Cavalry through the Middle Ages

Steven Dabb

December 15, 2016

Cavalry Use in the Early Ages

Horses used over time

Long before the ancestors of humanity walked upright, horses could be found roaming the earth. Evolving nearly 55 million years ago, horses did not have the same appearance as what we commonly see when we go to a ranch nowadays. The horses of today range in size, weight, speed, and purpose, while equines originally were about the size of dogs and lived mostly in forests. For more than 30 million years they maintained the same general appearance before mutant groups increased in size and weight, until they developed into a shape very similar to the appearance we associate with the horses of today (The Evolution of Horses).

We must remember that while the horse collar was invented during the 3rd and 4th century BCE it was not widely used in Europe until nearly the 12th century (Horse Collar). This means that for the majority of the western world, horses were not particularly useful in pulling large amounts of weight because the collars would choke them. As such, horses were most often used for moving people around, or for pulling relatively light chariots. For most early societies, cavalry as it is generally imagined was impractical because of many factors around that time. Although there is debate regarding when saddles were invented, some say as early as 700 BCE while others say around 300 C.E., if they were used at all. They were very primitive, they provided very little support and they were mainly used as a seat. Stirrups were not commonly found nor widely used in the west until about the 8th century C.E. (Stirrup), though they had been developed in Asia much earlier. As such, for many civilizations, the use of mounted soldiers was often a serious tradeoff: in many societies, firing a bow from a horse was not unheard of, but that particular maneuver often required a second horseman to grab the reigns so that the first could fire (Cavalry)

As the use of cavalry increased, and the tactical importance of it became recognized, it wasn’t long before horses began to be bred for war. This typically meant that larger, stronger breeds of horse became desirable because of their weight carrying capacity, as well as their natural aptitudes for dealing with the exhausting nature of warfare.

Weaponry used from horseback over time

The weaponry that has been used over time when making war has ranged depending on what was available at specific times of development and in specific geographical areas. Since the invention of the stirrup came so much later than that of the saddle or the domestication of horses, the weaponry used by mounted soldiers over time has evolved to accommodate the needs of warfare. The earliest mounted fighters were typically nomads and they were primarily armed with bows. Their primary purpose in being armed was to defend herds and livestock. A perfect example of a mounted archer who would have defended livestock is shown in the picture below:


There are some important distinctions between ancient mounted archers and the one pictured here, especially because the stirrups and the bow are easily visible. As previously mentioned, stirrups would have appeared in Asia much earlier than in Europe, but the earliest nomadic mounted archers would not have had these. The bow depicted in the picture above has similarities to the modern recurve bow, which was originally developed in the east, nomadic archers of the past would likely have been armed with some version of its predecessor. Something that could be assumed is that the relative size of the archer to the horse is similar to what would have been seen in the beginnings of the mounted archery forces. Although horses have increased in size through the ages, far eastern breeds of horses are usually smaller than western breeds.

Over time, some cultures like the Greeks moved away from the bow in favor of the javelin of the time. By the time of the Greek empire, horses were a bit larger, and could therefore carry more weight as well as armor for both the horse and the rider. In accordance with the change in size, weapons changed as well. The Greeks preferred the javelin over the bow used in far east cultures. The use of javelin had some pros and cons, for instance, javelin use on horseback did not require a second rider to hold onto the reins, and javelins hit harder than arrows, but because of the nature of javelin-driven combat, ammunition loss was great. To counter the decrease in ammunition available to the riders who used their javelins, the Greeks armed their cavalry riders with a short sword as a secondary weapon, the use of the sword by cavalry riders would continue through the ages up until the “phasing out” of cavalry from mainstream military roles altogether (Cavalry).

While spears and lances were used by the Greek cavalry, it was Alexander the Great that truly popularized them with his application of the xyston. The xyston was in essence a long spear. This spear, however, was equipped with a point on both ends. This allowed the weapon to be used even after it had been broken on first contact, by flipping it over and using the other end (Companion Cavalry). Cavalry played a much larger role in Alexander the Great’s conquests than it did during Greek campaigns, for reasons that will be discussed in the tactical usage of cavalry post. For the Romans, spears transitioned into the Spatha as the primary weapon.

The Spatha replaced the gladius as the main sword used by the Romans. While the gladius was much shorter and more suited for stabbing, the Spatha was closer in appearance to the swords than can be seen in modern times: it was long and straight, allowed for far better reach on horseback than the gladius, and lacked the ammunition constraints of bows and javelins.

As the cavalry evolved into the Middle Ages, it is important to remember that all aspects of warfare were also evolving. Larger horses became more desirable for war, because of the perception that the bigger they were, the more weapons and armor they could carry. Stirrups were becoming increasingly more widespread, which encouraged the increases in the weight that was carried on horseback. Thus, we see that the knight started to become the primary cavalry unit. Those cavalry officers known as knights wore heavy armor and were often armed in the stereotypical way, although not always all at once. The lance had its time in the sun, enhanced by the use of stirrups and the cantle saddle. Unlike the spears of the past, the lance had little to no thrusting use—its length and weight also made it unwieldy in melee (close quarters) combat. That being said, the stirrups and the cantle saddle used in conjunction allowed for a knight to apply all of his force, as well as the full momentum of the horse through the lance and the point, making it a powerful and dangerous weapon on horseback. There is some debate, however, about the efficacy of the lance in warfare. It often broke from its impacts, and when it didn’t, it was difficult to set up for another run at the adversary. During combats, knights were typically equipped with swords or maces for close quarter fights as well. The swords used by the knights were very similar to the Spatha used by the Romans, with only superficial alterations.

Armor on horseback over time

For many people, the knights in shining armor and on horseback seem to be the epitome of cavalry. However, for most of the effective life of cavalry, armor was either nonexistent or quite minimal. This was mostly due to the size of horses, and what their intended use was when they were bred. Large horses were uncommon before the middle ages, and not many cultures would have attempted to breed horses for size. The seeming lack of interest in breeding big horses would have been mostly related to the amount of food that those horses would have required, as well as the amount of waste they would have produced. When smaller horses were bred, an unintended consequence was the fact that they had a diminished capacity to carry large amounts of weight.

The earliest nomadic cavalrymen would likely have worn whatever their daily garb was on their horses. In times of war, lightweight armor constructed out of leather was possible, but there is no definitive answer as to its use.


As this relief carving shows, armor at this time (circa 860 BCE) was basically nonexistent for those on horseback. Around 490 BCE, a larger breed of horse began be used more often (Cavalry). This larger breed could carry men with some armor, but not much, as they were still not the size we think of when we generally imagine horses. The Greeks used this larger breed, as we can see here:


As we can see on this amphora, the Greek cavalryman carried a shield on his back, and appeared to be wearing some form of chest armor or tunic, possibly a jerkin. Although this armor might seem rather lacking to us in protective capabilities, we can see by looking at his compatriot, that it was only slightly less than the typical armor of the time.

Under Alexander the Great, cavalrymen had greater protection. His Companion Cavalry, as they were called, wore Boeotian helmets (what you see in the photograph), as well as a cuirass, which was a chest piece with a muscled physique cast into it. This would have provided more protection than that afforded by the Greek armor, which may have played a role in the nearly unprecedented success that they had in battle (Companion Cavalry).



By Mediatus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Romans continued in the footsteps of the Companion Cavalry. We can see on the graphic above that the subject of the photo was armed in a very similar manner to those in the Companion Cavalry, and any differences are more superficial than actual modifications. It is possible that we would have seen an increase in armor on horses at the end of the Roman Empire, but only as a build up to the middle ages.

Armoring on horseback was drastically different from that found on its predecessors for one main reason, the advent of stirrups. Thanks to the invention, the need for absolute control and communion between rider and steed was not so critical, balance could now be maintained through both the feet and the knees. This meant that suits of full armor could be used on horseback. As an unintended result of the fact that knights often engaged each other in battle, horses quickly became targets in battle as well, and therefore the need to armor them quickly became crucial. This was not the first-time horses had been armored: cataphracts had been seen possibly as early as 550 BCE under Persian control, and were beginning to see increased use near the middle of the Roman Empire, armoring however still remained a rather small proportion of the overall cavalry forces (Cataphract).


The picture shown above is a modern representation of an ancient cataphract. Completely enshrouded with armor, these units were the predecessor to the modern tank, and required large, strong horses. They also lacked stirrups, so maneuverability was also extremely poor. With the advent of stirrups, heavy armor suddenly didn’t mean that all maneuverability was gone, and horses were able to gain armor as well. Shaffron armor, pictured below:



Shaffrons were typically placed around the head and neck. It provided some protection from lance and sword blows, and it also looked menacing.

Tactical usage of cavalry

            For ancient nomadic tribes, cavalry was primarily desired because of its speed and range. A group of archers on horseback at a time when most warfare was fought hand to hand suddenly made the battlefield much smaller. However, their use cost many of them their control. Without the widespread use of saddles, the reins controlled the horses and this presented a problem when archers where on horses in the battlefield. Bows required two hands to fire, so during a firing sequence, the horse had to be left to its own devices, or a second horseman had to grab the archer’s reins to control his/her horse. Not being able to control a horse while firing was a rather inefficient battle tactic and was a serious drawback for ancient cavalry, which is why for a very long time horses were preferred for pulling chariots, rather than for carrying individual soldiers. Chariots fell by the wayside in warfare near 84 A.D, mostly due to their limited functions. For nomadic groups, cavalry use was often multirole. They were well suited for herding animals and scouting, but inefficient for most other jobs. An important tactic of the nomads fighters was the Parthian shot. This tactic was generally used when the horsemen were retreating, at that point they would turn their bodies so that they were facing to the rear, and fire behind them. While it seems simplistic, if a shield were raised above one’s head to defend themselves, they would assume that they were momentarily safe while the enemy was retreating or regrouping. However, this Parthian shot caught many unaware, and could easily cause chaos and casualties if the enemy wasn’t prepared for it (Parthian Shot).

Many historians believe that cavalry was basically worthless to the Greeks because of the common usage of the phalanx. Existing as basically a shield wall and roof with spears sticking out, the phalanx was thought to outdo cavalry because “Few men wanted to risk impaling their expensive horse on a hoplite’s nine-foot spear.” (Weekley). Aside from the fact that the horsemen did not want to risk their horses, most horses were also not willing to run into spears voluntarily. This maneuver, would also assume that a general would just throw cavalry at the front of the phalanx in the hopes of breaking it. While it is possible that this did occur, it is much more likely that at that time the cavalry would have used their greater speed and maneuverability to harass the enemy from the sides or rear, thus causing disorder in the fray as the phalanx scrambled to attempt to adjust. Whichever method was used, however, cavalry had a definite secondary role, one which was easily optional as well. Most Grecian conflicts tended to be either infantry or naval based, and cavalry didn’t seem to have a major role in land conflicts for the Greeks.

During the time of Alexander the Great, the cavalry really came into its own and became a force to be reckoned with. Alexander worked very closely with his Companion Cavalry. In addition to their armor and weaponry, Alexander employed them very differently from previous generals. First, his cavalry moved in wedges. This allowed them to turn much easier while maintaining their formation, simply having to follow the leader. Next, he used them in a secondary role, but one much more involved than the Greeks. When his phalanx disrupted the enemy’s, the Companion Cavalry would plunge into the hole created in the enemy’s line. This maximized the disruption and chaos, while removing the primary danger to his cavalry, the unbroken phalanx. Using this tactic brought Alexander and his cavalry unprecedented success (Companion Cavalry).

Under Roman rule, cavalry declined in success. It had come to be a social class rather than a fighting force, leading to significant losses. As such, the Romans began hiring mercenaries to be their cavalry, especially Germanic tribes. These groups were used primarily for longer distance operations, spanning the width of the empire, they were also used in skirmishes or scouting expeditions, but they lacked the usage we saw during Alexander the Great’s reign. During the Middle Ages, cavalry was used primarily in warfare as shock troops. These divisions would be typically used separately from the main fighting force, either to attack enemy cavalry or defend or secure areas or high profile targets. The sentiment felt during Roman times of cavalrymen being elite evolved into the class of knights that we see, and likely contributed to the rise of feudalism during these times (Cavalry).

The use of horses over time has varied depending on the leadership of the period, what has been made clear has been the fact that horses have been a crucial part of the development of civilizations and warfare through the ages and human have been dependent on horses for one purpose or another.

Works Cited

Wikipedia contributors. “Cavalry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Weekley, David J., and Patrick H. College. “The Role of Greek Cavalry on the Battlefield: A       Study of Greek Cavalry from the Peloponnesian Wars to the Second Battle of Mantinea.”    Vexillum Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Horse collar.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 6 Aug. 2016. Web. 6 Aug. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Parthian shot.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 4 Sep. 2016. Web. 4 Sep. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Ancient Macedonian army.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.            Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Cavalry tactics.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The     Free Encyclopedia, 7 Nov. 2016. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Saddle.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 1 Dec. 2016. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Companion cavalry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia,    The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Nov. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. “Stirrup.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 7 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

“The Chariot.” The Chariot in Ancient Egypt. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.

West, Gene. “Confederate Bridle Cutter Pike, Louis Froelich.” Civil War Arsenal. N.p.,   07 Feb. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.

“The Evolution of Horses.” American Museum of Natural History. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.             <;.

Wikipedia contributors. “Cataphract.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free             Encyclopedia, 2 Nov. 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.



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