"[Horses in Fantasyland] are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame or put their hooves down holes [...] Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are."
Horses are cool. They're a sure-fire signal for fantasy medieval and western, can make the characters look good with a sufficiently awesome name or respectable pedigree, and most importantly, provide a relatively fast and reliable form of transport for the heroes.
In all too many stories, that's really about as far as they take it. The horse doesn't eat, doesn't sleep, doesn't need any sort of special care. It'll charge into flame, to the sound of gunfire, and off of cliffs without the slightest hesitation. When men are fighting from atop it, only the rider will be struck and dismounted, while the horse will live on, nor will the horse itself participate in combat (real life war horses would often be trained to bite, kick and trample). If a horse dies, it will not be simply because it tripped, broke a leg and was put down. Nor will it age, even if it's a named Cool Horse who appears in a Long Runner for decades on end. Mares will never get pregnant, or even go into heat. Ungelded males will never get Distracted by the Sexy.
In video games, this often becomes an Acceptable Break from Reality. After all, unless it's the point of the game, would you really want to have to stop fighting the armies of darkness to water your horse or let it take a rest? It's not as if the hero has to eat anything. Why should your horse?
This trope is usually either played very straight, or averted.
For actual automaton horses, see Mechanical Horse. For a related trope regarding tireless animals, check out Huge Rider, Tiny Mount. See Horse of a Different Color for horses that aren't actually horses at all. Related to Invulnerable Horses, who never ever get shot. Plot-Powered Stamina is the supertrope, which can apply to sapient beings as well as draft animals.
May result in Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying. See also Artistic License - Animal Care.
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In Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman ends up leading the Sons of Batman to bring order to Gotham on horseback during a nuclear winter. Horses are prey animals and therefore naturally spooked by sudden movements, loud noises, smoke, and just about anything else that isn't familiar to them. However, this is Batman we're talking about, so in this case it may be justified: given his reputation for being Crazy-Prepared it's entirely possible that he took the precaution of training the horses in advance to ignore the kind of chaos that goes along with looting, rioting, and fires. In a city in the middle of a nuclear winter. With mutants.
Inheritance Cycle is one of the worst of the lot, featuring two horses being led for weeks on end through a mind-bogglingly vast desert without a word of mention as to how they were doing except for a few lines describing Eragon lifting water up through the sand for them to drink, presumably leading them to eat sand. While you can give a horse all the food and water in the world, they'll still need rest in order to avoid collapsing from exhaustion or overheating. The exact logistics of the trip (and why it is impossible) can be found here.This is acknowledged in-universe; Murtagh believed that the horses would die halfway through.
A Song of Ice and Fire features the Dothraki, a very horse-centric culture, but little attention is ever given to the horses' care. This could be for space reasons, or due to limitations of the POV character (a thirteen-year-old princess with at least six servants, at least one of which is specifically stated to be teaching her how to ride Dothraki-style and may also be caring for the horse.) In the second book, many of the horses in question die of starvation during a mass exodus.
At one point Tyrion tells Bran/Theon/Robb to break a yearling horse to the cripple-saddle designed to allow Bran to ride without using his legs. Within a month or two Bran is riding on the horse. The problem is that yearlings are not generally considered safe to ride, even for experienced horsemen because they can't take the weight without injuring themselves, and young horses in general tend towards unruly. Bran would have been far better off with a 5 year old. Secondly, a horse takes more than a month to train, and and it is VERY DANGEROUS to be unable to get off a horse. The cripple-saddle seems to be a variant of "strapping the kid in and hoping for the best." Horses, however, have this tendency to fall (even when they aren't trying deliberately to scrap you off their back), and land on you, and break your legs. This is also a case where Martin actually knew this, because it's used in the story.
Invulnerable Horses is averted constantly. Lampshaded by Jaime Lannister, who says he never bothers naming his war horses because they always end up dying. Considering how often horses died under medieval knights this is Truth in Television.
Also includes many aversions by other characters in the great number of times the condition and stabling of horses is noted in passing when the rider reaches their destination; Martin particularly likes to use mentions of horses being "lathered" as an indicator that the rider was in a hurry. Other aversions usually take part on the Night's Watch side of the plot where, due to the craggy terrain up past the Wall, horses need to be handled carefully lest they break their legs.
Ser Loras wins a joust against a knight with a taste for riding bad-tempered stallions by riding a mare in heat, driving the stallion crazy so he throws his rider. In-universe audience reaction differs on whether this is hilariously creative or bad sportsmanship, but the opponent's reaction is to hack his own horse's head off and then go after Loras.
Justified in the Conrad Stargard series. Conrad receives a bio-engineered horse that is super competent, speedy, enduring, strong, etc., etc., etc.
And about as smart as an 8-year-old IIRC (the horse, that is). Which makes iT creepy that we find out later that the people of the future have bio-engineered human versions which are more or less used as sexual playthings. Conrad winds up with at least one of them, with some implications that even if they're not terribly intelligent, they're more intelligent than their creators thought. And smart enough to hide being that smart.
Shadowfax from The Lord of the Rings is capable of running at high speeds for extended periods of time over long distances without rest. Justified because he is explicitly a supernatural breed of horse (said to be descended from the horse of one of the Valar). Most other horses tend to be portrayed more realistically (with the horses of Rohan pushing the limit, which is also justified by the Rohirrim being exceptional horse breeders).
Justified in Roger Zelazny's Dilvish stories, in that the horse actually is an automaton (sort of.) The eponymous hero rides Black, a demon which has taken the form of a metal horse and requires no sustenance or maintenance.
Justified in Journey to the West. No horse of mortal origin would be able to withstand the journey Xuanzang was to undertake so the earthly gods presented him with a dragon that was imprisoned in the form of a horse as punishment for its wicked misdeeds.
Also justified in House of the Scorpion as the horses all were eejits- meaning they had computer chips in their brain that made them only able to do one command until they are told to stop, and thus if you never told them to eat, sleep or drink, they wouldn't.
Live Action TV
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The horses ridden by the Knights of Byzantium are capable of chasing, and catching up with, a Winnebago traveling at highway speeds. Even assuming the Winnebago is not terribly powerful and tops off at 55 mph, even the fastest of racehorses can only approach those speeds for very brief periods of time (and the average horse has a much slower gallop).
Justification: it's actually a dirt road, so they were probably going a lot slower, particularly since the windshield was covered in aluminum foil with a hole the size of a hand to see through.
Mentioned in an episode of Lark Rise To Candleford, where a curate preaches a sermon about treating a pony badly and finally understanding a spiritual message through the animal's pain. It is a clue to why the priest acts as a mendicant and puts other people's welfare above his own, almost to a fault.
Most fantasy Tabletop Games. A horse can swim the river with its owner, venture to the 10th floor of the dungeon and climb trees.
The inability of horses to do those sort of things leads to player characters who should have horses instead staggering across the countryside on their own two feet.
Most players ignore these problems in their enthusiasm to play centaurs, forgetting that "half horse" comes with that half's attendant upkeep and maneuvering problems. Just try to imagine a centaur going downstairs forward, and being comfortable to boot. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight.
The problems with maintaining horses and leading them into problem environments also led to alternate class features and other such options for classes that gained a mount or companion as a class feature. 4th ed dropped this class feature altogether while Pathfinder (basically Dungeons & Dragons 3.75) built alternate options into the classes that had them.
Just to clarify, if you're playing rules as written, horses do have the standard upkeep requirements, food, water, sleep. They have limits on how long you can ride per day and they'll run from combat if you don't know how to handle them (you can avoid this with a trained war horse).
The spell Phantom Steed allows D&D spellcasters to play this trope straight, because the "horse" is a pseudo-real magical creation.
Skeletal Steeds of Chaotic are already dead, why do they need to eat, drink, or sleep? But somehow they tired out under extreme conditions in a match once.
The storyline to Legend of the Five Rings has some of the worst offenses, as some writers will use the canonical skills and networks that different clans have for logistics to determine how quickly their armies can move, while others have the Unicorn Clan's all-cavalry armies cross country faster than other clans Because Horsies Are Faster, right?
In NetHack, horses are just like any other pet, only that they can be ridden. They need a saddle to ride and food to live, but are happy even without shoes, a harness, water or sleep. (The player character, likewise, never needs water or sleep.) They are also tamed within a few turns.
Horses in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion play this trope to a T. They never need to eat, drink, sleep or relieve themselves (but then again, neither does the player character). Fortunately, the horse can do a respectable job of defending itself and will try to run away if attacked (which happens a lot in the game. Bandits hate horses, apparently.) But horses are left in stables when you enter a city, presumably to recover from horrific mistreatment.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall plays it even further with horses that remain in inventory, appear instantly when equipped and vanish when unequipped. They respond to any movement keys, can jump repeatedly straight up, and can turn 360 degrees even with a wagon attached. They also don't complain during mounted combat, and cannot be attacked themselves.
They also levitate with the player (so does the cart you can buy).
Ocarina of Time had one nod to reality: Making Epona gallop too long would tire her out and reduce her to a trot for a while. Otherwise, the game played this trope dead straight.
This is only if you keep using the crop until all the carrots are gone. If you leave that last carrot, you can keep going at that pace every time another carrot reappears.
You also have to line Epona up correctly to jump a fence and be going a decent speed, or she balks and won't jump; and she can't climb stairs or swim. She also won't get too close to Hyrule Castle without pitching a major fit about it.
World of Warcraft horses and other mounts never need feeding or rest. This is justified in the case of skeletal and mechanical mounts, though the latter should probably need regular maintenance. Also, the mounts do not exist unless you summon them, and are incapable of being hurt. Again, justified in some cases as this does make sense for the warlock and probably paladin mounts, which are summoned from another dimension. "Justified" for most others by many mount-summoning items are called "Reins of XYZ" and implies that the reins are magical and waving them summons your mount to you.
If you are damaged while mounted, you will lose hit points, but your mount will be the one moaning in pain.
More egregious are the flying mounts — they can hover in mid air (the hardest and most exhausting thing for any flying creature to do) indefinitely, and can even fly backwards as if backstroking in water. All while carrying a player in full plate armor. Of course, they're already violating the Square/Cube Law by flying at all at their size, so just mutter Bellisario's Maxim under your breath and move on...
The mechanical "mounts" in the game, such as the Goblin Trike, the Gnome Mechanostrider, or the Engineer's flying machine, behave in exactly the same manner as horses and other living mounts do. They move at exactly the same speed, take exactly the same amount of time to summon/get on, and behave in all other ways exactly like the mounts they replace. Which means, if you look at it another way, living horses behave identically to mechanical riding vehicles, which is the very definition of Automaton Horse!
Plus, real cats that size cannot be safely domesticated, and have an unfortunate tendency to try to eat their handlers. Though it could be that night elves are better at handling dangerous animals. (Still doesn't explain why a gnome can ride one safely.)
One somewhat funny example is in the Death Knight starting area, where after the Scourge takes over a part of the land, previously mounted members of the Scarlet Crusade will be dead, but their horses will continue just standing around doing nothing, even as zombies are devouring the rider's corpse from off their backs.
Used in the game Mount & Blade': horses can gallop for hours at a time, even when armoured.. They can be lamed however. And if a lamed horse is cut out from under you during battle, expect to lose that horse for good.
Also, humans in the the game need to eat but horses don't. Probably one of the Acceptable Breaks from Reality as the human food alone takes up most of your inventory space.
Played with in battle. Your dismounted horse might choose to run off at any time, and horses who's riders are killed will keep running along until they find a nice place to stop. Running up and mounting them is almost a matter of pure luck.
As one of the very few games to have decent mounted combat, the horses are still very wooden. You'd think that if there were pikemen jabbing at a horse, the horse would buck a bit, but no- they'll stand there and take it. Not even buck.
In the game's expansion pack, horses stabbed with polearms are either killed out right, or are stopped completely and buck wildly.
Partially averted in the Final Fantasy games. While Chocobo stables rarely seem to be more than a place where chocobos stand atop a pile of hay in a pen waiting to be rented by a Player Character, they do consistently seem to enjoy food - primarily Gysahl Greens, but carrots and other made-up leafy greens will do too. Heck, there are more references to chocobos eating than there are to humans eating. Also, once you get off any chocobo your character does not explicitly own (except black chocobos and the chocobos of Final Fantasy X, who are capable of reaching areas you wouldn't be able to get out of unassisted), it will immediately depart for wherever it came from, leaving you to hoof it back to the nearest town.
Avernum, at least in Avernum III and Blades of Avernum.
This is not because horses sit in one place (any place) for weeks if necessary until you come back, don't need food or rest even though your characters do, and somehow manage to disappear during outdoor combat so the game doesn't have to worry about them taking damage.
Nor is it because you're arbitrarily prevented from taking them unless you've paid for them, despite being able to steal any other loot in the game, yet once bought you're effectively handed the keys and sent away to grab the horses by yourself without an introduction.
No, it's bad because the player characters have spent decades underground and may have never even seen a surface animal before the beginning of the game; there's one area in the first town of Avernum III where one of the NPCs will actually explain to you what a sheep, a wolf and a bear are, and the opening cutscene shows a character asking what a tree is for. These people shouldn't even know what a horse is, much less how to ride one. Boats throughout the series are treated the same way, which makes more sense except for the "can't be stolen" aspect, which makes far less.
Exile worked exactly the same, with one nod towards realism: horses would frequently spook and refuse to move in dark caverns, forcing the party to dismount. This was done away with in Avernum, probably due to the addition of day/night cycles on the surface.
Runes Of Magic treats horses very oddly. Firstly, when rented, they are immediately dumped into the player's Bag of Holding. When "used," the player's character goes through an animation usually reserved for enchanting items with magic. Then, there is a bright flash of light, and the player is suddenly on horseback. The horse never needs to eat or sleep or pee (but neither does anyone else.)). Not only can it gallop forever, but it is incapable of doing anything except galloping. When the player dismounts his/her horse, it goes back into his/her Bag of Holding. It is also indestructible. When the horse's rent period is up, it simply vanishes (one stablemaster states that the horses "know when to return on their own").
Horses in the MMORPG Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, behave the exact same way.
Agro, the main character's horse in Shadow of the Colossus plays this both ways. Neither the main character or Agro eats, but Agro can become spooked due to damage.
And in his wanderings, Agro often lowers his head to nibble on grass. If there's a pool of water in the area, he might go to drink, too. And in the injury department, if he falls from a great enough height (not the fall right before the last colossus), or gets hit with fire from Basaran or the exploding arrows, he'll limp for a little while. Granted, this is an extremely minor reaction to what should be serious wounds, but still...
Agro also has the sensibility to spook if you run him hard at a ledge / rock wall / tree / etc. He'll avoid the obstacle (sometimes barely) and act rather reluctant to follow your orders for a little while.
Horses in Sacred not only do not need to eat or sleep, they can apparently teleport as well... sometimes into inaccessible places.
Not only do the horses in Gunfighter and its sequal never get tired, they don't seem to mind getting shot. If you shoot a horse in the second game it will sometimes give a bemused neigh, but other than that nothing happens
Harvest Moon is an interesting example. The first games that featured a horse only had it there to unlock a sort of mini game, but later versions had them usable for faster transport. It wasn't until more recent installments that this trope was finally averted and the horse became a member of the stable, requiring the same food and sleep and attention that the cows and sheep require (and in the latest console game, all distinction is lost and you can even ride your sheep.) Seeing as how a good portion of the point of the game is to tend to animals, it took a while for the franchise to avert this trope.
Played straight in the steampunk-themed Independent State of Caledon in Second Life, where public transportation takes the form of a driverless horse-drawn cart that starts, stops and turns at scripted intervals.
Red Dead Redemption's horses don't require feeding, grooming or watering, but they can be killed and riding them too hard (either with liberal use of spurs or by putting them through rough terrain) can cause them to buck you. Theres even a slight chance of them getting injured going through rough terrain and becoming lame.
Averted actually, you can keep your Horse in perfect health, only ride him/her on horse trails and roads, and not be mauled/attacked by savage animals or outlaws, and use the spurs sparingly, but if you ride him/her for long enough without giving the Horse a chance to rest (dismounting and hitching, or pausing to save/fastravel from a camp, the horse will (after admitedly quite a while) simply drop dead mid-trot/gallop. Either bizzare, annoying, or humorous.
Fallen Earth has living mounts that act like any other vehicle: You "repair" them if they get damaged and "refuel" them with grain.
Neverwinter Nights had these introduced in a late patch. None of the campaigns actually feature them intentionally, although paladins get the "Special Mount" class feature from the pen-and-paper game, making all the walking in Hordes of the Underdark go by a good bit faster.
While your horse in Star Stable will slow down without encouragement from you, you can theoretically gallop forever (provided you don't run into things). You also have to feed, water, and groom your horse, but failing to do these things just makes the horse unhappy; it won't, y'know, starve to death or anything like that.
Pokémon: While their Pokedex entries say that they eat, water and sleep like one would expect animal-like creatures to, any Pokemon the player captures never seems to need a lick of personal care outside of basic Pokemon first aid. You would think that they would need regular meals and sleep at the very least. And their severe sleep-deprivation, starvation and dehydration never effects them or their battling. The anime's a tiny bit better about this, and most of the games have food and drinks that the Pokemon will be all too happy to consume, but it's never been a requirement in the game play. Odd considering how the games seem to be putting more and more emphasis in taking care of your Pokemon.
Swift of David The Gnome is the ultimate automaton fox. Whether the eponymous gnome lives in Spain or the Netherlands, places they've been like, oh say, Siberia, should still be a long trip for a fox.
Thundarr the Barbarian pushes his and Ariel's horses incredibly hard; we'll give Ookla a pass since his whatever-it-is could have superior stamina.
Possibly the only time this is played straight on Avatar: The Last Airbender is in the first season episode "The Great Divide." Appa the flying bison is able to carry about 5 kids with no problems. At one point in Season 3, carrying 8 kids is too much for him. But when the Gaang come to the Great Divide, he's able to effortlessly carry all the sick and elderly members of 2 feuding tribes (shown to be a huge group when he takes off) across the canyon, with no source of food or water and no one holding the reins directing him or telling him where to land. Uh...
In the little-known Hugo the Hippo the sultan's magician conjures up a metal horse and cowboy to lasso some hippos after the horse, obviously, drains the body of water they live in with a vacuum snout.
Charles XII of Sweden rode from Istanbul in Turkey to Stralsund in Northern Germany (a trip of around 1200 miles) in fifteen days on a single horse, which is an incredibly impressive feat for both man and horse (the horse's eventual fate is not recorded).
William Nevison, an English highwayman, was recognized by one of his victims in Kent. In order to establish an alibi, he rode all the way to York (roughly 200 miles), hoping to get there earlier than it would be believed possible so as to fool the authorities. It worked too, and, given the timescale involved, chances are he either galloped or cantered the entire way, again, an incredibly Bad Ass feat for man and horse.
In Hayao Miyazaki's pre-Nausicaa manga Shuna No Tabi (Shuna's Journey), Shuna nearly rides his mount Yakul to death before being forced to stand and fight against his pursuers, and it takes a while afterward for both of them to recover.
In Sword of the Stranger, Nameless discusses the importance of proper horse care early in the movie. Later on, a messenger rides his horse full-tilt to deliver an urgent message, whereupon the poor thing collapses. And finally, horses get targeted for attacks. A lot.
Jonah Hex, in one of his many Vertigo series from DC Comics. He's the only survivor of Custer's Last Stand and is being chased. Much is made of his efforts to keep his horse in good shape so it can help him live. Ironically enough, during the abortive The Dark Age of Comic Books series Hex, Jonah had a literal automaton horse, being stuck in the (more distant) late 21st century.
Averted in Bite The Bullet when old cowboy Gene Hackman beats young punk Jan Michael Vincent for riding a horse to death.
The "all characters can ride" corollary is amusingly (and unintentionally) averted in the opening scenes of Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: Keanu Reeves clearly has no idea what he's doing and is obviously holding on for dear life.
John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy demonstrated a number of standard US Cavalry procedures in horse management in these and other movies. Strict rotation between walk, trot, and leading the horses made them last as long as possible.
Wayne was a real horseman who insisted on using his own horses for movies and it shows.
Averted in Big Jake when two of the eponymous character's sons try to discuss techniques for quickdrawing a handgun, John Wayne's character cuts them off with a gruff "See to your horses, first."
Averted in the classic John Wayne film The Searchers. One character rides off in spite of Wayne's assertion that the horses need rest and grain. The next time we see him, he's wandering horseless in the desert carrying his saddle.
In the mostly hilarious True Lies, Harry Tasker commandeers a police horse to chase a man on a motorcycle. This culminates with the man in the motorcycle jumping from the roof of one building to a pool on another building. Ahnold then tries to get his horse to do the same thing, following this trope. The aversion occurs when the horse goes wide-eyed and stops, throwing Ahnold over the edge.
Another aversion came earlier, when Tasker notes that the horse is getting tired during the chase.
Consciously averted in the early scenes of City Slickers: the characters' obvious lack of riding experience is deliberately played up for laughs.
In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is so desperate to get to Tara that she drives an old, half-starved horse all the way there from Atlanta. When Tara is in sight, she whips the horse so savagely, trying to make it go faster, that it falls down dead.
In Gladiator, Maximus Decimus Meridius, must ride quickly home to save his family. He takes two horses, switching to the second after the first horse dies (presumably) of exhaustion.
Except the second horse should have died not long after since it had been running alongside him the entire time. Sure, the first horse died sooner because he was riding it (and, thus, it had to run with that extra weight), but the second horse was probably still on its last legs as well when he switched.
Hidalgo. Several of the Great Race participants die along with their horses because of the extreme conditions.
Averted in Hawk the Slayer of all things — two of the characters are shown giving their horses time to rest.
The High Fantasy film Ladyhawke both plays this trope straight and adverts it. While the hero (in full armor) rides his Cool Horse at a trot or canter all over the landscape, time is taken to show the horse being fed and groomed, horses are shown slipping and stumbling when ridden on stone floors, and a messenger for the Big Bad is shown making a flying remount change in the style of the Mongols.
The film version of The Postman shows the eponymous character traveling with a mule (hybrid of donkey and horse) named Bill. The Postman is shown walking along with Bill most of the time, not overburdening him with more weight than necessary, and tries to prevent his horse from drinking (presumably) tainted water. For the brief time they are shown together, the Postman talks to Bill as close friend and generally treats him as equally as a human being.
In True Grit, Blackie collapses from galloping nonstop while Rooster is trying to get Mattie medical attention after she was bitten by a snake. He shoots the horse to put it out of its misery.
In Immortals, Theseus is given a pair of what are essentially magic horses by the gods, which will run without tiring to his destination. It's an aversion because this is in no way permanent. The actual "magic" part is that they will run until their hearts stop, which is exactly what they do.
This trope naturally tends to be averted in literature written when horses were the primary means of distance travel.
In Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, Chichikov's coachman was naturally concerned with the care of Chichikov's horse and expressed annoyance after Nozdryov denied the horse quality feed. He also takes notice of other conductors' treatment of their horses. (Granted, he also gets drunk in one scene and carries on a long conversation with the horse whilst pushing it forward.)
Subverted in The Crown of Dalemark where Maewen, who grew up at a riding stable, remarks on her horse's manageability and lack of personality. It's actually an evil wizard, the Big Bad, disguised as a horse.
In Dark Lord of Derkholm, many tourists expect the tours to provide Automaton Horses and find themselves completely unprepared to deal with the real animal. The horse population of the world declines, and the eponymous Derk develops a breed of sapient (and winged) horses to address the problem.
Averted in the Belgariad, where the journey is often interrupted by having to tend to the horses. It helps that a member of the supporting cast is from a nomadic country that's very big on taking care of one's steeds.
The consequences of inconsiderate treatment are also mentioned. The party's horses are unable to continue after being ridden through a cold river while tired, and the party has to stop for an emergency rubdown. Also, an enemy is asked how he keeps getting ahead of them, and replies that he had to ride several horses to death.
David Eddings' other main work, The Elenium series, also averts this, if somewhat less vocally. Horses quickly tire, and have to be cared for regularly. Sparhawk himself often states that his old warhorse - who've been through quite a lot with him - is really getting too old for this... much like himself.
Within The Riftwar Cycle, especially in Magician this is averted. Horses die from cold and exhaustion, and are even eaten due to lack of food. Indeed, one horse causes the death of one of the characters simply because another horse bit it and caused it to throw him off.
Averted or even subverted in The Wheel of Time. One of the early signs that Rand has the ability to use magic is that he subconsciously helped the old and slow horse his girlfriend was riding keep pace with the others, including a warhorse, and even be less tired when they stop for the night.
RJ goes the whole nine yards to avert this one. The characters are very careful with their horses, making sure that they're properly fed, watered, and shod, and not overworked. In several cases, characters reference "foolish stories" where heroes gallop horses nonstop for extended periods which, as the characters note, should have killed or lamed them.
And then in book 6, or maybe 8, when the Saldaeans bring 250,000 cavalry across the Carallain Grass. That's just a subset of the "make up fancy troop numbers" Jordan engages in increasingly as the series goes on.
Averted in Discworld, where remarks on skittish, chaotic nature of horses are made quite often and many characters are shown as bad riders, not riders at all or deeply distrustful of the animals. Proper animal care is also touched upon: The Truth makes the point that, for most people, owning a horse is more trouble than it's worth.
Death's horse, Binky, is often mentioned eating or grazing, Death is seen visiting a blacksmith to re-shoe his horses' hooves — indeed, one discarded horseshoe is plot-relevant — and Mort shows the job of cleaning the Pale Horse's stables.
Hellish Horses can be troublesome too. Death previously tried out the idea of riding a skeletal or flaming horse after seeing some appealing-looking woodcuts, but one fell apart and the other kept setting the stables on fire.
In Soul Music, crazy horse-loving aristocratic girls make an appearance, together with the mention that they will spend whole days shoveling out horse shit while unable to clean their own rooms even at knifepoint.
Also averted in Going Postal. Moist offends the stable keeper by implying he rents "feagued up old screws", and instead is given Boris, a psychopathic animal who would be a fine racing stalion if he weren't so violent. He's impossible to steer, impossible to stop, and leaves Moist with a severe case of saddle sore. He also eventually gets tired and stops of his own accord because he wants a drink.
A horse throwing a shoe is used to great effect in Thief of Time to describe the work of history monks and the badassery of Lu Tze:
C. J. Cherryh: Adverts this strongly in multiple works. Her characters fall off horses, get horses shot out from under them, switch remounts to prevent exhaustion, have trouble going through thick woods after people on foot, and spend a tremendous amount of time feeding, brushing, and caring for their mounts. Strongest in the Morgaine, Paladin and Finisterre novels, but it even shows up in the conventional SF works like Cyteen.
C. S. Lewis's The Horse And His Boy averts this trope, with the eponymous horse actually being rather high-maintenance for a war stallion. It's lampshaded in the desert crossing, when the horse explains that "galloping for a night and a day" is only possible in stories and that they must limit themselves to trots and walks. This was a jab at Lewis' friend J. R. R. Tolkien and his nigh-immortal superhorse.
This is further inverted the next day when C. S. Lewis points out that the horse would have been capable of a good deal more hard riding if he had a pitiless spur-wearing rider. Having been enslaved so long he lost the ability to push himself and in fact the physically weaker horse then pushes the pace.
The amount of care required to get horses across a desert alive and still in rideable condition is what makes the task of getting to Anvard in time to warn King Lune about Rabadash and his two hundred riders go from "impossible" to "difficult but manageable" - not only will Rabadash and his cavalry not be able to race at top speed all the way to Anvard, as Bree points out, the sheer amount of time it takes to even get that many horses saddled, provisioned, and ready for the trip in the first place gives the heroes a very respectable head start.
Averted throughout Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar. In the Tarma and Kethry stories, Tarma's devotion to her horses is a major character element; likewise Kerowyn in By The Sword. In the stories concerning the Heralds, the fact that most of a horse's limitations do not apply to Companions is very important. Vanyel has to argue with his father, who treats Van's Companion like a horse and thinks she'll founder if allowed to eat and drink what, when, and as much as she chooses.
And even averted for the Companions themselves, since later books reveal that their inhuman (in-horsy?) stamina is a result of drawing on magic power and burning it. When in areas that are lacking in magic leylines, their stamina and speed is reduced to that of any common horse.
Averted in the Saga of Recluce series. The first main character treats his mountain pony well, from negotiating extra oats for him at inns to jumping off to walk beside him when the going gets rough.
Lampshaded in The Wizard And The War Machine, in which the eponymous wizard, who comes from a high-tech culture, realizes that his horse is exhausted because he's been unconsciously using his Psychic Powers to push it past its limit, driving it like a car. He guiltily stops to tend to the animal properly.
Averted in The Book of the New Sun with "destriers"; in an appendix it's explained that they aren't actually horses, but genetically engineered or imported alien creatures that are even better than cars. (They seem to be more like tame big cats than any kind of horse we'd recognize, since they have claws and eat meat.)
Terry Goodkind likes to show his work, and does so in book two of the Sword of Truth series—Richard is very diligent about caring for the horses he uses. Then, at the end of the book, he throws all caution to the wind—and over the course of two weeks of frenzied travelling rides something like half a dozen horses to death in his desperation to get where he's going.
Green Rider has the characters taking care of their horses. As the horses are vital to the messenger service, and since the Riders have special bonds with their horses, it's only to be expected. In fact, some characters even get chewed out when they neglect their mounts.
Averted in of all things Battlefield Earth, the book at least. Mentioning changing horses several times during strenuous work.
Raymond E. Feist constantly averts this in his works. Horses die left and right when pushed to escape enemies, and are replaced as often as possible to not tire them out too much if not because they already died. One character knew a lot about horses and his adventures constantly involved fairly detailed explanations of his care of them, impressing many other characters with said expertise.
Averted in Name Of The Wind. Kvothe specifically chooses a horse based on the knowledge that he needs to travel far, not fast, and starts slow to avoid riding the horse into the ground. He also takes great pains to explain that people who start their journeys at a dead run and then complain that someone sold them a lame horse are idiots and bastards.
Averted in most of Tamora Pierce's works, especially Protector of the Small, where Keladry's horse Peachblossom is a curmudgeonly mean gelding that takes a lot of looking after. And in Provost's Dog, Beka complains that horses will slow down their hunt for kidnappers because the animals need so much maintenance compared to her scent hound.
In fact, it's nigh-impossible for dragonriders to start families—partly because they're already caring for something that's totally dependent on them, and partly because if they form strong attachments to their children, dying unexpectedly would be hugely traumatizing for the child(ren) in question. Female riders generally foster their kids out the minute they've recovered from giving birth.
Averted in the Guardians of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg. The horses don't take center stage, but they are mentioned as having different personalities which are sometimes incompatible with their riders. A scene in one book has the hero trimming the hooves of warhorses and re-shoeing them in preparation for a battle.
Averted in John Ringo's Council Wars series, even though the horses are genetically engineered "superhorses" combining the best traits of warmbloods and Arabs. (Ringo breeds horses.) Contrary to the Conrad Stargard example above these horses are not sentient, since that would be slavery. However, they are very smart, and one actually sires a foal on a unicorn who used to be human, resulting in a talking colt.
Averted in David Farland's The Runelords series, in which the use of specialised branding irons allows facilitators to extract strength, stamina, speed and so forth from horses and endow them upon other beasts to create force horses. The force horses may be able to cross continents at a dead gallop, but only because there are vast stables of magically lamed horses somewhere else under constant care. Meanwhile, the heroes are periodically limited by their ability to provide enough food to keep the horses going, particularly a special nutrient-rich kind of oat-and-seed cake made with honey.
Averted in the Unicorns of Balinor series, where Ari notices that unicorns tire less easily, need less food, and are much harder to spook than horses—and it helps that they can talk to communicate any problems. However, the essentials (feeding/watering, hoof-cleaning, currying, etc.) are consistently mentioned throughout the series, and Ari does them despite clearly wanting to plunk straight into bed several times. Inexperienced or bad riders are often mentioned as "sitting like a sack of potatoes" and are less than welcome for the unicorns who have to carry them.
Averted in the Forgotten Realms' Finder's Stone trilogy, where the characters specifically pay attention to the needs of horses. In the third book, a cleric who knows nothing of horses "sets one free" without removing a saddle, and others scold her for this later. That the one rebuking her is 20 years old and she's ostensibly mature but in fact one year old is an icing on the cake. And other "freed" horse simply didn't go, being "too well trained to do anything stupid like that".
Averted in the Rai-Kirah series by Carol Berg. One of the main cultures is very horse-centric, based probably on a mesh between Arabic nomads and medieval Europe. The men will take their horses into their dwellings with them if they're sick or injured, and always devote the proper time and energy into their care. It's accepted that the men will care more for their horses than their women or slaves.
Walter Farley, author of the famous The Black Stallion series, went out of his way to avert this trope. He does an accurate job of depicting the daily needs of his horses, as well as their breaking and handling, and life on the racetrack. He also does a great job explaining what can go wrong when disease sweeps through a stable. Even though the books are outdated, the basic information within them is pretty accurate.
Averted in George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman series. Flashman is an expert rider of horses and his accurate judgments of how fast and far a horse can travel usually factor into his frequent escapes from danger.
Slaughterhouse-Five (which is based on Kurt Vonnegut's real life survival of the bombing of Dresden) has a scene where Americans have found some horses hitched to a wagon and go riding around Germany at the end of World War II. A German stops them and points out that the horses need water, they are tired out, their hooves need attention, and their mouths are raw from the pulling on the reins the Americans gave them. Apparently, the Americans just thought they were like a car, you get in and drive.
Slightly averted in The Deed of Paksenarrion: they make a point of noting (during a discussion in the army) that for every four horses you use for riders, you need to bring a fifth horse to carry the food for the horses.
Averted by Harry Turtledove in his General Order 191 books. The characters are all familiar with horses and care is taken to show how they handle them, though, these books being set during wars, many horses still die.
In Ranger's Apprentice, Rangers are incredibly fond of their horses, and will not abandon them, even if it means risking their own lives. They also talk to their horses when they're alone.
Averted in The Doomfarers of Coramonde by Brian Daley, especially when it's mentioned that one of the legends of a certain tribe of horse-riding nomads involves a young man who rode a horse to death in an attempt to rescue his sweetheart. When he saved her and she found out what he'd done to the horse, she killed him.
"The Snow Queen": The reindeer Gerda's eventually given is definitely helpful for a long time, but he ultimately runs out of strength before she does, forcing her to complete the end of her quest alone.
While animal care is mostly ignored in The Black Company series (the eponymous company is primarily infantry), there is one aversion when a band of them are out in a terrible storm on magically enhanced horses and find their way to an inn. One of the other members had gotten there first, leaving his mount outside. He is promptly thrown out and not allowed back in until his horse is taken care of properly.
Zig Zagged Trope in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Main characters generally can travel about without worrying about petty things like horses tiring, but Cool Horse Red Hare is supposedly faster and has better stamina than any horse around. And when Cool Old Guy Huang Zhong duels Guan Yu for the first time, his horse keels over from being too old.
Averted in the Chronicles of Prydain, where horses do get tired and need to be fed and watered, and in The Black Cauldron, Taran's horse gets a stone in her shoe which has to be removed before she can ride again.
Briefly mentioned in Stephen King's The Talisman where Jack Sawyer glimpses a vehicle holding the Big Bad Morgon Sloat driven by many horses. His unfeeling status is clearly shown, as Morgan must need a new team of horses for every run because the poor beasts are forced to endure endless running until foam and blood spray from their working mouths in curds and their eyes roll crazily showing arcs of white.
Comes up several times in Tales of Kolmar, where the female lead used to help breed horses; she didn't have any love of the work, but knew the animals' temperaments and how well they'd been trained. In The Lesser Kindred she and some others have to get somewhere in a hurry and ride at full gallop for days... from way point to way point, where they abandoned their current mounts to get on fresh ones. Lanen mentions a little guiltily that each horse used this way will have to take a few days to recover, and one of the horses recognized and nuzzled one of her companions from the farm. In Redeeming The Lost the horses were nervous but got used to seeing dragons walking around on the ground, but spook when one lands near them - the narrating character says they "did a spinbolt", dumping their riders and galloping away.
Joanne Bertin's The Last Dragonlord has magic intelligent horses called Llysanyins as the preferred mounts of weredragons, but sometimes they have to resort to normal horses. Those have such details as gaits that are uncomfortable to sit through, a need to tether where they can reach water and grazing, a need to have their hooves cleaned after a ride through woods, a character hoping her horse won't spook at an empty stirrup bouncing against its flank, and another horse bolting in terror when someone turns into a dragon. In Dragon and Phoenix a desperate fugitive longs to spur his horse on, but knows it's already tired and he has to husband its strength. All horses hate being on ships.
Even the Llysanyins themselves have weaknesses. They're nervous around truedragons. They can go faster and for longer than normal horses, but when one gets a stone in its hoof, even after that's picked out it is slowed to the pace of a standard horse. Healthy, they can gallop for a good two or three hours, long enough to hopefully ride their pursuers to exhaustion, but it's hard on them, and it's noted that they can't keep it up, "although the greathearted creatures would run themselves to death if their riders' lives depended on it."
The Whistlers of A Brother's Price raise horses. Odelia's horse is rather calm about staying in the area where her rider got beat up and someone fired a gun to scare away the attackers, and willing to bear two strange people - one of them male, and she wouldn't have encountered a male human before - and her unconscious rider to a strange place. The horse is then stabled without anyone taking the time to unsaddle her, due to fears of an impending attack rather than out of negligence. Later in the book a horse is tethered so that it can get to some grain and water, but not to a hay pile lest it eat itself to death.
Played with in Raising Steam. Moist is granted the use of a rare and valuable golem horse — a quite literal automaton — but the lack of "all those fussing little rituals that defined horsemanship" rather unnerves him. He feels that having a mount that can travel faster than any living animal without ever tiring or needing food or water, and which just stands there dutifully when not in use, is getting something for nothing; that all that power should come at some kind of price. What makes it even weirder for him is that like all golems, the horse is entirely sentient, but still doesn't mind its lot — when he tells it to go frolic in a field when he's not using it, it takes this as an order.
Max Hennessey's trilogy about the Goff family and their connection with the 19th Lancer regiment. During the Boer war it's mentioned that many British officers actually had little idea of how to look after their horses, because back home they had grooms to look after them. The protagonists however always make a point of averting this, and the need to care and feed your horse, or make sure it doesn't wander off while you're fighting or sleeping, comes up several times. When the 19th Lancers have to convert to tanks in the 1930's, one argument against it is that tanks need fuel. It's pointed out that horses need fodder, and that the need for this created all kinds of supply problems in WW1.
Live Action TV
Obliquely averted on Highlander: The Series, when Duncan alludes to what happened when two opposing cavalry forces — one riding stallions, the other riding mares — approached one another on the field of battle. The horses' behavior was not specified, but presumably wasn't anything a bicycle would do.
Note that for once, the writers did not opt to include an historical flashback...
This happen rather often in fact. Middle Eastern Cultures often used mares for war while European picked Stallions.
In an episode of Survivorman, Les Stroud set out to deliberately show how much work went into keeping horses fed, watered and in good spirits, especially alone in the wild.
Averted in Deadwood, as one of the story arcs in much of season 2 and 3 is of the two black characters who run the stables in Deadwood.
Averted on Mantracker, where the horses' physical limitations — in particular, their inability to safely traverse very rugged and/or slippery terrain — pose a major constraint on the hunters' pursuit of their quarry.
Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead learned the hard way that horses are easy to spook and have no problem throwing the rider off.
In Game of Thrones, the needs of horses are often referenced. At the start of the second season, a horse dies of thirst, and in one memorable moment in the first season, Gregor Clegane's horse is deliberately sabotaged by his opponent (the horse Clegane is riding is a stallion, and his opponent's horse is a mare in heat) and Clegane responds by demanding his squire bring his SWORD! and he beheads the poor stallion right there.
Averted and Played for Laughs of all things in Merlin with mucking out the stables being a frequent punishment for Merlin's absence. Law of Conservation of Detail is definitely in play though, as Arthur will often order Merlin to feed the horses or rub them down, but we will never see them actually cared for.
Referenced in Power Rangers Samurai, when Mike is surprised that Ji, the team's old-fashioned samurai mentor, gets around on something as modern as a motorcycle. Paraphrased:
Mike: I sort of figured you rode a horse or something.
Ji: You ever try to clean up after a horse?
Practically every Animal Planet Heroes episode set in Houston features some unfortunate horse whose owner neglected to feed or house it properly, or one that's developed terrible foot problems from its caretaker's incompetence (e.g. using horseshoes that are too small, leaving it to stand in mud all day).
Mercedes Lackey includes several admonitions about taking care of your horse in Tarma's Image Song "Advice to Would-be Heroes"
Averted in the Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy spinoff Mordheim. Horses cannot enter rubble or buildings and non-warhorses can get spooked and run away.
In Warhammer 40,000, the fifth edition Imperial Guard codex mentions a steppe horseman character who rode a lot of horses to death, until he was given a Mechanical Horse.
GURPS has rules for mounted combat that bring up the explicit possibility of your mount freaking out in combat. You also need to roll against Animal Handling and Veternerian skills to take proper care of your mount during downtime.
By default in Exalted this trope is averted - travel speed for riding horses accounts for their limits (using a relay is also noted as an option). However, various magic allows one to imbue their horse with all the qualities of this trope and more.
Splicers has War Mounts, huge creatures bred to replace tanks. They have to sleep and be fed a certain amount every day without exception. A Behemoth has to take in 200 lbs. of vegetable matter a day (!), though it only needs four hours of sleep. Regular horses are also used in the setting for mundane transport — they need way less food than War Mounts, but a lot more sleep.
It's also mentioned that horses can't go full speed for very long and need periods of rest or slower speeds. Some War Mounts, like the Leviathan or Grendel, also get tired from running. The Behemoth doesn't... unless you've been pushing it for days without letting it sleep.
Averted in The Secret Of Shadow Ranch, where Nancy Drew spends nearly a third of the game either proving she knows enough about horses to be trusted with one, caring for horses, or riding at a reasonable pace. The "neverending ground tie" error is present, but at least Nancy asks if the horse will do that before setting out to ride.
Averted in Gun. Horses have a health bar that depletes each time you spur them on or attack them. They can also be killed instantly with a shot to the head, which is a useful tactic when up against mounted enemies. Further averting it, you can buy higher quality shoes and feed to allow your horse to last longer/recover faster, although those shoes also magically appear on every horse you ride...
Horses in Red Dead Redemption do not require feeding, cleaning, watering, healing or having their shoes changed and can be ridden for days on end without need for rest or sleep; but if you spur them too much they will try to throw you off them. Wild horses have to be captured and tamed first, or you won't be able to ride them.
Who can forget the infamous Rooster Teeth Unicorn?
Averted in the MMORPG Fallen Earth. If you do not feed your horse, it will eventually stop running. However, the more advanced-level horses do not need to be fed particularly often.
Abstracted in the Total War games; cavalry are both very expensive to recruit and very expensive to maintain because of both their noble riders and because of the horses' needs. While cavalry do maneuver and reform with uncanny swiftness, they also tend to be very skittish and will be scared by camel riders. On the other hand, mounted horsemen will gleefully charge into a line of prepared stakes, something that only the most hardened warhorses would ever do.
Ultima Online real horses (IE not magical summonings) require food to stay happy, and frequent rest. They can't gallop on for days on end but must stop occasionally.
Super Mario Sunshine averts this with Yoshi, who needs a constant supply of juice to keep him going and cannot touch water or he dies. This is a stark contrast from his introduction in Super Mario World where he was invincible - the only way he could "die" is in that game is if he fell off the level or into a lava pit. (While Yoshi is not literally a horse, he is a steed and is the closest thing the Mario universe has to the animal.)
Averted (sorta) in the flash game Caravaneer where horses need food, water, and veterinary care. However, if they have unlimited of these resources, they can travel at full speed forever.
Paul Twister narrates about how horses in the magical world he's stuck in aren't like horses in fantasy stories, which, he says, are typically treated more like "living cars" than mammals that can get worn out just like human beings. Soon after, he's a bit chagrined to meet an angelic paladin who has a Celestial horse, a massive, powerful creature who "could probably hold its own against a car."
In Season 1 episode "Imprisoned", Aang tells their hosts for the night that he won't let Appa eat all their hay. Appa makes him a liar.
The season 2 episode "The Chase" has Appa so sleep deprived he's crashing into treetops on the way up, and crashing and sliding to a stop on the way down. This episode also has Aang reference the possibility that Appa is under extra strain from having to carry one other person and her baggage.
The season 2 episode "Zuko Alone" has Zuko being displeased with the fact that the money in his pocket is enough to feed his Ostrich Horse but not him. Well, until it's stolen right after he buys it.
The season 2 episode "Appa's Lost Days" shows Suki and the Kiyoshi warriors bringing Appa food after they discover him in bad shape.
The season 3 episode "The Boiling Rock" shows The Duke bringing hay to Appa when he wakes up.
It might be said that, in general, Avatar works hard to portray Appa as a living creature which eats, tires, feels pain, and may not be compliant, unlike the standard set by this trope of treating animals like buses or cars. Aang often mentions that they should only travel in ways that make Appa comfortable, and sometimes Appa is too tired to fly and they all walk.
Likewise averted with polar bear-dog Naga in the Sequel SeriesThe Legend of Korra: In the first episode, Korra gets sidetracked (and in a lot of legal trouble) on her way to Air Temple Island because Naga is hungry. Later, carrying four teenagers is too awkward for Naga except in an emergency, so the New Team Avatar switches to using a car as their routine transportation.
Sort of subverted in Dave the Barbarian. One episode makes mention of Dave having to clean out the horses' litterbox — cut to Dave waiting patiently next to a roofed enclosure about the size of an office cubicle, as Twinkle the Marvel Horse steps out and advises Dave to steer clear, because of the horrible things he left in there. Twinkle also appears in other episodes, with implications that the heroes don't always take the best care of their horses; in one episode, Candy and Fang both remark that they need to get Twinkle out of the stable more often, as the horse describes his somewhat distended psychology to them.
Averted in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, not in the sense of the prince's horse having particular needs, but in the sense of him having a very definite personality, thanks to being animated by Chuck Jones. Disney is generally pretty good in this respect, since a horse is a very easy way to stick a lovable animal sidekick into a film.
The Long Way To Los Gatos about a man who rode a pair of Peruvian Paso horses from Peru to California over the span of two years. He had to take care of the horses through desert and mountains, and was constantly on the watch for damage to their feet.
In Harpo Marx's autobiography he told a story of accidentally killing a horse in his youth because he didn't know anything about horses - he just put it in its stall after a day of use, without watering, feeding, currying, etc. The owner was quite upset.
During the American Civil War (1861-65), the Union Army lost more horses rendered unusable, or even dead, to sickness, exhaustion, etc., than to combat. The main reason being that (especially in the first two years of the war), while recruits from farm country knew how to care for their cavalry mounts, artillery horses, etc., the same could not be said for many of the volunteers and later conscripts from the North's urban areas. Contrary to popular belief, it was entirely possible to live in a major city in the United States in the mid-19th century and not be familiar with the care, maintenance, etc., of horses, because most horses inside the city limits belonged to commercial firms (cab companies, wagoners, etc.), and the average city dweller never had to learn how to take care of one; that was the professionals' department. The urbanites had to learn the hard way that a horse, while capable of tremendous feats of stamina (look up General Meade's horse "Baldy" for an example), could be laid low by something as simple as one swallow too much of cold water when overheated.
Some historians believe that, during Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the loss of horses (through exhaustion, starvation, or being killed to feed the soldiers) dealt more damage to the French army than the actual battles. Supply lines failed and huge amounts of artillery had to be abandoned in the field.
The Wehrmacht had the same problem with their own horses, which they began using because they didn't have enough trucks. German horses were unsuited for the muddy terrain of rasputitsa.
Contrary to what Westerns and dime novels would have you believe, real lawmen in the Old West did not ride all over the frontier on the same horse. If they were traveling a long distance, they'd ride a train or a stage coach and rent a horse from the livery stable when they got into town. It cost a lot of money to feed and care for a horse back then too.
This is the origin of the phrase "rode hard and put away wet." Horses can go lame if you so much as look at them cross-eyed. Leave 'em in a stall after you work 'em hard without cooling them out? Cramps. Let them drink too soon after hard work? Cramps. Eat too much? Colic. Let them roll on their backs after eating (they'll do that to cool off and relieve itching)? Colic's big brother, torsion - the intestines get twisted into a knot. Stone in the hoof? Lame. Anyone who uses pack animals for transportation is going to pick a mule or donkey over a horse, because mules and donkeys are much hardier animals than horses.
Horses are also incredibly skittish animals, that can get spooked by anything that seems remotely unfamiliar. Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human rightly points out that fear is their most common and dominant emotion, as befits a species for which the primary defense mechanism is running like hell. Even familiar objects seen from a different angle can freak them out, which is why blinders are vital equipment for handling any horse in a strange environment.
This is part of the reason for war elephants — horses were freaked out by elephants and usually wouldn't go near them, so putting some elephants in front of your infantry could neutralize cavalry charges. (Tamerlane figured out how to freak the elephants out — he put burning straw on some camels' backs and drove them forward. The smoke and fire caused the elephants to panic and trample the enemy.)
This is also the reason why many militaries employed camels for war: camels also spook out horses; in fights between camel cavalry and regular cavalry, the camels have tended to win (this goes back as far as Cyrus the Great, who employed camels to great effect against Lydia). Of course, it helped that camels are also very low-maintenance (if high-strung).
A History Channel special discussing mounted archery mentioned that one of the most important aspects is simply finding a horse that won't get freaked out by arrows streaking past its face.
This simple-minded fearfulness is probably why in Pride of Baghdad, while nearly every other animal talks, Saddam Hussein's escaped horses appear just as non-sentient as they do in Real Life and do nothing but run around throughout their appearance in the book.
The Telvis Cup is a 100 mile endurance race held every summer in the mountains of California. There are two mandatory 60 minute rest stops and veterinary checks. The first place horse often finishes in under 12 hours, but every year about half of the horses do not finish within the 24 hours allowed. (Everyone who finished with a horse that can still keep going gets a prize.)
Jolly Jumper in Lucky Luke gallops faster than his own shadow, for days if need be, sleeping in turns with Luke. He's also extremely smart, and is sometimes seen cooking beans for Luke. Just how does he open the cans?
Film - Live Action
In Top Secret!, bicycles whinny and gallop like horses.
The Not-Horses used by the Glorious Army of The Architect in the Keys to the Kingdom series have a tough, metallic skin, run for much longer than a normal horse, and can go without sleep for a week. They do need to be cleaned with a wire brush so that they don't rust though.
Hilariously inverted by Hiro in Saving Charlie. When he tries to think of a good excuse to stay at the diner a bit longer, he tells Ando that the car needs to rest.
Live Action TV
Lampshaded in an episode of Doctor Who where Romana's first encounter with a horse leaves her wondering where the ignition is. She gets on, it gallops off at full tilt, and the Doctor berates her for it later.
Another theory, by Fredrik K.T. Andersson, on what happens to the riders who don't let their horses to rest. It's of course nightmare, though without any fuel.
After the events of Wooden Forest, it's revealed that all the horses spent the time in a nearby stable.
Elan: So this is where the horses went while you guys were rescuing me? I kinda figured they had just disappeared when you didn't need them, kind of like V's familiar. Roy: Don't be silly, that would be completely unrealistic.
Later on, the characters are riding their horses until Elan points out that they left their mounts behind in the previous arc, at which point the horses spontaneously vanish.
Parodied in a visual gag when the Order are crossing the desert and need to stop at an oasis: see the page image.