What breeds of horses are best for extremely cold weather?

matching horses to fiction This horse-to-fiction article is part of the series Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy  A blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list  to be notified every time new content is posted.

The Expert: Rachel Chaney

Rachel Annelise Chaney spent her youth soaking up every bit of horse knowledge she could get her hands on and riding every animal she could get her hands on. Since adopting an ex-racehorse, she’s ridden, trained or cared for everything from Thoroughbreds to Quarter Horses, Drafts to Arabians, Warmblood jumpers to Paint barrel racers.

A reader and writer of SFF, Rachel currently languishes in the Eternal Pit of Revision. You ought to follow her on Twitter . Send coffee. Ignore frustrated screams.

Casting Horses in Fictional Worlds

If you’re on this blog, you care about getting your fictional horses right. Congrats! This puts you ahead of 90% of the people in Hollywood.  

The truth is that most authors get horse terminology (gaits, colors, equipment, etc.) correct. This is a universal truth. Truths that never change. Regardless of breed or worldbuilding, correct. If you don’t know this terminology, check out the excellent horse articles by Amy McKenna & Karlie Hart!

Matching your mount to your world and/or character is a trickier business and Hollywood will steer you wrong every time. Employing the incorrect horse may seem insignificant, but it will yank horse-savvy readers out of your tale. While penning your fantasy-land horses, keep the following three points in mind:

  • The horse’s use or purpose
  • The climate the horse lives in
  • Your character’s horse experience

Let’s Match-Your-Mount!

Matching Horses to Use

Misconception: Horses are all-purpose.

*stifles laughter* Reality: Um, no. Like dogs, humans developed horse breeds over centuries of selective mating. Each breed was created for a specific purpose.

The first step is to determine your horse’s purpose. Is that a knight’s mount? An over-rough-terrain horse to take your character on a trek? A nobleman’s hunter or a cavalry steed?

Each purpose takes a different kind of horse.

A Knight’s Horse


Clydesdales. Credit: Anheuser-Busch (probably)

So you’re writing a Medieval Fantasy and have armored warriors that need to charge into battle. You may assume they need a huge, tough, muscled horse. Maybe something like the Budweiser Clydesdales?

No, thank you. Contrary to common opinion, the majority of armored knights did not ride massive, hefty draft horses. Based on recovered equine armor and illustrations, knights’ mounts (known as chargers or destriers) 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. What about those 18hh drafts? It is not going to happen! A 15-horse? Absolutely!

The smaller, stocky build is also better for sharp turns, kicks, rears and charges in the heat of battle. The majority of draft horses are known as Gentle Giants. The battle-ready fire? It’s not their thing.

The Irish Draught is the closest contemporary approximation to the medieval charger.

Irish draught horse

Irish Draught Horse

Horses for Long Treks

Horse working

De Vedras Working

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, they think of thoroughbreds and how they appear, move, and behave. Thoroughbreds are fantastic. These are mine. These are fantastic. I don’t have any illusions about them.

Like most thoroughbreds, De Vedras and his buddies have lots of heart, so they would go on that long trek over the mountains and through the woods if asked. They would, however, lose weight, get hurt or dehydrated, and suffer from tiredness.

De vedras resting

20 minutes later

If your character is embarking on a long journey, provide them with a solid steed, such as the tough Mongol horse. Or Napoleon’s intrepid Marengo, an Egyptian Arabian who accompanied the French ruler into the Alps. The lesser horses may not be able to whisk your player away from danger or rear spectacularly, but they will laugh in the face of tiredness or dangerous situations.

Arabian horse

An Arabian

Hunting/Cavalry Horses

Do you still have a thing for thoroughbreds? Rejoice! Here’s their optimal placement.

Both hunting horses and post-Medieval cavalry horses shared similar job descriptions and necessary skills, so I’m lumping them together. A horse must be active enough to jump hurdles, swift enough to keep up with prey, and calm enough to listen to its rider.

American thoroughbred

Thoroughbreds like this American Pharaoh are primarily bred for racing, but are highly versatile. Barbara Livingston of the Daily Racing Form contributed to this report.

Warmblood horse

Sam, a warmblood, competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Thoroughbreds are stronger yet slower. Dirk Caremans of Hippo Foto is to blame.

The physical structure of cavalry horses changed with the development of gunpowder weapons and the collapse of armor. Cavalry mounts became taller and thinner, replacing short, stocky chargers. 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.

Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods are the closest contemporary parallels to these horses, since they participate in the equestrian disciplines that arose from cavalry training.

If you’re writing a nobleman’s hunter (from any era) or a for-pleasure mount or a Flintlock Fantasy, stick to thoroughbreds and warmbloods. They stand tall (15.2-18hh), are robust, quick, and nimble.

What You Learned From Hollywood

ADD A FRIESIAN TO IT. When a Friesian stole the show in Ladyhawke (1985), movie producers decided Friesians were the best thing since peanut butter. So they cast them now. Everything is included.

*exaggerated eye roll* No, no, no, no.

If your character’s horse is huge and black, with a flowing mane and tail and feathered feet: stop, collaborate and listen . Friesians are quite expensive. It’s always been like way. They’re amazing animals, but they are NOT cart, commoner, or insane asylum carriage horses. Consider Beauty and the Beast (2017).

The Bottom Line on Horse Use

  1. Is there a special purpose for your horse? Keep descriptions in line with the breeds intended for that.
  2. Give your commoner a Friesian instead. Don’t give anyone a Friesian unless they’re A) rich B) need a Warmblood.

Matching Horse to Climate

Misconception: Horses are tough and can withstand severe conditions.

Horses are both astonishingly robust and very frail. If your world features harsh or unusual climates, match your horses to that world.

Horses for Hot and Dry Climates

Are your characters traversing a desert, rocky wasteland, or other hot and dry environment? Put hefty horses in there as in Game of Thrones. You wouldn’t abandon a Siberian husky in the middle of the desert, would you?

Huge, muscly horses need a lot of water, food, and pasture to stay that way. In reality, those Friesians the Dothraki ride across wastelands would likely die of dehydration and heat exhaustion..

If you’re writing a desert-esque world, go for a breed that snorts in the face of extreme heat and lack of vegetation – like Arabians, Akhal-Tekes, or Marwaris. Your ride, like these breeds, should be slender, compact, and light on their feet. Desert breeds are masters of endurance despite their modest stature (14-16hh). Need to go a few thousand miles? They’ve got your back!

Akhal Teke Horse

Akhal Teke

These smaller, slimmer equines can carry you further with less food than a hefty horse!

Horses for Cold and Snowy Climates

On the other hand, don’t place that Arabian in a cold environment! You wouldn’t put a Husky in the Sahara, so don’t put a greyhound on the Alaskan sled team.

Most horses can withstand cold temperatures with blanketing and proper care from their owners. 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.

Cold weather horses are often heavier than regular riding horses and develop a thick, fuzzy coat in the winter. While a big draft horse fits the bill, smaller breeds like the Icelandic Horse or the Fjord are great examples of a horse designed for cold winters and mountainous terrain.

Fjord HOrse

Fjord Horse

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. Their height or shortness should be determined by their function.                                                                                    

The Bottom Line on Climate

Choose a breed that is suited to your unique environment or climate. If your location lacks harsh weather or unusual terrain, return to the previous section on tailoring your horse to its function. Almost all breeds can live somewhere that does not have excessive hot or cold temperatures.

What You Learned From Hollywood

Use whatever breed you want! YOLO.

*reverts to Game of Thrones Friesian* I don’t think I need to further explain why Hollywood’s wrong here.

Matching Horse to Character

Illusion: Horses are living bicycles. If you learned how to ride, you can ride any horse.

Reality: Every horse has a will, emotions, personalities and quirks. They have thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions.

Matching your specific character to a complementary horse is a case-by-case issue, and not necessarily important unless horses are a vital part of your narrative. There are, however, a few of major difficulties to avoid.

About Stallions

Do not bike if your character is inexperienced. NOT Install them on a stallion! Don’t put anyone on a stallion without a solid reason.

As much as Hollywood likes Friesians, books and movies like stallions even more. Most stallions are temperamental, aggressive, and dangerous. There are calm, attentive stallions, but they are the exception. When in doubt, choose a gelding or a mare.

Horse Temperament

On the same note, don’t give your character a cool, spirited horse if they’re a nervous or excitable type. Horses are very observant, and whatever a rider is experiencing is communicated to the horse via their body language and down the reins.

Is your character a proficient and confident rider? Throw them on that ferocious steed! I wouldn’t suggest it otherwise.

Final Note 

Horses are curious and perplexing animals. Horses of the same breed, gender, and age may act quite differently. Case in point, my off-track Thoroughbred (a breed known as “hot” and “spooky”) snoozing away as he gets his hooves trimmed and a thunderstorm passes through:

Sleeping horse

He’s not even tied to anything

As a result, there are no rules that are always correct. Finally, you are the greatest judge of what is best for your narrative, including your horse characters. But keep in mind this helpful rule of thumb:

“Learn the rules like a pro in order to defy them like an artist.”

– Pablo Picasso?

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Related Questions

  • What is the most cold tolerant horse?

    Another breed that can tolerate severe winters that you may not be familiar with is the Yakutian horse (also called the Yakut horse). They are a rare horse from Siberia. These horses are unlike any other equine in the world: they withstand -70 degree temperatures without freezing to death.

  • What is the hardiest breed of horse?

    5 Hardy Horse Breeds with the Longest Lifespans

    1. Arabians.
    2. Appaloosas.
    3. Icelandic Horses.
    4. Quarter Horses.
    5. Haflingers.
  • What horses are bred for cold weather?

    Yakutian horses have developed to be able to tolerate the freezing temperatures of the Arctic. They’ve become smaller, with shorter legs, and have developed an ability to hibernate while standing.

  • What temperature is too cold for horses?

    Providing shelter for your horse
    Horses can handle temperatures at or slightly below 0° F in the absence of wind and precipitation. Horses can endure temperatures as low as -40° F if they have access to a shelter. Horses, on the other hand, like temperatures ranging from 18° to 59° F, depending on their hair coat.

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