Horses in warfare

Scotland Forever! [crop] depicting the charge of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo.

The first use of horses in warfare occurred over 5,000 years ago. The earliest evidence 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. By 1600 BC, improved harness and chariot designs made chariot warfare common throughout the Ancient Near East, and 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 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 revolutionized by improvements in technology, including the invention of the saddle, the stirrup, and later, the horse collar.

Many different types and sizes of horse 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, communication, or supply. Throughout history, mules and donkeys as well as horses played a crucial role in providing support to armies in the field.

Horses were well suited to the warfare tactics of the nomadic cultures from the steppes of Central Asia. Several East Asian cultures made extensive use of cavalry and chariots. Muslim warriors relied upon light cavalry in their campaigns throughout North Africa, Asia, and Europe beginning in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Europeans used several types of war horses in the Middle Ages, 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, used in both European warfare and in the conquest of the Americas. Battle cavalry developed to take on a multitude of roles in the late 18th century and early 19th century and was often crucial for victory in the Napoleonic wars. In the Americas, the use of horses and development of mounted warfare tactics were learned by several tribes of indigenous people and in turn, highly mobile horse regiments were critical in the American Civil War.

Horse cavalry began to be phased out after World War I in favour of tank warfare, though a few horse cavalry units were still used into World War II, especially as scouts. 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 battle-ready horse cavalry units have almost disappeared, though the United States Army Special Forces used horses in battle during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Horses are still seen in use by organized armed fighters in Third World countries. Many nations still maintain small units of mounted riders for patrol and reconnaissance, and military horse units are also used for ceremonial and educational purposes. Horses are also used for historical reenactment of battles, law enforcement, and in equestrian competitions derived from the riding and training skills once used by the military.

Types of horse used in warfare

A fundamental principle of equine conformation is "form to function". Therefore, the type of horse used for various forms of warfare depended on the work performed, the weight a horse needed to carry or pull, and distance travelled.[1] Weight affects speed and endurance, creating a trade-off: armour added protection,[2] but added weight reduces maximum speed.[3] Therefore, various cultures had different military needs. In some situations, one primary type of horse was favoured over all others.[4] 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.[5]

The average horse can carry up to approximately 30% of its body weight.[6] 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.[7][8][9] Horses harnessed to a wheeled vehicle on a paved road can pull as much as eight times their weight,[10] but far less if pulling wheelless loads over unpaved terrain.[11][12] Thus, horses that were driven varied in size and had to make a trade-off between speed and weight, just as did riding animals. Light horses could pull a small war chariot at speed.[13] Heavy supply wagons, artillery, and support vehicles were pulled by heavier horses or a larger number of horses.[14] The method by which a horse was hitched to a vehicle also mattered: horses could pull greater weight with a horse collar than they could with a breast collar, and even less with an ox yoke.[15]


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.[16] Such horses ranged from about 12 hands (48 inches, 122 cm) to just under 15 hands (60 inches, 152 cm), weighing approximately 800 to 1,000 pounds (360 to 450 kg).[17] 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 early chariot warfare, raiding, and light cavalry.[18]

Relatively light horses were used by many cultures, including the Ancient Egyptians,[19] the Mongols, the Arabs,[20] and the Native Americans. 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.[21][22] In the European Middle Ages, a lightweight war horse became known as the rouncey.[23]


Medium-weight horses developed as early as the Iron Age with the needs of various civilizations to pull heavier loads, such as chariots capable of holding more than two people,[22] and, as light cavalry evolved into heavy cavalry, to carry heavily armoured riders.[24] The Scythians were among the earliest cultures to produce taller, heavier horses.[25] Larger horses were also needed to pull supply wagons and, later on, artillery pieces. In Europe, horses were also used to a limited extent to maneuver cannons on the battlefield as part of dedicated horse artillery units. Medium-weight horses had the greatest range in size, from about 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm) but stocky,[24][26] to as much as 16 hands (64 inches, 163 cm),[27] weighing approximately 1,000 to 1,200 pounds (450 to 540 kg). They generally were quite agile in combat,[28] though they did not have the raw speed or endurance of a lighter horse. By the Middle Ages, larger horses in this class were sometimes called destriers. They may have resembled modern Baroque or heavy warmblood breeds.[note 1] Later, horses similar to the modern warmblood often carried European cavalry.[30]


Large, heavy horses, weighing from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds (680 to 910 kg), the ancestors of today's draught horses, were used, particularly in Europe, from the Middle Ages onward. They pulled heavy loads like supply wagons and were disposed to remain calm in battle. Some historians believe they may 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. It is also disputed whether the destrier class included draught animals or not.[31] Breeds at the smaller end of the heavyweight category may have included the ancestors of the Percheron, agile for their size and physically able to manoeuvre in battle.[32]


The British Army's 2nd Dragoons in 1813 had 340 ponies of 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm) and 55 ponies of 14 hands (56 inches, 142 cm);[33] the Lovat Scouts, formed in 1899, were mounted on Highland ponies;[34] the British Army recruited 200 Dales ponies in World War II for use as pack and artillery animals;[35] and the British Territorial Army experimented with the use of Dartmoor ponies as pack animals in 1935, finding them to be better than mules for the job.[36]

Other equids

Horses were not the only equids used to support human warfare. Donkeys have been used as pack animals from antiquity[37] to the present.[38] Mules were also commonly used, especially as pack animals and to pull wagons, but also occasionally for riding.[39] Because mules are often both calmer and hardier than horses,[40] they were particularly useful for strenuous support tasks, such as hauling supplies over difficult terrain. However, under gunfire, they were less cooperative than horses, so were generally not used to haul artillery on battlefields.[8] 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 could be lightweight, medium weight, or even, when produced from draught horse mares, of moderate heavy weight.[41]