Hollywood medieval war movies are filled with horses charging ecstatically to war. This mirrors a reality where horses play a critical role in human warfare as far back as 3000BC. The American Civil War, WW1, and WW2 saw a significant deployment of horses in either combat or logistic duties. But precisely which type of horses was used in war?
Across the major wars in human civilization, three types of horses have predominantly be deployed. These are the rouncey, destrier, and the courser. The agility, resilience, and loyalty of these horse breeds were monumental in war applications. Technological advancements in warfare saw significant evolutions in horses’ deployment, as such horses’ efficiency was ramped up by the adoption of saddles, horse collars, and stirrups.
In this guide, we satisfy your curiosity as to what breed of horses were used in war during the medieval era, WW1, and even WW2. We will also explore how these horses were trained, if they bite, and some of the most famous horses that ever rode to war.
What Breed Were Medieval War Horses?
During the medieval era, the destrier was the most commonly deployed horse for war. This was relatively a big horse and befitting of medieval knights.
Destriers during that era were closely associated with aristocracy as men of soldiers of high ranking were usually assigned to such medieval war horses.
What Different Jobs Did Horses Do in the War?
Before the adoption of tanks and aircraft into warfare, horses were deployed across a broad spectrum of responsibilities.
Horses Were the Core Component of Calvaries
In ancient warfare, cavalries were renowned as the most mobile– and consequently the most lethal – department in combat duties. Calvary here simply means soldiers who rode on horsebacks.
Typically utilized as light cavalry, the mobility such horses present was massively advantageous for screening battle lines and reconnaissance expeditions. As heavy cavalry, such coordinated troops of horse-mounted soldiers were deployed as shock elements, leveraging the element of surprise to catch armies off-guard.
During WW1, the Allies (combining countries like United States, Russia, Britain, and France) and the Central Powers (combining countries like Germany, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary) were formidably stocked with cavalry forces.
Horses Were Used in Evacuating the Wounded
The essence speed couldn’t be more pronounced than in saving the lives of wounded soldiers. The quicker an injured soldier gets medical care, the higher the chances of survival.
Therefore in wars of old, horses were crucial formations of medical evacuation. Horses majorly drew ambulances before the introduction of motorized transport.
In terrains, where mobility was significantly hindered, horses’ maneuverability was crucial in either transporting wounded soldiers to make-shifts or medical centers or transporting much-needed medical supplies.
Horses Played a Crucial Role in Ammunition
With the increasing sophistication of warfare, armies were taking more than swords and bows to war. Ammunition and heavy weaponry were rapidly adopted.
It would be exhaustive to get soldiers carrying these massive loads, as such soldiers were needed in battle-ready conditions. Therefore, horses were used in warfare logistics, either in transporting heavy machinery, guns, ammunition, or even moving divisions of soldiers.
Are War Horses Still Breed?
Wars have been enormously mechanized or automated. The time of horses running out to battle has passed.
The last time a major world power used horses in warfare was in Afghanistan. This was when the United States Army Special Forces deployed the horses to navigate the country’s rough terrains. Horses are rarely being bred anymore for dedicated war purposes.
How Big are War Horses?
These war horses’ sizes differed depending on the era and the precise application of such horses in war. For example, medieval war horses were known to be some of the biggest that ever rode to war.
The typical medieval war horse was within the height spectrum of 56-60 inches. Such size aligned with the eminence knights riding it needed to project.
Regarding application, smaller horses were preferred for war when speed, agility, and endurance were needed. Arabians and the Barbs favored smaller horses that barely got taller than 46 inches.
However, when the rider was on heavy armor, heavier and larger horses were preferred.
How are War Horses Trained?
The role a war horse fulfills essentially determines its training regimen. Generally, horses deployed to the front line were trained to overcome their instinctive agitation from high-pitch noise (typical of battles). These horses were also trained to remain composed in the face of gory violence and profuse blood smell.
Agility and balance (especially for riders with heavy armor) were major elements that horses ingrained from their training. They were very responsive to the direction or goading of their rider, especially those carrying weapons.
These training regimens were necessary for educating the horse on following directions even with minimal use of reins by the rider, who is presumed to be preoccupied with combat exertions. War horse training even involved teaching the horse to carry out specific directions depending on how the rider kicked it.
In some cases, horses that would experience close-quarter combats were trained to use their legs to kick and strike enemies that approached them.
Did War Horses Bite?
Some war horses to trained to show aggression by biting the enemy. Some armies trained their horses to defend their riders (by biting) when the enemy dismounts the rider.
Famous Civil War Horses
Across the history of American warfare, some horses wrote their names in the revered books of history. These horses are reputed for their valor and loyalty to their riders in the most frightening war conditions in one of the most defining wars in the American Story.
Old Baldy Became a Legend in the American Civil War
Old Baldy was a famed horse whose master (or rider) was the equally renowned George G. Meade, a general of the Union in the American Civil war.
Living 1852 to 1882, Old Baldy made history for its heroics through major battles like the Battle of Gettysburg (which recorded the highest casualties in the civil war) and the Battle of Antietam.
Rugged and brave, Old Baldy survived a clean neck shot at the Battle of Antietam. Reports had it Old Baldy was wounded 4-15 times in war, all which it survived.
Cincinnati was Another Hoofed Hero of the American Civil War
Just like Old Baldy, Cincinnati was another legend in the civil war, this time ridden by the enigmatic General Ulysses S. Grant. An offspring of a renowned lineage, Cincinnati can be said to be hereditarily used to royalty.
Despite being even-tempered, Cincinnati was notorious for being fascinated with the noise of war. Famously, it was Cincinnati General Ulysses S. Grant rode to the negotiations with General Robert Lee at the Appomattox Court House. These negotiations led to the surrender of the Confederate army.
Traveller was a Major Stakeholder in the American Civil War
Traveller was General Robert Lee’s favorite horse. Indeed, Traveller was an American Saddlebred with a grey coat. It had a significant size, coming at the height of 64 inches.
More than his courage, Traveller was famed for his speed, proud gait, loyalty, and resilience. He was said to walk Robert Lee at times for six hours consecutively at night throughout some of the roughest terrains without tiring.
So memorable were his heroics that Traveller was given an honorary burial, with its bones moved to a museum situated in the basement of Lee Chapel in 1929.
How Many Horses Died in the American Civil War?
Given the chiefly role horses played in the American Civil War, they had some of the highest casualty numbers among war animals deployed in that war.
So important were horses that soldiers were specifically targeting horses with shots, prioritizing them ahead of their riders.
This was given the enormous logistic advantage horses presented, as their decease could mean large ammunitions being undeployed, enemy supplies undistributed, or enemy units lacking horses for reconnaissance.
With horses eliminated, cavalry divisions lost a considerable chunk of their efficacy, shaved of the decisiveness and momentum they gave their armies.
In the American Civil War, it is reported that between 1-3 million equines were killed, with the most considerable fraction of these horses.
The Battle of Gettysburg specifically had the highest horse casualty count, with no less than 3,000 horses being killed from July 1 to July 3, 1863.
Famous WW1 War Horses
World War 1 was the last major war where horses played decisive roles. Across WW2, the expanded adoption of trenches, motorization, and automatic gunfire (from machine guns) largely limited horses’ deployment.
Of course, in WW1, horses had their fair share of the glory. Warrior and Kasztanka were some of the most famous horses of the war.
Warrior was General Jack Seely’s horse, serving the general through the war, surviving some of the bloodiest combats at Ypres and Somme.
Warrior served Jack through deployment in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France from 1914 to 1918. In 1918, in the war at Moreuil Wood (which transpired in March 1918), Warrior rode Jack Sealy to lead the Canadian Cavalry, which executed the last symbolic cavalry charge of WW1.
Particularly in that war, 1 in every 4 horses deployed was killed, but Warrior once again survived. So memorable were Warrior exploits that it bagged the posthumous Dickin Medal in honor of all animals deployed in WW1.
Kasztanka was another famous horse in the First World War, with the reputable JózefPiłsudski its rider. Kasztanka fought with JózefPiłsudski through the fiery Polish Legions’ battles, with uncommon loyaty to Piłsudski.
Facts About War Horses in WW1
- WW1 saw the death of 8 million horses. As WW1 raged across Europe, war vets treated an estimated 2.5 million horses. Out of this number, 2 million recovered from their wounds or disease, returning to deployment in battle.
- So enormous was the British Army’s stock of horses that it provided over 2,460,300 tons of hay and 2,978,300 tons of oats throughout the crisis. Every year, 15% of the horses deployed by the British Amery died.
- One of the most significant horse casualties of WW1 was recorded in 1916 in the Battle of Verdun, where an estimated 7,000 horses died from long-range shelling as the Central Powers and Allies waged war on the Western Front in France.
Famous War Horses in Indian History
Chetak was the most famous horse in Indian war history. Chetak was owned by MaharanaPratap, the ruler of the Rajputs, North India. Chetak died from an injury (on June 21, 1576) sustained at The Battle of Haldighati when the Mughals battled the Rajputs.