How fast is a horse?
February 3, 2005 12:04 PM   Subscribe

How fast is a horse? According to this review of a book on bicycling, one of the original motivations for the development of the bicycle was to find a cheaper, faster, more reliable human-powered alternative to the horse. Did we succeed? I average around 12-15mph on my 10 mile daily bicycle commute - can a horse compete with that?
posted by bonecrusher to Pets & Animals (21 answers total)
Bikes don't eat, sleep, poop, get tired, get sick, or die (not literally, anyway). Way cheaper to maintain. Don't know if they're faster. Possibly more reliable, I don't know. Hooves need shoes, but tires go flat.

The intended terrain probably matters, too.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:06 PM on February 3, 2005

A fast quarter horse can run about 45mph. at top speed, but this only lasts for a few seconds. So "No. But..." -- in a long-distance race, the bicyclist would win. Though, a camel would trounce both of 'em (long-distance). Particularly through sand, which is a bitch to ride through.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:13 PM on February 3, 2005

tires go flat

Yep, but you can pull over to the side of the road and fix it in a matter of minutes with a five dollar repair kit and a ten dollar pump.

Also: since you mention commuting, imagine having to stable a horse at both your starting point and your destination. The bike wins here, too.
posted by casu marzu at 12:20 PM on February 3, 2005

Given that most people do not use bicycles for long distance transportation, I'd say we succeeded. Even mid-range, a horse can run faster than most people can cycle. And Google has plenty of results on horse speed. This Ultimate Horse Site page - Far & Fast seems to validate the ability fof a horse to run long distances at an average of about 15mph.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:21 PM on February 3, 2005

casu marzu, pretty rare to have to stable a horse at your destination. Hitching posts are all that's required. Here in New Mexico there are still places where they are used.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:22 PM on February 3, 2005

I don't know if I buy "faster", but definitely "cheaper" and "more reliable". No training required, minimal maintenance. You don't need a separate building to house it, or feed it, or scoop its waste. It's infinitely reproduceable.

How fast, though, do professional track cyclists go? I would imagine it's roughly equivalent to racehorse speed.
posted by mkultra at 12:31 PM on February 3, 2005

Thanks FlamingBore - the Far and Fast site was exactly what I was looking for (the google hits I got were mostly about maximum speed, rather than sustained "commuting"). Looks like I could easily out-ride some pretty-boy equestrian - 10 hours a day at ~6 mph? Piece of cake.
posted by bonecrusher at 12:34 PM on February 3, 2005

Well, living in "Amish country" where horses are a common sight I'd definitely lean in favor of the bike. Not only do you cruise at a generally higher speed but you have the advantage of little to no work done while coasting and braking. And bikes don't leave a mess on the road!
posted by lfaren at 12:44 PM on February 3, 2005

Possibly more reliable,
Base by time & distance, a bike may beat horse since a horse would have to be rested. Yes, also the human on a bike, yet a conditioned bike rider could ride longer than a rider on the back of a horse. The scenes in western movies where a horse is ridden at a fast pace for long time periods are a fallacy unless you don't mind your horse dropping dead.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:52 PM on February 3, 2005

Lance Armstrong rides in the Tour de France of each stage would be a good example comparing a rider on horseback.
FYI, it was thought at one time if a human traveled faster than the speed of a horse the human would not be able to breathe. So base on this, a train moving faster than a horse would suffocate a person and he or she would die.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:59 PM on February 3, 2005

A fast quarter horse can run about 45mph. at top speed, but this only lasts for a few seconds.

45 would be fast but not impossible on a good road bike going downhill.
posted by COBRA! at 1:19 PM on February 3, 2005

Hey, that's cool about hitching posts in New Mexico. Even so, I'm sure that a good bike rack will hold more steeds more compactly. Also, when I commute by bike I park in my office.
posted by casu marzu at 1:49 PM on February 3, 2005

60 mph would be pretty common for a TdF cyclist descending in the Alps. We've hit 60 on our tandem in the Adirondacks.

The highest average speed for a single stage of the TdF was a blistering 31.29 mph for 120 miles, a truly impressive feat. You go, Mario. The highest overall average was set by, you guessed it, Lance Armstrong who averaged 25.026 mph in the 1999 TdF over a distance of roughly 2,000 miles. No horse could come close. The bicycle is one of the most efficient machines ever developed. Chain drives, despite their crude appearance are something like 95% efficient. A good design.

That book was one of my Christmas gifts and it is a great read.
posted by fixedgear at 2:05 PM on February 3, 2005

I can't find a citation for this, but I did read something that directly addressed this. Apparently the Prussian military had an annual cross-country horse race over something like 100 miles (??). In the late 1800s (once the safety bicycle was invented), they entered an officer on a bike as well. He completely eclipsed the horsemen. This was probably over rougher roads than we see today; with better roads (not to mention better bikes--bike technology has improved faster than horse technology), the cyclist would have even more of an advantage.

As a point of reference on human bike speed over long distances, I've ridden Austin-Houston, 165 miles on level ground, in 8:40--that's an average of 19 mph (admittedly, I felt like hell after mile 120). A pro cyclist would probably cover the same distance in under 6:30.
posted by adamrice at 2:12 PM on February 3, 2005

Jesse Owens used to run against horses and beat them.

My highest speed cycling is 54 MPH downhill on Mullholland Highway outside LA. It felt as though I'd reached terminal velocity and certainly the limit of my pedaling speed with the gear ratio I was using.
posted by TimeFactor at 2:29 PM on February 3, 2005

45 mph is absolutely routine on a roadbike going downhill; strong recreational riders with the right build can sprint at 40mph or over on the flat. A world class sprinter takes the last 200-300 meters of a road race up at around 46 mph on the flat; track sprint specialists a bit faster yet. And a good time trialist can sustain over 30mph for an hour or more.

Fit recreational cyclists can easily average 18-20 mph for day-long rides. Horses can't do that.

The horse could certainly match your 12-15mph for 10 miles. A fit dog could too.

There is probably a range of middle distances - at a guess, 1000 to 2000m - where a horse that specializes in that distance could beat a human specialist.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:52 PM on February 3, 2005

Arabian horses are considered the best endurance horses in the world, endurance races can be up to 100 miles in a single day, or longer, with a usual upper limit of around 50 miles a day (the limit's imposed by the rules of endurance racing, not by what the horses are capable of, most are capable of going much further and still having plenty of gas in the tank the next day). Average speeds can be close to 30 kph.

That said, horses do need to rest, and horses can't coast, which I think is likely the single biggest factor here. Even Lance Armstrong coasts pretty regularly.
posted by biscotti at 5:12 PM on February 3, 2005

Also: since you mention commuting, imagine having to stable a horse at both your starting point and your destination. The bike wins here, too.

Maybe - but you can shoot a horse thief.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:19 PM on February 3, 2005

A little off-topic with regards to the comparison to horses: I remember reading an article in Scientific American back in the early 70's entitled "Bicycle Technology"... and this was long before they went all Pop Sci! (sorry, no link available in the sciam archives.) I'm almost certain the author characterized the bicycle as the most efficient form of human transportation, assisted or non-assisted, in terms of calories expended per mile. It might not be better than a horse, but it's the best we've come up with yet.
posted by klarck at 6:54 PM on February 3, 2005

This is a discussion my wife and I have had plenty of. I grew up riding a bicycle, but she grew up on a farm with horses, so we come at this from opposite perspectives. I think we agree that in a city/road-type environment, bicycles come out on top, but in other environments is depends. Here are some of her points, which are good ones:

- A fast quarter mile on a quarter horse is very useful for roping cattle. It would be hard to rope cattle on a bicycle.

- Sometimes it's awfully good if your mode of conveyance has a brain. E.g. the above example

- In tough terrain, like forests, a horse is going to beat a bike hands down - it can go jump over things that not even the best mountain biker could. A good horse can jump six feet.

- Again, in woods, the horse's brain is great because it will take care of the footwork for you and avoid obstacles.

- It's hard to get lost - a horse always remembers the way home.

- You may love your bike, but your horse loves you back.

- Horse manure is great for the garden. Bike grease is not.

- If you have a couple of good horses, you can pull 12,000 pounds. I don't think even two lance armstrongs can do that!
posted by Emanuel at 1:19 AM on February 4, 2005

Emanuel summed up my post pretty well.

I'll add that where a horse (or team) stand on it's own for a bike to be effective you need a road system in place. A horse is still usable if you don't have a path. Also bikes in off road areas create roads contributing to erosion. You need a lot more horse traffic for the same result.

Other horse advantages of horse vs bike are you sit higher up and you don't have to concentrate on balancing.

I find it interesting that city police forces have almost totally moved away from horses and have started to embrace bicycles for similiar roles. I have an uncle who was an actual mounty and he said a good horse was worth ten cops in crowd control duty.

mkultra: It's infinitely reproduceable.
But a couple horses make themselves. This is a pretty big benift if you live some place where there is lots your horse can eat that you can't.
posted by Mitheral at 1:07 PM on February 4, 2005

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