Horses in Warfare

Robert E. Lee

Horses have been used in warfare since ancient times. There is archaeological evidence of horses being used for this purpose as far back as 4000 or 3000 B.C. in Eurasia. A famous mural from 2500 B.C., the “war panel” of the Standard of Ur, in Sumer, shows horses pulling a wagon. The ancient Assyrians had archers mounted on horses. Heavy cavalry was invented at some point in the Persian period, with horses and riders completely armored. The Persians selectively bred horses with more muscle for this purpose. Philip of Macedon is believed to have invented mass cavalry marches, and the Romans made use of heavy cavalry although their army was based on its infantry.

In the Middle Ages, knights came to battle mounted, although they often did the actual fighting on foot, reserving the horses for escape. Tournaments such as the joust served the dual purpose of sport and training for war. The invention of gunpowder led to horses being used primarily for pulling heavy artillery and cannons.

The early modern period saw a switch to light cavalry, which was better for communication. Unarmored horses and riders could move about the battlefield more efficiently. Horses were used to attack and harass infantry troops as they advanced. By the 19th century, most cavalry troops were trained to fight on foot, using their horses for transportation.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, cavalry began to be phased out. During World War I, tanks, trench warfare, barbed wire and machine guns made it almost obsolete. Horses were used mostly to carry ammunition and supplies in areas where the railway lines had been destroyed. Horse fodder was the single largest commodity shipped to the front by some countries. During World War II, there were even fewer cavalry units, but horses were still used for transport, especially in the rough terrain of Italy and the Middle East. The German army also used horses for transportation because their factories were producing aircraft and tanks instead of cars.

Today, horses are no longer used in combat but are instead used for
reconnaissance, ceremonial, or crowd control purposes. They are sometimes used for patrol in extremely rugged terrain, as in Afghanistan. Mounted police are popular in cities, and some rural areas have them for patrol of areas without roads. Modern-day Olympic equestrian events are based on combat skills. Some armies maintain historical reenactment cavalry units for educational and ceremonial purposes.

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