A horse is a four-legged grazing herbivore domesticated by humans since around 4000 BC for a variety of purposes - initially the pulling of chariots, later for riding and later still for labouring tasks such as pack-carrying and agricultural draft.
Horses are - and always have been - high maintenance animals compared to most livestock. They are slow to mature, difficult to breed, poor keepers and not particularly hardy, but their excellent power-to-weight made them the mount of choice for military and high end civilian use wherever they could be afforded. Even an "easy keeping" horse or pony tends not to thrive in comparison to most forms of livestock. Their entry into agricultural use (where they replaced oxen) was significantly delayed by their higher maintenance requirements.
Even in the modern era, when they are obsolete for pretty much all practical purposes they remain a form of luxury transport. As expensive luxuries, horses were much (and are) haggled over and remain the subject of much sharp business practice, designed to cover up the inherent flaws of the beast and exaggerate (or give the illusion of) virtues. Hence the concept of "horse trading".
Some cultures also eat horses - a practice that is virtually taboo in the Anglo-Saxon world, but acceptable elsewhere. Given the price of horses, raising them for food is inefficient at best and so those that are eaten tend to be failed from some other purpose or wild/feral/semi-feral animals that have lower associated costs.
Social Structure and Breeding
In their natural order, horses congregate in a group of females and young claimed by a single male. In captivity horses remain social and become stressed if kept alone, although they will accept many other species as company - stallions, however, generally need to be segregated from one another to prevent fighting. Horses are closely related enough to a donkey that the two can be crossbred to produce a mule (or a hinny if the donkey is the female), but different enough that most mules are infertile hybrids.
An adult male is called a stallion (unless castrated, in which case 'gelding') and an adolescent male a colt. Females are called fillies until full grown, at which point they become mares. Adulthood is generally reckoned at four years. Young of both sexes are called foals.
Technically, an adult "horse" that stands less than 14.2 hands (58"/147cm) at the shoulder is a pony, but the two terms are used fairly promiscuously by those not specialized. However, pony breeds are often (but not always) more robust that horses, coping better with poor maintenance and diet.
Horses and ponies are subject to minute classification in terms of size, conformation, breed, colouring and the like and buying one can be extremely hard work - an incompetent buyer is likely to be overcharged at the very least and picking a beast with the correct temperament for the rider can be a matter of luck as much as anything. Only a very lucky buyer will find a mount with whom he gets on at once and which lacks any conspicuous vices - and get it at a reasonable price.
Horses are well known to fear and/or dislike pigs … no-one is entirely sure why.
Diet, Health, and Care
In general, it can be assumed that a horse that is idling can live on grass (this is not always the case, and certainly not the case in the winter outside the warmest areas), but if it is working at all it will need a dietary supplement: oats, barley or beans have been common historically, as was horse bread (made from barley and bean flour), but any carbohydrate crop eaten by humans can also find its way into a horse - including taro, maize, millet and potatoes depending on era and location. Molasses is also frequently used in dietary supplements for horses (particularly breeding or nursing mares and sick animals), typically mashed up in bran, and is a great favourite with them. A horse that is sweated a lot will normally need a salt supplement as well - and will appreciate salt at any time, going so far as to lick a sweating human unless trained not to.
Care should be taken not to allow a horse to graze on too rich a pasture either, since that would leave them prone to obesity, potentially lethal colics and laminitis (a disease of the feet). Horses are also prone to graze on several toxic plants (such as ragwort) and these should be removed from any horse pasture.
Tacking and saddling a horse should also be undertaken with great care to avoid injuring it by galling it or interfering with its movement, digestion or circulation.
To remain healthy a horse will also need regular grooming and rubbing down.
Looking after a horse, if not the job of the rider, will fall to the wrangler in a Western campaign, or to the ostler or squire in other genres. The farrier is a blacksmith who focuses on horseshoes and horse-related metalwork, and will likely know a lot about handling and caring for the animals as well.
However, most fiction - and RPGs - tend to overlook just how much work it takes to keep a horse running: except in a very few cases the character's mounts will be treated, more or less, as motorcycles made of meat. In reality such treatment will kill a horse fairly quickly.
Horse riding is another subject altogether… but training horses to be ridden can be a dangerous job.
Horses can move pretty fast when they want to:
- Walking rate: 2-4 mph
- Trot: 8-10 mph
- Canter: 10-17 mph
- Gallop: 30 mph on average, but higher for horses bred for it:
Icelandic horses also have some additional gaits known as the Tolt and the Flying Pace, and other breeds of horse or pony have been known to demonstrate a fifth gait of one kind or another.
Man Vs Horse
By comparison, most humans walk at 2-3 mph, and the world record for a human doing the 100m dash works out to about 23 mph. So an average horse gallops a good 40% faster than the fastest person can sprint.
However, humans are better at traversing uneven and broken ground, and on such terrain a human can sometimes outdistance a horse over time. There's a town in Wales that runs a yearly "Man Versus Horse" Marathon. They've been running it every year since 1980, and the winner has been a human just twice in those nearly 30 years.
- The Western - a genre that generally involves lots of horses - or some substitute for them
- News: In Florida, mysterious slaughter of horses continues
- The Destrier - the white eyed, stamping, biting cream of the medieval warhorse world.
- Puddle Shark - a predator feared by all horses.
Game and Story Use
- Make sure your PCs take the relevant skills to look after their horses (or hire someone who can) - otherwise, feel free to have their horses drop dead, or turn lame, sick or galled whenever it amuses you to do so.
- Frankly, any knight, cowboy or similar horse using character should have these skills as part of his package and may even qualify for a sense of duty to his horse since such people frequently looked after the horse before seeing to their own needs.
- Any "horsemanship" skill should cover not just the riding and trick-riding that appeals to players, but also the knowledge and secondary skills needed to keep your mount healthy.
- Characters without such skills might need to hire a wrangler, ostler, squire, farrier, veterinarian, etc, as appropriate.
- Likewise, buying a horse should be a job for a skilled character - otherwise they may end up with a poorly trained, malicious or cowardly beast, or even just one that is below par physically.
- Even a fine-looking, well-made beast, may be a short-sighted, foul-tempered bucker with an unreasoning fear of chickens.
- Breeding horses is a high stakes business, and generally requires a lot of capital - in almost all eras it is an eminently suitable (even cliched) hobby for an aristocrat, many of whom will got to great lengths (or pay others well) to acquire top quality bloodstock.
- In a sci-fi campaign, you may be thinking a consignment of cryo-frozen GM horse embryos: more portable than a fractious stallion but probably at least as valuable.