Horses in war and combat have become the military horses for man and his battles.
Horses have been involved in the human conflict since the time they were first domesticated. Early nomadic cultures in the Eurasian steppes used horses to raid other bands of nomads and settled cultures around them. It is easy to see why horses would be advantageous to warfare and raiding; a man on a horse has greater mobility, height, and weight than his opponent on foot. Horses allowed nomadic bands to appear without warning and carry off booty before an effective resistance could be organised. Parthians, Scythians, Sarmatians and later on Huns and Mongols all became famous for their horsemanship in war and working with these tactics.
There were some disadvantages to using horses in early warfare. Early on riders did not have saddles, saddlecloths, spurs or stirrups. Imagine riding at speed without these basic items! Rider was then expected to ride using a bow and arrow or a sword. Assyrian carvings (1000BC) show how their cavalry worked in pairs to solve this problem. One person would hold the reins of the other’s horse whilst the other fired his bow, then presumably they would swap back and forth. Another method used to solve the difficulty of fighting on a horse without tack was the chariot, as seen in many of the Biblical accounts of Egyptian, Babylonian and Hebrew warfare.
Eventually with the invention of saddle cloths and saddles, and the breeding of larger horses capable of carrying armoured men, meant that the chariot became obsolete and the cavalry became individual riders and horses again. Cavalry was still relatively lightly armoured compared to infantry. Roman cavalry role was for scouting and skirmishing rather than charging into massed infantry. Steppe nomads like the Huns perfected the role of the mounted archer, coming in close to fire arrows then running away before their opponents could hit them back. It wasn’t until the invention of stirrups, and the breeding of even larger horses that the idea of heavily armoured knights we see in Hollywood movies charging at masses of infantry became possible.
For a while, knights were the ultimate force on the battlefield, the definition of shock and awe. However, the invention of gunpowder and innovative infantry tactics soon led to cavalry being used once again for scouting and skirmishing, although with the occasional charge thrown in for good measure. By the Napoleonic wars, cavalry was used to harass artillery, fight other cavalry, and threaten the flanks of the infantry. In the American Civil War, both sides had famous cavalry regiments who provided screening for the main infantry forces as well as foraging and skirmishing duties. By the later phases of the war, cavalry had become mounted infantry. Armed with repeating rifles they became truly effective scouts and raiders.
Native Americans quickly learnt how to use horses following the colonisation of North America. The tribes of the Great Plains, such as the Comanche and Cheyenne were renowned horseback fighters who provided formidable resistance against the US Army and the settlers migrating westward.
At the start of the First World War, all combatants still had cavalry forces. Mounted Infantry was still used successfully by the British against the Ottoman Empire in the Sinai Desert and Palestine, a good example being the Australian Light Horse’s famous charge at Beersheba. However, as the Western Front turned into the quagmire of trench warfare, the role of horses on the battlefield changed. No longer used as cavalry, horses became pack animals for the armies bringing food, ammunition and supplies to the front lines. The new role was no less dangerous work and an estimated one and a half million horses were casualties of the war. This use of horses in modern warfare continued in World War 2 with the Soviet Union and Germany using over 6 million horses between them to make up for their lack of mechanization.
Today horse mounted combat units are mostly a thing of the past. Modern militaries only use horses for ceremonial and crowd control purposes. The only operationally mounted regiment in the world is the Indian Army’s 61st Cavalry; although many armies still have small mounted units for patrolling and reconnaissance purposes, particularly for rugged terrain.
Modern military vehicles and aircraft have overtaken the horse as a means of providing mobility in warfare, but no doubt there will always be a place for horses in the world’s militaries for better or worse.
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