About That Mounted Expedition…

alex_bvcAt last I’m getting to a question asked in the first blog or two: What about logistics of mounted expeditions? This matters a great deal to the author writing any kind of quest or preindustrialized battle, not to mention the simple issue of getting characters from Point A to Point B in credible and sensible fashion.

The short answer to this question is to send the questioner to any convenient cavalry manual. Or to my personal favorite, Donald W. Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. The link takes you to Google Books where you may find links to purchase the book. It’s small and inexpensive, but oh so valuable, not just for horse logistics but for general military details. It’s a truly priceless resource.

Here I’ll just address a few basics. Some I’ve touched on before. Others will find longer answers in Engels’ book.

What do horses eat, and how much do they eat?

Horses evolved to eat grass. They can live on leguminous forage–clover, alfalfa, and the like–but it’s richer than their systems were designed to tolerate. They can also eat some form of leafy shrubs, and of course they eat various grains, though again, those are more concentrated nutrition than a horse can handle a lot of. The definition of “lot” depends on the size and weight of horse and its breed, as well as the climate it’s living in and how much exercise it’s getting.

An example would be a Thoroughbred horse, who may eat 15-20lbs of grain a day in addition to 30lbs or more of hay. High metabolism and training for racing will set the bar high. Contrast one of my pasture potatoes, all from an easy-keeping breed that does well on poorer forage to begin with, plus none of them works as hard as a racehorse. They get 15-20lbs of grass hay a day, plus at most 2lbs of a low-protein grain mix.

Now think about taking that on the road. Unless the horses are given several hours a day to graze on some form of grass, you have to carry their fodder with you–and you’ll want to bring grain to keep weight on them as they travel all day long.That means a pack train loaded with food for the horses. That food in a preindustrial setting would probably be oats or barley.¬† Wheat is not recommended for horses. Carrying enough dry fodder would require substantial wagons. Hay is bulky, and one horse will go through over a hundred pounds a week–sometimes well over.

Don’t forget the water, either. Minimum of 10 gallons a day for a horse in a cool climate, just hanging out being a horse. Up the heat and the exertion and you’re headed for 50 gallons or more per day per horse–and if the horse doesn’t get it, he may colic and die.

How far can a horse travel in a day?

Again this is dependent on temperature, terrain, and type of horse. Endurance horses will do 100 miles in under 16 hours, but they’re built up to it and they get a solid break after it. These are Arabians usually–light horses bred for stamina. A solid day on the march for an average horse would be 15-20 miles through decent terrain without excessive challenges from weather or enemy action. Add challenges and you can drop it all the way down to a couple of miles through sucking mud in a hurricane with ongoing enemy attacks. Put an Alexander-type commander in charge with a troop of picked men and a do-or-die mission and you can get up toward those 100 miles–but you may not bring all your horses in alive or sound.

What about feet? How do they hold up?

Excellent question, not often asked. A modern horse will see his farrier, on average, every 6-8 weeks for shoes or a trim. A horse who does a lot of miles in rough terrain can wear his shoes (which are about .25in. thick when new) to tinfoil in as little as four or five days. If he’s not shod, that’s his feet being worn off. He’ll run them down to the quick (remember, they’re basically very elaborate fingernails) and become seriously, even fatally lame.

Also be sure to check the technological level of your culture. If you don’t have steel, you may not have horseshoes, either. You might be looking at barefoot as default. In that case your riders might put leather “sandals” on them to protect the feet–as the Romans did. If shoes are an option, bronze won’t hold up all that well to the wear and tear of the road. Iron will, but both metals, along with steel, require tools, supplies, and a forge, which have to be packed along or else found on the road. Weland Smith was much in demand in his day.

Research shoe shapes, too–our modern “horseshoe” was not standard everywhere. Some cultures had a crescent shape, others a circle (and corrective shoes now may have that shape, as well).

If you do have barefoot horses in boots, your riders would probably do their own trimming, taking along a hoof knife and a pick for cleaning out the hooves (sometimes the same tool, different sides). They might fashion their own boots, too, out of leather scraps and straps.

What about general logistics?

Whatever the level of technology or difficulty of terrain, horse maintenance will absorb a considerable part of every day. Any all-day-all-night push will have to be followed by a rest for the horse, never mind the rider. The horse will need to stop regularly to rest, eat, drink. And while he may go on autopilot as the rider sleeps (horses only sleep about four hours a day–they doze a lot, but they tend to stay awake, as prey animals must), he’ll need to sleep eventually, and he’ll definitely need to refuel and recharge.

The solution here can be remounts, either led along with the group or kept at stations. Horse gets in his 15-25 miles, rider transfers to another one or else drops him at a station, fresh(er) horse picks up and goes on. This was the principle of the Persian post riders in Alexander’s day, all the way to the Pony Express and the stagecoach depots of the American West, and it’s been followed by any number of mounted armies since the dawn of civilization.

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About That Mounted Expedition… — 2 Comments

  1. I still remember one of Vonda’s characters gently breaking the news to our heroine, in DREAMSNAKE — something to the effect of: “you know xxx, but I know horses. If we ride all through the night, we’ll have to abandon them before noon.” It’s been a while since I read the actual words, but the message was clear — do not screw with the horses.

    Thanx for the book rec — on the list!

  2. And there are many specialty horse trappings. I particularly admired the rattan snow shoes, designed for ponies in Antarctica. You have to train the animal to use them, of course. (I wonder if equine water wings is possible?)