Travel: Animals

160222reindeerFrom the grand howdah-backed elephant to the plodding pack pony, from the solitary stallion to the caravan of a thousand camels, animals are often a part of how our characters get around. In previous entries to the travel series we’ve considered small and large groups traveling on foot. This time we bring animals into the mix.

Animals can be useful for travel, but they also bring their own challenges with them. The first thing we need to consider is what kinds of animals are useful for long-distance travel. Then we’ll look at the three main ways of using animals for travel: riding, pack, and draft. Finally, a word on the care and feeding of transport animals. As usual in this series, we are looking at real-world history: no griffins or dragon-drawn chariots. Take the information here and adjust as necessary for whatever setting you happen to be writing.


Not all animals are suitable for transportation. To be useful, an animal has to be large and strong enough to carry a person or a substantial amount of cargo over distance. More than that, it has to be trainable to take commands and cover long distances with a minimum of fuss.

Carnivorous animals are generally too difficult to maintain and too resistant to training. Dogs are the main exception, although their carrying capacity is limited. Animals that are not naturally social tend not to fare well in domestication as they lack the instincts for maintaining order within a large group. Animals whose natural response to threat is to fight rather than flee are also difficult to manage.

Many animals, like zebras, moose, and ostriches, can be trained to carry a rider or pull a cart and have historically been used as novelties, but are either too difficult to train or too expensive to maintain to be of any widespread use. Only a few animals are suitable for common use in transport. These include (but are not limited to): horses, cattle, camels, llamas, donkeys, yaks, reindeer, and elephants. (Diamond, 61)


Horses, camels, donkeys, yaks, and elephants are all routinely used as riding animals. They are large and strong enough to carry a person and travel long distances. Horses are historically the most widely-used riding animals and have been bred over time specifically for the purpose.

Most breeds of horse can gallop at speeds of up to 48 km/h over short distances and those specifically bred and trained for racing can reach speeds near 70 km/h in short bursts, but these speeds cannot be maintained over more than a few kilometers. At a more sustainable trot, most horses can maintain a speed of 10-13 km/h over long distances. To avoid injuring or overstraining riding horses, they must be given periods of rest: five to ten minutes for every hour of travel and a longer halt for feeding every two to three hours. (Army Veterinary 137) Cavalry forces in the ancient world traveling at their own pace detached from infantry or supply trains could routinely cover 70-80 km in a day. (Engels 153-5)

Although the fastest horses are faster than most other riding animals, the average long-distance traveling speeds for camels, donkey, yaks are similar to horses’. Elephants are different. Because of their enormous size they cannot gallop; they can achieve speeds of up to 24 km/h in short bursts but a maintainable speed is closer to 7 km/h.


Any animal strong enough to carry a person can also carry loads of cargo and baggage. Smaller animals can also be used to carry lighter loads. All riding animals are widely used as pack animals, but oxen, reindeer, mules, llamas, and water buffalo are also commonly used and some smaller animals like dogs and goats have seen limited use as pack animals.

Animals, like people, can carry very heavy burdens only for short periods before exhausting themselves. Long-distance packing requires carefully adjusting the weight of cargo to an animal’s capacity. As a very general rule of thumb, you can expect a pack animal to carry around 25% of its body weight in cargo over long distances, although some animals can carry more and some less. Horses and camels can usually manage about 30% of their weight while mules and donkeys can manage loads up to 35%. (Department of the Army 1) Reindeer manage loads of around 20% of their weight. (Nickul 29) An average horse of around 450 kg can carry about 140 kg of weight. A 550 kg camel can carry about 165 kg.

When loaded down with packs and going long distances, these animals generally move at not much more than 5 km/h, around average walking speed for a human. (Goldsworthy 293)


Animals that can carry packs can also be used to pull carts, wagons, sledges, and other vehicles. Horses, oxen, reindeer, camels, donkeys, elephants, goats, water buffalo, and even large dogs, among other animals, have been used for draft, but horses and oxen have historically been favored where available: horses for speed and oxen for strength. Other animals are preferred in certain environments (reindeer in the arctic, goats and dogs in mountainous areas) or for particular jobs (elephants for logging, since they can not only pull logs along the ground but also lift them with their trunks).

For traveling fast, a light cart or chariot pulled by horses over fair roads can match the speeds of a rider on horseback. Traveling by carriage may be preferable to riding as being in the saddle all day can be exhausting. Although many early chariots were designed for use in war, they are also documented being used for long-distance transportation and travel by horse-drawn carriage was common across large parts of the world until the twentieth century. (Homer, Odyssey 475-98)

Early harnessing techniques used on horses put pressure on the animals’ throats and prevented them from pulling with their full strength, so horses were not always suitable for pulling heavy loads. The development of the horse collar in China in the 5th century CE made it possible for horses to pull effectively without injuring themselves. (Needham 28)

Even when properly-harnessed horses have been available, they have not always been favored for pulling heavy loads. Other animals, notably oxen but also elephants, yaks, and water buffalo, while not fast, are very strong and well-suited to pulling heavily-laden wagons or sledges.

The amount of weight an animal can pull depends on many factors, but especially the nature of the terrain and the type of vehicle. Animals pulling wheeled vehicles over smooth, level terrain can move the greatest weight. Covering rough ground or pulling a weight without wheels demands more of the animals and they can consequently pull less. Another very general rule of thumb: under good conditions, draft animals can pull roughly 15% of their body weight over a sustained working day of eight hours. Oxen can pull a little more. Donkeys and mules can pull closer to 25% of their weight, but only for about four hours a day. (Schmitz D 1.2) Under favorable conditions, a typical ox of about 1,000 kg can pull about 180 kg of weight at 4 km/h for a working day of eight hours. A 450 kg horse can pull about 70 kg at about the same speed. (Goldsworthy 293)

The advantage of draft over pack animals is their ability to pull loads too heavy for pack animals or human bearers when harnessed together in a team. Despite some urban legends to the contrary, teams of animals hitched together lose some pulling efficiency rather than multiplying their power. The pulling power of a team of animals can be estimated by adding together the weight that each individual animal could pull and subtracting 7% of the total for each animal beyond the first. Thus a team of four oxen can pull loads of around 575 kg. (Goe and MacDowell 13) The disadvantage of draft animals is that they cannot handle rough terrain, while pack animals can go more or less wherever humans can.

Care and feeding

Animals doing heavy work all day, just like humans under the same conditions, need plenty of food and rest. Large animals can move significant amounts of cargo, but they also eat significant amounts of food and a working animal cannot sustain itself just by grazing. Any group traveling with animals will have to either find food for their animals along their route or carry it with them.

The ratio between how much food an animal needs and how much cargo it can transport is relatively constant, regardless of the size of the animal: roughly 1 to 10. An animal that can transport 100 kg of cargo needs 10 kg of food a day to be able to remain in a useful condition. This means that finding new sources of food is essential for any large group traveling with animals. If a group of animals has to carry all of its own food, then it cannot last longer than ten days without resupply and every kg of fodder carried is a kg less of carrying capacity for anything else. (See the discussion of the same problem for large groups of people traveling on foot.) (Engels 128)

Few animals can work longer than eight hours a day without harming themselves. They also need a full eight hours of sleep and should spend the rest of the day resting or grazing for forage (if available). Small injuries that go untreated can fester and end up disabling an animal. It is critical to tend to working animals with as much care as working humans. (Army Veterinary)

Thoughts for writers

Working animals have disappeared from much of the industrialized world in the past century, but they are still part of daily reality for many people today just as they were for most of humanity in the past. If your stories are set in our own past or a world something like it, then animals are likely to be an important part of how people and goods get from one place to another, whether it’s a lone messenger on a swift saddle horse, a caravan of camels carrying silks and spices to distant markets, or a team of elephants dragging blocks of stone to the site of a new temple.

Since most of us in the developed world today no longer live day-to-day with working animals and transport systems that depend on them, in can be hard for us to know how to incorporate animals into our worldbuilding. As with the previous entries in the travel series, I hope the information gathered here is useful in offering some basic practical considerations to keep in mind as you invent new worlds for your characters to travel through.

More on travel:

Image: Traveling by reindeer, c. 1900 via Wikimedia


Army Veterinary Department, Great Britain. Animal Management. London, 1908.

Department of the Army. Special Forces Use of Pack Animals. Washington, 2004.

Diamond, Jarred. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Engels, Donald W. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Goe, Michael R. and Robert E. McDowell. Animal Traction: Guidelines for Utilization. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1980.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Roman Army at War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Homer, Odyssey.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954.

Nickul, Karl. The Lappish Nation. Bloomington: Inidiana University Press, 1977.

Schmitz, Heribert, et al. Animal Traction in Rainfed Agriculture in Africa and South America. Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1991.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


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