Gaming The Horse – Part II

From Garry & Susan Stahl

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0242

A Brief Word From Johnn

#0242 Skipped A Week

Last week slipped through my fingers and there was no issue. My apologies! Hopefully you’ll find this week’s issue full of useful facts about horses and GMing tips.

Best Quote This Issue

This line from Ryan’s Leadership In Roleplaying tip made me chuckle. I hereby declare it the quote of Issue #242.

“Involve everyone. Just like a GM, a leader must make sure that everyone has a turn to be the hero. So, as a leader, rotate the death blower to different characters.”

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Gaming The Horse – Part II

The Greyhawke Campaign

This article continues on from Part 1, which appeared in Issue #241.
Part I can be found here: RPT#241 – Gaming The Horse

Below are some more facts and interesting GM tid bits that will hopefully allow you to referee horses in your games better and with more confidence.

Horse Traits

A given horse has a 25% chance of having “traits”, that is, behaviors that make it remarkable from the average horse. Some traits are desirable, others are not. Some have good points and others have bad points. In the rare cases of multiple traits use common sense. A Courageous horse would not also be Nervous.

      01-75 -- No Traits
      76-90 -- One Trait
      91-98 -- Two Traits
      99-00 -- Three Traits

Traits roll 1d4 and 1d8

      Table 1       Table 2        Table 3          Table 4
      1 Agile       1 Dullard      1 Loyal          1 Stayer
      2 Alert       2 Easy Keeper  2 Nervous        2 Steady
      3 Ambler      3 Fleet        3 Poor Doer      3 Strong
      4 Balker      4 Hard Mouth   4 Rears          4 Sullen
      5 Biter       5 Hardy        5 Restricted     5 Sure-footed
      6 Clumsy      6 Intelligent  6 Rough gaited   6 Unsound
      7 Courageous  7 Jumper       7 Runaway        7 Weak
      8 Cribber     8 Kicker       8 Smooth Gaited  8 Willing


The horse can stop and/or change directions very quickly and take jumps at speed. +10% on any dexterity check for the horse.


This horse notices things at once. He see and hears the environment, but does not panic. He notices and responds to the slightest cues. A handler that is in tune with the horse adds 5% to his own spot or “notice” checks. Any rider has a 10% plus to his horsemanship rolls on this horse. An Alert horse makes you look good.


A horse that can amble has an extra gait other than the usual walk, trot, canter, and gallop. It is a gait that is extremely comfortable for both horse and rider. An ambling horse can cover a great deal of ground at a rapid rate (12 miles per hour) without tiring. The gait is smooth enough that the rider can balance a full glass of wine on their head without spilling a drop. An Ambling horse can travel at trot speeds with walk fatigue levels.


The horse will refuse when asked to perform ordinary tasks within its ability. The horse may simply stand rooted to the ground, back up, or even sit down. Such an animal can usually be persuaded to do the job, but it will be a battle of wills and strength between the animal & handler. A balker requires horsemanship checks at any new task and at a 10% penalty.


The horse will unpredictably bite whoever is within reach for no reason even though the person being bitten may be doing nothing more than feeding the animal.


The horse seems to have four left legs. They will back into things, stand on handlers’ feet, or trip over thin air when walking. They tend to have many scrapes, scratches, and patches of missing hair. This horse subjects the rider to a -10% penalty on horsemanship checks for any activity other than straight and level riding.


The horse displays great boldness and determination. Such a horse will go into dangerous situations without fear. When faced with a potential enemy, the horse will prepare to fight rather than flee. Providing the horse doesn’t sense danger, unusual sights, smells, or sounds are things to be investigated. As with the willing horse, the courageous one will tax itself to the point of utter exhaustion and beyond if the handler does not control it.

It will show no signs of fatigue, but will gallop on until it drops dead or will continue to try to perform despite wounds or broken limbs, and will actually fight the handler’s efforts to restrain it. A courageous horse never checks for morale or fatigue.

(The GM should make normal fatigue and/or wound checks, and when the horse fails sufficient checks to drop dead, it drops. The rider gets no warning unless they inquire as to the status of their horse.)


This is a vice usually brought on by boredom. The horse chews the top of its stall wall or fence & swallows air. It is a difficult vice to cure, but the behavior can be curbed with the use of a muzzle or cribbing collar. Not only do they damage their surroundings, cribbers are prone to colic and bloat due to the air they swallow. Cribbers will suffer a 20% penalty in disease checks when stabled for any length of time (over 3 days).


This horse is lights on, no one home. His mind, if he has one, is on something else. Once you get his attention he is willing enough, but that loose mind keeps wandering. A Dullard takes 20% more time and effort to train. They impose a 5% penalty on horsemanship checks. A Dullard is not a safe animal as they are usually the first ones the predator gets. They give the rider no clues to the environment.

Easy Keeper

The horse has no trouble staying at a good weight and glossy coat with minimal feed and care. A handler must be careful not to over-feed as an easy keeper is prone to fat. An easy keeper requires 10% less time and money to maintain.


If the horse is a saddle horse it will be an exceptionally fast runner. If the horse is a carriage horse it will be an exceptionally fast trotter. Fleet horses are 10% faster at all gaits.

Hard Mouth

The horse’s mouth has been made insensitive by misuse of the bit and reins. Such animals are difficult to steer or stop without the use of a very severe bit. Horsemanship checks on this horse are made at a 10% penalty. It isn’t unwilling, it just can’t feel the cue.


This horse is tough. Circumstances that would break another animal are to him a challenge to overcome. He has bones of ivory and muscles of steel cord. A hardy horse makes all health or injury checks at a 10% bonus.


This could be a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view. An intelligent horse has a strong sense of self-preservation. If they feel a shoe loosen they will refuse to go any further until the shoe has been fixed. If they detect danger they will not willingly proceed into the situation. Novice handlers may mistake this for stubbornness, while experienced handlers will recognize it as good common sense.

It is difficult to force such a horse to move toward the danger. However, a well-loved and trusted handler can often convince the animal to go on despite the horse’s natural instincts. Intelligent horses make poor war horses. (Go THERE? Things are getting KILLED in there boss.) Intelligent horses tend to get bored easily.

If they are confined for too long without sufficient work to do, they will INVENT things to amuse themselves (digging a hole in the stall, grabbing objects within reach and flinging them about, etc.) Such boredom can be avoided by giving the horse plenty of work to do and/or providing a toy for the animal to play with.

These horses can be taught 2-8 tricks. If not taught tricks they can develop them on their own. Be careful what you teach them.


The horse can jump higher and further than other horses. The jumper can clear 20% greater height or length than the average horse.


The horse will kick anyone within range given half a chance.


The horse will obey only one master. It will do everything within its power to return to that master if stolen or sold. Should the master fall, the horse will stay by the master’s side and protect him/her. The horse will actively attack anyone or anything threatening its master. Such an animal will obey no other person unless that person is known by the animal to be important to its master. The horse’s loyalty can be transferred to another master, but it will be several weeks or months work on the part of both people.


The horse sees enemies around every corner and in every bush. It is very much of the opinion that everything is guilty until proven innocent. It is also of the opinion that everything is out to get it. A leaf that suddenly skitters across the horse’s path is sufficient cause to jump sideways or backward. Unusual sounds or smells will cause the animal to sweat and tremble with fear.

The animal may bolt in panic or stand fearfully depending on its relationship with the handler. A trusted handler will be able to get the horse to move past its fear with patience. Horsemanship checks are required at any new incident.

Poor Doer

Opposite of easy keeper. The horse always seems to be underweight and have a poor coat despite adequate feed and care. They can be improved with feed supplements and diligent grooming. The condition can be caused by internal parasites and/or bad teeth. This horse will cost 10% more time and money than a normal animal to keep in good condition.


The horse will attempt to avoid work by rearing. A handler on the ground will usually be threatened by waving front hooves. A rider may find themselves in the dirt if they are not ready for the behavior. In some extreme cases, the horse will deliberately throw itself over backward with a rider on its back. Horsemanship tests are required to ride this animal.


This horse, through flaws in conformation or due to old injury, cannot move as easily as other horses. He suffers a 20% penalty in speed and jumping ability.

Rough gaited

The horse rides like it has five legs, or like you are sitting on a jackhammer. The rider will become overly fatigued on this horse and really nothing can be done about it. Break him to harness. A variation is the horse is rough gaited in only one gait, such as the trot, but easy to ride at the walk, canter, or gallop.


The horse will attempt to avoid work by bolting at top speed. Such an animal must be kept on a tight rein to avoid the behavior. They will be difficult to stop once they get going and a novice handler is likely to find themselves sitting in the dirt.

Smooth Gaited

The horse has only the normal gaits, but is more comfortable than usual to ride. The rider suffers less fatigue from riding this horse.


This horse take unusual sight, sounds, and smell with utter equanimity. You could run a marching band and full fireworks display past him and he yawns and wonders what’s for dinner. (grain… my favorite…) This horse will take his cues from his handler or rider. If the “herd leader” is fine, he is fine. This horse ignores “horsey” fear checks in the presence of a human he trusts, and will only “fail” other checks if his rider/handler does.


The horse has exceptional stamina. It will go a third longer than a normal horse before requiring fatigue checks.


All horses are strong, but some are stronger than most. A horse with this trait can haul a lot of weight for its size. A strong horse can haul or carry 10% greater load than average horses.


The horse has a bad attitude. It must be forced to perform and then the performance will be lackluster with pinned ears and clamped tail. What work is done will be done with the least amount of effort the horse can get away with. Every command to the horse requires a will or horsemanship check. The horse will be 10% less able in all categories of performance even if it does move.


This horse can keep its feet in difficult circumstances such a mud, ice, or loose ground that would cause other horses to stumble. Sure-footed horses have a 10% bonus to any dexterity check.


This horse has a tendency to go lame with any hard work. Any effort that requires a fortitude or constitution check requires an additional check to see if the horse goes lame. A lame horse cannot be ridden or draw a load without risking a total breakdown that will effectively destroy the animal. Each episode of lameness will require 1d4 weeks of rest and care to correct. The horse must be maintained as if working to simulate the vet visits and treatments.


A weak horse is still strong, but for physical reasons cannot carry the load an average horse can. A Weak horse can carry or pull 10% less for their size than an average horse.


The horse will do its very best to obey its handler’s commands, even if it doesn’t quite understand what’s being asked of it. The handler of such an animal must be careful what they ask their horse to do. If being asked to gallop for an extended period of time, the horse will slow as it becomes fatigued, but it will continue to gallop if the rider insists.

If asked to jump a fence too tall for it, the horse will show reluctance to do so, but will make its best attempt at the rider’s insistence. Such a horse will tax itself to the point of utter exhaustion to try to fulfill its handler’s wishes. A willing horse requires no horsemanship tests even for the most difficult tasks, except to determine if the rider stays in the saddle.

Horse Reactions

What reactions can horses have to various events, such as ambushes, the smell of blood, or loud noises?

Foul Smell
For unpleasant smells such as blood or smoke, 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.

Loud Noise
The horse will startle and look, smell, and 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.

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. 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.

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

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. The average horse will not expend more effort than necessary to do the job and will stop if fatigued, unless they are forced to continue.

For deciding how a mount might react to various events that could happen in a game, 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 exceptions, 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.

Horse Fear

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

Lead the horse toward the object. Lead him around the object in both directions so that he has a good look at the thing. Touch and pat the object yourself to demonstrate that the thing poses no threat. Encourage the horse to touch the object and smell it thoroughly. If it is a small object pick it up and offer it to the horse to investigate. Once the horse seems to lose interest in the object, you can:

  1. If the object is large and immobile, mount the horse and ride it around the thing in both directions.
  2. If the object is small, touch the horse’s shoulder with it. Rub him with the object and run it over his body and neck. Tap him with it gently. If the object does something unusual (like an umbrella opening) make it do whatever it does in full sight of the horse and let the horse check it out thoroughly again. Put it back the way it was originally and make it do its unusual thing again. A couple of repeats should be all it takes.

You should have no trouble with this type of object after this. The horse now knows that such a thing poses no threat and will be accepting of it.

The key to this one is to introduce the sound gradually. A helper makes the sound some distance away while you pat and talk to the horse. You treat the sound as nothing special. When the horse stops reacting to the distant sound, have the helper move a bit closer and repeat. The horse will eventually reach the point where it can be standing right next to the source of the noise without fear. A horse that is used to gunfire will also be calm when faced with a backfiring car or a brick hitting a steel wall. Any sound can be introduced the same way.

Smells can be done in the same manner as sounds. Start with the smell at a distance and gradually move it closer.

When training an animal not to fear things, 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:

  • Walk around and between construction sawhorses with helium balloons tied to them.
  • Go through hanging curtains.
  • Go past a fire in a trash can.
  • Walk into a crowd of humans waving large signs and shoulder them aside.
  • Stand still while the rider fires a pistol.
  • Go between squad cars with their lights and sirens on.

Horse Trading

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?To answer these questions during the game, first ask 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 saddlehorse 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. A well trained animal is worth more than one that is untrained or poorly trained.
  • Virtues/vices. A horse that habitually bites or kicks will be worth less than one that does not.
  • Accomplishments/ability. 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.
  • Age. 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.
  • Pedigree. 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. 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.

Horse Tricks

What tricks can a horse be taught? Can a horse come to you if called?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.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.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 can be taught to the average horse. 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.

Unattended Horses

What will horses do if left unattended (i.e. their master is busy in the dungeon)? Is there an order of actions they’ll attempt to perform or does it vary by individual horse?

Horse priorities are:

  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.

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Last bit of advice:

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 your 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 then I think this is a good thing. The player is getting into their role as a character that is concerned with horses, and they are seeking reaction from the creatures they are interacting with.