Horses. They are the most common mode of travel in fantasy novels, and yet how many authors actually get it right? Forget about Gandalf's Shadowfax who could run like the wind...indefinitely. I'm not interested in such magical or magicked creatures. I'm talking about horses. Regular horses that, as much as we might wish they could, can't gallop for hours on end, cover full countries in three days, or survive blizzards without shelter.
Despite what we have been programmed to believe, the ground a horse can actually cover in a day is not as much as you might expect. In fact, a person on foot can feasibly cover as much ground. Sure, a horse can kick it into a gallop in the blink of an eye, but it's built for evasion, not sustained periods of speed. They need to run faster--a little bit longer--than that lion giving chase; that's all. Depending upon the breed and training, size of the rider and terrain, certain horses can go longer, faster, but no breed can gallop for hours on end, or even an hour, or even half an hour.
The reality of traveling horseback is that the animals themselves are designed to walk. Plod even. Horses need to drink and graze often. Like other grazing animals, they eat most of the day just to get enough nutrition to graze again the next day. If ridden, even at a walk, for several hours a day, a horse can't simply be staked to graze through the night. When would it rest? A working horse needs grain to supplement its diet or it will starve, quickly. To carry that grain entails having a pack animals of some kind, which in turn slows things down considerably. Of course, ye ol' stabling a horse can work sometimes, but that comes with a whole different set of obstacles like the expense.
Horses are expensive--and that's another reality of horses in fantasy. They're fine and dandy for the royalty and wealthy in a story, highwaymen and brigands maybe--that quick getaway being kind of important-- but few of your locals are going to own horses. As for travelers using horses, the sad fact is that trading a spent animal for a fresh one would be a lot more realistic than properly caring for a beloved horsey-companion.
Horses in fantasy fall into the category of other such realities we've discussed this month in Heroines of Fantasy. If we were after authenticity, we'd see more mules--smarter, hardier, and all around stronger--than we do horses. But would Lady Godiva (above pic) strike as romantic and lovely a pose if she were riding a much more stalwart and practical mule?
And there's the biggest reason I see fantasy employing the horse when the reality would do no such thing. Not only have most readers been programmed to see horses through these rose-colored glasses, but we want to suspend that belief. They are beautiful animals, almost magically so. They are part of our fantasy backdrop--like those non-menstruating sword-wielding warrior women--and I don't see that changing any time soon.
Have you ever seen a realistic depiction of horses in a fantasy novel?