That phrase was my grandfather’s favorite euphemism for having to go to the bathroom. It’s funny what you remember. But this time I really do want to talk about horses.
In every edition, there have been horses for sale: Warhorses (Light, Medium, and Heavy), Riding Horses, and Draft Horses. There may have been some slight deviation from that list but, regardless of what was available, the name was about all you had to go by. The monster manual had slightly more information, but it still seemed to me that horses were really being overlooked. I thought I could do better. And it only took me 30-some years to get around to doing something about it.
I am not a horse person, but I know people who are and I know if they were thrown into a D&D world and in the market for a horse, they would want more than the names in that list to go by when purchasing a horse. This made me wonder what would make one horse better than another (in terms that could be quantifiable and meaningful in the context of the game).
The first thing I had to do was learn something about horses. Despite what many people say, Wikipedia is a wonderful and reliable source of information. I quickly found plenty to get me started.
Horses are measured in hands. This is a perfectly reasonable means of measurement for people who do not have a ruler handy, or who care more about comparisons than exact height. But in today’s world, where rulers (and even more exact measuring devices) are readily available, I think it is a pretty silly way to measure horses. Beyond that, the decimal portion does not actually indicate a proper decimal portion of a hand. Instead, one hand equals four inches and 0.1 hands equals one inch (i.e. – 14.1 hands equals 57 inches). When measuring a horse, the measurement is taken at the withers, the highest point on the neck that does not change height when the horse lowers its head.
A pony is essentially a small horse. For some, height is the sole difference. It dictates that a horse is a horse if it is 14.2 hands or taller (17.2½ is the tallest verified); any shorter and it is a pony. Others use different criteria. For instance, a pony may have shorter legs, neck and head, a more pronounced barrel-shaped chest, and overall slightly different proportions than a horse. Still others go strictly by pedigree. For game purposes, I could not find any meaningful difference and believe height alone is a reasonable means of differentiation.
So What About Horses? Wikipedia lists dozens of types of horses and hundreds of breeds. Most of the differences cited had to do with height, color, and country of origin. None of these things would have any real impact within a game world.
One difference, however, looked pretty interesting. Different horses apparently have different gaits (the way in which they walk). One important aspect of this is that certain horses are more comfortable to ride over long periods. This would be incredibly important to me, perhaps the most important criteria, when buying a horse that I would ride for days at a time. Unfortunately, I don’t see how it could be implemented within the game, in a meaningful and useful way. It occurred to me that when riding certain horses (that were comfortable to ride) you could recuperate (similar to a short rest) whereas other horses would be more jarring making such recuperation impossible. I thought it was an interesting idea, but didn’t see anything there worth pursuing.
Big and Powerful vs. Small and Fast
This seems to me to be the most important difference.
The biggest horses are also (usually) the most powerfully built. They aren’t the fastest or most agile, but they are strong. They are good at pulling things and carrying things. These make up the Draft Horses.
Smaller horses are typically the fastest and the most agile. They are by far the most common Riding Horse — at least historically. More recently, riding horse is almost synonymous with show horse.
I’m not sure how accurate this is, but in reading up on horses, I got the impression that smaller horses are more energetic and spirited (perhaps making them harder to train, or at least requiring more time to train) and more easily spooked, while larger horses are steadier and more even-tempered. I don’t recall any of that actually being said anywhere, but that is what I took away.
A great many breeds seem to have been intentionally bred for specific traits (leading to the enormous number of breeds listed). This implies that there are indeed numerous traits that are more or less desirable. Sadly, there is no ready list of these traits, and those that are hinted at aren’t traits that lend themselves to being of any use in a role-playing game. One-noted exception would be willfulness (or obstinence). I’m sure everyone is familiar with the cliché of the old prospector pulling at the reins of his stubborn mule that simply doesn’t want to do what he is told. I could certainly do something with this, but it would just be an annoyance for characters, with no upside. I try not to include elements like that, even if it is a known consequence for going cheap.
A war horse is a regular horse that has been trained for mounted combat. Technically, you could take a draft horse (a heavy horse), train it, and have a heavy warhorse. However, I strongly suspect that those traits I mentioned above would very heavily influence exactly what particular breeds of heavy horse would most easily take to that sort of training, and would make the best heavy warhorses. Obviously, the same would also apply to medium and light warhorses.
Now we are getting to what I hoped to gain from researching horses!
Sadly I failed. I was not able to develop any meaningful differences to add to distinguish different qualities of horses. You could make some breeds slightly faster or slower, do slightly more or less damage, more or less morale (better or worse saves versus fear). Anything I came up with was either meaningless or overpowered or painful to implement. So, at least for now, I’ve given up on any sort of substantial overhaul of what horses are available.
However, not all is lost. I did learn enough about horses to at least make some minor changes.
First, let me give you a few more tidbits I discovered. Medieval knights referred to their warhorses as chargers, but a charger could actually be any of a number of types of horse: destrier, courser, or rouncey. There is little actual information on any of these types, but it is currently believed that all were in the 15-16 hand range (5’0″- 5’4″ at the shoulder), with the destrier being the largest of the three. The destrier was also the most valuable (by one source, as much as 25 times as much as a courser), and used, by knights that could afford one, in jousting matches. However, the courser (shorter, lighter, faster, and more agile) were more common where speed is needed to run down opponents on a field of battle. Rounceys appear to be the “poor-man’s” warhorse, sometimes even being delegated to the role of pack horse.
I was unable to locate any definitive information on what breeds composed each of these three types (appearing to me that no one actually knows), but surprisingly (to me anyway) most seem to believe that none of the chargers were of draft horse lineage (despite the fact that the destrier is known as the “Great Horse”).
It seems that knights only rode their chargers when jousting or on the battlefield. When travelling, they instead rode a riding horse (or in a carriage), with their charger in tow. The most expensive of these riding horses were referred to as a “Palfrey“, which was often as expensive as a destrier.
Previously, whenever I saw the term “Riding Horse”, I imagined a lady of nobility, in a flowing white dress and a parasol, out for a leisurely ride by the lake. It certainly makes more sense now to see that a riding horse was actually a knight’s primary horse, ridden in order to spare the warhorse the hardship of transporting the knight over long distances.
As an aside, to this already rambling discourse, I should also include a comment about mules and donkeys. Donkeys are pack animals that range in height from 7 to 15 hands high. Male donkeys and female horses produce mules. Mules range in size based on the horse that reared them, so they can be the size of a small pony all the way up to a huge draft horse.
Donkeys and mules both make better pack animals than horses, being: stronger, able to carry a larger percentage of their body mass, more resistant to disease and their environment, and — most importantly to D&D players — willing to go underground into dungeons. As stated earlier though, donkeys can be obstinate and sometimes unwilling to do what their handler wants them to do.
Another little tidbit is that wild horses are referred to as mustangs. They can be truly wild, or previously domesticated horses that were later released (or escaped). As such, they could be of any breed and therefore of any size. However, a typical mustang is 14-15 hands high and similar to a light riding horse.
Lastly, horses (and I think I will apply this to all quadrupeds) can trot at twice their normal movement, canter (jog, sustainable over long distances) at three times their normal movement, and gallop (run for short distances, 1-2 miles at most) at four times their normal movement. This is actually standard, for horses, in some later editions.
What Did All This Get Me
I have to admit; I was hoping for more. I wanted more options for characters when buying a horse. I wanted more diversity in horses and something that made one type stand out from another. I don’t feel like I really got that. But I did get some of what I was looking for. Granted, I took some liberties, but here is what I have. It is very similar to the standard presentation for horses, but at the least I think I spiced it up a little.
Heavy, medium, and light warhorses are additionally named destriers, coursers, and rounceys, and stand 7 ft., 6 ft. and 5 ft. respectively. Ponies are 4 ft., large riding dogs are 3 ft., and small riding dogs are 2 ft.
These sizes line up with the races nicely: humans (6 ft) on coursers, elves (5 ft) on rounceys, dwarves (4 ft) on ponies, halflings (3 ft) on large riding dogs, and gnomes (2 ft) on small riding dogs.
Each race can ride a mount one size larger or smaller. Destriers (at 7 ft) are a bit of a stretch. However, the largest horse ever verified was a shire at 21.2½ hands (7′ 2½”) so a 7 ft destrier isn’t too unreasonable.
Similarly, draft horses, pack horses, and riding horses have the same stats as the three war horses. Mules and donkeys match up to riding horses and ponies. Plus, a war pony is added (same stats as pony), although I can’t actually see a dwarf wanting to ride a war pony (not to mention that there is an issue with what a pony can carry compared to a dwarf in full plate plus gear). Therefore, I also added a battle ram with a little more bulk than a pony and more carrying capacity.
All of these mounts can carry 25% of their body mass, with the exception of the battle ram, mule, and donkey, which can carry 33%. In the best of conditions, horses can certainly carry more. But given the terrain they may be on, I think 25% is reasonable. Plus, it is a convenient number. And as a bonus, it is somewhat supported by what I was able to find online.
I’m still toying with the idea of a Desert Horse, Steppe Pony, and Barbarian (Mountain) Heavy War Horse that do especially well in those environments, and only available by travelling to certain locations and bartering with the locals. Although, I’m not sure what makes them special. Currently, I’m leaning towards them being more sure-footed and 33% carrying capacity instead of 25%.
All of these mounts are trained for mounted combat, and are accustomed to wearing barding.
|2,400||Heavy War Horse||21||7 Ft.||40||3,200||800|
|1,600||Medium War Horse||18||6 Ft.||50||2,000||500|
|800||Light War Horse||15||5 Ft.||60||1,200||300|
|800||War Pony||12||4 Ft.||50||600||150|
|1,200||Riding Dog (Large)||9||3 Ft.||40||240||60|
|1,200||Riding Dog (Small)||6||2 Ft.||40||80||20|
This list could be expanded to include: camels, yaks, llamas, reindeer, etc.
|1,200||Draft Horse||21||7 Ft.||40||3,200||800|
|800||Pack Horse||18||6 Ft.||50||2,000||500|
|400||Riding Horse||15||5 Ft.||60||1,200||300|
|?||Wild Horse||15||5 Ft.||60||1,200||400|
These require travelling to an out of the way location and bartering with the breeders directly. There may be special requirements, such as the barbarians requiring you to prove yourself in hand-to-hand combat to show that you are worthy of one of their specially trained horses.
A giant lizard and the ostrich-like mount from Wizards would make great additions here. Also, I’m toying with somewhat more magical creatures, like a horse with a very short-range breath weapon.
I’ve intentionally left out all flying mounts. The ability to fly destroys so many great adventuring opportunities, so I’ve removed the ability to fly from my game.
|?||Barbarian Horse||21||7 Ft.||40||3,000||1,000|
|?||Desert Horse||18||6 Ft.||50||2,100||700|
|?||Steppe Pony||12||4 Ft.||40||600||200|
|1,600||Battle Ram||12||4 Ft.||40||900||300|
In reading through this, I see that I completely neglected to mention my favorite type of horse: the Baroque. These horses, along with the percheron and clydesdale, are what I picture when I imagine destriers. My version of destriers that is, giant beautiful beasts, not the medium-sized agile horses that it appears they actually were. I’m sticking to my version instead, as I like the image of the big bad evil knight descending on the party riding an enormous horse as terrifying as he is.
I think my list of horses (above) works pretty well. I’m sure it will need some tweaking over time, but hopefully nothing too major. If I really get motivated, I may actually come up with names for breeds (a great many of the actual breed names are tied to real world locations or cultures). One note along those lines. I would use different breeds for work horses than for war horses, even where the two are of the same size. I think there would be different traits and personalities between horse breeds best suited for the two different types of work.
I probably should mention that costs listed above are just placeholders. I’m working out the relative costs between them and will later adjust them to fit the economy. The three “special” horses just have a “?” at the moment. These would never be for sale in town. They would also require a great deal of effort to obtain.