Horse Sense

by S. E. Mortimer


Horses, integral to any low-tech setting, are often seriously neglected by roleplayers. Poul Anderson wrote an essay titled "On Thud and Blunder," in which he criticizes fantasy authors for treating the horse as some sort of medieval sportscar with a constantly refilling gas tank. PCs are often guilty of the same thing -- riding the horse all day and "parking" them in the nearest stables at night, tossing the "keys" to the hapless "valet" before going to find a bed and a drink. This article attempts to show the roleplayer that the costly purchase price of a horse is only the beginning of his expenses, and demonstrates why only the wealthy could afford to own and maintain the best horses.

Horse Size

A horse's height is measured in "hands." One hand equals about 4 inches and height is measured from the ground to the "withers" (shoulders).


The smallest horse, they are typically 9 to 14 hands high and weigh about 600 lbs on average (250 to 850 pounds). Virtually all horses in the ancient world were ponies -- from those pulling Egyptian and Hittite chariots, through to those depicted on the Parthenon and Trajan's Column. Specific pony breeds like the Norwegian Fiord, Mongolian steppe pony, and English Shetland pony are stronger than a regular horse of equivalent weight, but all ponies can bear a human rider with little trouble.

Light Horses

The typical horse in the medieval and modern world. Breeds include Arabians, thoroughbreds, mustangs, jennets, and so on. These horses were also preferred for warfare. They typically stand 14 to 17 hands tall and weigh about 900 pounds on average (ranging from 600 to 1,200 lbs).

Draft Horses

These are mistakenly believed to have been specifically bred for war in the medieval world. This is not the case, nor was the draft horse bred to pull a plough. Draft horses were bred for one purpose -- drawing heavy carts. Clydesdales and Percherons are typical draft horses, standing over 17 hands tall and weighing around 1,400 pounds on average. They were very rare in the medieval world and not much use until road conditions improved in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their barrels were very wide, making them uncomfortable to ride and they were difficult to ride any faster than a trot, since their gait became an awkward "galumph."


Asses are also categorized according to size. A burro is the smallest type, weighing 300-400 lbs. A donkey weighs 400-500 lbs, and an ass weighs 500-600 lbs.

A mule is the result of cross-breeding a horse with an ass. Mules are usually sterile and are much stronger than horses. They weigh 700-800 lbs.

Horse Types

Horses had three purposes -- war, work, and transportation. Many wealthy nobles not only maintained dozens of horses for themselves, their family, and servants, but also bred them for sale. Throughout the medieval period, Normandy-bred horseflesh was usually considered the best. However, horses were not distinguished by "breeds" as such. A horse was categorized by the purpose to which it was best suited, regardless of its breed or place of origin.

Destrier: A refined and highly trained stallion. Often used in tournaments, destriers were ridden to war only by the most wealthy. They needed to be reasonably fast so they couldn't be too large (15-16 hands was an average height, and 1,200 lbs was a typical weight), but they had no trouble carrying an armored knight and his weapons. GURPS refers to this as a "heavy warhorse" (B144). A modern equivalent may be the finely bred and highly trained dressage horse.

Courser: Smaller and less expensive than the destrier, coursers were very suitable for war, being long winded and strong. They were usually faster and more maneuverable than destriers. GURPS refers to this as a "cavalry horse" (B144). Today they may be referred to as hunters or endurance horses.

Rouncy: This is the all-rounder -- suitable for war, riding, and work. Less expensive than a courser, a rouncy made a good squire's horse. Use the listing for "saddle horse" on B144.

Screwbald: A general-purpose horse like the rouncy, but a little smaller. Use the listing for pony on B144.

Hackney: Not as well-bred as a rouncy but usually a little stronger. A trained ass or mule may also be classed as a hackney. Use the listing for "large mule" on B144.

Palfrey: An expensive, well-bred horse trained to have a smooth gait and good endurance. These were the best riding horses available and only owned by wealthy individuals. Use the listing for "racehorse" on p. B144. Very finely bred mules were also sometimes referred to as palfreys.

Jennet: A small palfrey. This gaited horse was considered suitable for ladies. The term originally dates to the 12th century and denoted a small Spanish warhorse. Use the listing for "pony" on p. B144.

Sumpter: A strong, reliable pony or ass used for carrying loads. Common in baggage trains. Use the listing for "small mule" on B144.

Sumpters and hackneys were likely to have been the most commonly used horses for farm work, though rouncies were also used. Coursers made the best hunting horses (see Hunting, below). For warfare, stallions were preferred because they were more aggressive. See Purchase Price, below, for detail about pricing.

Horse Classifications

An excerpt from an early 16th century English song:

A courser for the warrior
A rounsey for the squire,
A sumpter for the baggage-train,
A screwbald for the friar
But I will braid the jennet
And shine the bridal-reign
For the riding of my lady
When she is home again.

A destrier for the jousting,
A hackney for the maid,
A palfrey for the princely one
Who preens it on parade:
But I will gloss the jennet
That is cosy in the hay
For the riding of my lady
In the merry month of May.



The earliest evidence of horse domestication comes from Siberia and is dated to around 6,500 B.C. These were quite small and unsuitable for riding, though these ponies could draw loads. During the Bronze Age, ponies were bred for pulling light war chariots. Chariot cultures included the Egyptians, Hittites, Mykenaians, Aryan Indians, and the Chinese. Recent studies indicate that the steppe nomads of central Asia were the first to ride the horse in the 4th millennium B.C., but in the West, cavalry warfare did not develop until the Iron Age.

The Macedonians were the first to effectively develop heavy cavalry. Although they did not have the benefit of the stirrup, Macedonian heavy cavalry was an important corps of the army and proved effective as shock troops. The Romans also used cavalry units. Instead of stirrups, they developed a horned saddle to enable the rider to fight more effectively from horseback (see LT79). The Romans also relied extensively of Gallic and German cavalry units and it is these that are believed to be the predecessors of the medieval knight.

During the Middle Ages, a wealthy knight would take several horses to battle. His magnificent destrier would have been expertly bred and highly trained, able to bear its armored rider into combat and withstand the terrors of battle, but it was not suited for long distance riding. On his way to battle, the knight would have ridden a palfrey or a courser, and led a pack horse or two to carry his baggage. Before entering a town he would switch to his destrier, taking the opportunity to also change into more impressive clothing. His entrance would be befitting his rank, striking the peasants with awe and maintaining proper etiquette with his host and peers.


Hunting was the favorite pastime of the nobility. Often the best horses owned by a noble were those bred and trained for hunting. Coursers made the best hunting horses, possessing speed, great stamina, and intelligence. Hunters and warhorses required a specialized diet of hay and grain to maintain peak physical condition (see Feeding a Horse, below).


From the Bronze age through to the early Middle Ages, the ox was the preferred beast of burden on the farm. There is evidence to suggest that the Romans made use of farm horses, but the ox was far more prevalent. With the rediscovery of the horseshoe (originally invented by the Celts and adopted by the Romans) in Europe during the early Middle Ages, the horse became far more useful on the farm because the iron shoe prevented the soft, wet earth from damaging the horse's hooves. Other inventions such as the horse collar, tandem harnessing, and the heavy mold-board plough (see LT77) increased the efficiency of farm horses.

Despite the fact that horses were more expensive to buy, required specialized feed, constant care, and good shelter, they gradually supplanted the ox as the preferred work animal. Horses were no stronger than the ox but had better stamina, enabling them to work more hours during the day. They were faster than the ox, and more intelligent, enabling them to be controlled by voice commands. This meant that a second person was no longer required in front to lead the team. Horses were also far more versatile than oxen.

The feudal system enabled the peasant greater access to horses since they could be rented from the local lord when needed. Sometimes villages owned communal horses and ploughs that were available for all to use. Wealthy peasants owned their own horses. As the Middle Ages progressed, the percentage of farmers who owned their own horses increased.



Mules and asses were often the preferred mounts of many because they were hardier, cheaper, and easier to maintain. They were distinctly unfashionable, though, so a noble would rarely be caught riding anything other than a horse. In the medieval world a horse under three years of age was considered too young for riding but may be trained to pull a load. At four years they were trained to bear a saddle. A horse in its prime would be five to eight years old.

A well-fed coarser or palfrey had the endurance to trot all day, and a fast trot might cover 25 miles per hour on a reasonable road (equivalent to a "bad" road on p. B188). Unfortunately, once burdened with a load or rider, average speeds decrease, and the horse would need to be rested and fed several times during the day.

A healthy horse traveling along reasonable roads with readily available feed (hay and grain) could carry a third of its weight and maintain a walking speed of four miles per hour for up to 10 hours a day (40 miles). If the animal must forage for grass then travel time is reduced to about six hours per day (24 miles) and the maximum burden drops to about 20% of the horse's weight. Grass-fed mules, asses, and ponies can carry about 25% of their weight but are slower, averaging only half that of a horse (12 miles per day). This workload could be maintained for several weeks without putting too much strain on the animal.


Horses are only designed to run over short distances -- long enough to evade predators. With endurance training and a good diet of hay and grain, a horse may gallop for longer. See p. B135-136 for more on Movement.

Drawing a Load

An animal can often be used as a draft horse even if it is too young or weak for riding. A horse can pull its own body weight in a wheeled cart (this includes the weight of the vehicle) on a reasonable road at the same speed mentioned above (four miles per hour). In a sledge, speed is halved. A horse might be able to pull twice this burden for short periods at a painful plod of one mile per hour. See p. B145 for more on Encumbrance, and p. B89 for Lifting and Moving Things.

Purchase Price.

Horses were expensive, both to purchase and to maintain. Prices fluctuated considerably depending on the prevalence of war and the success of the harvest. For example, horse prices doubled from the beginning of the 13th century to the beginning of the 14th century. GURPS Low-Tech suggests that the monthly wage of an average craftsman is $100 (LT8). Using this as a guide it seems as if the prices in GURPS Basic Set (B144) are fairly reasonable for common horses. A good rouncy (saddle horse), for example, would cost about a year's wages or $1,200 -- exactly the price listed. However, fine horses are far too cheap in GURPS. For example, during Chaucer's time (14th century), a knight's horse could cost up to 200 times the price of an ordinary plough horse. This means that a heavy warhorse should cost $200,000 or more, rather than the measly $5,000 listed on B144. This is equivalent to the difference between a mass-produced commercial vehicle and a professionally-assembled racing car today.

For those wanting realism, prices should be revised as follows: A finely bred and fully trained palfrey or courser should cost around $80,000. A destrier would be closer to $100,000. A jennet is a type of palfrey, but smaller and less expensive, say $30,000. If the horse has been "blooded" in combat then its cost might double, resulting in a purchase price of $160,000 for a courser and $200,000 for a fully trained and blooded destrier -- this was a highly specialized mount that was very rare and very valuable.

Buying a Horse

In a village, almost all of the horses will be owned by the lord. In the 13th century, very few peasants were wealthy enough to own their own plough and horse. Most either rented them from the lord, or sometimes the village maintained communal horses available to all. Horses became more readily available as the Middle Ages progressed, and horse traders became more prevalent during the same time. A common horse trader can be used to purchase all but the finest horses. If one wanted to buy a palfrey, courser, or destrier, then one needs to find a noble who has an interest in breeding and training these animals.

The Horse Trader

He was the medieval equivalent of the used car salesman. Even today, the word "horse trader" is synonymous with double-dealing swindler. A horse trader with an honest reputation was rare, and the only way to get a fair deal when buying a horse is to have some knowledge about horseflesh. You can ask questions about the horse's background: Is the horse fully trained? Has it suffered any recent lameness or illness? Is it sound and free from vices? Is the horse easy to handle?

It doesn't really matter what questions you ask, you're unlikely to be told the truth. Here is a sample of some of the horse trader's responses along with what he is really saying.

"This horse is fully trained."


"It has been ridden a couple of times."

"The horse is strong and sound."


"The horse is about to go lame and I hope you don't try to ride it."

"The horse is in perfect health."


"Please give me the money before this horse collapses."

"This horse has a lot of potential."


"I can think of nothing positive to say about this horse."

"This horse is ideal for children."


" . . . so long as the child is 6'2" and stronger than you."

The only real way to ensure a good deal is to examine the horse yourself, or bring along an expert to do it for you. Checking the horse's teeth is a good indication of the horse's age. Putting your ear against its chest and listening to its breathing can indicate whether it has had any lung afflictions. Looking at its coat and posture indicates how well the horse as been groomed and maintained. Pretending to kick the horse in the ribs will tell you if it has been abused (if it has, it will shy away in anticipation of the blow). Watching it move and examining its hooves will indicate whether there are any foot or leg problems. Finally, take it for a ride -- this is the best way to get a feel for the horse.


Of course, a good horse trader will anticipate the above methods and take steps to counter them. Some of his tricks include:

Maintaining a Horse


A horse requires a lot of food in order to get a useful amount of work out of it. Grass is very low in energy and a horse whose diet consists mainly of grass will be useless for work since the vast majority of its time will be needed for grazing. The preferred horse diet consists of a combination of hay, which has a higher energy content than grass, and grain. A good grain mix is 75% oats, 20% barley and 5% bran, although 100% oats is adequate. Horses also require five to 12 gallons of water per day depending on climate, workload, and animal weight. They also need two to three ounces of salt per week.


The amount of food required by a horse depends on how much work or exercise it is required to do. The following table lists the amount of food required per 100 pounds of horse weight per day. This food must be spread out over 2-4 feedings per day (you can't "fill it up" in the mornings and expect it to perform all day). The horse must be cooled down before feeding (it will also need a good rubdown if it has been working hard) and allowed at least one hour afterwards for digestion -- otherwise severe (sometimes fatal) indigestion can result.



Hay (lbs)


Grain (lbs)

Idle (less than 2 hrs per day)





Light work (2-3 hours per day)





Medium work (3-5 hours per day)





Heavy work (5-8 hours per day)





Breeding mare (in last trimester)





Lactating mare





Foal (after weaning)





Race horse





Asses require the same amount of hay, but only three-quarters the amount of grain. Ponies can survive on no grain at all, unless they have a heavy workload.

Remember that the above figures are for every 100 pounds of weight, so a 900-pound horse with a medium workload would require 11.25 lbs of hay and 9 pounds of grain every day. Using GURPS currency ($), hay costs about $0.05 per pound and grain (oats) costs $0.50 per pound. Our 900-pound horse would cost about $5 per day to feed on a medium workload.

A ton of hay takes up around 250 cubic feet in bales and the average horse requires about 3.5 tons per year. There is usually only one time per year in which hay is available on the market so one must buy a year's supply of hay for each of his/her horses during this time, and allocate storage space for it. Hay is much cheaper than grain, but grass is free, so a horse that is not required to work will be turned out to pasture.


Depending on the climate and pasture quality, a horse requires between one and three acres of grassland upon which to graze. Ponies generally require about half this. The horse must be moved to a new pasture every three to six months as manure builds up. Horses and ponies eat only grass, but asses can also eat weeds.

Horses become severely ill (sometimes fatally) if their diet is changed too quickly. A horse brought in from pasture must have its diet gradually switched from grass to hay/grain over a period of a few days before it will be ready for work.

Hoof Care

Stablehand Encounter Table

Roll 3d and apply the following modifiers:

  • -2 to +2 stall quality (-2 rundown & dirty with stale hay; +2 noble stables).
  • +0 to +2 groom experience (+0 average stableboy, +2 noble groom).
  • +1 to +3 if groom is paid extra.
  • -1 if the horse is particularly valuable
  • -3 if horse is a stallion.
  • -5 if horse is a warhorse.


3 or less: Your horse was stolen! The stablehand may or may not have been involved.
4: The groom has been injured by your horse. The local lord demands that you pay compensation to the value of 6 months' wages.
5: Your horse was overfed during the night and has developed colic. It will need one to six days to recover.
6: Your horse was spooked in its stall and injured itself. It will need one to three days to recover.
7: Your horse has wandered off but can be found unharmed grazing nearby.
8-9: Your horse has been fed but its coat and tack were unattended.
10-14: Your horse has been adequately cared for and awaits you expectantly.
15-16: The horse is warm and well fed. Its coat is shiny and its tack is clean. The groom deserves a tip.
17: The stablehand has done an excellent job. When you praise him he offers his services as a hireling.
18 or more: The local lord notices your fine mount and publicly comments upon it. You gain +1 reputation bonus in this area.


If a horse is worked in soft, wet earth too often, its hooves will soften, causing it to go lame. If a horse is ridden on a hard surface, its hoof wears down faster than it can regrow. This will also cause the horse to go lame. A lame horse must be rested for several weeks to allow the hooves to grow out. Horse shoes prevent both of these problems.

Horse shoes must be changed every four to eight weeks because the hoof continues to grow even while shod. If this does not occur, the horse will go lame because the shoe will no longer fit correctly. Hooves should also be regularly inspected to check for uneven wear and damage, and to remove excess growth. Normally horse shoes are replaced often enough to eliminate the risk of throwing a shoe but, if the horse travels excessively on hard surfaces, the iron nail heads wear away and the shoe can be lost.

Each day that the animal is worked or ridden for five hours or more requires a HT roll as per Low-Tech, p78. A failed roll means that the horse pulls up lame and needs to be rested for 1d days. A critical failure results in a split hoof or other severe injury usually requiring the horse to be put down. Properly fitted equipment can reduce the chances of injury to the horse (see LT79 and LT104). A blanket increases the daily HT roll by +1 and properly fitted horseshoes increase it by a further +2.


The word "farrier" is a corruption of the Latin faber ferrarius ("iron worker"). As horses became more widespread, some blacksmiths became farriers, specializing in shoeing horses. Although the farrier specialized in the care of horse feet, most were also practiced in other aspects of horse care and were experienced horse "leeches" (veterinarians).

In GURPS, the skill of the farrier is covered by Blacksmith (p. B53), but many also have the Veterinary skill (p. B47) with a horse specialization. A farrier will charge $20 per hoof, or $50 for a set of four horseshoes (p. LT104). To successfully shoe a horse, the farrier requires one to two hours and a Blacksmith roll at +2. Failure means that the shoe does not correctly fit and can permanently deform a young horse's legs (causing pigeon toes, splayed feet, cow-hocks, etc.) if not corrected. It also increases the chances of the horse going lame while working (-1 to daily HT rolls). A critical failure means that the farrier is injured (1d damage) and he must roll again at -1. An additional penalty of -2 is applied if the farrier is working with a stallion, and -3 if working with a warhorse. He will charge double or triple his normal fee because of the extra risks involved. The stallion's regular groom is also required to be present to help keep the animal calm.

Native American Indians made horseshoes out of rawhide. The "shoe" was roughly shaped and then soaked in water. It was then slipped over the hoof while wet and, as it dried, it shrunk slightly, creating a snug fit. These were just as effective as iron horseshoes but needed to be replaced more frequently.

Total Cost of Horse Care

Apart from feed costing around $5 per day, hiring a stall and the services of a groom will cost another $5 per day. Triple this if the horse is a warhorse. Note that the average stableboy will not be able to handle a stallion and a professional groom will be required -- preferably one the horse is used to. Add to this an additional $30 per month for a farrier to take care of the horse's hooves. Again, costs are tripled if the horse is a warhorse. Total costs run to around $330 per month for a regular horse and $690 per month for a warhorse. If the horse is valuable you will also need a 24-hour guard. It quickly becomes apparent that feeding and maintaining a horse costs far more than a two-footed servant, and that the monthly wages of the average craftsman is insufficient to even pay for a horse's food requirements.


As can be seen, domestic horses are fairly fragile creatures. In addition to the monetary costs involved with purchasing and maintaining a horse, a great deal of care must be taken to keep it fit and healthy, which detracts from the time it can spend working. Before deciding to purchase a horse it might be a good idea to review the task for which the animal is needed. If it is simply for riding from point A to point B or for carrying loads, perhaps an ass or mule would suffice -- they are both cheaper to buy and easier to maintain. If the animal is to be used mainly for plowing the fields and taking goods to the market then a sturdy hackney would suffice rather than something more finely bred.

A horse is a status symbol. If your peers would laugh you out of town if they saw you riding anything other than a fine palfrey or a dashing courser, then it might be wise to invest the additional cash to keep up appearances. Don't forget to buy a jennet or two (or a dozen) for your lady as well.

Article publication date: June 4, 2004

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