Strangely specific question about horses
May 3, 2014 3:34 PM   Subscribe

How long would it take a pair of inexperienced riders to travel by horseback from the Georgia coast (around Savannah) to Atlanta, with no paved roads?

This is a strangely specific question, I know. Imagine you couldn't use any existing road infrastructure, and you had a group of five horsemen, most of them inexperienced. How long would it reasonably take them to cross from Savannah to Atlanta (about 250 miles, according to Google maps)? How many miles could they cover in a given day, on average?
posted by deathpanels to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm thinking more about how sore the riders would be, than about the speed of the horse. Will the riders have a jacuzzi or spa to relax in at night? You could likely cover between 25-50 miles per day, if the terrain is flat, and the riders have a good seat.
posted by kellyblah at 3:45 PM on May 3, 2014

I don't know, but was reading a biography the other day that indicated that a horse-drawn carriage took 10 hours to travel about 36 miles, on what were likely well-traveled dirt paths in the 1800s. The reporting was from a diary or letter.

A horse-drawn carriage would be slower than a single rider on a horse.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:47 PM on May 3, 2014

The terrain around Savannah is kind of marshy. Seems like bad horse riding country.
posted by thelonius at 3:54 PM on May 3, 2014

Best answer: This may or may not be helpful, but I've just started riding regularly (I learned when I was twelve, which turns out to have been helpful, and I'm in tolerable shape, but definitely a beginner.) The first couple of rides I was able to handle maybe half an hour at a time, and was fairly sore. After a month or two, I can go for two or three hours, but the horse has to be pretty patient while I winch myself off. If Death Itself were after me, I might be able to do eight hours in a day, but I'd be absolutely miserable the next day, and riding again would be agony.

Competitive Trail Riding might provide some useful benchmarks. Wikipedia says rides are usually between 15 and 40 miles a day, for one to three days. This is something that not every horse can do at speed, either. Endurance riding may be useful, too - "Winning riders complete 100-mile (160 km) rides in 10–12 hours." You could safely consider that an absolute upper limit.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:57 PM on May 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's a discussion I found that has some distances for a number of specific terrain types, but I have no way to ascertain how accurate any of it is. According to this though, 10 miles per day in marshland, 20 in forest and scrub.
posted by polywomp at 4:08 PM on May 3, 2014

I'm assuming you have the proper food, water, and tack (saddle, bridle, etc) for the horse? As an inexperienced rider you can probably ride for four hours max, without significant pain or long term back problems, so you're looking at the very best seven days.
posted by banannafish at 4:22 PM on May 3, 2014

Response by poster: This is for a bit of fiction I'm writing. Jacuzzis are out. Assume the horses are in good shape and have proper equipment for the journey. Given that this is marshland, would another form of low-tech transportation be superior to horses?
posted by deathpanels at 4:27 PM on May 3, 2014

Well, you'd get out of the marshland soon enough, after a day or two. I was just saying that you'd need to take into account that you wouldn't have like clear going the whole way to Atlanta.
posted by thelonius at 5:04 PM on May 3, 2014

Not sure the comments about marshland are useful -- the question is about horse travel over dirt roads, not thru swamps.
But are you talking present-day? Just finding continuous unpaved roads would pose a huge challenge -- and a vast increase in mileage beyond your 250 crow-fly.
On the other hand, Sherman and 60k foot soldiers took ~21 days in 1865 along a ~300-mile route -- when all roads were unpaved. They were stepping pretty smart, but wouldn't a horse generally average at least 3x the speed of Shank's mare?
posted by LonnieK at 5:39 PM on May 3, 2014

Ooops. 1864.
posted by LonnieK at 5:46 PM on May 3, 2014

Sherman wasn't trying to make best speed. His men spent a lot of time looting and pillaging, since the main purpose of Sherman's "March to the Sea" was to eliminate a large part of Georgia as a source of supply for Lee's army.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:47 PM on May 3, 2014

You might get some ideas from Tschiffely's Ride.
posted by gudrun at 6:08 PM on May 3, 2014

Best answer: Inexperienced riders would also have trouble managing the horses themselves over that kind of distance. Horses have their own opinions about things and it can be quite challenging to overrule them.
posted by winna at 6:29 PM on May 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your riders are going to spend a lot of time searching for water and forage. A horse isn't a car with four legs that you just get on and go. It has to be fed and it drinks a lot of water, every day.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:40 PM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

LonnieK - I am thinking, the dirt roads there would be likely to be muddy or just soft
posted by thelonius at 6:45 PM on May 3, 2014

Best answer: The thing with riding horses is that over long distances, it's not *faster* than walking - humans are actually better than most critters at long distances - it's that you can carry more stuff. If I were just trying to get across the distance and it was relatively settled - i.e. I could buy food and shelter regularly - I don't know that taking a horse would make more sense than hiking, especially if I wasn't a rider. If I had to camp the whole way, I would much prefer to have something else carry my tent and stuff, even if I did spend half or better of the distance leading the horse.

That said, I would give a good hard look at the rivers in the area. If it's wet and swampy, rowing a boat upriver might still be faster and easier than finding water and forage for five horses for however many days.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:22 PM on May 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Chocolate Pickle, your point is well taken.
But in fact the Union infantry's ~14 miles a day is unmatched in history, as far as I know. Has any other comparable body ever marched that far, that fast, through enemy territory, on foot? And with another 30k followers keeping pace!
You may be confusing the body of the march with its provisioning detachments. The 'pillaging' -- more accurately, the requisitioning -- was well organized by mounted 'bummer' squads who moved alongside the infantry, but didn't slow it down at all.
So I think the 3x ratio for horse travel, while conservative, stands up well. 10 days sounds like an outside time.
posted by LonnieK at 7:32 PM on May 3, 2014

Best answer: The horse factor
Horses average about 3 mph at a relaxed walk, 8 mph at a relaxed trot, and 12-14 mph at a relaxed canter (those are speeds without the rider urging them on--you can push a horse to walk 4 mph but after an hour the rider is going to be a lot more tired than the horse, let me tell you). The canter isn't a long-distance gait, though--it's tiring for both the horse and rider. I'd put the upper limit for a fit horse at 1/2 hr canter, and because of terrain issues it would just not get much use in your scenario. I would say a well-conditioned horse could certainly do 6 hr days alternating between walk and trot, averaging maybe 6 mph over that time. Leaving aside the terrain issue for now, I'd put the horse factor as topping out at about 40 miles a day. Let's also assume that these are comfortable, highly experienced trail horses like the kind you'll find on a dude string.

The rider factor
An inexperienced rider is going to have a hard time doing as much mileage at first as a well-conditioned horse. However, with a lot of grit and determination, I think an inexperienced rider could do 4 hours a days at first, mostly at a walk, with a little bit of trotting. So I think for the first few days the rider factor would be maybe 16 miles the first day (4 mph average pace). Over time, the daily miles would start to increase. I think a reasonable estimate of that process would be to to start with 16 miles a day and add 2 miles a day to the daily total each--it would take about 10 days that way.

The terrain factor
I think this is the biggest question mark, and possibly the most important constraint. Horses can't move quickly at all through virgin woods or swamps. I'm a fairly experienced rider, and my horse spends some time out on the trails, and bushwacking through non-swampy woods off the proverbial beaten path is is very slow going and requires a lot of rider skill, and is pretty mentally stressful for the horse. With inexperienced riders and swamps--I'm just not sure how feasible it would be, period. And even if it were feasible it would be a slow walk pace at best-- 3 mph I'd say. In this scenario, you're going to get more like 15-20 miles at best for the whole trip, or 12-17 days. Horses are not really faster than humans bushwacking through forests, and if this is the scenario you're looking it, it would essentially be just as fast to go on foot, and I think less likely to go awry in all the ways that things can go awry when dealing with horses in general and inexperienced riders in particular.

On the other hand, if a lot of the route can be traveled going through farmland, the pace could pick up a bit more and it would be more conceivable--I think the estimate I gave for the rider factor above would still hold.
posted by drlith at 7:42 PM on May 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Keep an eye out for gators and snapping turtles.
posted by irisclara at 8:50 PM on May 3, 2014

If they have english tack (or military tack), fit horses and can post to the trot they can easily cover quite a bit of ground. Western tack or bareback is going to be slower of necessity since you can't post easily, western horses jog instead of trotting and it's slow.

The limiting factor will definitely be the riders, if they are total novices they will die in a fiery wreck or maim or lose the horses probably within the first couple miles so it'll be a moot point. If they have some experienced people and are equipped with the right footwear and clothing (NOT jeans) or are kind of experienced they can probably ride 4 or so hours per day at the very least, probably many more hours by the end of the trip. They're going to be sore though. So 4 hours alternating between walk and trot is 10-15 or so miles the first few days and then add more as you go along.

Personally, if I had to take a bunch of novice riders on a long ride like that I'd get them on some gaited horses like Tennessee Walkers or Pasos. They are much smoother and it requires far less skill and fitness to sit their gaits. They are pretty fast too. If you did that, with the correct tack and clothing you could probably get there in 9-10 days pretty easily even with poor riders as long as you had some experienced people too. I dunno if that fits your story though.
posted by fshgrl at 9:00 PM on May 3, 2014

I usually average about 3 mph to 3.5 mph, which is a nice horse-doesn't-get-sweaty pace on a good day, we could easily push this to 4-4.5. Summer in Georgia will slow you down a lot. Winter will slow you down, too, either because the horses will overheat under their coats or because they'll chill if they're clipped. Spring and fall are good times.

Swamp: We had some heavy rain a few days ago and still have some standing water, it doesn't slow us down too much but it is all clearly puddle level. Mud is less of a problem, although depth on this matters, too. Streams and ditches are actually a serious problem, crossing them is fine but getting down to them to cross can be a challenge if you are not on a proper trail. Also ditches can have horse swallowing mud in the bottom (just ask me how I know).

Twistiness of trails slows us down a lot, this will be worse in territory which you don't know well (think about just driving along a back road that you don't know don't know which stretches to accelerate on and which to slow down for). I usually walk on the twisty or muddy parts and trot on the straighter, easier areas, this leads to not that much trotting at all really.

Traveling through uncleared forest is rough, uncleared brush is probably the worst though. At least with trees we can both usually agree on what we want to go around. If they will be traveling through developed areas without using roads, that also has a whole set of problems--fences and other obstacles (usually NOT with convenient gates at the points you want to enter and exit), plus rocks and gravel that people seem to put every where, etc.

I'd estimate 15 to maybe 20 miles per day, but they'll spend a decent amount of that going side to side trying to find a good path. (I don't think rider fitness would really play that much of a part here, as long as they're willing to tape over the blisters and press on. Rider ability to stay on at a trot, duck branches that come out of no where, and generally convince the horse that we really are doing this, now hop, would play a bigger part.)
posted by anaelith at 9:29 PM on May 3, 2014

The walking speed of the horse is a useful metric, but it's not the prime determiner on a long trip. My Arabian mare could walk at six miles per hour all day. She has literally done that: from first light to well after midnight. I was fortunate to have a pair of good mules, with the legs and size to keep pace with her. Needless to say that their next day was spent grazing in a string meadow, while I rehabbed my camp gear. Most pack horse scenarios have the string moving at a more leisurely 3 miles per hour.

Travel by horseback is not the same as going on a day ride. Pack station animals will take you 30 miles a day for several days in a row, but they are generally grain fed twice a day, and wrangled by guides who know what they are doing. You can do the math: each horse will eat, say, 10 pounds of grain, twice a day. You will carry two-hundred pounds of grain for a trip lasting ten days. Each rider can comfortably outfit himself and one partner using one packhorse or mule. So, five riders will require three pack horses and five saddle horses. Now, if you want to carry grain, you add one pack horse per @150 pounds of grain. As you can see, this amounts to moving a small herd. The time spent wrangling a small herd is not inconsequential.

Grass fed horses need about an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to graze in good pastures. This will keep them strong for maybe three or four days. Then you should take a day off, and let them rest in good pasture. Even if you carry grain, four or five days of working hard is enough to ask before you give them a day off. Tired horses can get you killed, or at the very least, run the risk of injuring themselves.

Novice riders ought to be good for an hour in the saddle before they should stop and deal with soreness. I prefer to walk an hour and ride an hour--or variations of this idea. I usually would stop in the middle of the day for an hour, and drop the bags off the pack mules, so they could take a snooze for lunch; my habit was to loosen the saddle cinches a bit, but leave the saddles in place. This helps my horse and my legs, and gets me down the trail.

When things go well, novice riders will average about 15 miles per day. This is because they need to develop certain skills, the least of which is to learn to sit a saddle in ways that helps, rather than hinders, the horse. Getting out of camp in the morning is the first skill set to learn. It's not as easy as you may thin: Wrangle means catch, brush and saddle the stock; pack and balance the loads and lash them down. If you weren't able to let the stock roam all night (this is what happens in most campsites), you have to get someone to lead them around the meadow for an hour while they eat. Also, you must learn to spot the string meadows that will give good feed to the livestock. You also have to scout for water. You may also have security issues (why do you need to stay off the roads?).

Inexperienced riders are apt to cause certain problems. For example, over-cinching, or bad saddle placement, blanket wrinkles, and so on. If your horse gets a blister on his withers, you will be packing your saddle on someone else's horse while the both of you walk. If your trip is part of a story, then the adventure is in the details: takes two hours to get out of camp every morning, insufficient knowledge of ropes and knots allows some of the critters to stray, so you lose half a day tracking them back to the previous camp. Bad rope techniques will cause problems, even if you don't have any pack horses. Lack of awareness can cause some terrible mishaps regarding the horse's legs, or tragic results when a human gets caught in a bight.

Also, if you don't have any pack horses, some of youse guys are going to have to walk, so that you can carry food and gear. My general rule of thumb for an experienced packer is one pack animal for every two people. This accounts for food, kitchen, and shelter for the group, no grain for the horses. Somebody is going to have to figure out how to spot useful grazing areas, and you day's travel will be built around the graze time.

You have to water your horses daily. More often if you can.

For some people, travel by horseback is more trouble than it's worth. A person on foot has more options for camping than a horseman has. Horses required a certain amount of upkeep, which means you have to spend time doing for your horse: this cuts into your nap time, so be prepared.

My rather messy explanation can be modified to fit your work of fiction. The bottom line is that your group will experience a learning curve, and some of the crew will remain clueless. They will have wrangling problems: did you bring enough rope? Brushes? Are your horses trained to hobble? Do you know how to safely tie a horse? Stuff like that will generate a certain amount of adventure all on its own, beyond the circumstance that puts your folks on horseback.

An experienced crew, using pack horses but not carrying feed, can do the 250 miles in less than two weeks. Add another week for your novices, and assume that not too many of them get busted up or killed, and that none of your animals is injured. If you don't have any pack animals, then you have a different story to tell. You won't carry enough food and supplies for the trip on your saddle horse, unless you walk.
posted by mule98J at 11:30 AM on May 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ah crap.

For some reason, I read your question to mean that your proposed crew would be five people, not two.

The issues are the same, but, given two people, are much less difficult to handle. Two people are more likely to travel a little further each day than are five poeple, but you still need a third horse to carry the food and stuff. Uncle Joe or Aunt Jane trying to teach Li'l Jimi how to throw a box hitch (and other campsite esoterica) would be a good hook to hang this aspect of your narrative on....(ahh gads, kid, don't drink that water before I boil it). You also might get some mileage out of the crap Aunt Jane decides to leave behind (at the second or third camp).
posted by mule98J at 11:42 AM on May 4, 2014

Your question seems a bit odd. 2 riders or 5 riders? Hypothetical or Real?

Hypothetical: for a generic zombie apocalypse novel, you might have 2 or 5 people who need to get to Atlanta in ASAP days, and they just find some random horses and git on 'em. Under real conditions they would probably run into many difficulties with feeding and dressage and etc, but we have seen this kind of plot happen in lots and lots of various Sci-Fi stories, and in the world of fiction it's usually portrayed as not that big a deal. So the amount of time it takes is like a few days/whatever fits into the story.

Real: Inexperienced riders should have someone experienced along to help them out. And once the ponies get to Atlanta, they need someone to take them back to where they came from.
posted by ovvl at 7:21 PM on May 6, 2014

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