The Writer’s Guide to Horse’s Paces, Speed & Range

I have unfortunately seen a lot of misinformation on how far and fast a horse can go. In some books and movies, horses can gallop all day with a break. In others, they can barely make it a mile without collapsing. We are going to be looking to real-world averages and records to make your book more realistic.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Paces or Gaits

All horses have four basic gaits.

The slowest is the walk, a four-beat pace in which each hoof hits the ground separately. The walk is comfortable for the rider and the horse can go at that pace pretty much forever.

The second gait is the trot, which is also known as the jog if you are riding Western. The horse’s left back leg and right front leg move forward together followed by the other pair. This pace is quite bouncy and uncomfortable. In English-style riding, the rider will post or sit up and down with the rhythm of the gait, allowing them to escape the discomfort. The jog is a slower version and the rider can usually sit comfortably during it. The trot is energy efficient and horses can cover miles at this gait.

The third is the canter, known in Western as the lope, and is a three-beat pace. It is a significantly faster gait with a rocking motion that is comfortable to sit. However, the horse can only keep it up for so long.

The fourth is the gallop, the fastest gait. This four-beat pace is decently comfortable to ride but horses can only maintain it for limited amounts of time, especially if they are sprinting.

If a horse is ridden at a canter or gallop for part or most of a day then it will need rest and will not be able to keep the same pace up the next day. This is why throughout history relays of horses have been used to continue traveling at speed. A rider would reach a remount station and switch to a fresh horse. Pony Express riders changed horses roughly every 25 miles (40 km), allowing them to routinely cover 80-100 miles (128-161 km) in a day. [6]

There are other artificial gaits that have been bred and trained into horses over the centuries including the running walk, slow gait, pace, fox trot, classic fino, and rack. [1]

Horse gaits. Photo source.

How Fast Can a Horse Go?

The fastest recorded speed for a horse is 55 miles per hour (88.5 km/hr). The record is held by the American Quarter Horse which excels at sprinting short distances but they can’t keep up that speed for longer than a quarter mile. [2] The Guinness world record for the fastest speed from the starting gate for a Thoroughbred is 43.97 miles per hour (77.6 km/hr) over two furlongs (0.25 mile or 0.4 km). [3] The average speed of a gallop is 25-30 miles per hour (40-48 km/hr). Modern Thoroughbred races are usually no longer than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) although in some countries such as those in the Middle East, races can be as long as 2.5 miles (4 km). [4]

Race horses. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

How Far Can a Horse Go?

There is a modern sport called equestrian endurance in which horses and riders cover incredible distances. These endurance records give us a good idea of just how far and fast a horse can go. For example, in 2008, an Arab rider and his horse won the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Endurance Cup, setting a new record by completing the 99.4 mile (160 km) race in just under six and a half hours. [5] The thing to remember though is these horses are elite athletes and it is doubtful that the average horse could cover such distances so fast unless there is magic involved. In Robert Jordan’s “The Eye of the World” Moiraine uses her powers to take away the horses’ exhaustion although she still cautions they will have to rest them in the future.

An average horse can cover 20-30 miles (32-48 km) in a day without becoming exhausted. Pushing for more than that is detrimental to their health. A famous race held in 1892 that covered 350 miles (563 km) in 72 hours killed 13% of the horses entered. [6]

Writer’s Tip: I have read so many books in which the horses run full out for days on end. I want to see the realistic consequences of this catch up with the rider.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [3] "Fastest speed for a race horse". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 16 April 2015.

1 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Horse’s Paces, Speed & Range”

  1. You really make it appear really easy with your presentation but I in finding this topic to be really something that I think I’d by no means understand. It seems too complicated and extremely wide for me. I’m having a look forward for your subsequent submit, I¦ll attempt to get the grasp of it!


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