Horses have been used in warfare since ancient times up until the present day. They were used in many roles, from combat mounts to pack animals, and across many cultures and civilisations.
Medieval warhorses were so valuable that they might have cost up to three years’ worth of a knight’s wages, and even used in place of tax payments should it be required.
Horses were trained for battle by the warriors. Italian riding instructor Claudio Corte (1529 – ?) advises keeping steeds fit by running up and down hills and jumping hedges and ditches. The horse must also get used to the sounds of battle and weapons. Tournaments and hunting were often used to prepare both rider and horse for war. Other aspects of training mentioned by Corte include night-riding, swimming and waiting while the rider mounts and dismounts.
Because horses were highly valued, it was preferable for them to be captured by an enemy than killed. But many did die on campaign from injuries, disease, or even receiving medical treatment.
Sometimes knights would fight on foot using the horses as a mode of transportation, but many horses were active battle participants. In close combat, they were as much warriors as their human counterparts: kicking, biting and head-butting the enemy.
Mounts of the Khans
One of the most impressive examples of cavalry warfare was the Mongols from the 13th century. The Mongols slept in the saddle, so their horses had to carry their riders non-stop for days, grazing on the move. The Mongol warriors cut their horses’ veins to drink their blood in harsh conditions and used mare’s milk to make an alcoholic drink called kumis. By using their horses for sustenance and by rotating riding horses on marches they travelled about 60-100 miles in a day, an impressive feat until the invention of mechanised warfare.
Horse and elephant
Indian horses had a formidable enemy on the battlefield: the elephant. The elephants’ enormous size and strange smell was terrifying to the horses and their riders. However, horses would also sometimes fight alongside elephants as supporting cavalry.
Horses feature prominently in many of our museum displays, and we hope that this article has shown you why. So the next time you’re wandering through our galleries spare a thought not just for the men but for the animals as well. They’ve trained with us, carried us, and fought with us since records began. They indeed are every bit as brave as the people who rode them.