Giddyup! Travel by Horse (and a giveaway)

Kathleen Rice Adams headerHorses are a staple of western fiction. When writing or reading about them, it’s helpful to understand what they look like in motion and how each gait sounds. Whether or not an experienced horseman can see the animal, he or she can determine how fast a horse is moving by the distinctive rhythm of hooves striking the earth..

Muybridge's Belgian horse walking
Belgian horse walking
(moving image: Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)


A walk is a four-beat gait, meaning each hoof moves independently. The walk is a very comfortable gait for riders because it’s smooth, producing only a slight swaying motion. At a walk, even inexperienced riders have no trouble keeping their butts in the saddle.

Horses can walk all day, even carrying a load, but they don’t move very far very fast. The average horse will cover three to four miles an hour at a walk; some move as slowly as two miles per hour.

Trot and jog

Technically, a jog is slower than a trot, but in the Old West the terms were used interchangeably. Nowadays, at least among the general public, it’s more common to hear both referred to as trotting. Jogging and trotting are two-beat gaits in which diagonal pairs of legs move together: left rear with right front; right rear with left front.

a horse jogging/trotting
Technically, a jog. A trot would look much the same, but the horse would be moving faster.

The technical difference between “trot” and “jog” may be observed as equestrians put their mounts through a variety of competitive maneuvers at horse shows. Probably more familiar is the trotting seen in harness racing. Racing trotters often cover as much ground as quickly as other horses do at a gallop. Some harness races require horses to pace, a two-beat gait in which the legs on one side move forward together. Faster than a trot, pacing is not a particularly comfortable gait for riders. In fact, some report “seasickness” as a result of the horse’s pronounced swaying motion.

Jogging and trotting are a horse’s natural working gaits. If left to his own devices (and not escaping a threat), a horse will jog or trot when he wants to cover distance quickly. At a trot, horses cover an average of about eight miles in an hour.

Muybridge's horse pacing
pace (Muybridge, 1887)

Even under saddle, horses can jog or trot for a long time without tiring, but many riders can’t take the pace. Jogging and trotting can be extremely jarring and put enormous strain on the muscles in a rider’s legs, back, and abdomen. Working cowboys who spend a good deal of time in the saddle may move their horses at a jog or trot, but pleasure riders generally try to avoid the gaits if they value their backsides, which slap the saddle with each step until the rider learns to “move with the horse.”

So-called “gaited horses” like the Tennessee Walking Horse and the American Saddlebred don’t jog or trot. Instead, they “amble” in a natural four-beat middle gait called a “running walk” (Tennessee Walker) or “rack” (American Saddlebred). A horse moving at either gait can cover as many as fifteen miles in an hour. Because all four hooves move independently, the “ambling gaits” are comfortable for riders. Though both Tennessee Walkers and American Saddlebreds were known in the Old West, most were pleasure horses for the gentry.

a horse loping or cantering
lope or canter

Lope or canter

Lope and canter are essentially the same gait, a three-beat movement in which three hooves are off the ground while one rear hoof supports the horse’s weight. Here’s the difference between the two terms: Horses under western (or “stock”) saddles lope; horses under English saddles (or “pancakes”) canter. No self-respecting cowboy would sit a horse that insisted on cantering.

At a lope, horses can cover about ten to fifteen miles in an hour; some can reach speeds of up to twenty-seven miles per hour.


The gallop, a four-beat gait, is the horsey equivalent of run and averages about thirty miles per hour. Horses bred for speed, like Thoroughbreds and racing Quarter Horses, can gallop as fast as fifty miles per hour.

Muybridge's horse galloping
gallop (Muybridge, 1878)

In the wild, horses gallop in order to escape a threat. Most horses can gallop for only a mile or two without risking serious injury or death. (Yes, some horses will run themselves to death at the urging of a rider, but the phenomenon is extremely rare.)

As an aside, Eadweard Muybridge created Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (right) in June 1878 by stringing together images captured in sequence by a line of twelve automatically triggered cameras placed beside a racetrack. The moving image and the zoopraxiscope Muybridge invented to play it are considered the “bridge” between still photography and cinematography. The experiment was designed to settle an ages-old debate about whether all four of a galloping horse’s hooves are off the ground simultaneously at any point. The moving image confirmed they are, at the moment the horse collects its legs under its belly.

How far can a horse travel?

How far a horse can travel in a day depends on the horse’s condition, the availability of food and water, and the terrain the animal is asked to cover. At a combination of lope and walk, a young horse in optimal condition can travel fifty to sixty miles a day in good weather over level terrain, as long as he is allowed to drink and graze every couple of hours. The faster a horse moves, the more often he will need to rest, eat, and drink.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the longer a horse moves fast, the shorter the distance it can cover in a day. Pony Express riders galloped about 10 miles (or about half an hour) before changing horses and usually covered 60-70 miles a day, but that was an exceptionally grueling pace for the rider. An average mounted pace is about 40 miles per day, which is the progress the U.S. Cavalry aimed for during the nineteenth century. Over uneven terrain or in bad weather, a horse and rider would do well to cover twenty miles per day. In the mountains, ten miles per day would be a good pace.

Many cowboys carried grain—usually corn or oats—in order to get more out of their horses. Grain provides increased carbohydrate-based energy. Sweet feed, which contains molasses, was not common unless a horse was stabled. Horses love sweet feed, but it’s not good for them except as a treat.

Remember, too, that most working cowboys preferred—and still prefer—to ride geldings over mares or stallions. Although there are exceptions to every rule, geldings usually are much more tractable than intact horses. Stallions can be a handful at best and a nightmare if a mare anywhere in the vicinity is in season. Mares establish a pecking order within a herd and can be cranky. In the wild, a mare runs the herd; stallions are tolerated only for breeding and protection.

What do you find most fascinating about horses? Tell us in the comments, and you could win a KINDLE copy of the four-novel boxed set A Cowboy’s Touch, which includesThe Half-Breed’s Woman by Cheryl Pierson, Spirit Catcher by Livia J. Washburn, Wild Texas Winds by Kit Prate, and Prodigal Gun by Kathleen Rice Adams. (All Petticoats and Pistols sweepstakes rules apply to this giveaway.)

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50 thoughts on “Giddyup! Travel by Horse (and a giveaway)”

  1. Great information! It drives me crazy when TV and movie cowboys race off on their horses, no matter where they’re going, or how far they tend to go. (I also hate how they yank the poor horses’ mouths open when they stop.) The cowboys I know trot or jog to warm up their horses. A lot of them post, too. The body can only take so much sitting trot. 🙂

  2. Being a city girl I have not had much experience with riding however I love going to the racetrack and watching them race. They are such graceful animals, what is not to like about them???

  3. I like how smart and sensitive they are. Horses are so intuitive. They reconize who’s riding them whether the rider is experienced or a green horn.

  4. OOOh, I’m feeling my oats after reading this. Not sure about calling an English saddle a pancake, though–I ride both English and Western and have never heard that (derogatory) name!

    • Uh-huh. Sure you haven’t. 😉 Yes, “pancake” is a bit (a big bit, admittedly) of a pejorative. I grew up amid a slew of Texans who didn’t take too kindly to “them Back East snobs and their sissy pancakes.” I really admire folks who can take jumps in an English saddle, though. I’ve never tried the move, but I’m afraid I’d end up on my head!

  5. Thanks for sharing all of this horse knowledge. As kids we did a lot of riding. We’d get in trouble for racing-but it was so much fun. Our horses were much smarter than we were and often we’d get run under a branch of a tree and dumped wondering how that happened as we looked up at the sky. I never knew what a gait was back then. It was either fast or slow! LOL It’s nice to get a bit of education on this!

    • Oh, Rosie, don’t get me started on horses scraping people off on trees! I ain’t admittin’ nothin’. 😀

      I didn’t learn all the names for gaits until I was an adult, either. The technical terms don’t really matter much when you’re riding, do they? 🙂

    • We must have had the same horse! LOL. My first horse would run under the FarmHand to scrape me off, the obnoxious beast. And same here–fast and slow. Actually, we had walk, trot, gallop (what’s called a lope here), and run. If you ask a horse whether they’re running or galloping, they’d say running, and so we called it that, too.

  6. Awesome post and videos, Kathleen and dang it! Muybridge plays a character in my next historical When Hearts Fly (being that he proved horses can fly when all four hooves are off the ground at the same time. So I was gonna feature him and his zoopraxiscope (also in the book) at release time. But…since release is a ways off, I can probably sneak him in. Indeed, he is credited at being the father of motion picture…and also studied the motion of nude male athletes running, jumping, and wrestling LOL. Hubba. Great job today. xo

    • Oh, Tanya, I didn’t mean to preempt your post! I didn’t say much, though. Please write more about Muybridge and his photography. He was a fascinating character, and he studied movement in all sorts of critters — naked women, too!

      BIG HUGS, dear friend!

  7. I have never been around horses but I find everything fascinating about them. They seem to be very powerful animals and a cowboys life. It kind of funny because I live in KY which is horse country and known for their races but I have never been to the horse races.

    • You live in Kentucky and you’ve never been around horses? Isn’t there a law about that? 😉

      Is there a farm somewhere nearby? Maybe you could get someone to introduce you to a horse or two. They really are wonderful creatures. There’s a sort of primal connection between them and people that must be experienced to be believed.

  8. I don’t write westerns, but my historicals are set in the 19th C, when horsepower actually referred to the live animals. Unfortunately, as a born and bred city girl, I don’t speak ‘horse’, so when a scene involves one, I rely on friends who ride. This article is tremendously helpful. Thank you, Kathleen!

  9. I love horses. I have always dreamed of having a ranch with horses. hmmm That will never happen but it is nice to dream:). I enjoyed your post very much. Thank you for posting it.

    • Mary, we share a dream. I’d love to have a ranch…as long as I could afford enough hands to do all the work! If I never have to muck another stall, it’ll be too soon. 😀

      Of course, I’d only hire young, hunky cowboys… 😉

  10. Kathleen, I would’ve killed for this information back when I first started writing. And we didn’t even have Internet back then. Very hard to find out these things. Thanks for putting this up. I’ll probably refer back to it from time to time. I didn’t know the length a man could ride in the mountains so I’m still learning. Ha!

    Big Hugs!

  11. Hello my dear favorite Texan (shhhhh, don,t tell anyone else I said that – it’s our secret.)
    This is a very interesting post. One that I will save somewhere for future reference as I don’t know much about horses. I’ve been horse riding a few times in the past (last time was 30 years ago – oui, I know, been a long, long, long time ago). All the horses I’ve ridden were very tame except for one who used to be a race horse. Didn’t know about that… to make a long story short, he took me on a wild ride but boy, did I have fun. I managed to stay on the saddle the whole time. Best time of my life where horses were concerned. Sadly, when I returned to that place, that particular horse wasn’t there anymore.
    Hugs… from your favorite Canadian Petit Hibou. 🙂

    • Glad I could provide you with some new info, Petit Hibou! (Don’t worry — I won’t tell anyone we’re actually very fond of one another despite all the online cross-border dustups. Somebody has to antagonize y’all polite Canadians every once in while. 😉 )

      When I was very young, a horse took off with me, too. My dad just about had a fit, but I thought racing for the barn on a filly who’d gotten the bit in her teeth was great fun! The horse — an Appy — and I remained “fast” friends for years. 😀

  12. Excellent post, Kathleen! Maybe it’s not the most fascinating but I did think about the, Um I guess squeaking noise is the best description that many gelding make when moving at a jog/trot. Out gelding didn’t do much galloping so I’m not sure if he squeaked at a gallop. 😉

    • Horses can make the funniest sounds, can’t they? A member of a critique group I once belonged to took all kinds of exception to a sentence in which I’d written something about a horse grumbling. “Horses don’t grumble,” she said. Really? I got a kick out of that. 😀

  13. Hi, thanks for the info.Very helpful. Can you explain this sentence a bit more, please? “No self-respecting cowboy would sit a horse that insisted on cantering.” Thank you.

    • Elaine, that was an attempt at humor — a poor one, evidently. 😀

      What I meant to imply there: Every time I run across a horse “cantering” in a historical western, I roll my eyes. “Canter” is not a word or concept cowboys would have used unless they were ribbing some dude from Back East. The dude most likely would’ve had to bring up the word in context first, though. 🙂

  14. Really enjoyed reading this and as a horse enthusiast I truly appreciate it. I have to admit I cringe when someone writes about cowboys riding stallions all the time, and a few other pet peeves. Your images and videos were great as well.

    • I’ll bet we share some other pet peeves, too. 😀 I understand “massaging” the truth for the sake of a story, but just plopping a cowboy — or worse, a soldier — on a stallion as a daily working horse isn’t the best solution to proving the character is one tough hombre, IMO.

      I’m glad you like the post! 🙂

  15. What an interesting post, seeing it in action sure helped. One of our horses was so gentle, we’d find our daughter asleep on her back, underneath her….

  16. Hi Kathleen, What a great post ! I’ve always loved horses and even used to own a couple. Arabians are my favorite breed. The old footage you found was awesome. Have you ever heard of the army horse Sargent Reckless? A great story! Thanks, Jenny

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