Some of them possess the told, a four-beat gait similar to a walk, but much faster, and it can be as fast as a gallop! And then there's the flying pace, a bi-lateral gait where the horse moves the fore and hind legs on one side at the same time.
These horses are unlike any other equine in the world: they withstand -70 degree temperatures without freezing to death. This means that these horses have adapted to the freezing of that region in just 800 years (the Yakut's migrated there in the 13-15 TH centuries), a relatively short time, in terms of evolution.
This is truly amazing as it implies that all traits now seen in Caution horses are the product of very fast adaptive processes, taking place in about 800 years. That shows how fast evolution can go when selective pressures for survival are as strong as in the extreme environment of Yakutsk.
In their research, they found that the Yakut horse’s adaption to their environment took place through a “massive reprogramming of gene expression.” “We also found genes that were reported to have undergone selection in other Arctic populations, such as indigenous Siberian humans, and even the woolly mammoth,” said Dr. Orlando.
Answer: Horses are much better adapted to the cold weather than we give them credit for. They grow an excellent winter coat that insulates them and keeps them warm and dry down to the skin.
In the fall they put on extra weight, so they have fat reserves to burn to keep warm in the winter. This is the reason our domestic horses (dogs, cats and humans, too) always seem to get fat in the fall.
In winter the main food available is roughage, dead or dormant grasses and weeds. Roughage, and that includes hay, actually helps warm the horses because it releases heat as it is digested.
(Unfortunately, we have fed our domestic horses well during the winter, so they do not need all that spring grass because they can founder or at least get obese.) Most have plenty of hay to keep them warm on a cold day and most have shelter from the wind and rain (either in the woods, shed or barn).
It is good to give them more hay on a cold night, or at least the choice to eat more. But if your horse is in and the barn is closed up and it's 40 degrees inside, he does not need extra hay.
His body heat is not escaping; if his fur did not work the snow would melt immediately. The blanketed horse has the same amount of unrelated snow on his back as the blanketed one.
Eventually since the horse is warmer than the frozen ground the snow will melt on both of them. The problem we humans have when we pat our horses in the winter is that they feel cold to touch, but this is because their fur has insulted them and is keeping all the warmth next to the skin.
Horses can have icicles hanging off their fur and be perfectly warm underneath. In nature those old horses would have been eaten by a mountain lion, so they would not need a blanket.
Horses who have been sick, are too thin, have been rescued or have any other health problems may need blankets. Some individuals of any age are cold featured and really do need to be blanketed, as do horses who have no shelter.
You can stick your hand under the blanket and if it is toasty and warm, it is heavy enough for the weather. Please do not get a great fitting outer blanket and add an old-fashioned design sheet underneath.
The sheet does not add much warmth, and it usually rubs the shoulders and causes a lot of pain. If you choose to blanket and start early in the season you will need to keep it up, since the horse will adapt to wearing it, and his temperature regulation will be accustomed to it.
A vet friend of mine visiting early one December from Vermont remarked that the horses she saw in Virginia had many more layers of blankets on in December than her clients' horses had on in Vermont in January. Vermont's owners are accustomed to the cold, so they expect their horses to be adapted as they are.
Horses who are cold tend to huddle up in a sheltered place and may not be willing to go out into the pasture area even to eat hay to keep warm. Horses really appreciate some sort of shelter on those wet days, so they can dry off a bit and get warm.
Sweat adds moisture from the skin out, which means the dry fluffy fur cannot work. Heavy winter coats do not dry easily, since the fur is very dense and is designed to not let water penetrate (so that the horse can stay warm when it is raining).
Some horses, especially those with a partial clip, will sweat anyway under a blanket if not totally cool and dry. There is no perfect answer, but unclipped horses can end up with rain rot and skin infections when they sweat for hours and do not properly dry out.
There are some weather conditions in the far north where the freezing makes it very uncomfortable for man or beast to go out, but mostly that is because our pastures do not have enough space for natural wind breaks of deep gullies and forest, which would be present out on a 10,000 acre range. This article on matching horses to fiction is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series.
Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
Rachel Anneliese Chaney spent her childhood inhaling every scrap of horse information she could find and riding every equine she could climb on. Since adopting an ex-racehorse, she’s ridden, trained or cared for everything from Thoroughbreds to Quarter Horses, Drafts to Arabians, Warm blood jumpers to Paint barrel racers.
If you don’t know this terminology, check out the excellent horse articles by Amy McKenna & Earlier Hart! Matching your mount to your world and/or character is a trickier business and Hollywood will steer you wrong every time.
Using the wrong horse may seem like a little thing, but it will rip horse-knowledgeable readers right out of your story. Like dogs, humans developed horse breeds over centuries of selective mating.
So you’re writing a Medieval Fantasy and have armored warriors that need to charge into battle. You might be thinking they need a big horse, tough and muscled.
Contrary to popular belief, most armored knights did not use giant, heavy draft horses. Based on recovered equine armor and illustrations, knights’ mounts (known as chargers or destroyers) tended to be short to average height at 14-16hh tall and stocky.
Reason: If unhorsed, an armored warrior needed to be able to leap back on his mount. The smaller, stocky build is also better for sharp turns, kicks, rears and charges in the heat of battle.
The closest modern equivalent to the medieval charger: the Irish Draft. Horses for Long Treks The most common mistake I see in books, movies, and TV shows is the use of fine-boned horses on long treks, frequently Thoroughbreds.
When most people think of horses, the thoroughbred tends to be the default view of how they look, move and act. Like most thoroughbreds, DE Vedas and his buddies have lots of heart, so they would go on that long trek over the mountains and through the woods if asked.
If your character is going on a long trip, give them a sturdy mount, like the hardy Mongol horse. Or Napoleon’s small but intrepid Mango, an Egyptian Arabian, who carried the French dictator through the Alps.
The smaller horses may not be able to whisk your character away from danger or magnificently rear, but they’d laugh in the face of exhaustion or hazardous conditions. For hunting, a horse needed to be energetic enough to leap obstacles, fast enough to keep up with prey, and cool-headed enough to listen to its rider.
Thoroughbreds like this American Pharaoh are primarily bred for racing, but are highly versatile. After the rise of gunpowder weapons and the fall of armor, the physical conformation of cavalry horses shifted.
Instead of short, stocky chargers, cavalry mounts got taller and leaner. They had to be fiery enough to charge into the fray, nimble enough to get their riders out of lethal situations, yet calm enough to obey commands immediately.
If you find yourself describing your character’s horse as big and black with a flowing mane and tail and feathered feet: stop, collaborate and listen. They’re amazing animals, but they are NOT cart, commoner, or insane asylum carriage horses.
Misconception : Horses are hardy and can weather harsh climates. Reality : Horses are both surprisingly tough and exceptionally fragile.
Don’t pull a Game of Thrones and put heavy horses in there. In reality, those Frisians the Dothan ride across wastelands would likely die of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Most horses can weather cold temperatures (Pun intended. But if your setting features below zero temps, snowstorms, or persistent wintry conditions, you may need to consider going with a horse breed designed to live in freezing climates.
If your setting is mountainous, icy or subject to freezing temps, the best match for your world is a horse with strong hooves, thick muscles, and super fuzzy winter coat. If your setting doesn’t have extreme weather or unique terrain conditions, refer to the prior section on matching your mount to its purpose.
Nearly all breeds can survive just fine anywhere that doesn’t have extreme hot or cold. *points back to Game of Thrones Frisian* I don’t think I need to further explain why Hollywood’s wrong here.
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