The Horse FAQ

What reactions can horses have to various events? I.E. ambushes, smell of blood, loud noises.
Do most horses react the same way? Is there actually a range of reactions?
What advice would you have in helping a GM decide how a mount might react to various events that could happen in a game?
How do you train a horse to overcome its fear?
Do you have to do so for each type of stimulus, or can you harden a horse against all things at once?
What makes a horse more or less valuable? What factors could a GM add in to increase or decrease the value of a horse that's for sale or trade?
What tricks can a horse be taught? Can a horse come to you if called? What's the maximum range?
What will horses do if left unattended? Is there an order of actions they'll attempt to perform or does it vary by unique, individual horse?
Any other horse GM advice?

Q: What reactions can horses have to various events? I.e. ambushes, smell of blood, loud noises.

A: Loud Noise - The horse will startle and look, smell, listen for the source of the noise. Once the direction is determined, they will quickly evaluate the threat level. If they can see the source and recognize it to not be a threat, they will resume their previous activity. If there is even the smallest doubt as to the possible threat level, they will run in the opposite direction if there is an open path available. A horse that is restrained will fight to break free and run.

Horses will also take their cues from those around them. If other herd members decide the there is no danger, an individual is unlikely to bolt. If other herd members flee, the individual will follow suit even if they could not detect any danger themselves.

A horse with a rider or handler will initially react the same as the horse in the wild. However, the rider/handler has a very brief opportunity to override the animal's flight instinct. Their reaction immediately following the startle will determine the horse's reaction. Novices are usually unsettled by the horse's startle and will tighten the reins and shout "whoa" in an effort to keep the horse under control. The horse interprets the rider/handler's reactions to mean that there is danger afoot and will attempt to flee. A more advanced rider/handler will react as if there is nothing unusual going on and addresses the horse in a calm and soothing voice. A pat on the neck and firm cues that the horse is to move forward will convince the horse that there is no danger. Once the horse moves toward the source of the noise, it will relax and be much less likely to startle the next time, provided that something unpleasant doesn't happen as a result of moving toward the noise.

Ambushes - An ambush is the classic method of attack by the predator and the average horse in this situation will bolt in panic. Most horses will avoid stepping on humans, but a horse fleeing an ambush is running blind. A human in the way may not even be seen. Do you have to do so for each type of stimulus, or can you harden a horse against all things at once? The horse will go around, over, or through anything in its path to get away from the point of danger. The horse will run only until it has put what it feels to be a safe distance between itself and the danger source. It will then stop and look, listen, and smell for possible pursuit. If no further pursuit is forthcoming, the horse will usually begin grazing or it may decide to head in the direction of "home". "Home" equals safety to a horse. This is why panicked horses in a fire will run back into a burning barn. Home is safety, even if it is not. A rider or handler can control a horse under ambush conditions, but it takes a lot of skill to be able to override the flight instinct.

Unpleasant Smells (blood, smoke, etc.) - Once the location of the smell is located, the average horse will avoid going near it. A skilled rider/handler will be able to convince the horse to approach, but the animal will be on edge and alert for the slightest sign of danger.

Q: Do most horses react the same way? Is there actually a range of reactions?

A: All horses have the same basic instincts, but there can be a great range of reactions depending on training, life experiences, and personality. For example, a horse who was once frightened while crossing a bridge will be reluctant to cross bridges in the future. A horse that has been beaten by a former master might very well be defensive or vicious when interacting with all humans going forward. Alternatively, if the cruel former master was male, the horse may be an angel toward women and girls, but the devil itself to any male that dares come near. A horse whose first master kept sugar cubes in his shirt pocket to offer as a treat when he went to saddle up in the morning is not only going to enjoy being saddled, but will have a tendency to want to check out everyone's shirt pocket for possible goodies. A horse that managed to escape from a barn fire will likely have a greater than average fear of fire and smoke.

It's probably safe to say that average horses have similar personalities, have had similar handling/training, and similar experiences. This is what makes them "average". Therefore, they will tend to react similarly. The average horse will react as described above to various situations. They will perform as their master requests (Within reason. The master might want them to jump a 40' wide ravine, but the average horse will refuse.), but will not expend more effort than necessary to do the job and will stop if fatigued, unless they are forced to continue.

Q: What advice would you have in helping a GM decide how a mount might react to various events that could happen in a game?

A: The morale level is a good mechanic to use. Horses, unless highly trained will have poor morale. The horse is not interested in "winning" or "victory". To the horse not being eaten today is a win. Anything that accomplishes that with the least danger is a good thing. Honor, reputation, etc. are not horse concepts. "Run away live to eat and breed another day" is the horse credo. There are exception, but they are few enough in number to ignore in game.

To an unfettered horse a threat is to be moved away from, not fought. A held horse fights only to escape if it feels threatened. With the exception of predators seeking food, animals will not willingly engage in combat unless they feel there is no other option. Horses are no exception.

For game mechanics training raises the morale of the horse.

Q: How do you train a horse to overcome its fear?

A: The goal of such training is to teach the horse that the sound, object, or situation that is the source of the fear will cause no harm. Horses are capable of reasoning a problem through and they have excellent memories. The training will work provided the problem is presented in small steps and in a manner the animal can understand.

Rules to follow when training horses:

  1. The horse should not be held so tightly that it cannot take a step back.
  2. Always work under the horse's panic level. A panicky horse is not thinking and will not learn anything. If the horse starts to become fearful, back the stimulus down a step, let the horse relax, then try again.
  3. Use no punishment. You can be firm with the horse, but the horse should never be punished for its fear. To do so will only confirm that it was right to be afraid in the first place.
  4. Your voice is very important. Keep it calm and quiet. Talk to the horse as it works through the problem.
  5. Avoid sudden movements. The horse will interpret such motion on your part as being indicative of danger.

The ideal way is to have a calm, experienced animal demonstrate that there is no danger.
Example: If crossing bridges is a particular problem, having someone on a horse that is calm on bridges lead the way is very effective. A pause in the middle of the bridge where the horses can stand side by side and the riders chat gives the nervous horse a chance to relax. It is comforted by the presence of the other animal and can make a firm connection between being on a bridge and having a pleasant experience. A few repetitions of this and the horse will be able to cross the bridge without fear.

Some methods of handling other situations:

Q: Do you have to do so for each type of stimulus, or can you harden a horse against all things at once?

A: You must treat each type of stimulus separately. To try to do everything at the same time will overwhelm the horse. For instance, you can introduce gunfire on week 1, floating balloons on week 2, sirens on week 3, blood smell on week 4, etc. You can begin combining stimulus gradually as the horse learns to accept each one. For example, a police horse might be work through the following course as a graduation exercise:

Q: What makes a horse more or less valuable? What factors could a GM add in to increase or decrease the value of a horse that's for sale or trade?

A: What market is the horse being aimed toward? When considering value, the best indicator is how well a given horse fits the needs of the buyer. A buyer looking for a gentle saddle horse for his Lady is not going to value that snorting warhorse over there, while an up and coming knight would value that same warhorse very highly. A farmer that can only afford one horse might be willing to pay a bit more for a horse that can be ridden and is also capable of pulling his plow and wagon, rather than buy a saddle horse to ride and a draft horse to pull the wagon and plow. People with very limited funds might be willing to take a horse with vices or physical defects since such animals will generally cost less.

There are certain things that all people want in a horse? The horse should visibly be in good health. It should be able to take in plenty of air which means a broad, deep chest (lung capacity), width between the jawbones, and the area where the jaw joins the neck should not be overly meaty (plenty of space for the windpipe). The head should be wide between the eyes (space for a large brain) with large eyes (the better to see with). Since the horse is a rear engine design, the hindquarters should be well developed. Clean legs (lumpy legs can be a sign of trouble) that are straight (crooked legs are prone to all sorts of problems) and healthy hooves are important. The overall appearance of the horse should be one of balance with no one part more or less developed than the rest. The horse should move out freely with no sign of lameness.

There are some things that are considered faults in one type of horse, but not another. Cow hocks is a good example. A cow hocked horse has hocks that point in toward one another. This is an undesirable trait for a saddle horse, but not for a draft horse as it allows the draft horse to pull weight more efficiently. Another example is straight pasterns. Straight pasterns are inefficient shock absorbers that make for a very uncomfortable riding animal, but they are acceptable, if not desirable, in a carriage horse.

Beyond the basic conformation, and what is desirable for the breed type, other things that affect the value of a horse are its training, virtues/vices, its accomplishments/ability, age, appearance, and pedigree. A well trained animal is worth more than one that is untrained or poorly trained. A horse that habitually bites or kicks will be worth less than one that does not. If you're in the market for a good hunter, a horse that jumps well is going to be worth more to you than one that can't. A horse that could out-pull anything in its weight class in its prime, but is now in the last years of its life is not going to be worth as much as its ability can no longer be utilized. A very young horse may be worth less than an animal in its prime because its potential has not been proven. On the other hand, someone may be willing to pay a great deal for that unproven yearling if its sire and/or dam are known to produce outstanding foals.

A good pedigree can be considered brownie points in a young, unproven horse. It is of less importance in the case of an aged stallion or mare that can be expected to be able to produce a few more foals. In the case of aged breeding stock, the known qualities of their previous foals are more important. For geldings, a pedigree is only worth bragging rights to the owner as a gelding cannot breed.

Appearance is the most subjective of the criteria. It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In many societies a horse with too much white is considered undesirable, but to a Gypsy they are beautiful. Blue eyes on a dark horse crop up occasionally and are quite startling looking if you've never seen them before. Some people don't like the look and some consider them weak (untrue), but other people like them, or at least don't mind them. Double dilutes (pale cream all over with blue eyes) are viewed as "ugly" by some, while to a breeder of palominos they are worth their weight in gold. A double dilute bred to a chestnut will produce 100% palominos. This is one area the GM can play with quite a bit. What does that area of the world like or dislike? Do the locals have any beliefs regarding certain colors or markings? In the Arabic world, bay horses are believed to be sturdier than other colors, while chestnuts are believed to be faster than other colors, etc. A horse with socks on the three legs other than the left fore is considered lucky, but a horse with socks on all four feet is considered bad news.

Q: What tricks can a horse be taught? Can a horse come to you if called? What's the maximum range?

A: To give you an example of what some horses are capable of Miniature Horses (36" & under) are currently being trained in some areas as seeing eye and service animals. It takes longer to train them than dogs, but once trained they are just as capable of doing the job. They have the advantage of a longer service life and they are stronger than dogs. If their person is able to hang on to the harness, a Mini has the ability to pull them away from a dangerous situation with ease. (The Guide Horse Foundation) Horses can be taught to sit down, bow, play dead, shake hands, count (you signal when to start and stop), attack or kick on command, roll over, and rear when cued. I have seen horses trained to line dance with their families, horses that love to chase and catch thrown Frisbees, and horses that will open a rural mailbox and place an envelope inside. They can be taught to bring something to you and come when called. The list goes on.

A horse cannot do what a horse cannot do. No horse could be taught to whistle for example. Horses don't whistle. Anything that is within the capacity of a horse they can be taught to do on command. We recommend old westerns (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers) for horse tricks. A good look at the "airs above the ground" performed by the Spanish Riding school will show some of the extreme things horses can do. Every one of them useful in the kind of battle fought in the 17th and 18th century.

Q: What will horses do if left unattended? Is there an order of actions they'll attempt to perform or does it vary by unique, individual horse?

A: Horse priorities:

  1. Move away from any danger. Preferably in the direction of "home".
  2. If alone, look for other horses in the immediate area. If you locate any, try to join the herd.
  3. Graze. If there is nothing to eat in the immediate vicinity, move to an area that does.
  4. Keep an eye open for predators.

This is what your average horse will do if left unattended and unrestrained. As they move in search of fodder and companionship they will tend to steer a course toward what they consider to be home.

Horses can be trained to stay put for short periods of time and they will do so unless frightened. However, even in the case of a trained animal, leaving them unattended for more than a few minutes will usually result in them wandering.

Q: Any other horse GM advice?

A: Keep in mind that a horse is an animal. They are highly intelligent animals, but animals none the less. A truly malicious horse is rare. They do not have human priorities and a good horse trainer will realize this. Like dogs, you cannot train a horse like you would train a person. You have to use the horse's priorities to you advantage. To not do so is to have them at your disadvantage.

To the GM specifically, I urge you not use the horse to punish players. If the player is seeking more input into the horse in game that I would think was a good thing. they are getting into their role as a character that is concerned with horses. they are seeking reaction from the creatures they are interacting with.


Copyright © Garry & Susan Stahl: October 2004. All rights reserved, re-printed with permission.
Edited for spelling and format by Bryan Rutherford.  The original article can be found HERE.
This article is not open gaming content.