This article on keeping a horse healthy is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the cultural, historical, or world-building aspects of fantasy with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Debby Lush
By day, Debby Lush is a UK based professional trainer of dressage horses and riders. A former International competitor, she has published two books on the subject, and an informative blog begun during lockdown when she was unable to meet with clients in person.
By night, (or inclement weather!), she transforms into award-winning fantasy author Deborah Jay, whose Five Kingdoms series is popular with (amongst others) horse riders, for the characterful equines inhabiting its pages. You should follow her on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Debby is one of three horse experts who contributed to Putting the Fact in Fantasy, a book based on this blog series being published by Writer’s Digest Books. I asked her to expand on a topic of interest to many fantasy writers: the basic requirements for keeping a horse healthy in a fictional (or the real) world. Here’s what she had to say.
How to Keep A Horse Healthy
Considering their size and apparent robustness, in reality horses are surprisingly fragile creatures. If you want your horse to stay alive, let alone perform work such as undertaking long journeys, there are many factors you need to take into account.
- A horse’s digestive system relies on trickle feeding of forage (grass, hay or equivalent roughage). Leaving the gut empty for longer than 8 hours can have serious consequences, from the development of gastric ulcers, to life threatening colic.
- Horses suffer several different forms of colic: impaction (blockage in the gut), spasmodic (think stomach cramps) and the most serious: twisted gut. The latter occurs when the highly mobile colon – one section of the horse’s 30m long gut – becomes displaced and either twists around itself, or loops over another section. Without surgery – and often even with it – this form of colic is fatal. Keeping your horse’s gut constantly filled is the first step to keeping it alive!
- If you want to travel long distances, or shorter distances at speed, forage alone isn’t going to provide sufficient energy – you will need to supplement it with some form of grain. And then we enter the realms of dietary intolerances – some horses have intolerances to various feed substances such as sugars and cereals, which can come out in a range of symptoms such as irritable or jumpy behaviour, loose droppings, and a predisposition to colic.
- Horses need a lot of water: 5 – 10 gallons (25 – 55 litres) a day. If you are on a long journey, you will need to find regular water stops, or you risk dehydration leading to loss of performance, and potentially – colic!
- Horses have a large body balanced on four spindly limbs, each of which terminates in a relatively small hoof – not a great design. The old saying “No hoof, no horse” is apt, and should really be extended to include each limb in its entirety. Producing and keeping horses sound takes a great deal of expertise, not to mention a healthy dose of luck!
Grass is grass. Isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. Grass provides the roughage a horse requires to keep that delicate digestion running smoothly, but protein content, and hence available energy, varies dramatically with time of year.
If, for example, your rider is undertaking a long journey in spring or summer, grass will be both more plentiful and more nutritious. In autumn and winter, however, the fibre content of grass is quite different, meaning it becomes less digestible and offers less available nutrients.
Just to complicate things further, spring grass can be very rich, and cause problems such as colic and laminitis (a very painful hoof condition that can also be fatal). In winter, very cold, frosty grass can also upset that delicate digestion.
Horses in the wild will eat for up to 16 hours per day,
So, what about hay instead?
As an alternative to grass, horses can survive quite nicely on hay. Once again, however, depending on the grass species and the time of year when the hay was made, nutrient quality can vary wildly.
A horse’s daily requirement for hay is 15 – 20 pounds (7-9kg). If you are travelling, you aren’t going to be able to haul this quantity with you because of the bulk. On the other hand, most livery stables/farms/tavern stables etc. should provide this. Your horse just needs enough time to eat it, but as horses only sleep about 3 hours a day, an overnight stop should offer sufficient time for them to consume their daily requirement.
Supplementing feed for energy
As already mentioned, if you need your horse to have performance energy, and his grazing time is limited, there are other feedstuffs you can use: grains such as oats, barley, and corn.
These are compact enough you could carry enough grain for the day, or maybe several if you take a pack horse or wagon.
- Oats are the most commonly fed for energy, and are a safe feed due to the high fibre content. Too many oats fed to an under-exercised horse usually results in excitable behaviour not suitable for an inexperienced rider!
- Barley is lower in fibre, so slightly less safe, but is more energy dense, weighing more per unit of volume, so you could carry less in comparison to oats.
- Corn is the most energy-dense: a given volume of corn contains approximately three times the amount of energy as an equal volume of oats. Corn is an excellent feed if the horse is fed to meet its energy requirement. If not, hold onto your hat!
- Wheat is less often fed to horses except in the form of bran as a bulker to stop a horse from bolting his feed, which can lead to – you’ve guessed it – colic! You might have heard of feeding a ‘bran mash’ – this is a restorative only, for example after extreme exercise, on a rest day, or to increase fluid intake (mash consists of wheat bran and hot water), and provides little in the way of nutrition. Do not feed your working horses bran mash as a regular meal – it isn’t.
How much do I need to feed a horse?
A horse’s daily requirement is 1.5 – 2 % (dry matter) of his body weight. The average horse – 15hh to 16hh (152cm – 163cm) weighs 1000lbs (roughly 450 kg), giving you that 15 – 20 pound per day requirement already mentioned. Obviously adjust for ponies, or bigger horses.
If you feed grain to increase energy levels, you can reduce the bulk feed to keep the same overall poundage. However, at least 50% of the diet should always be fibre (grass or hay) or his digestive system may be compromised.
How often do I need to feed a horse?
Grain should be split between at least 2 feeds a day, preferably more, or once again you court the spectre of colic. Small, frequent feeds are best, but whatever you do avoid working the horse hard immediately after feeding (colic), so best done when you stop for a break yourself.
What about water?
To provide sufficient water you are going to need to find water sources at least twice a day. If you are riding hard, (making the horse sweat) it will require more, just as it will if the weather is very hot. Also, don’t make the mistake of pushing a horse to a fast pace after it’s had a long drink – again, danger of colic.
You can supplement a horse’s fluid intake by feeding certain fruits: apples, apricots, blackberries, coconut, grapefruit, oranges, peaches, pear, pineapple, plums, strawberries and watermelon are all acceptable. Bananas (with the skin on) are a particularly good source of potassium, which is essential for performance, just as it is for runners or tennis players.
How long can a horse go without food and water?
Under extreme circumstances, a horse can live for almost a month without food (provided it doesn’t colic), but only 5 days without water, and after 48 hours the likelihood of colic increases dramatically.
These figures are for a non-working horse in a field – the exertions of riding would obviously bring these figures sharply down.
How far can a horse reasonably be expected to travel?
This depends on a number of factors:
- The pace you set
- How often you take a break
- Type/breed/age/health of the horse
- The suitability of the horse’s tack, especially the saddle
- Fitness of horse and rider
The last item is often ignored in fiction, particularly riding fitness. Riding requires conditioning of a very particular set of muscles, and no matter how fit your rider is in other areas of their lives, riding fitness is what matters. An unfit rider will not only be a real burden to their mount because of their inability to maintain balance, but they will also quickly gain rubs, sores and blisters in places no one wants such things, namely seat bones, inner thighs, inner calves, and fingers. Try tormenting your unfit riders with a few saddle sores – I do!
As regards the other items, terrain and weather are hugely important. Hilly, rough ground will not only slow you down, but also carries the risk of injury to the horse’s limbs. Hot weather brings the risk of dehydration, which will slow you down, as will rain and the resultant swampy mud.
Horse breed/type is a choice you can make. As cited in previous articles, please don’t mount your riders on Friesian-type horses (think Ladyhawke, or the Musketeers) – if you want to travel at speed; heavy limbed horses are not fast! For speed you want tall, lithe, and lightweight. If speed is not an issue, smaller, stockier types are often more comfortable, and far less prone to injury on rough terrain.
A suitable saddle is essential for long journeys, and not only for the rider. Horses will also suffer rubs and sores from ill-fitting equipment that can cause, at least, a weeping injury, and at worst, a total refusal by the horse to continue allowing itself to be ridden.
Distance-wise, at walk, a horse can travel for around 8 hours, covering roughly 32 miles in a day. With a fit horse, add in some trotting (8-12 mph) and cantering (12-15mph) and you can make a bit more, but don’t forget you will need to break occasionally for your horse to drink and graze.
A horse can gallop nonstop for around 2.5 miles. He cannot gallop all day!
Over a long journey, a horse may lose condition due to inadequate nutrition, and simple tiredness – remember a horse is not a machine – so your riders may find themselves able to cover less ground, or travel at less speed, as the journey progresses.
What about shoes?
To preserve your horse’s hooves, you will almost certainly want them to wear shoes. Some tough, native ponies might mange barefoot, but the average horse’s hooves need protection against rough ground. Due to hoof growth, and wear and tear to the shoes, horses need new shoes (or the old shoes removed and put back on after trimming the growth, assuming the shoes are in decent condition) approximately every 6-8 weeks.
Losing a shoe (also known as ‘throwing’ or ‘casting’) can mean a lame horse, and it’s highly unlikely your average traveller is going to be able to refit a shoe. Shoeing is a highly skilled job, which entails hammering 7 or 8 nails into the thin, insensitive outer casing of a horse’s hoof. Put that nail 1mm off course and you have a lame horse. You also need specialist equipment that you are not going to carry with you. If your horse loses a shoe, you will need to find a farrier.
Terminology: a blacksmith works with metal, but he does not always shoe horses. A farrier (the term for a person who shoes a horse) is also a blacksmith, but not all blacksmiths are farriers.
There are so many different causes of lameness, from bruised feet to twisted joints, to muscle, ligament and tendon pulls, plus many more, it isn’t worth going into detail, but understand this – if a horse is lame, it isn’t going to continue a journey. You will either need to exchange it for another one, some other mode of transport, or rest up for a prolonged period while it heals.
Unless, of course, it can be fixed simply by prising a stone out of the shoe – always the place to start.
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