Traveling on Horseback: Length, Distance, and Time Limits

Horses can travel farther if they walk instead of trot (1)

We’ve all grown up watching movies of cowboys racing their horses across open fields for miles without end, but how far can a horse really gallop without stopping? And how far can horses realistically travel in a day? The answer is nearly never the same and for good reason. In this article, we will discuss the aspects relating to horse endurance and speed in depth. 

How far can a horse travel in a day? Generally, a horse can walk 32 miles in a day. If galloping, a horse can cover an average of 2.5 miles before it needs to rest. A horse will cover more miles per day if kept at a walk or a trot than if ridden at a gallop. 

Other factors influence the distance a horse can travel including its breed. Some breeds, like Arabian horses, can travel longer distances. Young adult horses will also cover greater distances. Horses with lighter riders and over smooth terrain will be able to travel farther. Lastly, a horse that is consistently trained to cover longer distances will be able to travel farther in a day than a horse that occasionally rides all day.

In this article, we explore the effects of these factors, and others, and attempt to finally answer the question of just how far, and for how long, a horse can travel.

How Far and How Long Can a Horse Run?

The distance a horse travels in a day depends on the speed at which it is traveling. While you may assume that galloping horses will travel longer, that is not the case. Take a look at the table below: 

PACE AVERAGE SPEED REACHED RECOMMENDED AVERAGE DISTANCE COVERED RECOMMENDED  AVERAGE TIME WITHOUT STOPPING
GALLOP 30mph 2.5 miles 5 minutes
CANTER 10-17mph 3-5 miles 12 – 25 minutes
TROT 8mph 10-12 miles 70 – 85 minutes
WALK 4-5mph 32 miles 8 hours

These numbers are certainly not the maximum for all horses, but it is the recommended average. Pushing an untrained horse any further or faster than this could result in serious injury. It is possible for a horse to run itself to death.

If galloped for the maximum recommended five minutes, a horse should be allowed to rest until it has caught its breath. During recovery, the objective should be between 12 and 16 breaths a minute. Once this rhythm is restored, the horse can be galloped once again. 

This can be repeated for up to an hour of galloping time in total per day, meaning around 30 miles could be covered. However, the more frequently the horse is galloped, the longer it will take for it to recover and the slower it will move overall. The hour of galloping may need to be spaced over several hours to allow ample time for the horse to catch its breath in between.

Now that you have a general idea of how fast and how far a horse can travel in any given time, let’s take a look at the different elements involved in regulating these figures.

How Far Can a Horse Travel At a Time?

There are several factors that affect how far a horse can travel at a time. These include age, breed, terrain, diet, and pace. Let’s go more in-depth. 

Length that horses can travel in a day (1)

Horse Breeds That Have Higher Endurance 

Around 6,000 years ago humans domesticated horses. It was soon discovered they could be used as tools for travel and work, and not long after that did the selective breeding of the ‘strongest’, ‘fastest’, and ‘most beautiful’ horses begin. 

For example, Arabians who were bred and used by cavalrymen and explorers would naturally be better at long-distance traveling compared to, for instance, a draught horse. It is rational to assume a bigger, heavier horse might have more difficulty traveling long distances than its streamlined, ‘light footed’ counterpart.

The three strongest horse breeds for endurance are:

  • Arabian
  • Akhal-Teke
  • Anglo-Arabian

The Horse’s Age  Affects Endurance

It’s not uncommon to hear of horses living up to 30 years long. However, at this age, no horse would be able to travel more than a couple of miles a day. 

A horse’s peak is usually reached between 3.5 – 7.5 years. Within this age period, a healthy horse will have the most stamina and the fastest recovery time in its lifetime. This doesn’t mean an 8-year-old horse cannot travel long distances. It simply means at 8 years or older, the horse will travel slower and need to rest more often. 

Endurance Training Makes the Difference 

A horse that’s been conditioned to travel long distances can cover much more ground than an untrained one. Later, we will cover exactly what sort of training and conditioning is used to improve the stamina and speed of any horse. 

Weight of the Rider and the Load

The lighter a rider, the longer a horse can travel without rest. That’s the reason why racing jockeys are smaller riders. It is uncommon to find a heavier jockey. That would put their horse at a distinct disadvantage over horses with lighter riders. 

Every reduction in the weight a horse is carrying will improve the speed and overall distance it can reach. The lighter, the better. A slower horse who needs to rest more often means less distance covered in any given time. 

Terrain Is Critical in Distance Covered

The terrain makes a bigger difference in the distance a horse can cover than most people realize. If the horse is traveling on a stretch of flat, smooth terrain it will move much more easily and faster for longer than if it was moving across a rocky, mountainous region. Sandy ground slows a horse down even more and depletes its energy. 

This is simply for the same reason humans take more time to cover the same distance when hiking up a mountain, compared to walking across a field.

Diet is Important to Endurance 

A malnourished, or underfed horse will become tired quickly. 

A healthy diet of alfalfa (which is high in energy), pasture grass, hay, and lucerne mixed with high-fat hard feed benefits a horse’s stamina and therefore increases the average distance it could travel at any one time. 

High-protein feed, on the other hand, would result in your horse needing more water, to urinate more often, and sweat more, all things detrimental to traveling fast and far. 

It is also critical that a horse has a sufficient supply of water every day, as well as when traveling, is essential as a dehydrated horse will drop its speed and stamina massively.

A Horse’s Pace Determines The Distance

An inexperienced rider might think that a horse that is galloping will go farther in a day than a horse traveling at a slower pace. But, a gallop actually reduces the total distance a horse can go over a period of time. That’s the reason why most endurance riders will never push their horse faster than a canter for the majority of a race. A strong horse, with intermediate training, can only gallop for around 2.5 miles at a time before needing rest. 

Cavalry riders, explorers, and couriers of yesteryear discovered early on that the distance traveling sweet-spot was alternating between trotting and walking. This ensures the horse moved forward at a steady pace, while not tiring out so quickly that it would need prolonged periods of standing still to recover. Following a trot-walk pattern, with water breaks in between, a nearly entirely untrained horse could be pushed to reach  35 miles a day.

Terrain affects endurance of horses (1)

Tack and Equipment Can Help or Hinder Distance Riding

The tack and equipment used on the horse while traveling can make a huge impact on the distance a horse is able to cover. A wrongly fitted saddle or a bridle that is too small or too large can cause enough discomfort to reduce the distance traveled. 

In the same way, the rider’s experience can affect the horse’s performance. An inexperienced rider will not reach the same distance or speed as an experienced rider will in most cases. 

Shodding Effects Distance Ability

A shod horse has greater protection for its hooves. In a best-case scenario, this might not directly affect the speed or stamina of the horse. But, it will help prevent injuries or sensitivities that might slow down the horse. More serious injuries can completely stop a horse. 

While there are benefits to leaving your horses barefoot, it is not recommended during training or intense exercise. 

How Far and How Long Can a Horse Occasionally Ride in a Day?

Untrained, a horse can be pushed to cover a maximum of 50 miles a day, assuming the horse is in good health and age. But, this is not a regular distance and should only be attempted occasionally. This would require stamina on both the horse and the rider’s part. It would also require regular stops for qualitative rest and watering. This distance could take between 10-12 hours to complete and would not be viable to attempt on a regular basis.

Trained horses, such as those competing in the Tevis Cup, can easily travel 100 miles in 24 hours. The winners of the Cup usually finish before or around the 12-hour mark. This is, however, only done with regular compulsory stops and vet checks. 

Which Breed of Horse has the Greatest Stamina?

Some breeds are naturally better suited to traveling long distances. The top three breeds for horse stamina are Arabians, Akhal-Tekes, and Anglo-Arabians. 

Arabians are a lighter breed with long powerful legs which allow them to take bigger strides. They originated in what is now the Middle East, where the Bedouins bred them for use in raids on other camps. They are the most common horse to be entered into endurance competitions, and the horse best suited for long-distance travel overall.

The Akhal-Teke, a horse originating in Turkmenistan, is especially well-known for its ability to weather the extremes. In 1935 a group of riders on Akhal-Tekes rode 2,500 miles from Ashgabat to Moscow in 84 days. This included 3 days crossing 235 miles of desert without water. 

Finally, the Anglo-Arabian, a crossbreed between an Arabian and a Thoroughbred, is at the top of the list due to the characteristics inherited from the horses it was bred from. Slightly larger in size, the Anglo-Arabian combines the endurance of Arabians with the speed and agility of Thoroughbreds to create a unique horse perfectly suited for long-distance travel.

Horse breed affects distance they can travel (1)

There are other breeds also known for higher stamina than average breeds. They are:

  • American Mustang: Mustangs breed in the wild. Due to natural selection, only the strongest horses will reproduce, providing them with naturally high stamina levels.
  • Morgan Horse: Bred for stamina. It is known to be able to work all day and still travel at night. 
  • Rocky Mountain Horse: With a unique 4-beat gait it conserves energy and allows for a smoother ride, both essential to endurance riding.
  • Mule: The offspring of a female horse and male donkey, the mule may seem an unusual addition to the list. Due to its breeding, however, it has very impressive muscle endurance allowing it to travel greater distances without tiring.
  • Quarter Horse: Their strong-willed temperament means they enjoy a challenge when ridden by an experienced rider. This temperament allows them to travel great distances with the right guidance.
  • Hanoverian: Originally used as carriage horses, Hanoverians are muscular, long-limbed horses which make them well suited to traveling long distances.
  • American Saddlebred: Initially bred for hunting and cross-country riding, the Saddlebred makes an excellent long-distance traveler.
  • Tennessee Walker: As another breed with a 4-beat gait, the energy conservation and comfort while riding makes it an easy choice for riders looking to go the distance.
  • Criollo: Native to the Pampas in Latin America, Criollos are tough horses that can be ridden for extensive time periods each day, making them a good choice for traveling far.

Fastest Horse Breeds

If your goal is to cover a great distance in a shorter amount of time, then a fast horse is more important than an endurance horse. Fortunately, many of the endurance breeds are also known for being speedy. You may not be surprised to discover that between these two lists,  you can find 80% of all endurance racing horses. 

Horse breeds known for speed include:

  • Andalusian
  • Thoroughbred
  • Standardbred
  • Appaloosa
  • Arabian
  • American Mustang

How to Train Horses to Travel Greater Distances

Without the right training, not even the fastest breed with the highest stamina level would be able to complete strenuous distances. A trained horse, not bred for its stamina, could easily outlast a perfectly bred endurance horse with no training whatsoever. 

Training and conditioning make all the difference in performance. 

When training a horse for distance, it is imperative to train gradually. On average, it can take up to a year of training to get your horse to the point where it can comfortably complete 60 or more miles at a time. 

Let’s discuss the best methods to increase your horse’s stamina, and condition it for covering longer distances of travel. It is also important to note that all training times below are listed for shod horses. If your horse is barefoot, training time must be doubled. The best shoe type for horses traveling long distances is flat steel shoes.

Distance Training Phase I: Beginner Level

Duration; 6-8 weeks

This time period is used to prepare your horse for continuously increasing exercise times and intensity, as well as to condition its hooves and muscle to the work it will take on. 

  • Between 4 and 5 days a week, walk your horse at an active pace. This should not be done on the same terrain every day. It is recommended that you train on as many different landscapes as possible. This can include fields, gravel, mountains, and even sand. Training times should be up to about 3 hours per day at the end of the 6 or 8 weeks.
  • Once a week, the horse should be trotted in a lunge. This should not exceed half an hour without rest, and should never exceed 90 minutes overall. The horse must learn to maintain the correct form while trotting (head low, back rounded, and neck extended), and do so in a relaxed manner, so as to perfect its stride.
  • Near the end of the beginner period, trotting should be added to the walking training. This should be done at the same pace as with the lunge, and for no more than 20 minutes per session.
  • One day a week must be given for the horse to rest. At the beginning of the training period, recovery is essential, and this is impossible without allowing the horse a full day off.

Distance Training Phase II: Intermediate Level
Duration; 6 weeks

  • Five days per week, follow this pattern; warm-up for 15-20 minutes at a quick walk, then proceed to use the trot-walk formation for increasing amounts of time. By the end of this level, the horse should be able to trot for 2 hours uninterrupted.
  • Two days a week should be allowed for rest and recovery. Allow no more than light outrides, or very light lunging.

Distance Training Phase III: Advanced Level
Duration; 2-3 weeks

At this level, a comfortable canter should be achieved. Focus on the horse’s fitness levels while ensuring both the rider and animal are enjoying the exercise. 

  • 3-4 days per week of training should consist of a 15-minute warm-up, and then alternating between a canter, trot, and walk. By the last week of training, the horse should be able to maintain a canter-trot formation for a total of 90-100 minutes. 
  • Allow 3-4 rest days now that the training is more intense.

By following the above-mentioned program, you will notice obvious changes in your horse’s stamina and physique. It will also cover longer distances with much greater ease when kept in trot-walk formation with occasional cantering. 

The program above covers the first 3 months of training. Once this intermediate level of stamina has been reached, the intensity of Phase III training sessions should be gradually increased. This training regimen should be interspersed with days in a lunging arena or riding school. The foundation built in the first three months of training will serve as the point from which you further develop your horse’s abilities.

To reduce the chances of injury or illness during training, it is important to take a holistic approach to the program and listen to your horse. If they start a training session on low energy, it is better to add an extra rest day instead of pushing them to complete the workout. 

If a sensible, dedicated approach is taken, the difference in the way your horse performs may astound you. 

Conclusion

Ever since ancient times, horses have been used as a means of transport and work by people of all classes, from peasants to kings. They are capable of reaching extraordinary levels of endurance with the correct training and riding. 

From the days of the Pony Express, and the years of war where cavalrymen and steeds were used, until today where most endurance horses are prized mainly for their racing abilities, horses’ stamina and speed have been of utmost importance whether as a matter of pride, or the difference between life and death.

Bri Cave

Hi, I'm Bri Cave. I'm a born and raised farm girl and, even though I now live in the city, I take every chance I can to get back into the countryside. Growing up, horses, chickens, and sheep were my best friends, and now I use the experience I gained then to help others care for their farm animals. I absolutely adore all creatures whether domesticated or not.

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