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A horse is a horse of course, of course

You may have noticed one of the biggest films out at the moment is Warhorse, based on the childrens’ novel by Michael Morpurgo. The story is set in the World War I period and shows the various ways in which the main equine protagonist was use in the conflict from cavalry to ambulance puller. Its apparently a tear-jerker (hence why I have no intention of going to see!), but it is also a great insight, albeit fictional, into how horses have been used over the years in battle.

To give you a sense of how big a role horses have played in the battle of the world let me tell you what we have have at Arcane Scenery in the horse line…

French Napoleonic Light cavalry
Celtic Cavalry
British Light Cavalry
Persian Medium Cavalry
Arab Cavalry
German Uhlan Cavalry
Wild West Cavalry
Roman Paetorian cavalry
Early Imperial Roman Cavalry
Parthian Light Cavalry
Scythian Cavalry
Persian Chariot Cavalry
Carthegenian Numidian Cavalry
and some slightly scary Timpo Waterloo cavalry figures
and lots more…

There is evidence of horses having been used in battle for thousands of years. Providing greater speed than a pair of human legs, better haulage than slaves and more menacing than a five foot nothing bloke with a little sword. Greek soldier, and horse fan, Xenophon wrote two  of the earliest how to books, Περὶ ἱππικῆς, and Ἱππαρχικὸς, which were military horsemanship guides. The first offered practical advice on looking after your equine friend, whilst the second gave advice on how one should be a cavalry officer. Xenophon’s advice includes:

  • Selecting a horse with thick hooves and a high frog (the squidgy bit of the hoof, which shouldn’t be touched unless you want catapulting back to Ancient Greece)
  • Picking a horse with big nostrils, not only because they breathe better, but because they look scary too (strangely this doesn’t really extend to people…)
  • Having a horse with small, umm, boy parts (presumably so he isn’t overcome with lust for the opposing army’s girl horses)
  • He advises that you shouldn’t annoy a ‘sprited’ horse (I can personally confirm that you really should not)
  • Wisely he also suggests that riders should ensure their own outfit and weapons are appropriate to them and their horse.
The wide range of battle needs has meant that all manner of equid friends have supported armies.
For cavalries, who need speedy horses the light Arabics, Berbers and Akhal Teke horses offer the ability to move fast.
Arabic horse byEaldgyth, Akhal Teke by Лена

Berber by Alexander Kastler

Horses are strong creatures, and are able to carry around a third of their own weight (a motivation to keep your army in shape), but if you need to move a few more people, or your general is especially hefty a good dray horse is what you’ll be wanting.

The Danish Fredriksborg Horse by Pia Garrslev, and the Czech Kladruber horse.

The beautiful French Percheron by MarjonKruik

These heavy working horses can carry a considerable amount of weight. The Percheron breed have provided carriage pulling skills for centuries, including the very earliest buses in the UK. However, don’t mistake their strength, weight (up to 2,600lb) and height (up to around 19hands) for lack of agility and speed. Medieval French knights are often pictured on grey Percheron cavalry horses.

Whilst if you just want someone marginally more obedient than your batman (no, not that Batman) a mule or donkey will serve you well…

Mule (in rather fetching fly hat) by Summi, and a Devonshire Donkey by AdrianPingstone.

The role and importance of the cavalry should not be underestimated. During the Waterloo part of the Napoleonic Wars the French Armee du Nord had around 100,000 horses in operation. Whilst the high attrition rates of cavalrymen in the War of the Sixth Coalition contributed to the defeat of the French. The light cavalries could reach speeds of 12mph whilst still maintaining formation, whilst the heavy cavalry troops (heavier horses) would work on outposts and as scouts. Armies also made use of horses to pull large artillery.

Napoleon I and his considerably more attractive horse.

Whilst in World War I, when Warhorse is set, horses took a main role at the beginning of the conflict, but as the war progressed they were gradually replaced by vehicles. The German army changed to motored chariots early on, as did the United States, whilst Britain and the Ottoman Empire persevered with equine infantry.  However, modern battle techniques killed thousands of horses, which is clearly not particularly efficient.


The Battle of Bazentin Ridge pre-battle line up

The Royal Scots Greys (now part of the Dragoons) in France.

Though most countries have stopped using horses for anything other than parade purposes their role in battle has not completely gone. The Indian army maintain a mounted cavalry unit the 61st Cavalry Regiment, who remain both non mechanised and terribly keen polo players (the British may have left but the empire lives on old chap…)

Horses also continue to play a role in conflicts in poorer places, the Janjaweed gunmen in Darfur are one of the protagonist groups in the ongoing conflict in the Sudan, and favour a mounted role, though they are more flexible as to the animal…

Janjaweed gunmen on horse, and camel.

If you would like to read Warhorse, or our other great World War I favourite, Birdsong have a look in our aStore!

Do you use cavalry in your troops? Any battle tales to tell? Let us know.