The obsession with galloping

Not much beats the thrill of riding a horse at a gallop. The wind whips your hair and makes your eyes water and the rhythm of the horse underneath you. When I was a teenager, I lived in a small town near a long beach. On weekends, I would ride my horse out to the beach and we’d gallop. Land of Oz was an ex-racehorse, a reasonable one who’d won four races including a city race when he was younger, and he loved to gallop at the beach, as if he were an old athlete reliving his glory days! The closer we’d get to the beach, the more he’d pull and start to jig-jog, and once we were out on the sand, I’d lean forward and off we’d go. Nothing beats that sensation.

In a few minutes, we’d travelled a couple of kilometers, and then we’d slowly make our way home, jumping a few washed up logs along the way, and pausing to give him a drink at one of the many small streams that flowed down from the neighbouring farms onto the beach. Ozzie would be blowing pretty hard after our gallop, not being as fit as he used to be. When I had him, he was a retired hack who spent most of the day hanging out in a paddock, and an hour or two most afternoons after school wandering around with me on his back. Once home, I’d hose him down, and he’d go and roll in his paddock.

When I read a historical romance novel and the characters gallop their horses everywhere, I understand the thrill. It’s a lot of fun, and takes a good amount of skill to work with a horse in partnership. The obsession with galloping rapidly moves from ‘romantic’ and exciting into the ridiculous when horses are used for transportation.

A fully fit racehorse has a maximum speed of 72km/hr (45mph). This top speed was measured when Black Caviar covered one furlong in 9.98seconds in the 2012 Lightning Stakes. She was the first (and to date the only) racehorse to cover 200m in less than 10 seconds. That day, she covered the 1000m (5 furlongs) of the race in 0:55.53; averaging 64km/hr (40mph) for the entire race.

Black Caviar at the 2012 Lightning Stakes. Photo by Kristen Manning, and used with permission. (Thank you also the Racehorses Australia group who shared all their photos of Black Caviar with me.)

The further a horse travels, the slower they go. At the other end of the horse racing scale is the UK Grand National, a race that is 4 miles and 2.5 furlongs long (6.9km). The race record was set in 1990 by Mr Frisk, who covered the distance in 8:47.80, or an average speed of 47km/hr (29mph).

The other extreme achievement by a fit horse is endurance riding. In Australia, the most famous race is the 100mile Tom Quilty Cup, and the fastest horse/rider combination in 2019 was the lightweight pair of Emma Dimech and Oso Diamond Dazzler who covered the 160km in 10 hours, 41 minutes and 37 seconds at an average speed of 14.96 km/hr (9.3mph).

To train a horse for one of these events takes months. Typically a racehorse will take three months to go from the paddock to racing fit, and then they race on average every two weeks. Some horses cope well with racing, and can ‘back up’ meaning they have two races within a week of each other, then a longer break to the next one; while others need more time between races. A sound racehorse can be maintained in peak fitness for several months, before they need a spell (holiday).

When horses were used as transportation, they typically had good underlying fitness for long distance travel. Horses were changed frequently during a long journey to ensure a carriage moved at a reasonable speed. Established in 1635, the English Royal Mail had achieved an average speed of 8mph (12.8km/hr) by the Regency period, gaining a huge benefit from the improvements in road surfaces in the 1800s. Thomas Telford revolutionized road engineering from 1815, and once John Macadam invented tarmac, there were further improvements although the speed of the mail didn’t improve much. The Royal Mail carriage was pulled by six horses who were changed every two hours. The carriage only stopped for as long as it took to change horses; and if the fresh set were tacked up and ready to go, this would be only a few minutes.

The individual horses stayed local, travelling back and forth between two places (typically ten miles apart), while the carriage went the full distance of the journey.  The reference book Paterson’s Roads contains maps of roads and coaching stations where people could changed horses.

The record for a carriage trip between London and Brighton in the Regency period was four hours; set in a curricle pulled by two horses travelling at 12.5mph (20km/hr), while a riding horse might cover the same distance at a speed of 15mph (24km/hr) with a change of horse in the middle of the 51 mile journey.

A coach horse worked hard, often expected to pull a coach weighing more than 2 tons for an average of 10 miles at a speed of some 12 mph for two days out of three. There were no rules around the treatment of horses, and it wasn’t until 1821 that Colonel Richard Martin, MP for Galway in Ireland, introduced a bill to the House of Commons to protect the healthy of a working horses. The “Ill Treatment of Horses and Cattle Bill” passed in 1822.

According to ‘Theirs Not to Reason Why’, the horse population in England was 1.3million 1811, and peaked at 3.3million in 1901. The quality of life for a working horse depended on many factors; stable quality, feed quality, and availability of general care and workload. In 1893, there were 10,000 tram horses in London, who had an average working life of four years with two out of every three dying in service, and this was some eighty years after the Martin’s Act. Note that this refers to their working life, and most would have started working at aged five, so on average they worked from aged five to age nine.

Image from

The most common injuries and illnesses in working horses relate to foot care, mouth care, and diet. The saying ‘no foot, no horse’ applies here. Horse hooves are like fingernails, they grow continuously, and a working horse requires shoes to protect their feet. They need to be reshod every four to six weeks to keep them sound. A horse with long toes is more likely to trip over, and the change of angle also puts unwanted extra pressure on the tendons and joints. Poor foot care was the leading cause of a horse ‘breaking down’, which simply means they suffered a career ending (and sometimes a life ending) injury. Today, when a racehorse breaks down, modern veterinary care can rehabilitate most tendon injuries and some fractures. Technology continues to improve for the good of the horse.

As with their feet, horses teeth grow slowly and are ground down by the motion of eating. If this happens unevenly, then the horse’s teeth will rub against the inside of their mouth and the pain causes them to stop eating properly. A regular trip to the dentist to rasp their teeth keeps their mouth healthy. The biggest issue with working horses is a sudden change in diet. Colic is the main culprit and the term covers all types of stomach pain in horses. Straight forward cases are caused by a change in diet, and many ‘cures’ abound. To avoid this, most carriage horses were fed the same thing every day, but then they would suffer from Monday morning disease if they were fed a high energy diet on their day off, leading to them ‘tying up’ which is a severe stiffness in their tendons that eases with time and slow walking. This was a particular problem for city based horses who couldn’t spend their day off walking in a paddock. To counter this, owners should hand walk their stabled horses every day.

Carriage horses also tend to acquire hock and stifle injuries over time as this is where their power and strength is sourced.

The key thing to remember when using horses as transport is that they are not very fast over a long distance, and the core benefit to travel is their pulling power. It is recommended that a riding horse carries up to 20% of their own weight, eg a 600kg horse can carry a 120kg person, while a carriage horse can pull six times its own weight, eg a 600kg horse can pull a carriage up to 3,600kg. And of course, the heavier the load, the slower the horse.

If you want to read some of Renee’s books with horses in, why not try:

Merindah Park – four siblings own the farm Merindah Park; John, Shannon, and twins Rachel and Serena. Since the death of their gambling addicted father five years ago, the siblings have worked hard to bring the farm back to prosperity.  Each book works as a stand-alone, with the farm tying the series together.

Her Lady’s Honor – Nell worked as a veterinarian in WWI. Asked to bring her boss’s horse home to Wales, she doesn’t expect to meet her boss’s beautiful daughter Beatrice.

The Heart of a Bluestocking – Revolving around a betting scam, this Victorian era romance is between one of Europe’s first women doctors and a lawyer who helps her unravel the scam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *