Okay these are the images of the Pony Express that we have long observed of the rider bolting off on his horse to deliver mail across the wild prairie. We also find this hurried scenario in old Hollywood films and a multiple of other places as well as in the stories we write
But we have been dupped.
Once again, I was recently confronted with horses being able to run full tilt for as long as it takes to save the heroine, hero, town or deliver a message. But think about it. How far could you run full tilt? To the end of your driveway? A mile? But then how far could you ‘jog’ or run slowly? A lot further?
And the distance would be determined by how ‘in condition’ you were. Right? Same for a horse. Or any animal for that matter. It’s a muscle/breathing thing otherwise know as conditioning/ training.
I asked an equine vet about this and he said that fifteen miles is the max a conditioned horse can run at a leisurely pace. This is known as a lope or hand gallop.
However at a full run or full gallop, a horse is only good for barely two miles. Even the Belmont– the longest race of the Triple Crown- is only a mile and a half long .
My point is …if your hero in your story hears that the heroine had been taken hostage by the villain in the town’s saloon and he bolts from his ranch on his trusty stallion Speedy, our hero can not race into town if town more than two miles away. Or he would run Speedy ‘into the ground’ meaning the horse would collapse and likely die.
A waste of serious time and horse. Soooo, our hero would pace the distance at a lope, taking breaks to walk, jog, even get off and walk so Speedy can get his strength again. Remember my scenario of running to the end of your driveway? Now add a heavy back pack to all that. Keep in mind, Speedy is likely carrying 150 pounds on his back as he races to help save our heroine who gave him apple snacks and petted him often. And if you think of it, all this adds conflict and angst to your story. And the reader is troubled but impressed that the hero is thoughtful enough to care for his horse along the way. Frustrating but nice. Just where you want your reader to be.
This brings up the next faux pas….As any runner knows, once you come to the finish line you DO NOT stop. You slow down and walk about until your heart rate slows So, don’t race Speedy into town to the saloon, slide him to a dramatic halt, and have the hero vault from the saddle, throwing the reins around a hitching post, and race off into the saloon to save the heroine.
You can do this with a car. However, like a marathon runner, a horse can’t or shouldn’t just stop. It likely could kill Speedy via the same heart attack as it could the runner.
It delights horse people everywhere to see a writer not forget to care for their horses. But to dismount, race away, and leave the horse simply parked out front usually in winter or on a cold night makes us send bad fuzzies. Bad fuzzies.
And DON’T have our hero race into town, tie Speedy to hitching post that has a watering trough either. I read this once in a novel and the book became a’ wall banger.’ Remember, Speedy is lathered white and ‘hot. If our hero leaves our steed hitched at a watering trough and races into the saloon, saves the heroine and walks out with her in his arms, he’ll find Speedy dead or extremely ill and destroyed.
Again, back to the marathon runner who knows he has to walk his heart down to normal. He also knows better than to drink anything cold for a while. They likely pour water over their face and chest if you watch carefully. This is too much shock to a runner’s hot body. Same for the Speedy.
But the heroine is about to be raped and your hero does not have time to walk Speedy down. Suggestions…toss the reins to local kid, local bum, passerby yell, “Got ‘em, Hero,” the character says … and let this person takes care of Speedy while Hero takes care of the villain. And for those writing in Regencys or non Westerns etc, you may just happen to have the butler or a groom ready to take Speedy or the team of horses to the barn/stable.
Please! After working and walking at least a thousand hours and miles cooling horses, I know (and everyone who works with horses knows) you NEVER let a hot horse drink until cool…which is why this is called ‘cooling down.” Nice statement for a hero to say could be, “Stoddard, see that Speedy is cooled down,” Rhett said as he raced up the steps.
Don’t be fooled by pictures and Hollywood. NEVER run/full gallop a horse for a long distance. If in a hurry, just lope along at a hand gallop. NEVER just stop. Have some one there to take over the care of this horse. And NEVER -EVER have a watering trough, pond, bucket of water or whatever available to a hot, lathered horse to drink from.
If they had someone at Pony Express relay stations to take care of the exhausted horse and so can you. Horse lovers everywhere will send you warm fuzzies if you do and come back to read more of your stories.
Thank you, dear writers who ride horses in your stories. I hope this helps.