Gaming the Horse

       by Susan & Garry Stahl

       This article first appeared in Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #241 and #242. Check out this site and weekly newsletter for great RPG tips.

       I have noticed through the years that many gamers have tried to define and quantify the horse. In every example I have seen to date, they have failed utterly because the definer did not know horses. One of the worst examples is from Dragon Magizine #41 where the author clearly didn't have a clue.
       Herein is an attempt at defining and quantifying the horse for gamers by people that both understand the horse and understand games. It is not intended to be a manual on how to raise and keep horses and several subjects of horse keeping will not be covered for that reason. Any number of books or websites that detail horse keeping can be found.*
       I have carefully left out exact numbers and quantifiers so the reader can adapt this work to the game they play.


Defining the Horse

Wild Horses       The average horse is a placid, if skittish, animal. Horses are naturally a plains-living herd herbivore. They are prey animals and have those traits that aid survival in that environment. Good hearing, good smell and eyesight, swift legs. Horses are strong. All these traits looked good to some ancient hunter, and he decided that he would rather ride the horse and get it to work for him than eat same. (Of all the figures in history, I would like to meet that genius.)
       The average horse avoids the unknown. The unknown might eat it. The horse's first reaction to perceived danger is to run. Danger might eat it. You can see that not getting eaten is high on the horse's agenda. Other than battling other horses for dominance, a horse will fight only if there is no other choice. They much prefer to flee. Training can somewhat counteract these instincts but it can never eleminate them totally.
       In the wild horses form brood bands. A number of females and young, and one stallion. In domestic circumstances horses likewise seek "herds", other horses or, lacking other horses, they will form attachments to animals of other species, even humans. This is one of the ways man binds the horse to him.
       A horse is sexually capable at the age of two. Gestation is 11 months long and mares will generally have their first foal at age three.
       Male horses are driven out of their birth band by their herd stallion as they approach sexual maturity. These youngsters will band together in small "bachelor" herds until they are strong enough to challenge an existing herd stallion for control of the herd, or at least to steal a few mares. For this reason, stallions in the wild will not usually sire their first foals until age four, five, or even six.
       A mare will have one foal, and only one foal, per year, usually born in early spring. Successful births of twins are exteremly rare. Only ONE successful birth of triplets has ever been recorded. Being that these circumstances are so rare, it is assumed they do not happen for game purposes.

The average horse can:
Walk at 5 miles per hour, no fatigue checks. 0.5 mph less for size under average, 0.5 mph more for size over average.
Trot at 10 miles per hour, (a carriage horse can trot up to 15 mph) normal fatigue size doesn't matter.
Canter at 16 miles per hour, double fatigue size doesn't matter.
Gallop at 28 miles per hour, triple fatigue size doesn't matter.
Jump: 10 feet horizontal. Drop two feet for each size category over or under large. OR 4 feet vertically. drop 0.5 feet for every size category over or under large.
Carry (on it's back) 20% of it's body weight without strain up to a maximum of 250#.
Pull (in proper harness)
       Sledge on hard level ground: 50% it's body weight without strain.
       Wheeled cart on hard level ground: 150% it's body weight without strain.
Greater amounts or less than ideal conditions risk injury to the horse.
Swim at 2 miles an hour, NO LOAD. A rider can hold on to a swimming horse by the saddle or tail but trying to remain astride will force the horse's head under water. Pack animals must be unloaded to cross water over their heads. Horses stay afloat very well, they do not swim quickly. Hooves make lousy paddles.

More Horse Questions & Answers


The Types of Horse

       Horses come in a number of sizes that have been bred by man from the wild stock for various jobs. The most common broad divisions are listed here. Many breeds fall into these broad categories having been developed separately around the world for much the same work. A good horse breed book with brief descriptions can cover several hundred pages. Defineing breeds* is not the propose of this article.
       All horses and mules are measured at the withers, which is the highest point on the shoulder where the body joins the neck. They are not measured from the head as that moves around too much. The accepted measuring unit for a horse is the "hand" which equals four inches. A horse that is 14 hands tall will be 56 inches at the withers. We are using inches for greater clarity.

Small pony: under 44", under 400#
Pony: 44" to 56", 400# to 800#
Saddle: 56" to 64", 900# to 1300#
Carriage / Light war: 62" to 70", 1250# to 1500#
Light draft / Heavy war: 64" to 72", 1300# to 1700#
Heavy draft: 68" to 76" (rarely 80"), 1700# to 2500# (rarely 2600#)
Mules: sized from saddle to light draft.

Shetland Ponies Small Pony:        These horses are commonly used in tight spaces. They are often referred to as Mine Ponies as that is the work they are bred to. Such work is hard on the animals and in such conditions life is short and brutal. More refined breeds of the small pony are used as companion animals for larger horses or even people.
       Small ponies can haul greater loads than average. A small pony can drag 75% its body weight and pull 200% its body weight.
       Given proper care a small pony can live as long as 40 years.

       The Picture: Shetland ponies in the field. This is considered by many to be the classic "small pony". Shetlands were indeed bred for the mine.

Welsh Pony Pony:       The pony is the natural size of the wild horse. Ponies are strong for their size. While they cannot carry more than their weight would suggest they are stronger pound for pound that the large draft horses. A pony can drag 75% its body weight and pull 200% its body weight.
       Ponies can live up to 40 years with good care.

       The Picture: A Welsh pony type B "Pendock Prospector", Reserve Champion New England Welsh Show 1997.

American SaddlebredSaddle horse:       This the horse most people think of when you say "horse". They are average in all respects and are best sized for riding.
       A saddle horse can live 30 years with good care.

       The Picture: "Bo" an American Saddlebred and his handleer Julie.

warmbloodCarriage / Light war horse:        While the two types are similar in size they differ in conformation. The Carriage horse will be longer in the back and of a more placid temperament. The War horse is like a large saddle horse, and the trainer of war horses seeks a more fiery temperament. The type is also called the "warmblood".
       A carriage/light war horse can live up to 30 years with good care.

       The Picture: "Gem Noir" a warmblood in the middle of a dressage test. Note the size of the horse compared to the rider.

warmbloodLight draft / Heavy war horse:       This size of horse is the largest one that can comfortably be ridden for any distance. These larger horses again differ mostly in temperament. The draft breeds are phlegmatic, suited to the work they do both on the farm and in the city. A teamster cannot afford an excitable animal. Likewise, the farmer does not consider an excitable animal acceptable. War horses are bred for the choleric fire to sustain them in battle.
       A light draft/ heavy war horse can live up to 25 years with good care.

       The Picture: Yes, it's a Clydesdale! I used this picture to show that Clydesdales are not all bay with white socks pulling beer wagons. Yes the Budweiser Clydes are the ones everybody knows. However that is not the whole of the breed.

Shire HorseHeavy draft:       These are the largest of the horse types. They are too broad of back to be comfortably ridden. They work only in harness. Often called the "gentle giants" they are bred for a placid nature, agreeable to work. One cannot afford horses of this size that are temperamental.
       Heavy draft horses can live 20 years with good care.

       The Picture: The Shire horse accepted as the largest of the heavy breeds. There is a guy in the photo to the front of the horse.

Saddle MuleMules:       Mules are a cross between a horse mare and a donkey jack, or male. This sterile hybrid produces a creature with the best traits of the parents. The strength and willingness of the horse, and the intelligence and good sense of the donkey. Female mules are called "mares" as are their horse cousins, while male mules are called "johns". All male mules are gelded. They may be sterile, but have more urge than even a healthy horse. As it interferes with work, it must curbed. Mules are valued as both saddle and draft animals. All mules have the traits intelligent, sure-footed, and strong. They are as prone to vices as any horse.
       A mule with good care can live 30 years.

       The Picture: An average sized mule under saddle.


Buying a Horse

       Should you seek a random horse the market will contain these types. If the Game Master wishes to randomly roll of the color of the horse these tables can be used. Likewise unusual traits, both good and bad, can be checked for. Keep in mind that the seller will do their best, as their ethics allow, to promote the horse's good traits while minimizing the bad ones. Most horses are simply average for their size and type and use the performance given above.

1. AGE 1d10
1 Weanling -- six months to 1 year. They are obvious by the size of the animal. Half market price. (Horses younger than six months offered for sale will come as a "package" with their mother. Full price for mom.)
2-3 Yearling to adulthood -- From 1 to 3 years of age 3/4 market price
4-5 Young Adult -- 4 to 8 years 1-1.5 market price
6-7 Mature Adult -- 8 to 16 years market price
8-10 Aged Adult -- over 16 years market price to half or less market price.

       Weanlings cannot be worked, but they are the best age to acquire a horse you wish to bind to you and train. Note: Those specifically looking for a weanling have a better chance of finding one if they visit a breeding farm. Yearlings stand twice the normal chance of breakdown if worked or trained. Other than teaching manners and basic ground training, a horse's formal education should begin no earlier than age three when the animal has reached its full height and weight. Horses from young adult onward can be worked normally.
       These ages do not vary no matter what the horse's expected lifespan. 20 years or 40 years, all that changes is the length of time the animal can be expected to do productive work. Small ponies mature at the same rate as large draft horses. Most horses smaller than "large draft" can do heavy work into their late teens, and moderate work well into their twenties. Ponies up to about age 30. Horses in the last "fourth" of their maximum lifespan should be considered too frail to any work harder than being gently ridden for exercise. Mares will be unlikely to conceive if bred at this point. However, stallions will be capable of breeding until the day they die, provided they are not afflicted with arthritis or other chronic illness. People that use horses for a living will seek to dump these aged animals, especially if the animal is no longer capable of breeding. Overwork or inadequate care at any stage will shorten both the horse's productive life and its maximum lifespan.
       A good horseman can judge the age of a horse by it's teeth until it reaches its late teens. An unethical horse seller will try to tell you the horse is younger than it might be and might even try altering the teeth to trick the potential buyer.

2: GENDER (percent roll d100)
Mare = 1- 50
Stallion = 51 - 70
Gelding = 71 - 100

3: COLOR** (Roll twice. Once for base color, once for any modifiers or patterns.)
The word "points" are used in the color descriptions. This term refers to the mane, tail, and legs.
Base Color: d100

All horses are one of these three colors.  What ever appearance they might have it is the result of genetic modifiers on one of these three core colors.
bay horse

1 - 50 - bay (brown body, black points)
black horse

51 - 70 - black

71 - 100 - chestnut (red body, mane and tail may be either red or blond)
Color Modifiers: d100 1 - 50 - No modifier
51 - 80 - Modified (roll once on table 3a)
81 - 95 - Patterned (roll once on table 3b)
96 - 100 - Modified and Patterned (roll once on tables 3a and 3b)

3a MODIFIERS d100  --  This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of the various factors that can modify a horse's coat color.  Indeed the number of terms that exist to describe the exact size, shape, and patterns of colors, leg and face markings, and body spots can seem endless.  Just when one thinks they have seen it all you find a Horse of a Different Color.
1 - 25 - Cream
(Roll again to see if the horse is a double cream.
1 - 25 indicates a double cream.)
If the base color is... Final color will be... 
bay buckskin

buckskin (yellow-tan body, black points)
black brown

chestnut palomineo

palomino (gold body, white mane and tail)
A double cream will be pale cream all over with blue eyes. They are NOT albinos and do not suffer the weaknesses of albinos. bay perlino

black smoky cream

smoky cream
chestnut cremello

26 - 45 - Dun If the base color is... Final color will be... 
bay dun

yellow dun (similar color to buckskin, but with a black stripe running along the spine and stripes horizontally on the upper legs)
black grulla

grulla (slate gray body, black points. This color only looks gray. It will NOT get lighter with age.)
chestnut red dun

red dun (pale red body, dark red points, dark red stripes as with the yellow dun)
46 - 75 - Grey gray
Horse is born a "normal" color, but will gradually turn white as it ages.  Most "White" horses are actually grays.  The remainder are extreme body spotting.  "White" is an extremely rare color in horses.
76 - 100 - Roan
(Roan is an even mix of white and dark hairs over the body. Therefore, the color can look rather odd from a distance.)
If the base color is... Final color will be... 
bay payroan

bay roan (brown head, black points, body appears dark beige with a purple cast)
black Blue Roan

blue roan (black head and points, body may appear dark or bluish gray. This color will NOT get lighter with age.)
chestnut red roan

red roan (red head and points, body will appear dark pink). If the base chestnut color is light with a blond mane and tail the roaned version is called "strawberry roan".

1-74 Pinto/skewbald/piebald.  (There are many terms to describe exactly which kind of white patterning a horse has.  Genetically they matter; in gameing terms they do not.) pinto(Roll again to see if the horse is solid white. 95 - 100 indicates an all white animal.)
     A pinto is a horse with large patches of white marking the body. In the case of the solid white "pinto", the white patches simply cover the entire horse.  Those white horses that are not gray, will be extreme pintos.
76 - 100 - Appaloosa (or Spotted Horse depending on what part of the world you are in) appaloosa
This indicates a solid color animal with mottled skin & striped hooves.) The horse has many small spots over its body, skin that is mottled dark and light, and striped hooves. It may or may not have an area of white over the hips.

       A given horse has a 25% chance of "traits", that is behaviors that make it remarkable from the average horse. Some traits are desirable, others are not. Some have good points and bad points. In the rare cases of multiple traits use some common sense. A Courageous horse would not also be Nervous.

       01-75 -- No Traits
       76-90 -- One Trait
       91-98 -- Two Traits
       99-00 -- Three Traits

Traits roll 1d4 and 1d8

Table 1 Table 2 Table 3 Table 4
1 Agile 1 Dullard 1 Loyal 1 Stayer
2 Alert 2 Easy Keeper 2 Nervous 2 Steady
3 Ambler 3 Fleet 3 Poor Doer 3 Strong
4 Balker 4 Hard Mouth 4 Rears 4 Sullen
5 Biter 5 Hardy 5 Restricted 5 Sure-footed
6 Clumsy 6 Intelligent 6 Rough gaited 6 Unsound
7 Courageous 7 Jumper 7 Runaway 7 Weak
8 Cribber 8 Kicker 8 Smooth Gaited 8 Willing

Explanation of Traits

Agile: The horse can stop and/or change directions very quickly and take jumps at speed. +10% on any dex check for the horse.

Alert: This horse notices things at once. He see and hears the environment ready, but does not panic. He notices and responses to the slightest cues. A handler that is in tune with the horse adds 5% to his own spot or "notice" checks. Any rider has a 10% plus to his horsemanship rolls on this horse. An Alert horse makes you look good.

Ambler: A horse that can amble has an extra gait other than the usual walk, trot, canter, and gallop. It is a gait that is extremely comfortable for both horse and rider. An ambling horse can cover a great deal of ground at a rapid rate (12 miles per hour) without tiring. The gait is smooth enough that the rider can balance a full glass of wine on their head without spilling a drop. An Ambling horse can travel at trot speeds with walk fatigue levels.

Balker: The horse will refuse when asked to perform ordinary tasks within its ability. The horse may simply stand rooted to the ground, back up, or even sit down. Such an animal can usually be persuaded to do the job, but it will be a battle of wills and strength between the animal & handler. A balker requires horsemanship checks at any new task and at a 10% penalty.

Biter: The horse will unpredictably bite whoever is within reach for no reason even though the person being bitten may be doing nothing more than feeding the animal.

Clumsy: The horse seems to have four left legs. They will back into things, stand on handlers' feet, or trip over thin air when walking. They tend to have many scrapes, scratches, and patches of missing hair. This horse subject the rider to a -10% penalty on horsemanship checks for any activity other than straight and level riding.

Courageous: The horse displays great boldness and determination. Such a horse will go into dangerous situations without fear. When faced with a potential enemy, the horse will prepare to fight rather than flee. Providing the horse doesn't sense danger, unusual sights, smells, or sounds are things to be investigated. As with the willing horse, the courageous one will tax itself to the point of utter exhaustion, and beyond if the handler does not control it. It will show no signs of fatigue, but will gallop on until it drops dead or will continue to try to perform despite wounds or broken limbs, and will actually fight the handler's efforts to restrain it. A courageous horse never checks for morale or fatigue.
       The GM should make normal fatigue and/or wound checks and when the horse fails sufficient checks to drop dead, it drops. The rider gets no warning unless they inquire as to the status of their horse.

Cribber: This is a vice usually brought on by boredom. The horse chews the top of its stall wall or fence & swallows air. It is a difficult vice to cure, but the behavior can be curbed with the use of a muzzle or cribbing collar. Not only do they damage their surroundings, cribbers are prone to colic and bloat due to the air they swallow. Cribbers will suffer a 20% penalty in disease checks when stabled for any length of time (over 3 days).

Dullard: This horse is lights on, no one home. His mind, if he has one, is on something else. Once you get his attention he is willing enough, but that loose mind keeps wandering. A Dullard takes 20% more time and effort to train. They impose a 5% penalty on horsemanship checks. A Dullard is not a safe animal, as they are usually the first ones the predator gets. They give the rider no clues to the environment.

Easy Keeper: The horse has no trouble staying at a good weight and glossy coat with minimal feed and care. A handler must be careful not to overfeed as an easy keeper is prone to fat. An easy keeper requires 10% less time and money to maintain.

Fleet: If the horse is a saddle horse it will be an exceptionally fast runner. If the horse is a carriage horse it will be an exceptionally fast trotter. Fleet horses are 10% faster at all gaits.

Hard Mouth: The horse's mouth has been made insensitive by misuse of the bit and reins. Such animals are difficult to steer or stop without the use of a very severe bit. Horsemanship checks on this horse are made at a 10% penalty. It isn't unwilling, it can't feel the cue.

Hardy: This horse is tough. Circumstance that would break another animal are to him a challenge to over come. He has bones of ivory and muscles of steel cord. A hardy horse makes all health or injury checks at a 10% bonus.

Intelligent: This could be a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view. An intelligent horse has a strong sense of self-preservation. If they feel a shoe loosen they will refuse to go any further until the shoe has been fixed. If they detect danger they will not willingly proceed into the situation. Novice handlers may mistake this for stubbornness, while experienced handlers will recognize it as good common sense. It is difficult to force such a horse to move toward the danger. However, a well-loved and trusted handler can often convince the animal to go on despite the horse's natural instincts. Intelligent horses make poor war horses. (Go THERE? Things are getting KILLED in there boss.) Intelligent horses tend to get bored easily. If they are confined for too long without sufficient work to do, they will INVENT things to amuse themselves (digging a hole in the stall, grabbing objects within reach and flinging them about, etc.) Such boredom can be avoided by giving the horse plenty of work to do and/or providing a toy for the animal to play with.
       These horses can be taught 2-8 tricks. if not taught tricks they can develop them on their own. Be careful what you teach them.

Jumper: The horse can jump higher and further than other horses. The jumper can clear 20% greater height or length than the average horse.

Kicker: The horse will kick anyone within range given half a chance.

Loyal: The horse will obey only one master. It will do everything within its power to return to that master if stolen or sold. Should the master fall, the horse will stay by the master's side & protect him/her. The horse will actively attack anyone or anything threatening its master. Such an animal will obey no other person unless that person is known by the animal to be important to its master. The horse's loyalty can be transferred to another master, but it will be several weeks or months work on the part of both people.

Nervous: The horse sees enemies around every corner and in every bush. It is very much of the opinion that everything is guilty until proven innocent. It is also of the opinion that everything is out to get it. A leaf that suddenly skitters across the horse's path is sufficient cause to jump sideways or backward. Unusual sounds or smells will cause the animal to sweat and tremble with fear. The animal may bolt in panic or stand fearfully depending on its relationship with the handler. A trusted handler will be able to get the horse to move past its fear with patience. Horsemanship checks are required at any new incident.

Poor Doer: Opposite of easy keeper. The horse always seems to be underweight & have a poor coat despite adequate feed and care. They can be improved with feed supplements and diligent grooming. The condition can be caused by internal parasites and/or bad teeth. This horse will cost 10% more time and money than a normal animal to keep in good condition.

Rears: The horse will attempt to avoid work by rearing. A handler on the ground will usually be threatened by waving front hooves. A rider may find themselves in the dirt if they are not ready for the behavior. In some extreme cases, the horse will deliberately throw itself over backward with a rider on its back. Horsemanship tests are required to ride this animal.

Restricted: This horse, through flaws in conformation or due to old injury, cannot move as easily as other horses. He suffers a 20% penalty in speed and jumping ability.

Rough gaited: The horse rides like it had five legs, or like you are sitting on a jackhammer. The rider will becomes overly fatigued on this horse and really nothing can be done about it. Break him to harness. A variation is the horse that is rough gaited in only one gait, such as the trot, but easy to ride at the walk, canter, or gallop.

Runaway: The horse will attempt to avoid work by bolting at top speed. Such an animal must be kept on a tight rein to avoid the behavior. They will be difficult to stop once they get going and a novice handler is likely to find themselves sitting in the dirt.

Smooth Gaited: The horse has only the normal gaits, but is more comfortable than usual to ride. The rider suffers less fatigue from riding this horse.

Steady: This horse take unusual sight, sounds, and smell with utter equamity. You could run a marching band and full fireworks display past him and he yawns and wonders what's for dinner. (grain... my favorite...) This horse will take his cues from his handler or rider. If the "herd leader" is fine, he is fine. This horse ignores "horsey" fear checks in the presence of a human he trusts, and will only "fail" other checks if his rider/handler does.

Stayer: The horse has exceptional stamina. It will go a third longer than a normal horse before requiring fatigue checks.

Strong: All horses are strong, but some are stronger than most. A horse with this trait can haul a lot of weight for its size. A strong horse can haul or carry 10% greater load than average horses.

Sullen: The horse has a bad attitude. It must be forced to perform and then the performance will be lackluster with pinned ears & clamped tail. What work is done will be done with the least amount of effort the horse can get away with. Every command to the horse requires a will or horsemanship check. The horse will be 10% less able in all categories of performance even if it does move.

Sure-footed: This horse can keep it's feet in difficult circumstances such a mud, ice, or loose ground that would cause other horses to stumble. Sure-footed horses have a 10% bonus to any dex check.

Unsound: This horse has a tendency to go lame with any hard work. Any effort that requires a fortitude or constitution check requires an additional check to see if the horse goes lame. A lame horse cannot be ridden or draw a load without risking a total breakdown that will effectively destroy the animal. Each episode of lameness will require 1d4 weeks of rest and care to correct. The horse must be maintained as if working to simulate the vet visits and treatments.

Weak: A weak horse is still strong, but for physical reasons cannot carry the load an average horse can. A Weak horse can carry or pull 10% less for their size than an average horse.

Willing: The horse will do its very best to obey its handler's commands, even if it doesn't quite understand what's being asked of it. The handler of such an animal must be careful what they ask their horse to do. If being asked to gallop for an extended period of time, the horse will slow as it becomes fatigued, but it will continue to gallop if the rider insists. If asked to jump a fence too tall for it, the horse will show reluctance to do so, but will make its best attempt at the rider's insistence. Such a horse will tax itself to the point of utter exhaustion to try to fulfill its handler's wishes. A willing horse requires no horsemanship tests even for the most difficult tasks, except to determine if the rider stays in the saddle.

The following are good general references for horse facts.
The New Encyclopedia of the Horse       DK Publishing Inc       by: Elwyn Hartey Edwards, Bob Langrish, Kit Houghton, Sharon Ralls Lemon

*Additional information on Horse Breeds can be found in these books and websites.
International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds        U of Ok Press       by Bonnie Hendricks
Breeds of livestock: Horses

**These color tables are based on a simplification of the real incidence of horse color genetics as currently understood by science. For further information check the following books and websites.
Equine Colar Genetics: 2ed Ed.       Iowa State Press.       by Dr. Phillip Sponenberg (considered the authority on the subject.)
Coat Color Genetics

       A speical thank you to Mark F. Cook of Shoestring Graphics & Printing for smoothing out the rough spots in my title picture for this page.


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