Handling Horse-flesh

High quality items are always preferred over average or low quality ones. Most of the time, we ignore quality, unless it is something like a lock or armor or something along those lines. One of the most overlooked aspects of the game where quality is important, is horseflesh. Horses are typically taken for granted, and just something that the players use to get better movement rates or gain a higher status, but what if we really focus on quality? Why a good war-horse is practically a magical item, if one can truly acquire it, which won’t be easy.

Today, I’ll be doing some mixing. Mixing Core Rules with Optional and my own Home-Brewed rules which you might like, and put into your own games, or simply ignore. Much of this is optional, just something to make the game more interesting and colorful. If this isn’t your bag, then just consider all horses to be of average quality and just leave it at that! But once you start getting bored, and wanting a bit more out of the game, then this is a perfect way of making things more interesting.


Living out here in the country, one of the simplest pleasures is going horse-back riding. Horses are beautiful animals, and I have a true fondness for them. If you have never gone horseback riding, I strongly recommend doing some true research, heading out to a ranch and do some riding of your own. It doesn’t cost all that much, and it is a wonderful past time. It’ll teach you what it is like to be bonded with an animal, even temporarily, and introduce you to some of the personalities which horses have.

In D&D there are different kinds of horses, and they only do what they are listed as. Work Horses pull carts and wagons, they won’t be saddled and rode individually. Riding horses are trained to handle a saddle and a rider, they aren’t trained for battle or wearing armor, and they are easily spooked. War-horses are specially trained mounts that are highly skilled and there must be a deep relationship based on trust between the owner and the horse. The horse is literally trusting his life with the rider, this is not natural behavior. War horses are expensive and still require a lot of care and work on the owners part before they can truly benefit from owning such an animal.


Horses are not passive, and they always have opinions about everything. They also pick up bad habits which they’ll keep all of their lives. Stuff like chewing on fences and leads, nipping at people, bucking, kicking at anything that walks to close to its rear because it doesn’t like anything back there where it can’t see them.

There are some rules for determining a horses behavior, and they have to do with fixing a male horse. If you fix the horse, he will become much tamer, however the truly fast and spirited horses are stallions, meaning that they still have everything that God gave them. These horses are naughty and barely tame, but they are capable of great feats of strength and endurance. Stallions can run faster, and further then normal, as well as ignore more weight. Relationships with these horses takes a lot more work and patience then the average horse, and this includes others handling the beast. The horse is spirited because it is wild, the owner just excepts this and puts up with it, while folks who work in stables are likely to start beating it, which is cause for a fight between the owner and those he has hired to care for his mount.

Spurs and whips are never used with exceptional horses, those tools are used to break a horse, and we don’t want that! An owner who discovers cuts from spurs or spots somebody whipping his horse is likely to lose it and do the same thing to the person who dared treat his animal this way.

The DMG has a list of personality quarks which are actually quite thorough and accurate! I can’t think of anything else to add to them. For ease I’ll go ahead and talk about the traits. This stuff shouldn’t be chosen at random, the DM should just pick a couple and leave it at that.

There are two kinds of horses with undesirable behavior. Broken down horses (Poor Quality), and High Spirited horses (Exceptional Quality)


Nag, Broken-Down, & Average:
Steps on feet
Won’t gallop
Chews fences
Stops occasionally
Rubs against fences
Use High-Spirited

High-Spirited & Chargers
Single rider
Knows trick
Use other column, or DM choice*

*Other possibilities include robust, fleet, fearless, skittish, strong, stable, gentle, surefooted, etc.

Now much of this is self-explanatory, and the reason why it is suggested that the DM just pick them, instead of checking randomly, is because the traits should be something which the DM can live with. If you don’t enjoy heckling characters, or perhaps if you enjoy it too much, and might put a characters life in danger just for the heck of it, then you’ll probably want a trait that is more annoying then actually dangerous.

BITING: Biting is more nipping. If the player drops his guard, then the horse will get him. Usually a horse will just grab clothing and give it a tug, he’s trying to be funny, but sometimes he accidentally gets flesh, at which time he’ll rear up and back away terrified that the person bit is going to hit him. He is sorry for doing it, he didn’t mean to hurt you, but it won’t stop him from doing it again. Horses will bite when they are being lead, when they are being fed, and usually the first thing in the morning, just to say hi. They won’t bite all that much when being ridden. It is usually kept to their down time. High-spirited horses with this trait bite more often and might inflict some real damage accidentally; they will also bite everybody and every thing, which can get the rider into some trouble if the horse bites the wrong person.

Kicks: I already wrote about this above. This happens when somebody walks to close to the animal’s rear. He won’t do it on command, just when you aren’t being mindful. This behavior isn’t always malicious, though it can be, but usually it just doesn’t like anybody to be back there because he can’t see you. A High-Spirited horse with this trait will kick even harder then normal, and it will be treated as an attack with normal damage.

Steps on feet: This typically happens when you are brushing or saddling the horse, and it hurts like heck, but most of the time is completely harmless. I’m not sure if the horse means for this to happen or not, or if he just has trouble keeping still. They usually aren’t all that helpful when saddling or trimming their hooves either, and this kind of thing just kind of happens.

Won’t Gallop: This horse won’t run unless you make it, with a whip or spurs. They will also stop running for no particular reason. They will travel at their own speed. This kind of horse is popular with children, and demi-humans who hate riding horses to begin with. If you aren’t ready to go galloping, this can be a very terrifying experience for a rider.

Chews fences: This behavior starts because a horse isn’t fed correctly, and once it starts, it is almost impossible to break him of it. He chews and destroys fences, and other places where you tie him up at. He’ll also chew on leads if he isn’t wearing a bite and bridle. Of course, real food will always distract him from doing this, but once the food is gone, he’ll do this just to pass the time. It is a behavior stemmed by boredom, then to meet any real need.

Stops Occasionally: This never happens when danger is around, in fact, the horse can start to run away and ignore the rider’s commands completely. If it starts running blindly, then it is more of a danger to itself and to the rider then if the rider had control. More often then not, you’ll find this behavior with riding horses. They will just stop to rest or pick at some grass and ignore the rider completely. Some horses are just like this! It is more annoying then anything, and is a sign of an undisciplined and strong willed horse. Old nags also get this because they are in pain, or just tired of following orders, or possibly just to get some needed attention.

Rubbing against fences: They rub more then just fences. This is an attempt at humor or anger with the horse trying to rub the rider off of his back, but it also happens during leading when the horse inches closer and closer to the person leading him, and suddenly he finds himself being squished into something by the happily amused horse. Some horses think that this is funny as hell.

Bucks: This is also common, even in a well trained horse. The horse could be trying to shift its load, or relieve itself completely of it. It can also happen when something bites it, but a horse with this trait does it more often then average. The cool thing is that if the rider is alert, then he can feel the horse tighten up before he does it. Horses do this out of anger, and orneriness. They hate being ridden, but will only do it once or twice a day, if it can dislodge the rider then it knows that it is in trouble and will run around bucking and yelling until either it gets tired or until the rider can catch it and calm it back down. If the rider stays on, then the affair is over and the horse will forget that it ever happened. A high-spirited horse will be much better at bucking, and will do it more often (usually at very inopportune times which can be dangerous).

Untrained: This is a bad one. This horse is not saddle broken, and isn’t trained to do what a owner wants him to do. If he is packed with a burden, then he’ll just stand there until you take it off. If you try to put a saddle on him, he’ll freak out. An untrained horse is a serious grievance against the person who sold it to you. Perhaps the training was incomplete. The horse will take a saddle, but it has no idea what to do beyond that. It won’t gallop, or perhaps it will freak out and start to run and buck and go crazy. Unless a character is capable of training the horse himself, then he got ripped off and the horse is worthless to him; fit only to sell to somebody who can train the horse, or who is as stupid as they themselves were.

Traits of High Spirited Animals:As I said before, high-spirited horses have their own behaviors, and can get away with them because of what they are capable of. If you break them of this behavior, then they are broken and will not work as hard or be as free.

Bone-jarring: This horse moves at such speeds and so hard that it actually hurts to ride it. It is very bouncy, and brutal. Its movements are always fast, and it does everything at this speed, from eating to walking. Riding a horse of this kind requires your full attention, while traveling at high speeds, it is impossible to do anything but hold on or else you’ll fall off and injure yourself.

Single Rider: This horse will only allow 1 person to ride them, groom them, or do anything with them. It will take a lot of patience to earn this horse’s services, but once you’ve acquired it, it will be your friend for the rest of its life. Horse owners actually love this quality in a horse because it makes it really hard to steal.

Rears: Rearing is when a horse stands up on its hind legs. It is very intimidating to others, and can be a sign that the beast is going to run really really fast. All horses rear up, but a horse with this trait does it for no reason that the rider can discern. Like bucking, it does require some skill and luck to keep mounted, particularly if you weren’t ready or expecting it to happen. The horse can also rear up before you can get the saddle put on him, when this happens, and you don’t back away, the horse is allowed an attack. This typically happens when a horse gets excited and he has too much energy. The attack is an accident, but it does happen and it does do damage.

Headstrong: Headstrong horses do what they want to, and will give into their base desires. The horse could stop and eat, it could decide that it wants to gallop up ahead because it wants to be the lead horse, it will go right because it wants to investigate the mare when you want to go left, and it will always ask for an inch and take a mile. For the most part it will do what is expected of it, giving 150%, but it will get an idea in it’s head from time to time which the rider has no choice in.

Leaper: These horses are impossible to coral, they jump right over fences and there really isn’t anything that you can do about it; because the thing is fearless, if a fence is too high, he’ll still try and jump it and injure himself or get stuck. Stable workers, for obvious reasons, hate jumpers.

Knows a trick: A trick is a simple thing with the horse does automatically. Perhaps it always comes when the owner whistles, or it knows how to untie knots, attack folks it perceives as bad guys on verbal command, it is really up to the DM. This is a trick which is a part of the horses personality, and it will always do it.

There are other traits, but these are more then enough to work with, other traits can be a natural aversion to a specific race because it was beat and treated badly by someone of that race in the past, it can be totally skittish, constantly afraid and nervous of everything, or just the opposite, which can borderline a death-wish, refusing to retreat and carrying their hapless rider right into the thick of battle. Have fun with it!


Everybody can ride a horse, but those with the riding proficiency for horses are skilled enough to truly benefit from this system. A proficient person can spot a poor quality horse, and have a better chance of spotting one which is high-spirited, and only a proficient rider can ride a high-spirited horse, they will walk all over unskilled riders and end up injuring them. This proficiency should be checked every day while riding a high spirited horse for at least a month, failure results in an injury and another month of checks. Success means that you have mastered the horse and know its quarks and traits enough to avoid them. You can still role-play situations which lead to adventure or comedy of course, but for the most part, the horse is treated as average one.


Poor quality horses cost exactly the same as average horses, but are usually pushed on people to get rid of them. A good eye can spot a sagging back, or scrawny appearance, however it isn’t always this easy to spot a poor quality of horse until you get a chance to ride them for a while, but, like I said above, the proficient rider can typically spot these differences quickly enough and know enough about horse flesh to always get an average horse.

Nags, or weak runt horses are much slower then normal, they can only move up to 50% of the normal Movement Rate (MV) for average horses, and carry only 25% of the rates listed.

Broken-down horses are old or ill-treated horses which are injured or spent. They can move only up to 75% of their base MV and carry 50% of the weight listed under horses in the Monster Manual.

Average horses will perform normally, as described in the MM.

High-Spirited horses are typically kept out of view, and reserved for the owner or for royalty. They are double the price of the average horse, but can move 133% the MV in the MM, and carry and additional 25% more weight.

Chargers are even more special then high-spirited horses, having a MV 150%, and carry 133% capacity, but this all comes at a cost. A charger will cost you at least 4x the average price.


Actually buying a horse is a dangerous thing. People who sell them are liers and are just as seedy as used-car salesmen. They will lie about everything, from what a horse is good for (“Of course this is a war-horse, I mean look at that healthy tail!”) pushing low quality horses onto you, and pressuring you to buy quickly before the horse does something naughty. Stupid buyers should always walk away with an old nag, and the raw end of a bumbled haggling session, while careful buyers can usually find the best horse in the coral and haggle the price to a fair one.

Something else to consider when buying a horse is if it is stolen or not. Horse-theft has always been a dastardly act, usually punishable by death. Buying a horse outside of town for a too-good-to-be-true price can quickly get you killed. Taking another’s horse knowingly is just cause for arrest and death as well! Even if you acquire a good steed during combat, by killing his rider, he may not had been the true owner of the steed and you can still be charged with horse-theft. Not to say that a horse shouldn’t be treated as treasure, but if you would like to use this as a spring-board to further adventures then you are definitely within your rights as a DM.

The key to all of this is having fun. An ornery horse, a gallant steed, if these things don’t sound fun for you and your group, then ignore it, but if they do . . . well, HIGH OH SILVER!!!! AWAY! Bad joke, I know, but this is what you get for free entertainment.

ART BY Larry Elmore


Swordgleam said...

Thank you. As (for a long time) the only equestrian in my gaming group, this always frustrated me. "You do WHAT with your horse that you bought off some random peasant? Yeah, good luck with that. You should be eating dirt right about now." Finally, one of the guys in the group took riding lessons - and the way the party deals with horses has never been the same since. They all have names now, and personalities, and the characters care more about their own horses than they do about each other.

Helmsman said...

Very well done and informative. In the game I'm designing working on incorporating the behaviors and capabilities of animals has been a huge trial. This has been somewhat helpful.

Helmsman said...

Also your site looks really impressive. Cudos.

RipperX said...

My grandpa had a ranch, he loved horses and specialized in racing horse. My first job was cleaning stalls, and I actually loved it! I rode my first horse before I turned 3 years old, and have spent a lot of time around them. They are wonderful animals, and I still coo whenever I see a really good one.

Nope said...

Do you know of any traits and such for exotic animals?

RipperX said...

Oh, man. I'm not sure. It could be a good idea to come up with some. I know that sled dogs are really vicious, they attack anything that gets near them when they are resting. Wolves and such which Goblins use as mounts would no doubt be the same way. I can't imagine goblins really training or breading aggressive behavior out of them.

The more domesticated an animal is, the more normal it'll act. Giving things personality is an art! I don't think that I'd like it if an elephant stepped on my foot while I was grooming him. I'm not even sure what an elephants personality is like! It would be an interesting article, I think that it is way above my skill level to write about it, though.

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