Transportation combination: getting a horse to power a boat

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


The book I'm working on is set in a river valley civilization, and the protagonist is traveling upstream from one city to another, so I had to do a little research into what travel method would make the most sense for her.

Fun Facts

  • Canals allow beasts of burden to pull 50x as much weight as they could pull in a traditional cart on a road.
  • In the 1600s, travel by horseboat was widely considered reliable, comfortable and cheap.
  • A horseboat pulled along a canal towpath can go about 7 km/hr, faster than walking and smoother than a coach.
  • Railroads rendered horseboats largely obsolete, but some still exist as tourist attractions.
  • Bridges built over horseboat canals needed to be smooth and curved in order to avoid snagging towlines.

No Stop, Only Go

Because it is very difficult to stop a narrowboat loaded with cargo, canals built for horseboating often had strapping posts for boatmen to wrap towlines to slow down the boats. [Read More]

Horse Paddle

In addition to towing narrowboats up and down canals, horses could be used to power the paddle boats that operated as ferries, the horses either circling a post and or walking a treadmill. [Read More]

Upkeep Upriver

Maintenance of canals is required for functional horseboating, including the cutting back of vegetation and dredging of relevant canals. [Read More]

Side Paddles

The Romans may have had ships yoking animals to wheels that moved paddles on the sides of boats in lieu of rowers, tho there's little hard evidence. [Read More]

If you found this article interesting, you may also enjoy my newsletter about boating.


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