Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Thursday, April 10, 2008

How fast do horses travel?

This post records some information from Wikipedia on the speed at which horses can travel. While there were horses around when I was growing up, we were not a horsey family. So I have only a rough idea as to transport times when horses were king.

As a rough guide, human beings walk at around two and half miles per hour. Yes, we can go faster, but this is still a reasonable approximation for long distance walking. So if we want to go, say, the fourteen miles from Uralla to Armidale, it might take us a bit over five hours.

Travelling with stock, speed is determined by the speed of the animal. From my limited experience with sheep, I haven't travelled with cattle, travel becomes a slow amble, less than a normal walking pace. Say eight hours to drove from Uralla to Armidale. I imagine a bullock dray would also have travelled at a slow walk.

But how fast might a horse go? Starting with a walk:

The walk is a four-beat gait that averages about 4 mph (6.4 km/h). When walking, a horse's legs follow this sequence: left hind leg, left front leg, right hind leg, right front leg, in a regular 1-2-3-4 beat. At the walk, the horse will always have one foot raised and the other three feet on the ground, save for a brief moment when weight is being transferred from one foot to another. A horse moves its head and neck in a slight up and down motion that helps maintain balance.

So on the basis of a walk, we are looking at about three and a half hours to ride from Uralla to Armidale. Now what about a trot?

The trot is a two-beat gait that has a wide variation in possible speeds, but averages about 8 mph (13 km/h), or, very roughly, about the same speed as a healthy adult human can run. A very slow trot is sometimes referred to as a jog. An extremely fast trot has no special name, but in harness racing, the trot of a Standardbred is faster than the gallop of the average non-racehorse....

The trot is the working gait for a horse. Despite what one sees in movies, horses can only canter and gallop for short periods at a time, after which they need time to rest and recover. Horses in good condition can maintain a working trot for hours. The trot is the main way horses travel quickly from one place to the next.

On the basis of a trot, we could ride from Uralla to Armidale in a bit under two hours. Presumably roughly the same speed equation would hold for something like a sulky.

Now for the gallop:

The gallop is very much like the canter, except that it is faster, more ground-covering, and the three-beat canter changes to a four-beat gait. It is the fastest gait of the horse, averaging about 25 to 30 miles per hour (40 to 50 km/h), and in the wild is used when the animal needs to flee from predators or simply cover short distances quickly. Horses seldom will gallop more than a mile or two before they need to rest, though horses can sustain a moderately-paced gallop for longer distances before they become winded and have to slow down.

So normally one would not be able to gallop from Uralla to Armidale. But what about stage coaches? We all have this vision of Cobb & Co galloping through the night.

The short answer is that I do not know, although it must have been devilishly uncomfortable travelling fast over rough roads with iron shod wheels! So something else that I must find out!

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