Long-haul average speed of horseback travel?

For purposes of writing a story set in a medieval-type world, how fast can a party mounted on horseback expect to travel over long distances without wearing out their mounts? For hard numbers say how far they could expect to travel in a month, or alternately how long it takes to travel a thousand miles. This presumes reasonably good terrain (trails or flat plains all the way), and no distractions making more than short rests necessary.

Are you allowing inns? Changes of horses along the way? This book might be useful. A lot depends on how many rivers you have to ford and whether you have to fool around camping and hunting food and forage.

It looks like 20-30 miles a day was pretty standard. So your month/1000 miles guess is not unreasonable. However 40 or even 50 miles/day was possible and 100+ could be done using relays.

The Tevis Cup covers 100 miles in a single day. However, that’s an athletic event, not to be undertaken lightly by folks who just wanna travel from Point A to Point B.

In a more leisurely mode, there are numbers that vary from 30 miles a day to a laid-back 60 miles in four days, which, granted, is for pony-trekking in Britain, where you’re not necessarily pushing for speed, but pausing often to take in the scenery.

According to NASA, a horse walking goes 3 mph; trotting, 7 mph. However, they can’t keep up a vigorous trotting pace all day every day, (see “Tevis Cup”, above) because they need to rest as the lactic acid builds up in their muscles, same as with human distance runners, who also need to train for their one-day event.

The Mongols were famous for traveling long distances in a single day on their runty little ponies, but that was after generations of selection for distance-capable horses. Your Joe Average medieval travelers wouldn’t have had that.

Remember that long-distance travel in the coaching days of the 19th century was only made possible by having fresh horses at stages–the same team of horses didn’t trot or gallop from, say, Yorkshire to London.

So long-distance, non-racing horseback trips take place generally at walking speed.

Paris to Rome as the crow flies (air distance) is 688 miles. So call it 1,000 actual road miles for medieval travelers to get from Paris to Rome. It took them a long time, weeks or even months, depending on the weather, how often they had to stop and fight bandits, wait for flooded rivers to go down, etc. Military-types or nobles who could commandeer fresh horses from peasants along the way could do it a lot faster, but not Joe Blow the Merchant trudging on his way to the next trade fair.

3 mph times 12 hours, assuming the bridges weren’t out and none of the horses broke down or cast a shoe in the middle of nowhere, allowing your party to travel steadily every day, is 36 miles. How long would it take them to cover 1,000 miles? I’ll let you do the rest of the math. :smiley:

10 hours, or even 8, would be more likely, if you’re not relying on inns. Or even if you are. There are the common tasks of making and breaking camp, feeding, grooming, and otherwise caring for your mounts, feeding your party, mending and tending tack, any clothing or any other equipment repairs that needed to be attended to, and so on. Even with inns, you’d still need time to make arrangements, eat, get settled, and get started again, and so on. Plus the equipment tending doesn’t go away; even if you can hire someone to do it for you, you need to make arrangements with them, and the work still takes time. Alternatively, one day in four or five might be taken as a make/fix day, where camp isn’t shifted at all. That has the advantage of allowing you and your mounts to rest - horses get as weary as humans do, over the long haul.

The advantage of horse travel isn’t in speed, it’s that you arrive much less tired than you might otherwise have, and you can transport much more gear/equipment/goods than you could if walking.

And Mongols changed their ponies, too. A typical Mongol warier would have 2 or 3 ponies (big shots had more), and would change off during the day. Unlike the Pony Express or stagecoach routes, the spare Mongol ponies traveled with them. But as they were not carrying a rider, weapons, etc., they were more rested than the pony in use.

P.S. The fastest speed for a horse is about 30 mi/hr (48 km/hr). That’s the record set by Secretariat. And it was only for one mile.

So about 30 miles a day actually traveling, and factoring in real world considerations closer to 20 miles per day. Thanks everyone!

I think you could still get 12 hours of traveling in every day, even if you weren’t relying on inns and had to make and break camp twice a day. Assuming that Lumpy’s medieval travelers are traveling during the summer, you’d get up before dawn, which would be about 5 a.m. Then you’d feed the horses while you broke camp, which would take about an hour. So you’d leave by 6 a.m., take a short lunch break (the horses are just walking, so they don’t need a long rest at midday, unlike oxen). Then you’d travel till 6 p.m, leaving plenty of time to make camp, eat supper, and feed the horses again before turning in.

The biggest problem would be to ensure adequate hay supplies for the horses, as they can’t live on just grain alone. So I’d assume that part of the evening would be spent cutting fodder, and then cleaning tack and whatnot.

Also bear in mind that “breaking camp” for the average medieval traveler involved nothing more complex than rolling up your bedroll or cloak or whatever you were using to sleep on, packing up maybe a few clothes and a kettle, things like that.

Twelve hours a day is do-able.

Ever try that? I have. It doesn’t work that neatly, and we had support vehicles, support personnel, and modern, lightweight, well-designed equipement. OK, our mounts were bicycles, but they’re much less maintenance-intensive than horses. I did this five summers in a row - 185 miles, in seven days, going flat-out over hard-packed, well-maintained trails that most medieval riders would have died for. 8, maybe 10 hours road travel per day on average. Presuming weather didn’t interfere - which it often did. We invariably arrived right up against our time limit.

I have also done horse-back trail camping, but less often, and for shorter distances. That experience backs up and confirms my bike-hiking experience.

Heh! I see you’ve never gone trail camping before. Oh, you could try to run things like a modern military road march, but that’s not how things were done, nor are done, outside of a modern military operation. Such discipline was foriegn to the era.

I think you are underestimating how much horses eat and how often they should.

I mean, sure, horses can go without adequate food for several days. So could you, for that matter. But they won’t function nearly as well and be more prone to problems.

I disagree.

My hiking/camping experience is that tending camp takes substantial time and effort, and that was without having to care for horses. I’ve cared for horses. They, too, take time and effort.

I’d say a typical day would be more like get up, feed horses (they take some time to eat), feed humans, groom/dress humans, pack stuff, groom/dress horses, then load horses. That will take a couple hours at least.

Walk for some hours.

Break for lunch. Feed horses. Feed people. Check horses for problems. Clean up. That will take an hour or two.


Stop, set up camp. Unload horses, check for problems, may require some grooming/first aid/cool-down walks depending on conditions. Feed horses. Feed people. Clean up/store food out of reach of animals. Set up tents, sleeping area. Tend blisters, saddle sores, cuts, etc. on people.

Then go to bed.

Remember - when you hit camp you may or may not have water nearby. “Dry camps” mean either you have to haul water with you, which adds weight to your gear, or go miles to get water, or do without (which is bad for horses and people)

Travelers of this sort will need 8 hours of sleep a night to keep going long haul. That leaves only 16 hours for everything else. If morning breaking camp/evening setting up camp takes only 2 hours (and that would require a VERY efficient group) and the middle break 1 hour for a total of 5 that would leave 11 hours for actual traveling. But you’re increasing the chances of a horse going lame. I think more realistic is 3 hours for the morning/evening routine and 2 for lunch, which is 8 hours, which leaves only 8 for traveling. And that’s assuming you have sufficient daylight for all that, or means to provide artificial light if you don’t. Bad weather will also slow you down.

Oh, the drums do bang
and the cymbals clang
And this is the way we go,
It’s forty miles a day
on beans and hay
In the Regular Army-O.

Forty miles a day, day in and day out, is pushing it and is bound to break down horses in pretty short order. Even with good roads, access to water, forage and grain, I’d think that 30 miles would be a good day and might keep you moving for ten hours to do it. I wouldn’t think you could keep that up for more than a week or so before you would have to take a day or two off to recruit and rest the horses.

The last big horse based military operation I know of was the Great Louisiana Maneuvers in 1940 or 1941. The First and Second Cavalry Divisions played war games across Louisiana and East Texas for two months. A friend, now deceased, was with a horse drawn, wooden wheeled, 75 mm battery in the exercise. They were continuously in the field and moving for 45 days, meeting forage and water at railroad junctions every day or so. His point of pride was that out of his division only 600 horses were surveyed – this out of at least 20,000 horsed in a pre-WWII cavalry division. If true, that sort of loss evidences a high level of horse management and horsemanship.

There are many breeds of horse, including most stocky “native breed” pony types (such as Dartmoor ponies, Connemara ponies, in the US it would be mustangs, etc.) and most smaller draft types, that do fine without any grain, even when they are working. These days such horses as affectionately called “airferns” because they get fat on nothing and must be carefully managed to avoid health problems related to obesity.

Hard keepers are a relatively modern invention, I think.

As the horses could graze all night hobbled or picketed I think there is no particular need to supplement grain in good weather, assuming you choose the right sort of horse.

And presuming there’s sufficient quantities of the right kind of browse nearby - hardly a forgone conclusion. Whilst hard keepers would’ve been rare (not unheard of), most European horses were less adapted to wild browse than their Mongol counterparts. That, from European’s reactions to the hardy steppe pony’s ability to make do on almost anything - They were quite impressed with the Mongol’s mounts ability to make-do.

Other things not discussed in any detail yet:

  1. Road conditions. Where there were any roads. In general, the conditions away from any city could be summed up thus: Crappy. Exceptions were the old Roman military roads, and anywhere where locals rulers were both secure, and had the tax and labor pools to maintain roads. Example in point: When the US National highway was created in the early 1800s, it was considered a marvel - 60-wide in places, with a firm grass surface. People marveled, because on that road, 30 miles a days was practical. So if such a road was considered a mark of national priode, what condition were the rest of the roads in?

  2. Weather. Even good roads turn to crap when the rains come down. Halve travel speed after the first day of any kind of solid rain. One day’s rain won’t ruin the roads, but two will. Or two days rain out of three. Or three days out of five, and so on. If it rains enough, and the roads are marginal, cut travel speed by more than half.

Am I missing something here? That’s an average of 27 miles a day. I’ve done bicycle touring carrying all my camping gear (no support) and typically made 40-60 miles per day. And while the pace wasn’t quite leisurely, it was a very far cry from flat-out. Granted that was on paved roads, but 27 miles a day with support strikes me as a piece of cake.

Yes, you did. You missed the important part - on trails. Not nice, modern metaled roads. Dirt, you know?

Okay, thanks. I noticed that, but apparently underestimated the difference. I don’t have experience bicycling on dirt trails.

I remember as a kid on my 10speed doing 20 miles a day as just “running around” distances… when I transitioned to a mountain bike style, my ability to travel long distance went down remarkably. When I started biking off-road (even on packed fire trail type roads), it went down even more.

Depending on the elevation changes, I’d say 27 miles could be very ambitious on trails.

Whole things are different between road bikes, and trail bikes. Gearing is set up for lower speeds, and lower speed x hours traveled, simply reduces total mileage for the day. And of course, even as a crazy kid, who did take my 10speed off-road, I couldn’t even hope to really keep up with the crazy kids with the good mountain bikes. Out on the streets, I was having a drink and sitting back waiting for them when we headed out of the woods, and rode downtown.

Apples & oranges.

Appalachian Mountains. Some days were fifty miles. Some were 12.

That’s for bikes, using lightweight wheels. Horses travel on hoof, which can navigate rough, muddy trails much better than a bike wheel.

And the roads or trails at that time were not in so bad a shape. They were the only means of transportation, used by everyone who was traveling, so they would be trampled down into a fairly passable state.

People who go mountain biking nowadays are doing so for recreation – they want a rugged, challenging trail, not a boring efficient one. But the OP is talking about commercial travel on horseback – speed, safety, & reliability were the primary considerations, not recreation. Much different goals.

If you go back and read my post you will note I said absolutely nothing about what horses would be fed. That was someone else.

Keep in mind that ponies and mustangs, being physically smaller, can not haul/carry as much as larger horses or draft animals. So it’s a trade off. Larger animals carrying more stuff but requiring grain, or “native” type ponies that can live on vegetation alone but can’t carry as much.

In any case, there’s a difference between animals running wild on their own or carrying just one person and animals carrying substantial packs along with a human being for days on end.

Horse can graze at night, but that’s contingent on suitable grazing being available, and you still have to be on the look out for dangerous-to-horses things. In winter, in particular, even the hardiest horses breeds would probably require supplementary feed. Then there is the terrain/vegetation you’re traversing. A pine forest will offer little for horses. Ditto for desert/scrublands. Grasslands and deciduous forests with ample clearings to allow for grasses and herbs will be best, but not all areas are like that.

You also have to consider the size of your group - the more horses the quicker they will strip an area.

That’s in line with the estimate suggested by the Gies in Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel (Harper Collins, 1994, p220): a nobleman’s party in the High Middle Ages “rarely did better than about thirty miles a day”. They’re deriving this from a 1951 Speculum article on the subject by Marjorie Nice Boyer.

An individual travelling alone on horseback in a hurry could do better.