War Horse: A Brief History of Horses on the Battlefield.

The iconic image of the knight riding into battle on horseback is a striking one, but the role that war horses have played in the military successes of empires and powers around the world cannot be overstated. From the Mongols to the British, horses have fulfilled a number of key functions on the battlefield and are still used in some military settings to this day.

Early Use of Horses on the Battlefield

Horses were reportedly first domesticated by man around 6,000 years ago. By around 1,500 BC, various powers had started to use them on the battlefield, either for transporting goods or people or for pulling chariots. The practice of fighting on horseback seems to have first emerged 600 years later, around 900 BC.

The Scythians, who often warred with the Ancient Greeks, are said to be one of the first peoples to utilise units of mounted warriors on the battlefield. As the practice became increasingly common, more and more tactics evolved to maximise the advantage that mounted units could provide during battle. Different methods of training cavalry units developed, and, by 360 BC, the Greek cavalry officer Xenophon had published a comprehensive manual on the military use of horses.

Scotland Forever!
The Royal Scots Greys charge at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 (by Lady Butler 1881)

Subsequently, technological innovations like the saddle, stirrup, and horse collar made it easier to control horses in battle and to employ them in a greater number of ways for combat. This, in turn, made it possible for increasingly sophisticated cavalry tactics to be employed, which later dovetailed with the growing use of war horses protected by barding on the battlefield, making mounted units a force to be reckoned with.

The Evolution of Light and Heavy Cavalry

As the sight of horses became more common on the battlefield, both light and heavy cavalry units came into wider use. Light cavalry units were typically employed primarily for skirmishes and scouting, whereas heavy cavalry (also referred to as shock cavalry) were typically utilised for battlefield charges and direct combat.

One of the earliest examples of a type of heavy cavalry was the cataphract, which went on to be fairly widely used throughout both northern Africa and Eurasia. The cataphract is one example of a heavy cavalry unit where the horse wears heavy barding in the form of scale armour (the name ‘cataphract’ actually derives from the Greek kataphraktos, which means ‘armoured.’)

War chariot
Chariots and archers were weapons of war in Ancient Egypt, Rome and the Mongol Empire. They were devasting on the battlefield.

By the 7th-8th centuries AD, Islamic armies had widely adopted cavalry units as part of their campaigns across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and, by the Medieval era the armoured knight (when on horseback) had become one of the most formidable and best-known types of heavy cavalry.

Technological innovations in the form of muskets and cannons eventually made cavalry less and less effective in combat. By the 15th century, heavy cavalry had become far less practical in the face of musketeers, and light cavalry units were generally favoured right up to the Second World War, where they eventually faced obsolescence themselves as tank warfare became the norm.

Armoured Knights and Their War Horses

Knights have long been closely associated with riding horses, both on and off the battlefield. As far back as the Roman Empire, the Ordo Equestris demonstrates this; a military class of mounted nobles, they, along with some of the Germanic and Ostrogoth Roman armies, were part of a wider strategy of employing cavalry units in battle.

Read More: WWI Trench Raiding Weapons

During the Medieval era, the earliest conception of the knight began to take form during the Carolingian Age; at this time, any armed horseman could be called a knight, and it was these knights that chiefly assisted Charlemagne in his military campaigns. As a reward for their efforts, Charlemagne would reward his knights with land grants, which would go on to become passed down through families, more or less entrenching the knight class in the social order of the time.

By the latter part of the Medieval era, the notion of knighthood had become far more complex; not only was the ideal of chivalry expected to be upheld by knights, but they also had a myriad of civic and military duties to perform. Horsemanship was inextricably linked with knighthood by this stage, too; Ramon Llull describes in his 13th-century book, Book of the Order of Chivalry, how riding war horses was a duty expected of knights by this stage, as was participating in jousting and tournaments on horseback more generally.

The broadened definition of ‘knight’ had led to the separate, more specific term, ‘man-of-arms,’ being used to refer to fully-armoured cavalrymen by the later part of the Medieval Age.

Case Study: War Horses and the Mongol Empire

Perhaps no military has used horses as effectively as Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes.

For many, Genghis Khan’s renowned Mongol warriors are more or less synonymous with their formidable archery and cavalry abilities. Starting with the Huns of Attila, the different nomadic peoples of the Asian steppe used horses heavily in both warfare and other, more domestic applications, but it was the Mongols in particular that were able to leverage cavalry tactics to go on to conquer vast swathes of land.

Khan’s army was more or less a massive force of light cavalry. Depending on the unit they belonged to, Mongol warriors could generally cover somewhere between 60 to 200 miles of land per day, which made them an absolute force to be reckoned with, especially when paired with the army’s superior offensive tactics.

Mongol cavalry archers were masters of the battlefield. Every Mongol fighter was a master horseman.

It’s important to highlight the role that the Mongol horses themselves played in the success of Genghis Khan and his forces too. Unlike their European counterparts, Mongol horses were fairly small and lightweight. While they likely would have made for a less formidable sight, Mongol horses were also incredibly hardy and could graze off just about any type of grass available to them.

Because of this particular adaption, there was no need for the Mongol army to carry substantial amounts of feed to sustain their cavalry units, as the horses were largely self-sufficient. By combining this level of efficiency and adaptation with the archery skills of the Mongols, they managed to build one of history’s largest empires in a relatively short span of time.

A massive part of the reason that the Mongol army was able to use horses so effectively is because they knew how to work with them. Mongol warriors, for instance, would use several horses over the course of a single day, which gave the horses plenty of time to rest and recover when not in use. This kept their cavalry force efficient and would also have helped with injury prevention.

Read More: The Greatest Surprise Attacks and Victories in Military History

In fact, the Mongols were so comfortable riding their horses that they even slept in their saddles! They’re also renowned for slashing the veins of their horses to drink their blood, and using mare’s milk to produce an alcoholic beverage called kumis, which was a staple part of their diet.

Horses on the Battlefield During WWI

As horses became increasingly (and relatively) affordable towards the 20th century, their importance in everyday life in Europe and across the globe continued to grow. Mankind’s reliance on horses would likewise see them play many crucial roles in the United Kingdom’s war effort in World War One.

By the early 1900s, there were over 3 million horses in the UK. These animals were primarily used for transporting people and goods in both the cities and countryside, and they were just as important on the battlefield once war on Germany had been declared.

Solider and Mule.
A soldier in World War I with his mule. A mule is actually a cross between a horse and a donkey. Stubborn but reliable.

At the beginning of WWI, military demand for horses was massive. They were necessary not only for combat roles, but also to serve as mounts for officers, transport munitions and artillery, pull ambulances, and more. However, most horses in the UK were deemed unsuitable for the Front, which complicated matters. The British Army was so desperate at this time to increase its supply of horses that it purchased 130,000 from Canada.

Another measure implemented to a similar end was the Horse Mobilisation Scheme. Under the Scheme, a further 115,000 horses were purchased compulsorily from private citizens in the UK to assist in the war effort. By 1917, a full 368,000 horses were helping the British on the Western Front.

While, as mentioned previously, most of the horses that worked for the British Army weren’t in combat roles, the conditions that they operated under were still hazardous and gruelling. The British utilised horses as part of their desert supply chain during the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, where an average of 640 horses died per week as a result of their labour.

British Defence Chiefs Question The Future of New Ajax Scout Vehicle

By the end of the War, the British Army had acquired so many horses that it had a surplus in excess of 500,000. Most of them were sold for work, either in the UK or abroad, while horses that were lame or otherwise of little use were destroyed or sold for meat instead

Military Use of Horses in the Modern Era

US Special forces
U.S. Special Operations Forces (Task Force Dagger) on horseback in the Dari-a-Souf Valley, Afghanistan, in October 2001.

Horses were largely obsolete throughout the Second World War once tank warfare had become more and more normalised. However, they retained their use in some capacity, especially for ceremonial purposes and performing crowd control, and armies throughout the world still use horses in similar roles to this day.

With that being said, horses are still sometimes used by guerrilla fighters in developing nations, and cavalry units were actually employed by the U.S. Army during its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.


  • Emily Marty

    Emily is a passionate history enthusiast who loves exploring the stories behind events, objects, people, and places. In addition to her academic background in archaeology, Classics, and the Ancient World more broadly, Emily takes particular interest in the Cold War, the history of the British Isles, and the history of religion/mythology.

Emily Marty

Emily is a passionate history enthusiast who loves exploring the stories behind events, objects, people, and places. In addition to her academic background in archaeology, Classics, and the Ancient World more broadly, Emily takes particular interest in the Cold War, the history of the British Isles, and the history of religion/mythology.