, is a lady must use her hands and not her legs to signal the horse. Depending on the horse, that can be a bit of a challenge. :-D

    Kit, I don't know what is up with editors who insist heroes ride stallions. Evidently, they've not spent much time around horses. :-D Some stallions can be perfectly sweet (most of the time), but generally speaking they can be aggressive and difficult to handle. Of course, mares can be sneaky and stubborn. Give me a gelding any day. :-)

    Caroline and J.E.S., thanks for stopping by! Like I told Cheryl, if you ever get a chance to ride -- or even just hang out around a barn or paddock -- take it. Spending time with horses, especially riding, is not only fun, but also informative. :-)

  14. You're welcome, Ciara and Linda! Those animated GIFs are wonderful, aren't they? They really help to give folks an idea of what the horse is doing.

    The girl riding the horse at a lope is bouncing a bit in her saddle. She appears to be holding the horse back, which shortens his stride. At a longer (slightly faster) lope, the gait evens out and actually is fairly smooth. Walk and gallop are the two easiest gaits to sit, but a lope's not bad, either, and it's easier on the horse than a gallop over distance.

  15. In Arizona, where I come from, horses trot, people jog. But then, we're backwards somewhat. We also call that fast walk a single-foot. But then . . . I've been in Japan so long I've forgotten which end of a horse to get on.


  16. LOL, Charlie! You haven't forgotten a thing, judging by your writing. I STILL marvel at PITCHFORK JUSTICE, and I was equally impressed by one of your shorts, "The Prodigal," which I read just last week. :-)

    I had forgotten about "single-footing," which is a perfect period term. Thanks for tossing that one into the conversation, honey!

  17. Good information. Valuable resource. Look forward to your saddle post.

  18. Thanks, Mort! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)

  19. Great post! I wish more writers would read this and stop having their heroines ride around on stallions. We had mares, and you're right--cranky. Geldings are the best, but they're hard to breed, LOL.

  20. Kathleen,

    Hmmm. I seem to remember a conversation on the Prairie Rose Publications loop about this. (lol)

    I'm interested in your upcoming post about saddles. I still have a few from my riding days. My dad restored a plantation saddle and a cavalry saddle, which I managed to get my hot little hands on.

  21. Thanks for the morning laugh, Kaki: "Geldings are the best, but they're hard to breed." **snort**

    I wish more writers could experience stallion behavior before they just blithely include a stallion as a fictional mount. I've encountered a couple of sweet-natured stallions -- both Clydesdales (thank goodness they were sweet, because they're HUGE) -- but early on I learned to go way around the rest of them. Watching a stallion's teeth rip a chunk out of someone's shoulder will do that to a person.


  22. Kaye, guard those saddles with your life! If I figure out where you live, I'm liable to take a page out of Kirsten's book and rustle them. ;-)

    Yeah, this post did arise out of THAT conversation. :-D That's one of the things I love about PRP: not only is the group composed of a wonderful bunch of women western authors, but we get some awesome chats going, don't we?

    HUGS, sweetie!

  23. I love the videos that illustrate not just how the horse moves, but also how the rider responds in the saddle. Really interesting! :)

  24. Almost everything I know about horses I learned from the animals themselves, especially from Gus, my equine partner for 11 years, until he colicked last September. So I'm happy to say that I find your post, Kathleen, not only accurate and spot on for the horses, but very informative and full of excellent information.

    One thing I'd mention, though: There is absolutely no substitute for first-hand knowledge. I really don't understand how anyone can write convincingly about the historical West without ever having ridden. The more riding, the better the story.

    Thank you for the post, Kathleen.

    Carol Buchanan (who lives and writes in Montana)

  25. Well, now I know why I'm sure I was a horse in another life. Mares rule!

    I have been riding - bareback and western saddle - but I am severely allergic and now, with vertigo, I'd have even more trouble. But I've always loved horses and made a friend of a black stallion when I was at university. (University of Guelph is also known as U of Moo because of the Agricultural and Veterinary colleges.)

    I look forward to learning more about saddles. For HAZARDOUS UNIONS I had to research side-saddle and women's riding habits. What a production for the ladies!

  26. Glad you like the illustrations, Lorrie! I like those, too. Very helpful, aren't they? :-)

  27. Carol, I'm so sorry to hear about Gus. What a tremendous loss. My thoughts are with you.

    I completely agree about writers getting experience on horseback. There's nothing like first-hand experience when writing about anything, but most writers do the best they can with what they have. I'd also say mucking stalls, feeding, tacking up, and just spending time with horses is beneficial. Each has his or her own personality, and I imagine lots of folks would be surprised to experience the many ways horses communicate. They're sensitive, social creatures, and very worth knowing, IMO.

    Thanks for stopping by and contributing your knowledge! :-)

  28. Ali, I can SO see you as a bossy, stubborn mare. :-D

    Allergies are the pits, and with vertigo, too, it's probably safer for everyone if you stay on the ground. How cool that you made friends with a stallion! Of course, he probably sensed your inner mare and decided he'd be wise to behave himself. ;-)

    I'll have to pick your brain about sidesaddles. I've ridden sidesaddle a time or two, and it really is an adjustment for someone accustomed to riding astride. And just imagine what it must have been like with all those skirts and petticoats in the way! The difficulties inherent in riding sidesaddle in yards of fabric do give western romance authors something to work with, though. Hunky cowboy helping determined lady into and out of a saddle... All sorts of opportunities for mischief there. :-D

    HUGS, Crazy Canuck!

  29. Same as Charlie said--in Idaho, people jog and horses trot. I'd never even heard of a canter--I thought people were referring to Eddie. And in Idaho, horses run. If you've ever been on one when your horse steps on a rattler, you won't argue. So walk, trot, gallop, run.

    I had what's called a proud gelding--you don't want one of those any more than you want to ride a stallion. I also had a mare. She was sweet as could be unless she was in heat, and then she'd just as soon kill you as look at you.

  30. Kathleen, that is a highly informative article. I enjoyed watching the horses in motion, truly seeing the differences in movement. Having only ridden with English saddles in Europe, I really must get on an American saddle now and try it out. I appreciate you pointing out that canter translates to lope in America. Troy's comment cracked me up. That never crossed my mind before. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to groom a Clydesdale gelding at Grant's Farm recently, using a bench. LOL Learned that the brewery exclusively uses geldings, for the same reason you mentioned. The mares are strictly used for breeding, as are the stallions. All are trained for two years, for ease of handling, the gelding get the college education! LOL Thank you for this wonderful article. Excellent! :-)

  31. LOL, Jacquie! Yep, if your horse steps on a rattler, you won't care what the gait is called as long as the horse gets the heck out of there. :-D

    If you use "proud" gelding the same way we use the term down here, I agree they can be as bad as any stallion. Years and years ago, I knew a woman who owned a proud gelding, and that sucker was mean as a snake. No one but her could get near him, and even for her the task was an adventure. She rode him...until he threw her and she broke her back.

    I think mares must suffer from PMS, too. ;-)

  32. Claudia, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. You really should try a western saddle, just for the experience. :-)

    My mother's family kept Percherons, which always seemed like enormous dogs to me. They followed people around and loved attention. I guess it's a good thing they were sweet, because like Clydesdales, they're HUGE.

  33. Yes, Percherons are an awesome breed. Great disposition. Didn't they used to pull stage coaches? They stand up to 19 hands tall! Make for great jumpers too!

  34. Yes, they're BIG -- sort of like mountains with hooves. :-D Very "soft" dispositions, though.

    I never realized Percherons made good jumpers. That must be a sight to see!

    I'm not sure whether Perches pulled stagecoaches. Despite what Hollywood would like us to believe, I understand a lot of stagecoaches were pulled by mule teams. Mules tend to be hardier than horses. Jacquie's the mule expert in these parts. She'd probably know better about that. :-)

  35. Thank you so much for such an informative post, especially for those of us who often times find our hero or heroine on a horse. The visual aids are wonderful, and knowing how many miles could be traveled in a day is priceless info.


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