Horses in warfare

Horses in warfare

Horses were first used in warfare over 5,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of the use of horses ridden in warfare dates from Eurasia between 4000 and 3000 BC. A Sumerian illustration of warfare from 2500 BC depicts some type of equine pulling wagons, and by 1600 BC, harness and chariot designs had improved to the point that chariot warfare was common throughout the Ancient Near East. The earliest written training manual for war horses was a guide for training chariot horses written about 1350 BC. As formal cavalry tactics replaced the chariot, so did the need for new training methods, and by 360 BC, the Greek cavalry officer Xenophon had written an extensive treatise on horsemanship. The effectiveness of horses in battle was also revolutionised by improvements in technology, including the invention of the saddle, the stirrup, and later, the horse collar.

Many different types and sizes of horses were used in war, depending on the form of warfare. The type used varied with whether the horse was being ridden or driven, and whether they were being used for reconnaissance, cavalry charges, raiding, or communication. Throughout history, mules and donkeys as well as horses played a crucial role in providing supplies to armies in the field.

Horses were well suited to the warfare tactics of the nomadic cultures from the steppes of Central Asia. Cavalry made up a large part of the armies of the Huns that invaded Europe and the Mongols that conquered much of Eurasia. The cultures of India and Japan made extensive use of cavalry, while the Chinese relied heavily upon chariots until adopting cavalry tactics to a limited degree, beginning in the 4th century BC. Muslim warriors relied upon light cavalry in their campaigns throughout North Africa, Asia, and Europe beginning in the 7th and 8th centuries AD.

Europeans bred several types of war horses in the Middle Ages, used extensively for all types of warfare, and the best-known heavy cavalry warrior of the period was the armoured knight. With the decline of the knight and rise of gunpowder in warfare, light cavalry again rose to prominence, and was used in both European warfare and in the conquest of the Americas. In the Americas, the use of horses and development of mounted warfare tactics were learned by the indigenous people, such as the highly skilled horse-mounted warriors of the Native American nations in the American West during the 19th century.

Light cavalry was seen on the battlefield well into the 20th century. Horse cavalry began to be phased out after World War I in favour of tank warfare, though a few horse cavalry units were still in use during World War II. By the end of World War II, horses were seldom seen in battle, but were still used extensively for the transport of troops and supplies. Today, formal horse cavalry units have almost disappeared, although horses are still seen in use by organised armed fighters in Third World countries. Many nations still maintain small units of mounted men for use in patrol and reconnaissance, and cavalry units are also used for ceremonial, exhibition, and education purposes in many areas. Horses are also used today for historical reenactment of battles, law enforcement, public safety work, and in equestrian competitions that have developed from the skills and training tactics once required by the military.

Types of horses used in warfare

Throughout history, war horses varied in size and build depending on the work performed, the weight a horse needed to carry or pull, and distances travelled. A fundamental principle of equine conformation is "form to function." Therefore, the type of horse used for various forms of warfare depended on the task at hand. Weight carried affects speed and endurance, creating a trade-off: armour added protection, but added weight reduces maximum speed, as is seen today when handicapping modern race horses. Therefore, various cultures had different military needs to consider when balancing the inverse relationship of weight and speed. In some situations, one primary type of horse was favoured over all others. In other places, multiple types were needed; warriors would travel to battle riding a lighter horse of greater speed and endurance, and then switch to a heavier horse, with greater weight-carrying capacity, when wearing heavy armour in actual combat.

The average horse can carry up to approximately 30% of its body weight, depending on bone size. While all horses can pull more than they can carry, the weight horses can pull varies widely, depending on the build of the horse, the type of vehicle, road conditions, and other factors. The method by which a horse was hitched to a vehicle also influenced how much it could pull: horses could pull greater weight with a horse collar than they could with an ox yoke or a breast collar. Horses harnessed to a wheeled vehicle on a paved road can pull as much as eight times their weight, but far less if pulling wheel-less loads over unpaved terrain. Thus, horses used for pulling vehicles varied in size, and, like riding animals, had to make a trade-off between speed and weight. Light horses could pull a small war chariot at speed. On the other hand, supply wagons and other support vehicles needed either heavier horses or a larger number of horses to perform the transportation duties required to support military operations.


Light, "oriental" horses such as the ancestors of the modern Arabian, Barb, and Akhal-Teke were used for warfare that required speed, endurance and agility. Such horses ranged from about 12 hands to just under 15 hands weighing approximately . To move quickly, riders had to use lightweight tack and carry relatively light weapons such as bows, light spears, javelins, or, later, rifles. This was the original horse used for the earliest chariot warfare, raiding, and light cavalry.

Light horses were used by many cultures, including the Scythians, the Ancient Egyptians, the Mongols, the Arabs, and the American Indians. Throughout the Ancient Near East, small, light animals were used to pull chariots designed to carry no more than two passengers, a driver and a warrior. In the European Middle Ages, one light type of horse became known as a palfrey, another was the rouncey.


Medium-weight horses developed as early as the Iron Age with the needs of various civilisations to pull heavier loads, such as chariots capable of holding more than two people, and, as light cavalry evolved into heavy cavalry, to carry heavily-armoured riders. Larger horses were also needed to pull supply wagons, and to manoeuvre various types of weapons, such as horse artillery, into place. Medium-weight horses had the greatest range in size, from about 14.2 hands but stocky, to as much as 16 hands weighing approximately . They generally were quite agile in combat, though they did not have the raw speed or endurance of a lighter horse. By the Middle Ages, heavier horses in this class were sometimes called destriers. They may have resembled modern Baroque or heavy warmblood breeds. Later, horses similar to the modern warmblood often carried European cavalry.


Large, heavy horses, weighing from , the ancestors of today's draught horses, were used, particularly in Europe, from the Middle Ages onward. They pulled heavy loads, having the muscle power to pull weapons or supply wagons and to remain calm under fire. Some historians believe they may also have carried the heaviest-armoured knights of the European Late Middle Ages though others dispute this claim, indicating that the destrier, or knight's battle horse, was a medium-weight animal. Breeds at the smaller end of the heavyweight category may have included the ancestors of the Percheron, which are agile for their size and would have been physically able to manoeuvre in battle. However, there is also considerable dispute if the destrier class of horse actually included draught types.

Other equids

Horses were not the only equids used to support human warfare. Donkeys were often used as pack animals to carry gear for non-mounted units. Mules were also commonly used, especially as pack animals and to pull wagons, but also occasionally as riding animals. Because mules are often both calmer and hardier than horses, they were particularly useful for strenuous, difficult support tasks, particularly hauling food and supplies over difficult terrain. The size of a mule and work to which it was put depended largely on the breeding of the mare that produced the mule. Mules, like horses, could be lightweight, medium weight, or even, when produced from draught horse mares, of moderate heavy weight.

Training and deployment

See also Horse training
The oldest known manual on training horses for chariot warfare was written circa 1350 BC by the Hittite horsemaster, Kikkuli. An ancient manual on the subject of training riding horses, particularly for the Ancient Greek cavalry is Hippike (On Horsemanship) written about 360 BC by the Greek cavalry officer Xenophon. One of the earliest texts from Asia was that of Kautilya, written about 323 BC.

Whether horses were trained for pulling chariots, to be ridden as light cavalry, heavy cavalry, or as the destrier for the heavily-armoured knight, much training was required to overcome the horse's natural instinct to flee from noise, the smell of blood, the confusion of combat, and learn to accept any sudden or unusual movements of their riders when utilizing a weapon or avoiding one. Developing balance and agility was crucial. The origins of the discipline of dressage came from the need to train horses to be both obedient and manoeuvrable. The Haute ecole or "High School" movements of classical dressage taught to the Lipizzan horses at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna have their roots in manoeuvres designed for the battlefield. However, modern airs above the ground were unlikely to have been used in actual combat, as most would have exposed the unprotected underbelly of the horse to the weapons of foot soldiers.

In most cultures, a war horse used as a riding animal was trained to be controlled with limited use of reins, responding primarily to the rider's legs and weight; to become accustomed to any necessary tack and protective armour placed upon it, as well as learn to balance under a rider who would also be laden with weapons and armour. Horses used for chariot warfare were not only trained for combat conditions, but because many chariots were pulled by a team of two to four horses, they also had to learn to work together with other animals in close quarters under chaotic conditions. A horse used in close combat may have been taught, or at least permitted, to kick, strike, and even bite, thus becoming weapons in the extended arsenal of the warriors they carried.

Technological innovations

Horses were probably ridden in prehistory before they were driven. However, evidence is scant, mostly consisting of simple images of human figures on horse-like animals drawn on rock or clay. The earliest tools used to control horses were bridles of various sorts, which were invented nearly as soon as the horse was domesticated. Evidence of bit wear appeared on the teeth of horses at the archaeology sites of Botai and Kozhai 1 in northern Kazakhstan, as early as 3500-3000 BC.

Harness and vehicles

The invention of the wheel was a major technological innovation that gave rise to chariot warfare. At first, equines, both horses and onagers, were hitched to wheeled carts by means of a yoke around their necks, in a manner similar to that of oxen. However, such a design is incompatible with equine anatomy, limiting both the strength and mobility of the animal. By the time of the Hyksos invasions of Egypt, c. 1600 BC, horses were pulling chariots with an improved harness design that made use of a breastcollar and breeching, which allowed a horse to move faster and pull more weight.

Even after the chariot had become obsolete as a tool of war, there still was a need for technological innovations in pulling technologies as larger horses were needed to pull heavier loads of both supplies and weapons. The invention of the horse collar in China during the 5th century AD (Southern and Northern Dynasties) allowed horses to pull greater weight than they could when hitched to a vehicle with the ox yokes or breast collars used in earlier times. The horse collar arrived in Europe during the 9th century, and became widespread throughout Europe by the 12th century.

Riding equipment

Two major innovations that revolutionised the effectiveness of mounted warriors in battle were the saddle and the stirrup.

Riders quickly learned to pad their horse's backs to protect themselves from the horse's spine and withers. Warriors fought on horseback for centuries with little more than a blanket or pad on the horse's back and a rudimentary bridle. To help distribute the rider's weight and protect the horse's back, some cultures created stuffed padding that resembles the panels of today's English saddle. Both the Scythians and Assyrians used pads with added felt attached with a surcingle or girth around the horse's barrel for increased security and comfort. Xenophon mentioned the use of a padded cloth on cavalry mounts as early as the fourth century BC.

The saddle with a solid framework, or "tree," provided a bearing surface to protect the horse from the weight of the rider, but was not widespread until the 2nd century AD. However, it made a critical difference, as horses could carry more weight when distributed across a solid saddle tree. A solid tree, the predecessor of today's Western saddle, also allowed a more built up seat to give the rider greater security in the saddle. The Romans are credited with the invention of the solid-treed saddle.

Arguably one of the most important inventions that made cavalry particularly effective was the stirrup. While a toe loop that held the big toe was used in India possibly as early as 500 B.C., and later a single stirrup was used as a mounting aid, the first set of paired stirrups appeared in China about 322 AD during the Jin Dynasty. By the 7th century, thanks primarily to invaders from Central Asia, stirrups spread across Asia to Europe. The stirrup, which allowed a rider greater leverage with weapons, as well as both increased stability and mobility while mounted, gave nomadic groups such as the Mongols a decisive military advantage. The knowledge of stirrups was known in Europe in the 8th century, but pictorial and literary references to their use date only from the 9th century. Widespread use appears to owe much to the Vikings, who spread the usage of the stirrup in the 9th and 10th centuries.


The first archaeological evidence of horses used in warfare was between 4000 and 3000 BC in the steppes of Eurasia, in what today is Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania. In those locations, not long after domestication of the horse, people began to live together in large fortified towns for protection from horseback-riding raiders. Prior to adoption of mounted warfare or a mounted lifestyle in general, horse nomads posed an extreme threat to the more sedentary cultures they encountered. Mounted raiders could attack and escape faster than villagers could follow. The use of horses in organised warfare was also documented early in recorded history. One of the first depictions of equids is the "war panel" of the Standard of Ur, in Sumer, dated c. 2500 B.C., showing horses (or possibly onagers or mules) pulling a four-wheeled wagon.

Chariot warfare

The earliest documented examples of horses playing a role in combat were in chariot warfare. Among the first evidence of chariot use are the burials of the Andronovo (Sintashta-Petrovka) culture in modern Russia and Kazakhstan, dated to approximately 2000 BC. The oldest evidence of what was probably chariot warfare in the Ancient Near East is the Old Hittite Anitta text, of the 18th century BC, which mentioned 40 teams of horses at the siege of Salatiwara. The Hittites became well known throughout the ancient world for their prowess with the chariot. Widespread use of the chariot in warfare across most of Eurasia coincides approximately with the development of the composite bow, known from c. 1600 BC. Further improvements in wheels and axles, as well as innovations in weaponry, soon resulted in chariots being driven in battle by Bronze Age societies from China to Egypt.

The Hyksos invaders brought the chariot to Ancient Egypt in the 16th century BC and the Egyptians adopted its use from that time forward. The oldest preserved text related to the handling of war horses in the ancient world is the Hittite manual of Kikkuli, which dates to about 1350 BC, and describes the conditioning of chariot horses.

Chariots were known in the Minoan civilization, inventoried on storage lists from Knossos in Crete, dating to around 1450 BC. Chariots were also used in China as far back as the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 BC), where they appear in burials. The high point of chariot use in China was in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), although they continued in use up until the 2nd century BC.

Descriptions of the tactical role of chariots in Ancient Greece and Rome are rare. The Iliad, possibly referring to Mycenaen practices used circa 1250 BC, describes the use of chariots for transporting warriors to and from battle, rather than for actual fighting. Later, Julius Caesar, invading Britain in 55 and 54 BC, noted British charioteers throwing javelins, then leaving their chariots to fight on foot.


Some of the earliest examples of horses being ridden in warfare were archers or spear-throwers mounted on horseback, dating to the reigns of the Assyrian rulers Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III. However, these riders sat far back on their horses, an awkward position for moving quickly, and the horses were usually held by a handler on the ground, keeping the archer free to use the bow. Thus, these archers were more a type of mounted infantry than true cavalry. The Assyrians developed cavalry in response to invasions by nomadic people from the north, such as the Cimmerians, who entered Asia Minor in the 8th century, B.C. and took over parts of Urartu during the reign of Sargon II, approximately 721 B.C. Mounted warriors such as the Scythians also had an influence on the region in the 7th century BC. By the reign of Ashurbanipal in 669 B.C., the Assyrians had learned to sit forward on their horses in the classic position of riding still seen today and could be said to be true light cavalry. The ancient Greeks used both light horse scouts and heavy cavalry, although not extensively, possibly due to the cost of keeping horses.

Heavy cavalry was believed to have been developed by the Ancient Persians, although others argue for the Sarmatians. By the time of Darius (558-486 B.C.), Persian military tactics evolved to require horses and riders that were completely armoured, and a heavier, more muscled horse developed to carry the additional weight. Later, the ancient Greeks developed a heavy armoured cavalry, the most famous units being the companion cavalry of Alexander the Great. The Chinese of the 4th century BC during the Warring States Period (403 BC-221 BC) began to use cavalry against rival states, and in response to nomadic raiders from the north and west, the Chinese of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) developed effective mounted units. Cavalry was not used extensively during the Roman Republic period, but by the time of the Roman Empire, the Romans developed and made use of heavy cavalry,though backbone of the Roman army was the infantry.

The term cataphract describes some of the tactics, armour, and weaponry of mounted units used from the time of the Persians up until the Middle Ages.


Central Asia

Relations between the steppe nomads and the settled people in and around Central Asia were often marked by conflict. The nomadic lifestyle was well suited to warfare, and the steppe cavalry became some of the most militarily potent peoples in the world, only limited by their frequent lack of internal unity. Periodically, great leaders or changing conditions would organize several tribes into one force, creating an almost unstoppable power. These unified groups included the Huns, who invaded Europe. At the time, no other major force could have conducted two campaigns with the same large army in both eastern France and northern Italy, over 500 miles apart, and much further on their actual route, within two successive campaign seasons, as the Huns under Attila did. Other unified nomadic forces included the Wu Hu attacks on China, and most notably, the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia.


The literature of ancient India describes numerous Central Asian horse nomads. Some of the earliest references to the use of horses in central Asian warfare are Puranic texts, which refer to an invasion of India by the joint cavalry forces of the Sakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Pahlavas, and Paradas, called the "five hordes" (pañca.ganah) or "Kśatriya" hordes (Kśatriya ganah). About 1600 BC, they captured the throne of Ayutthaya by dethroning its Vedic king, Bahu. Later texts, such as the Mahābhārata, written c. 950 BC, appear to recognise efforts taken to breed war horses and develop trained mounted warriors, stating that the horses of the Sindhu and Kamboja regions were of the finest quality, and that the Kambojas, Gandharas, and Yavanas were considered expert in fighting from horse.

In technological innovation, an early form of the stirrup, a toe loop that held the big toe, is credited to the cultures of India, and may have been in use as early as 500 BC. Not long after, the cultures of Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece clashed with those of central Asia and India. Herodotus (484 BC-425 BC) wrote that the Gandarian mercenaries of Achaemenids from the twentieth strapy were recruited in the army of emperor Xerxes I (486-465 BC), which he led against the Greeks. A century later, the Men of the Mountain Land from north of Kabul River (possibly the Kamboja cavalry, from south of the Hindu Kush near medieval Kohistan), served in the army of Darius III when he fought against Alexander the Great at Arbela in October, 331 BC. In battle against Alexander at Massaga in 326 BC, the Assakenoi forces included 20,000 cavalry. Later, the cavalry forces of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Kiratas, Parasikas, and Bahlikas helped Chandragupta Maurya (c. 320 BC-c. 298 BC) defeat the ruler of Magadha and placed Chandragupta on the throne, thus laying the foundations of Mauryan Dynasty in Northern India.

Later, Mughal armies used gunpowder weapons, but were slow to replace the composite bow of the traditional cavalryman. Under the impact of European military successes in India, some Indian rulers adopted the newer European system of massed cavalry charges, although others did not. By the eighteenth century, Indian armies continued to field cavalry, but mainly of the heavy variety.

China and Japan

The Chinese used chariots for horse-based warfare until light cavalry forces became common during the Warring States era (402 BC-221BC). A major proponent of the change to riding horses instead of chariots was Wu Ling, who lived circa 320 BC. However, the conservative forces in China always fought against change, and cavalry never became as dominant as in Europe. Cavalry in China also did not benefit from the additional cachet attached to being the military branch dominated by the nobility.

The Japanese switched from an emphasis on mounted bowmen to mounted spearmen during the Sengoku period (1467-1615 AD). The samurai, or noble and warrior class, of Japan continued to be cavalry, as they had been for centuries.

Islamic world

Muslim warriors conquered North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula during the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. Following the Hegira or Hijra of Muhammad in 622 AD, Islam spread across the known world of the time. By 630 AD, Muslim influence expanded across the Middle East and into North Africa. By 711 AD, the light cavalry of Muslim warriors had reached Spain, and controlled most of the Iberian peninsula by 720. Their mounts were of various oriental types, including the Barb from North Africa. A few Arabian horses may have come with Syrian horsemen who settled in the Guadalquivir valley. Another strain of horse that came with Islamic invaders was the Turkoman.

Muslim invaders travelled north from Spain into France, where they were stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD. Although this battle is often cited as the reason that the Franks turned to heavy cavalry, because of a need to fight the light cavalry of the Muslims, the Franks were also facing mounted enemies in the Lombards and Frisians. The need to carry more armour led to the Franks breeding for heavier, bigger horses. Over time, this type of breeding gave rise to the powerful but agile medieval war horse known as the destrier.


The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Europe, there were three primary types of horses used in warfare: The destrier, the courser, and the rouncey, although a generic word often used to describe medieval war horses is charger, which appears interchangeable with the other terms. The rouncey was the everyday horse of a squire or for the mounted man-at-arms, suitable for both general riding and war. The courser was a fast horse, well-suited to carrying messages between armies, while the more-famous, highly-trained destrier was reserved for the richest knights and nobility.

During the medieval period, the preferred war horse was of moderate size, rarely exceeding 15.2 hh, a trend which had continued over the following centuries for both officers and troopers, since heavy horses were logistically difficult to maintain, and less adaptable to varied terrains. The destrier of the early Middle Ages was a moderately larger horse than the courser or rouncey, in part to accommodate heavier armoured knights. However, these were not as large as draught horses. For example, the horse ridden by King William I of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was said to be an Iberian-type animal brought from Spain by William Giffard. It was probably about a bit taller than the average size of horses ridden by William's knights, which were probably between 14.2 hands tall to about 15 hands tall. As the amount of armour and equipment increased in the later Middle Ages, the size of the horses increased as well; some late medieval horse skeletons were of horses 15 hands and taller.

Stallions, or uncastrated male horses, were often used as destriers due to their natural aggression. A thirteenth century work describes destriers "biting and kicking" on the battlefield. However, the use of mares, or female horses, by European warriors cannot be discounted from literary references, and mares, who were quieter and less likely to call out and betray their position to the enemy, were the preferred war horse of the Moors, the Islamic invaders who attacked various European nations from 700 AD through the 15th century.

While it could be effective, the heavy cavalry charge was not a common occurrence in warfare. Pitched battles were avoided, if at all possible, with most offensive warfare in the early Middle Ages taking the form of sieges, or swift mounted raids called chevauchées, with the warriors lightly armed on swift horses and their heavy war horses safely in the stable. When battles occurred, they were rarely fought on land suitable for heavy cavalry. While mounted riders remained effective for initial attacks, by the end of the fourteenth century, it was common for knights to dismount to fight, and their horses were sent to the rear, and kept ready for pursuit. The move to predominately infantry-based battles in 1300–1550 was likely due to improved infantry tactics and changes in weaponry.

Some historians attribute the demise of the knight to the invention of gunpowder and the musket, Other historians look earlier and claim the use of the English longbow, which was introduced into England from Wales in 1250, marked the beginning of the decline. Some relate the decline of armoured knights to both technologies. Yet another theory argues that new technologies contributed to the development of knights, rather than to their decline. For example, plate armour was first developed to resist the crossbow bolts of the early medieval period, and the rise of the English longbow during the Hundred Years' War contributed to increased the use and sophistication of armour, culminating in the full harness worn by the early 15th century. From the 14th century on, most plate was made from hardened steel, which could resist early musket ammunition. Yet, this stronger design did not render the plate increasingly impracticable; a full harness of musket-proof plate from the 17th century weighed , significantly less than 16th century tournament armour. It is most likely that the decline of the armoured knight was linked to multiple factors including the changing structures of armies and various economic factors, not simply an obsolescence caused by new technology. By the sixteenth century, the concept of a combined-arms professional army first developed by the Swiss had spread throughout Europe, and was accompanied by improved infantry tactics. Professional armies placed an emphasis on training and paid contracts, rather than the ransom and pillaging which reimbursed knights in the past. This situation, when coupled with the rising costs involved in outfitting and maintaining armour and horses, probably led many members of the traditional knightly classes to abandon their profession.

Throughout the period, light horse, or prickers, were used for scouting and reconnaissance; they also provided a defensive screen for marching armies. Large teams of draught horses, or oxen, were used for puling the heavy early cannon. Other horses pulled wagons and carried supplies for the armies.

The war horse was also seen in hastiludes - martial war games such as the joust, which began in the eleventh century as both a sport and to provide training for battle. Specialised destriers were bred for the purpose, although the expense of keeping, training, and outfitting them prevented the majority of the population from owning them. While some historians suggest that the tournament had become a theatrical event by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, others argue that jousting continued to help cavalry train for battle until the Thirty Years' War.

Renaissance and Early Modern Period

The Renaissance and Early Modern period continued the shift from the heavy cavalry exemplified by the armoured knight to unarmoured light cavalry, which was useful for both battles and field communication, using fast, agile horses to move quickly across battlefields. Other types of cavalry remained in use, however. During the Elizabethan era, cuirassiers, heavily armoured and equipped with lances, light cavalry, who wore mail and bore light lances and pistols, and "petronels", who carried a early carbine were common. As heavy cavalry reduced in the 17th century, armour was increasingly abandoned, and dragoons became more common: mounted infantrymen whose main duties involved reconnaissance, escort and security. Dragoons' horses were smaller, and were rarely used in combat. Cavalry tactics also altered, with fewer mounted charges at pace, and more reliance on drilled manoeuvres undertaken at the trot, with the discharge of firearms once within range. These ever-more elaborate movements, such as wheeling and caracole, were developed to facilitate the use of firearms from horseback. These tactics did not prove greatly successful in battle, since pikemen protected by musketeers could deny cavalry room to manoeuvre. However, the advanced equestrianism required for these tactics survives into the modern world at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The ratio of footmen to horsemen increased over the period as the infantry weaponry improved, and footmen became more mobile and versatile, particularly once the musket bayonet had been adopted, replacing the more cumbersome pike.

While its use could be restricted, cavalry was never rendered obsolete on the battlefield. As infantry formations developed in tactics and skills, artillery became essential to break formations; in turn, cavalry was required to both combat enemy artillery, which was susceptible to cavlry while deploying, and to charge enemy infantry formations broken by their side's artillery fire. Thus, successful warfare depended in a balance of the three arms: cavalry, artillery and infantry.

The heavy mounted charge was not made obsolete, however, with many generals making use of the tactic over the centuries, from the Duke of Marlborough, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, who made great use of sword-wielding wedge-formation shock troops to penetrate enemy lines, to Napoleon in the early 19th century, who employed armoured heavy cuirassiers, and who claimed that "without cavalry, battles are without result".

Light cavalry continued to play a a major role for several centuries. Even though some leaders preferred large, tall horses for their mounted troops, this was as much for prestige as for increased shock ability. While Frederick the Great, preferred horses as tall as 16 hands ()for his cuirassiers, the dragoon mounts of Napoleon's Imperial Guard were more typical, with an average size of 15 hands As regimental structures developed, many units selected horses of uniform type, some, such as the Royal Scots Greys even specifying colour. Trumpeters, too, often rode distinctive horses, so they might stand out. Regional armies developed preferences, such as the British hunters, the German Hanoverians, and the steppe poniesof the Cossacks, but once in the field, the lack of supplies typical of wartime meant that horses of all types were used. Since horses were such a vital component of most armies in early modern Europe, and many instituted state studs for the breeding of horses for the military, but in wartime supply rarely matched the demand, resulting in some cavalry troops fighting on foot.

The 19th century


On the battlefield throughout the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, the cavalry's main offensive role was as shock troops. In defence, cavalry could be used to attack and harass the enemy's infantry flanks as they advanced. In addition, cavalry were used to break up enemy lines following successful infantry action. Cavalry was often supported by horse artillery. Frequently, infantry followed behind, in order to secure any ground won.

Cavalry were frequently used prior to an infantry assault, so that their charges might force an infantry line to break and reform, into formations vulnerable to infantry or artillery. Mounted charges were carefully managed for speed and formation. A charge's maximum speed was 20kph; moving faster resulted in a break in formation, and fatigued horses. Charges occurred across clear rising ground, and were effective against infantry on the march, or when deployed in a line or column.. A foot battalion formed in line was particularly vulnerable to cavalry, and could be broken or destroyed by a well-formed charge. In the Battle of Albuera French cavalry decimated a regiment, killing 1,250 out of 1,650 men.

Distinctions between heavy and light cavalry became less significant during the modern period; by the end of the Peninsular War, heavy cavalry were performing the scouting and outpost duties previously undertaken by light cavalry, and by the end of the nineteenth century the roles had effectively merged. Most armies at the time preferred cavalry horses to stand 15.2 hands tall and weigh 450–500 kg, although cuirassiers frequently had heavier horses. Lighter horses were used for scouting and raiding. Cavalry horses were generally obtained at 5 years of age, and from 10 or 12 years service, barring loss, could be expected. Mares and geldings were used in preference to the less-easily managed stallions. Losses of 30–40% were common during a campaign, due to conditions of the march as well as enemy action.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, traditional cavalry functions altered. A number of cavalry units transferred in title and role to "mounted rifles": troops trained to fight on foot, but retaining their mounts for rapid deployment, as well as for use as patrols and scouts, communications and defensive screening. These troops differed from mounted infantry, who used horses for transport but did not perform the old cavalry roles of reconnaissance and support.

During the Boer War, cavalry and other mounted troops were the major combat force, since the horse-mounted Boers moved too quickly for the British infantry to engage. The terrain was not well-suited to the British horses, resulting in the loss of over 300,000 animals. As the campaign wore on these replaced by local Basuto ponies and the hardy Walers from New South Wales.

Horse artillery

Another major use of horses throughout the period was as draught animals for heavy artillery, or cannons. In addition to foot artillery, where horse-drawn guns were attended by gunners on foot, many armies had horse batteries (units of artillery), where each gunner was provided with a mount. These "horse artillery" units generally used lighter pieces, although the British had some 9-pounder (medium-weight) horse batteries; for added speed, these had a team of eight horses to pull them, rather than the usual six. Heavier artillery pieces needed a team of 12 horses, while Congreve rockets required about 25 horses. With the individual riding horses required for officers, surgeons and other support staff, as well as those pulling the artillery guns and supply wagons, each British artillery battery of six guns required 160–200 horses.

Horse artillery usually came under the command of cavalry divisions, but in some battles, such as at Waterloo, the horse artillery were used by the British as a rapid response force, successfully repulsing attacks from the French, and assisting the infantry.

The Americas

Horses were particularly useful as a weapon of war in the Americas. Because the horse had been extinct in the Western Hemisphere for approximately 10,000 years, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas initially had no warfare technologies that could overcome the considerable advantage provided by European horses and gunpowder weapons. Beginning in the early 16th century, when the Conquistadors from Spain came to the Americas and conquered the Aztec and Inca empires, horses and gunpowder provided a crucial edge. The advantages of speed and increased impact of cavalry contributed to a number of early victories by European fighters in open terrain, though their success was limited in more mountainous regions. However, Indian people quickly learned to use horses.

In South America, the Inca provided well-maintained roads in the Andes, which enabled quick mounted raids, such as those undertaken by the Spanish while resisting the siege of Cuzco in 1536–7. However, indigenous populations also learned to use horses. In Chile, the Mapuche began using cavalry in the Arauco War in 1586. They used horse cavalry to drive the Spanish out of Araucania at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and later conducted mounted raids known as Malónes on Spanish, then Chilean and Argentine settlements until well into the nineteenth century.

In North America, the people of the Great Plains, such as the Comanche and the Cheyenne, became renowned horseback fighters, again demonstrating the efficiency of light cavalry. By the 19th century, they presented a formidable force against the United States Army.

20th century

Light cavalry was still seen on the battlefield at the beginning of the 20th century. Though formal mounted cavalry began to be phased out as fighting forces during or immediately after World War I, cavalry units that included horses still had military uses well into World War II.

World War I

World War I saw great changes in the use of cavalry. The mode of warfare changed, and the use of trench warfare, barbed wire and machine guns rendered traditional cavalry almost obsolete. Tanks were beginning to take over the role of shock combat.

Prior to World War I, cavalry was used to flank the sides of the opposing army and exploit breaches in the enemy's line. In the initial stages, of the War, cavalry skirmishes were common, and horse-mounted troops were widely used for reconnaissance. On the Western Front cavalry were an effective flanking force during the "Race to the Sea" in 1914, but were less useful once trench warfare was established, although there were isolated instances of successful shock combat., and cavalry divisions also provided important mobile fire power. Cavalry played a greater role on the more fluid Eastern Front, where trench warfare was less common than in the west. Both on the Eastern Front, and against the Ottomans, the "cavalry was literally indispensable". In 1917, in the Middle East, one of the greatest cavalry charges in modern times occurred, during the Battle of Beersheba, when two regiments of Light Horse from the Anzac Mounted Division successfully charged Turkish trenches, a charge which was "instrumental in securing Allenby's victory [in Palestine]". Cavalry was also used with in the Third Battle of Gaza and Battle of Megiddo. British (and Empire) cavalry proved adaptable to this style of warfare, since they were trained to fight both on foot and while mounted, while most other European cavalry still relied on shock action.

On both fronts, the horse was used regularly as a pack animal. Because railway lines could not withstand artillery bombardments, which shelled the areas directly to the rear of entrenched battle lines, horses carried ammunition and supplies between the railheads and the rear trenches, though the horses generally were not used in the actual trench zone. This role of horses was critical, and thus horse fodder was the single largest commodity Britain shipped to its Army in France during the war, even above ammunition and shells. In 1917, Britain had over a million horses and mules in service, but harsh conditions, especially over winter, resulted in heavy losses, particularly amongst the heavy Clydesdale horses that drew the guns. Over the course of the war, Britain lost 484,000 horses (roughly one horse for every two men).

Following the war, armies became increasingly more mechanised. Many cavalry regiments were converted to mechanized, armoured divisions, with light tanks being developed to perform many of the cavalry's original roles.

World War II

A number of nations made used of cavalry and horse units during World War II. The Polish army used cavalry to defend their nation against the armies of Nazi Germany during the 1939 invasion. Both the Germans and the Soviet Union maintained cavalry units throughout the war, which proved useful on the Eastern Front, where some shock action occurred. The British Army used horses in warfare during the beginning of the war, with the final British cavalry charge occurring on March 21, 1942, when the Burma Frontier Force encountered Japanese infantry near Toungoo airfield in central Burma. The only American cavalry unit during World War II was the 26th Cavalry, which included some Philippine Scouts, and challenged the Japanese invaders of Luzon, Philippines, holding off two armoured and two infantry regiments during the invasion of the Philippines, and repelled a unit of tanks in Binalonan. They successfully held ground for the Allied armies' retreat to Bataan.

Throughout the war, horses and mules were an essential form of transport, especially in by the British in the rough terrain of Italy and the Middle East. While the United States Army utilised a few cavalry and supply units during the war, there were concerns that the Americans did not use horses often enough. In the campaigns in North Africa, generals such as George S. Patton lamented their lack, saying, "had we possessed an American cavalry division with pack artillery in Tunisia and in Sicily, not a German would have escaped." The German and the Soviet armies used horses until the end of the war for the transportation of troops and supplies. The German Army, strapped for motorised transport because its factories were needed to produce tanks and aircraft, used around 2.75 million horses - more than it had used in World War I. One German infantry division in Normandy in 1944 had 5,000 horses. The Soviets used 3.5 million horses.

In the military today

Today, formal combat units of mounted cavalry are mostly a thing of the past, with horseback units within the modern military used for reconnaissance, ceremonial, or crowd control purposes. With the rise of the mechanised technology, horses in formal national militias were displaced by modern tank warfare, which is sometimes still referred to as "cavalry. Organised armed fighters on horseback are occasionally seen, particularly in the Third World, though they usually are not officially recognised as part of any national army. The best-known current examples are the Janjaweed, militia groups seen in the Darfur region of Sudan, who became notorious for their attacks upon unarmed civilian populations in the Darfur conflict.

Reconnaissance and patrol

Although horses have little combat use today by modern armies, the military of many nations still maintain small numbers of mounted units for certain types of patrol and reconnaissance duties in extremely rugged terrain, including the current conflict in Afghanistan. The only remaining operationally-ready, fully horse-mounted regular regiment in the world is India's 61st Cavalry.

Ceremonial and educational uses

Many countries throughout the world maintain traditionally-trained and historically uniformed cavalry units for ceremonial, exhibition, demonstration or educational purposes. One example is the Horse Cavalry Detachment of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division. This unit, made up of active duty soldiers, still functions as an active unit, trained to approximate the weapons, tools, equipment and techniques used by the United States Cavalry in the 1880s. The horse detachment is headquartered at Fort Hood, Texas and is charged with public relations, change of command ceremonies and public appearances. A similar detachment is the Governor General's Horse Guards, Canada's Household Cavalry regiment and the last remaining mounted cavalry unit in the Canadian Forces. Nepal's King's Household Cavalry is a ceremonial unit with over 100 horses and is the remainder of the Nepalese cavalry that existed since the 19th century.

Related modern uses

Today, many of the historical military uses of the horse have evolved into peacetime applications, including exhibitions, historical reenactments, work of peace officers, everyday riding, and competitive events.

Historical reenactment

Horses are used in many historical warfare reenactments, including everything from the Battle of Hastings to the recreation of 20th century battles. Reenactors try to recreate the conditions of the battle or tournament in as much detail as possible, with equipment that is as authentic as possible, although this is sometimes difficult due to changes in technology and the fact that much of the equipment of past eras is no longer manufactured.

Law enforcement and public safety

Mounted police have been used since the 18th century, with the first recorded instance being in 1758 with the creation of the London Bow Street Horse Patrol. Since then, mounted police units have been used worldwide to control traffic and crowds, patrol public parks, keep order in processionals and during ceremonies and perform general street patrol duties. Today, many cities, including London, Barcelona, and New York City still have mounted police units. In rural areas, horses are used by mounted police forces for patrols over rugged terrain, crowd control at religious shrines and border patrol.

In rural areas, law enforcement that operates outside of incorporated cities may also have mounted units. These include specially deputised, paid or volunteer mounted search and rescue units sent into roadless areas on horseback to locate missing people. Law enforcement in national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, and other types of wildlife refuge may use horses in areas where mechanised transport is difficult or prohibited. Horses can be an essential part of an overall team effort as they can move faster on the ground than a human on foot, can transport heavy equipment, and provide a more rested rescue worker when a subject is found. The U.S. Border patrol notes that they can stable 10 horses for the same cost as maintaining one off-road 4x4 truck.

Equestrian competition

When the first equestrian events were held at the Olympics in 1912, competition was restricted solely to serving officers on military horses. The games remained dominated by military riders through the 1948 Games. In 1952, as cavalry divisions were replaced by mechanisation, military riders were in the minority and civilian riders were allowed to compete. The three modern-day Olympic equestrian events of eventing, show jumping, and dressage all have their roots in cavalry skills and classical horsemanship.

Dressage traces its origins to the works of Xenophon and his works on cavalry training methods, most notably On Horsemanship, but became recognized in its modern form during the Renaissance when training methods of classical dressage developed in response to a need for more intelligent management of horses in battle where firearms were used. The Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria was created to train horses with the classical philosophy of Xenophon and continues this tradition today.

Eventing developed out of cavalry officers' needs for versatile, well-schooled horses. The discipline included a dressage phase, to test the ability of the cavalry mount on the parade ground, the endurance phase, to test the mount's fitness and ability to carry messages across the countryside, traveling quickly over rough terrain, and the stadium jumping phase, as a test to ensure that the mount was still fit enough to continue after the rigors of the endurance competition. It evolved into the modern three-phase competition seen today.

Show jumping developed from fox hunting in England during the mid-19th century, and at the beginning used natural objects in the countryside such as walls, ditches and fences. British cavalry officers were the first to take up the sport, as they considered jumping to be good training for their horses, and other European cavalries soon following the British lead. Leaders in the development of modern riding technique over fences, such as Federico Caprilli, came from military ranks.

Sword, lance, and revolver competitions are also held, especially in Britain, to test the combat skills of mounted horsemen. Tent pegging, which tests the use of lance at speed, is usually part of these competitions. Points are awarded for skill, efficiency and style in many competitions, although in some cases the winner is simply the individual who hits the greatest number of targets.

See also




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Further reading

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