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I'm putting together an adventure where the PCs are on a time limit. As such, travel times become quite important and I want to make sure that I've understood the different means of travel beforehand.

In a fantasy setting, when would PCs traveling overland choose to walk instead of riding?

I'm essentially looking for two types of circumstances:

  1. Circumstances that would make mounted travel less desirable than travel on foot.
  2. Circumstances that would make mounted travel unavailable.
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On a time limit, "riding fast" is always going to be the preferable option, especially if they can (morally, economically) afford to lame or kill the horses by riding them too hard. (This is a comment because it answers the specific circumstance but doesn't answer the more general and interesting question in bold.) –  SevenSidedDie Aug 1 '11 at 16:48

13 Answers 13

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Mounts have several advantages and several disadvantages, especially for adventurers. Here's one Texan's perspective on going horsed vs not.

Advantages

  • Ability to carry a lot more grub/gear/loot than you can yourself
  • Keeps you from getting tuckered out from long marches (the horses may get fatigued, but you're still semi-fresh for a fight)
  • Faster especially in the short term, if you need to get the heck out of Dodge
  • Ability for the unusually slow - sick, wounded, infirm, kids, plate armored halflings, Jayhawks, etc. - to travel at the same speed as everyone else
  • Good visibility from atop a mount
  • Potentially trained for combat and can be an asset in a fight
  • Keen senses, may detect danger before you do
  • Someone to talk to when you'd otherwise go insane from only being around elves and women
  • You appear more manly and as someone clearly to be reckoned with
  • It's a lot of food if you are desperate

Disadvantages

  • Cannot handle very rough or impassable terrain, and can easily get injured and become lame from rough terrain
  • Are very expensive, depending on your fantasy economy (realistically, they were a lot of cash)
  • May not be available for sale, or be restricted to certain classes of people (though many fantasy RPGs inherit more from the Wild West than real medieval culture)
  • Require a little bit of semi-skilled care and feeding to not get sick or otherwise ineffective; require additional food and water logistics in all but the most hospitable terrains
  • Unless trained for combat, can become a problem in a fight
  • Are Large and more easily spotted by enemies, can make additional noise as well
  • Can't go where people can - a ravine that your group could clamber across in 5 minutes can become a multi-hour detour on horseback; rope bridges, caves, ladders, etc. completely prevent horses from coming along
  • Are considered tasty by monsters and may be eaten
  • May refuse to go into areas that they don't like due to terrain, smelling like predators, giving off unholy magical emanations, or being in Oklahoma
  • Are considered valuable targets by thieves, bandits, and Indians
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+1 about ease of injury. Most people do not realize how injury-prone horses can be. Put one in a padded room, drop in a box of Q-tips, and in no time it will develop a nasty wound somehow. –  JasonSmith Oct 26 at 12:46

Horses are faster than humans only at medium distances. Over both short (sprint) and long (multi-day) distances, humans tend to be faster, even on even ground like a good road. Horses are not cars.

On uneven ground, humans are definitely faster than horses, over almost any distance.

Also, horses need feeding. And foraging can take most of the day. Grass really is not that nutritious. In towns or villages, you may be able to get hold of bran or oats, but in the wild, horses will eat grass. And they'll need to eat lots and lots and lots of grass, which may take quite some time.

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Once upon a time our group, having come in to a bit of free money that we didn't have another use for, decided to buy horses, including a couple of pack horses. Though this occurred years ago, what happened next continues to be an ongoing joke in our campaign to this day. Once we had agreed upon obtaining the horses, several members of our group then proceeded on a multi-hour discussion and deliberation on what equipment was packed onto which horse. We got nearly nothing done during that gaming session.

Ever since that time, several campaigns and groups of characters later, we still very rarely use group horses and we usually walk everywhere or get rides with caravans, etc.

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Only Gentry and Nobles Ride Horses!!! The primary reason PC's would walk instead of ride would be that they are not nobles nor elves. In most realistic settings, a horse is a status symbol of the gentry and nobility.

In many real world timeframes, a non-noble on horse was subject to harsh, sometimes even capital, punishments. As in, many lashes or even breaking on the rack or being drawn and quartered.

So, if they rode, it would be oxen, mules or donkeys. Which means, no faster than walking anyway, due to forage, slow pace, and stubborn animals.

Any muddy ground is a problem

Equines are not happy when they can't keep their hooves relatively dry. As in, able to keep the hoof above the surface most of the time. March them through swamps, bogs, and other such nasty, uneven and non-visible bottomed terrains, and you either have lame horses or nearly lame horses. A horse doesn't mind getting wet, per se, but the do need to keep the frog from developing yeast infections and the hoof from tannic acid softening. And that does mean drying off after getting wet, and not staying wet for days on end.

Unsteady and uneven Ground is a problem

Horses generally dislike ground thatwill give way under them: cliffs, barrows, weak-dome soon-to-be-sinkholes, gopher or mole burrowed, or loose soils on hills. All are great ways fora horse to break a leg.

Likewise, off-trail woods and mountains present real risks due to stable but uneven footing.

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Unless you are only going a short distance riding is far preferable to walking unless one of the following circumstances is present.

  1. You require some amount of stealth or sneakiness for the duration of the journey. Horses are loud, carts are louder.

  2. The entire trip is through an uncharted or very dense forest that would make mounted transportation untenable.

  3. You simply cannot afford mounted transport of some sort.

Honestly if you are traveling overland with any kind of time constraint its almost always better to ride than it is to walk. Horses or even carriages travel much faster thank folks who are walking if the horses are changed out regularly. Even though it seems fairly common for adventurers to travel by foot its rather impractical, especially when you have a time constraint.

However, if you want to make mounted transport unavailable for whatever reason then make it be so. For example a disease wipes out all of the horses in the town and there aren't any boats you've got to hoof it to the next town. If you can do this without making it seem like you are rail.

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"Horses or even carriages travel much faster thank folks who are walking." this is not true if horse are not changed several times a day. A person can walk faster than a horse over an extended period. –  David Allan Finch Aug 2 '11 at 7:41
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@David Allan Finch, I've heard this before but never been able to dig up a cite for it. Can you point me in the right direction? –  cr0m Aug 3 '11 at 4:48
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@DavidAllanFinch - Not several times a day if not over a very extended period (multi-day marathon, etc) - see bbc.co.uk/news/10302388 for real-life example. –  wraith808 Oct 5 '11 at 13:42

The terrain travelled will dictate the top speed and not necessary the means of transport. I know we are talking about fantasy with superb magically paved roads that neither flood nor need repairs. But if you are interested in historical travel, then you could take more than a day to do ten miles -- on foot. Horses would be unavailable due to the vegetation (try horse in the jungle for a giggle), terrains (rocks and mountains), or folder/water (desert).

Horses need to be kept, taken care of, and feed. This is a large express that the PC may not be able to afford. It takes money to take care of horses. A lot of money. And you cannot have one horse, you need several. Now your expenses are massive. Oh, there's a famine and the farmers are looking from your horses to their stew pots. And that nice man who offered to exchange your tiered horses to new ones... Well, the new ones look a little bit lame and old after just an hour travel. Whoops, conned again!

On a side note, the pony express should give you a top speed in perfect conditions for horse travel. Providing that you have the support around the road. The Mongol empire equivalent of the pony express was about to travel much faster but those were born nomadic tribes.

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And they changed ponys several times a day. A war party would take ponys with them and swap them to give other a chance of a rest. –  David Allan Finch Aug 2 '11 at 7:44

Circumstances that would make mounted travel less desirable than travel on foot.

  • A disease of the horses. (Introduce it well before the party sets out on the adventure to avoid the feel of "direct obstruction", make it affect other animals too: show sick pigs first, for example, then make horses an available but highly risky option. In case your party has the means to cure diseases magically, negate this: make the disease a divine curse or something.)
  • Predators especially fond of horse-meat. (Like hippogriffs, for example. Or a dragon.)
  • Obvious enemy specifically known to be looking for riders (and using ranged weapons.)
  • Neutral but strong force opposing use of horses (like centaur druids, for example.)

Circumstances that would make mounted travel unavailable.

  • Again, a disease of the horses.
  • Dense forests.
  • Hills, mountains (with ledges, narrow paths, weak bridges, tight tunnels, caves etc.)
  • Deserts.
  • Bogs, marshes.
  • Fast/strong/wide rivers with only small boats available for crossing.
  • An island destination (with transport as above)
  • (Strong) military confiscating all horses for martial reasons.

(I know previous answers featured a number of these, just wanted to make a somewhat comprehensive list.)

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If the travel includes even a single area too short or narrow for horses then they will have to abandon them for the rest of the trip, or come up with some very interesting magical solution to transporting the horses through.

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Fording a river, or if you want to drag it out, traversing up or down a stream so that they can’t be as easily tracked.

A long narrow path though the mountains, where the horses will have issues with their footing.

Travel within tunnels. As was the case in Moria.

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Depending on your degree of verisimilitude, the answer could be "always." In Aurthurian fantasy, for example, knights travelled with squires and pages and pack horses, etc. Although the knight might ride a riding horse at walking speed, the whole cavalcade usually went at a walking pace.

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Characters should prefer their own 2 feet to horses/beasts of burden when they will be traveling in either mountainous terrain, jungles, or deserts.

Mountains are too steep and rocky for the horses to be able to get sure footing, and precipitous drops on footpaths can sometimes give you the choice of backing up a horse, or risk the horse losing their balance and falling down the mountain.

Jungles tend to be too overgrown to make horseback riding feasible. However, if you were to use your horse as a packhorse, it would be doable since they would be about the same height/size as a humanoid for purposes of clearing the jungle with a machete.

As for deserts, horses require too much water. Horses can travel on the sands/rocks, but will be much more fragile than (say) Oxen or camels.

However, if the terrain has roads capable of handling carts, then horse-travel should be feasible. Jungles don't tend to overgrow roads cut in the jungle for vehicles (the closest equivalent we have to horse-carts), deserts will have way-stations with water, and mountains will not have the tight corners and precipitous drops that would be dangerous for the animals.

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Just a note: you can ride mules on mountains, and camels in the desert (or whatever your setting provides) –  Agos Aug 3 '11 at 13:34
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And elephants through the jungle :) –  Chad Aug 3 '11 at 19:26

One situation where mounted travel could be less desirable than traveling on foot would be when there are items of value scattered through the area.

This can be difficult to do well, because you have to have a reason for the items being there in the first place (as opposed to being scavenged by other groups), a reason why the items are in a general area rather than in a known location, and a reason why similar items couldn't just be purchased in a nearby town.

The first and last can make this a truly difficult puzzle: if the items are common, there's no point in picking them up; if they're valuable, surely someone else would have run across them by now. (Perhaps another group of characters met a bad end, but in the process, an enchantment was laid over the area to render the bodies invisible to all except fill-in-the-blank.)

With respect to making mounted travel unavailable, perhaps the party is passing through an area where animals are simply not used for transportation, maybe for religious reasons (it would be an offense against the local deity) or for more practical reasons (there's a local famine, and anything with meat is going to be eaten, not ridden).

This could cause problems if you combine something like this with a time limit. PCs may become frustrated if it seems as though the story is taking them in a direction that doesn't make sense, so you might need to make the nature of this delay a key part of the story, or provide some kind of extension to the time limit at the end of the non-riding segment.

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Any time the terrain you have to cover is not condusive to riding. (Risk of falls, damage to the mount, low ceilings, etc) Any time you have to sqeeze through a tight space (or at least one that would be tight for your mount).

Any time you are going to be traveling through an area that your mount is liable to attract attention that your party will not on their own. Traveling through an area infested with creatures that prey on horses...

As far as unavailable, there could be a sickness, or curse limiting their usability. The party could be cursed so as mounts will shy away from and not obey.

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