Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Sunlight and Air:
Feeding A Fictional Horse

By Mary K. Wilson

2002, Mary K. Wilson

Too many fictional horses exist on air and sunlight.  In countless stories, a horse and rider gallop for miles, without any thought being given to the horse's stamina and energy levels, both of which are directly related to good nutrition.  When it's time for war, these same steeds valiantly dive into the battle without worrying about enemy weapons, unless it's crucial to the plot.  Then, the poor horse dies in a big, heroic battle, and the rider finds another steed to abuse.

As with humans, good nutrition lies at the foundation of proper horse care.  Horses require food in large quantities to function properly.  The diet of a horse depends on its workload, its age, and its stage in life.

Most fictional horses work for a living.  Whether as a knight's mount, a plow horse, or a king's hunter, these horses exert large amounts of energy in the course of their daily lives.  A horse under light work may need only 1 to 2 pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight[1] and to 1 pound grain, if that much.  Given that an average horse runs from 1000 to 1200 pounds, your character is looking at feeding at a minimum 15-20 pounds of hay or forage a day.  This means if the horse is on the road, it will need to stop and graze at several intervals through the day.

A heavily worked horse will need 1 to 1 pounds of hay and to 1 pounds of grain a day (again per 100 weight).  Grains can be as simple as a mixture of oats and corn for a country character to an elaborate version of sweet feed that is fed to horses today.

Sweet feed, a staple in many barns, is a mixture of oats, corn, and other grains laced with molasses.  When a fresh bag of sweet feet is opened, the sweet aroma smells good enough for humans to eat.  Some manufacturers add pellets containing nutritional supplements to their sweet feed.

Mares in foal and weanlings need even more food than described above, while horses "out to pasture" need less.

Other foods such as beet pulp, milk products, and corn syrup can be added to the grain mixture to give it a different taste or to form a special mixture.  A king's barn may feed horses as lavishly as a show barn would do today.  Barn managers and grooms also carry with them their special recipe for bran mashes and other delicacies to improve the condition of a horse. 

Your character should also keep in mind the cost of feeding a horse.  If he travels and doesn't carry his own feed, then he will need to purchase it at the inns where he stables his horses.  Most inns should keep a "house blend" of horse feed on hand, but just like full-service boarding barns, they will charge a premium price.

A horse in campaign most likely will be fed from the ration wagon, which will carry feed for horse in{should this be "horse AND rider"?} rider, and on a farm, the farmer will keep some stock of grains on hand to feed the horses.

Can a horse exist on sunlight and air?  If it is properly explained through the particulars of a fantasy world, I don't see why not, but keep in mind that real horses need real food.


[1] The Horse by Evans, Borton, Hintz, Van Vleck, page 261.  A highly recommended book for anyone interested in writing extensively about horses (or who owns one).  This was my college textbook for a Genetics & Horsebreeding class, but this volume covers much more than that.