When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'

Horses have proved to be an incredibly useful "resource" for human beings for many millennia. But, their utility in battle has paid dividends to our species since they were first domesticated.
Christopher McFadden
Horses are still used by many armies today, but why?
Horses are still used by many armies today, but why?

DenGuy/iStock 

  • Horses have been used by our species in battles for thousands of years.
  • Their role has evolved as our grasp of technology has improved.
  • But, even today, with jet fighters and missiles, they still have a role to play in many armies worldwide.

The countless memorials of fallen soldiers worldwide are a testament to our species' admiration for those who made "the ultimate sacrifice." But, for anyone who knows anything about warfare, it was not just human beings who made such sacrifices throughout the ages.

While armies have used various animals throughout time, one animal, in particular, has proven itself the most useful; horses. These magnificent creatures, like human beings, come in individual characters and temperaments, with some, in particular, excelling themselves in some of the most horrific of circumstances, all-out war.

So, with that in mind, let's take a quick look at the role horses have played in war throughout the ages and see if and why they are still employed today.

How long have horses been used in warfare?

As far as we can tell, horses were first domesticated around 6,000 years ago. Probably first used for farming, their usefulness in warfare soon became apparent.

One of the first recordings of the use of horses in war comes from between 4000 and 3000 BC in Eurasia. One of their first depictions is a Sumerian illustration from around 2500 BC showing horses pulling wagons.

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
The "War Panel" of the Standard of Ur, one of the first depictions of horses used in war.

By 1600 BC, new harnesses and chariot designs had made chariot warfare prevalent throughout the Ancient Near East. The first training manual for war horses that we know of was a treatise for training chariot horses, written around 1350 BC.

New training techniques emerged as formal cavalry tactics took the place of the chariot, and by 360 BC, a Greek cavalry officer named Xenophon had produced a comprehensive book on horsemanship. The development of the saddle, stirrup, and horse collar, among other technological advances, transformed the efficiency of horses in battle.

Depending on the style of the combat, a wide range of horse breeds and sizes were used. The kind of horse employed changed depending on whether it was driven or ridden and used for cavalry charges, raiding, communication, or supply. Along with horses, mules and donkeys have also been an essential part of supporting armies in the field throughout history.

The Central Asian steppes' nomadic societies' fighting strategies were ideally adapted to horses. Many East Asian cultures used cavalry and chariots frequently. Stirrups, which held riders securely in place while they fought, probably originated in the Asian steppes sometime around the 2nd century BC.

In the 7th and 8th century AD, Muslim armies used light cavalry in their operations across Northern Africa, Asia, and Europe. The armored knight was the most well-known heavy cavalry soldier of the Middle Ages, where a number of breeds were used in warfare, including heavy breeds for carrying armored knights and lighter breeds for hit-and-run raids or faster-moving warfare.

Armored knights went out of use around the end of the 15th century, light cavalry gained popularity with the introduction of gunpowder in battle and the demise of the knight. Although first used as a propellant in China in around 1132, firearms and canon underwent rapid development in Europe in the 15th century and were soon used extensively by the Ottomans in European warfare, and in the conquest of the Americas.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, battle cavalry had evolved to play a variety of roles and was frequently essential to success in the Napoleonic Wars. Contrary to popular belief, horses appear to be native to North America but may have become extinct there by the time the first Europeans arrived and reintroduced them.

Numerous indigenous cultures in the Americas learned how to handle horses and developed sophisticated mounted warfare strategies, and highly mobile horse regiments played a crucial role in the American Civil War.

Even while specific horse cavalry forces continued to be utilized into World War II, particularly as scouts, horse cavalry began to be phased out after World War I in favor of tank warfare.

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
A soldier in World War I with a war mule.

Although horses were rarely utilized in combat by the conclusion of World War II, they were still heavily used for moving troops and supplies.

But, you might wonder, are horses still employed by armies today?

Are horses still used in the military?

Today, many of the horse's former military uses are largely redundant. They are, however, used for more peaceful activities like ceremonies, historical reenactments, peace officer employment, and competitive events.

If they exist, formal mounted forces within the modern military tend to be used for reconnaissance, ceremonial duties, or crowd control purposes.

With the development of mechanized technology, horses were primarily replaced by tanks and armored battle vehicles. However, many of these units are often still referred to as "cavalry."

That being said, many countries still maintain small numbers of mounted military units for certain types of patrol and reconnaissance duties in highly rugged terrain, including the conflict in Afghanistan.

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Occasionally, organized groups of mounted armed combatants can be seen in war zones.

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
US Special Forces using horses in Afghanistan, October 2001.

For example, the Janjaweed, who mounted militia groups in the Darfur region of Sudan, became infamous for their attacks upon unarmed civilian populations in the Darfur conflict.

But, other more advanced militaries still use them too.

For example, when Operational Detachment Alpha 595 teams were secretly deployed into Afghanistan on October 19, 2001, at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom. In the rugged and mountainous terrain of Northern Afghanistan, horses were the only viable mode of transportation.

They were the first American soldiers to ride horses into battle since January 16, 1942, when the U.S. The 26th Cavalry Regiment of the Army engaged the 14th Japanese army's advance guard at the village of Morong on the west coast of the Bataan Peninsula. 

Many nations also maintain traditionally trained and uniformed cavalry forces for ceremonial, exhibition, or educational purposes. The American Horse Cavalry Detachment is one famous example.

A similar detachment is the Governor General's Horse Guards, Canada's Household Cavalry regiment, the last remaining mounted cavalry unit in the Canadian Forces.

In more recent news, the British mounted cavalry units, The Household Cavalry, were seen by millions worldwide during Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's funerary procession in September of 2022.

How were horses used in WW2?

We've already touched on this above, but horses played a significant role during the Second World War.

The Polish army, for example, employed mounted infantry to attempt to repel Nazi Germany's invasion forces in 1939. The effort wasn't successful, but it inspired one of the war's greatest inspiring myths - the so-called Charge at Krojanty.

The Germans (more on them in the next section) and the Soviet Union kept cavalry units throughout the war, especially on the Eastern Front.

The British Army employed also horses early in the conflict, and the last British cavalry charge occurred on March 21, 1942, when the Burma Frontier Force came across Japanese infantry in central Burma. When the Japanese invaded Luzon, they fought against armored and infantry regiments, repelled a tank unit in Binalonan, and effectively held ground as the Allied soldiers withdrew to Bataan.

The United States Army used a few cavalry and supply units during the war, but there were concerns that the Americans did not use horses frequently enough. Horses and mules were an essential form of transportation throughout the war, especially for the British in the rugged terrain of Southern Europe and the Middle East.

Generals like George S. Patton bemoaned their absence during the operations in North Africa, claiming that "not a German would have escaped" had we had an American cavalry division with pack artillery in Tunisia and Sicily.

Up until the conclusion of the war, both the German and the Soviet armies transported troops and supplies on horses. In 1944, one German infantry division in Normandy had 5,000 horses. The Soviet Union used 3.5 million horses. The German army used approximately 2.75 million horses - more than it had used in World War I.

This may surprise some readers, as WW2 was seen as a high watermark in military technology at the time. However, horses still played a vital role for various armies worldwide during this conflict.

So many that horse casualties in some theatres rivaled that of human combatants and civilians. According to some sources, somewhere between 2 and 5 million horses were killed during the conflict.

Did the German army use millions of horses during WW2?

You'll already know the answer if you've read the section above. But why did the German army, allegedly one of the most advanced in the world at the time, actually need so many horses?

Put simply, horses don't require resources like petrol or steel and are easier to maintain than machines (and cheaper).

The Wehrmacht employed millions of these "beasts of burden" throughout the war to provide a variety of tasks for the German army. The sheer scale of the use of actual horsepower by the German is eyewatering.

According to some estimates, something like 80% of all of their transportation needs was supplied by horses.

The daily operations of the fighting force required an average of 1.1 million horses throughout the war, despite all the propaganda about Blitzkrieg, highly-advanced German technology, industrial design, and manufacturing prowess. Only about 52 of the 322 German divisions were fully armored or motorized by 1943.

Most of the German fighting force, the traditional infantry divisions, effectively marched into battle on foot with their heavier gear pulled by their four-legged comrades. The animal population was considerably higher in the light and mountain divisions, and the cavalry divisions naturally relied heavily on the horse.

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Horses provided vital logistical support to the German Army in Russia.

In contrast, the allies benefited strategically from the USA's capacity to mass produce motorized vehicles with low unit costs, rapid quantity manufacturing, and relatively simple access to fuel on a global scale.

But, this also highlights some of the significant weaknesses of the German position at the start and throughout the war; its distinct lack of vital resources like fuel. Horses, however, were in relatively good supply and could "refuel" on the hoof.

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 with 3 million soldiers and around 600,000 horses. While these were some of the best-bred and nourished horses before they left Germany, these excellent horses were forced to graze in the Soviet Union on unfamiliar foods, and many rapidly became ill.

They were also killed en masse. Lacking armor like mechanized units, they were highly vulnerable to bullets and shells.

The German army lost close to 1.78 million horses during World War II, effectively wiping out much of the horse population of the entire continent. The shortage became so bad that circus horses were being used to haul cannons toward the war's conclusion.

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Mounted German soldiers crossing the Polish border, circa 1939.

Two horses were required to draw the feed wagons (which were only for the horses) needed for every three working horses. Horses were needed for both the men's supplies and their transportation.

Although the German troops in World War II had a strong air advantage in the early stages of the conflict, they ultimately were overextended on numerous fronts and were constrained by their transportation system. And that, in the end, was a major deciding factor in the outcome of the war in Europe.

It also came at a terrible cost for humanity's true "best friend."

What are some famous war horses?

So, horses have played a significant role in many armies throughout time. With all the countless horses that have undoubtedly been enlisted over all that time, are there any that stand out in particular?

Why, yes, there are. Here is a hand-selected few "horse heroes" from across the ages.

1. Sir Briggs was one tough cookie

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Painting of Sir Briggs and Captain (the Honourable) Godfrey Charles Morgan, circa 1856.

Sir Briggs is one of the most famous horses in British wartime history. He was a former steeplechase champion named after a family servant. His owner, Captain the Honourable Godfrey Charles Morgan (later Viscount Tredegar, 1831-1913), purchased him in 1851.

Captain Morgan oversaw the 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons squadron during the Crimean War (1853–56). In the Battle of Balaklava (1854), they took part in the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which resulted in the deaths of 370 horses.

Despite receiving a head wound from a saber, Briggs displayed extraordinary bravery throughout the conflict. He was then informally knighted and given the title "Sir Briggs."

Briggs endured the trying circumstances of a war in which numerous other horses died from malnutrition and exhaustion. He eventually passed away in 1874, and a plaque was raised in his honor at Tredegar Park, his master's house in Wales.

2. Vonolel was the perfect steed

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Contemporary image of Vonolel with his handler.

Vonolel is another famous horse from British history. An Arabian horse, he was purchased by Field Marshal Lord Roberts in Bombay in around 1871-1872. During the Second Afghan War, he accompanied his lord on the 300-mile (480-kilometer) march from Kabul to Kandahar between 1878-1880.

By all accounts, the two were the perfect match between horse and rider. Vonolel was not much larger than a pony, whereas Lord Roberts was also short, reaching barely 5 feet 4 inches (1.62m) tall.

Vonolel received three medals from Queen Victoria for his service. Additionally, he was honored to participate in the 1897 procession for Queen Diamond Jubilee.

He passed away in 1899 and was laid to rest in Dublin's Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

3. Marengo was Napoleon Boneparte's semi-mythical horse

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Marengo. is supposed to be the horse in this famous portrait of Boneparte.

Marengo is one of the 150 grey Arab horses that Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly owned. In honor of the French victory at Marengo, he was bought in Egypt in 1799 and given that name the following year.

Napoleon's horses were taught to be fearless, submissive, and composed during battle. For the Emperor, a mediocre rider at best, this was a perfect combination for a mount.

Numerous Marengo-related tales are undoubtedly urban legends, but he is rumored to have been the Emperor's mount at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), even though Napoleon most likely directed the battle from his carriage.

He is also claimed to have transported Napoleon over 3,500 miles (5,600 km) from Paris to Moscow (and back). He is also said to be the rearing horse in Jacques-Louis David's paintings of Napoleon crossing the Alps (shown above).

Marengo was captured by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and brought back to the UK. He passed away in 1831, and his remains were preserved. His skin has since been lost, but his skeleton was donated to the Royal United Services Institute.

4. Copenhagen was the Duke of Wellington's famous horse

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Statue of Copenhagen and his slightly more famous master the Duke of Wellington.

The Duke of Wellington's (of Waterloo fame) mount was called Copenhagen. A failed racehorse, Wellington was sold to the Duke of Wellington in around 1813 and accompanied the Duke in most of his significant war engagements.

After the Battle of Waterloo, Copenhagen became almost as famous as his owner and frequently accompanied the Duke to parades and celebrations. He was so famous that his tail hair was often cut off and used to make jewelry.

Wellington died in 1836 and was buried with full military honors at Stratfield Saye. The Times newspaper printed his obituary

Several times, the Royal United Services Institute requested Wellington's permission to exhume the horse so that his bones could be displayed alongside Marengo's. The Duke, however, never agreed.

A plaque was later beside the grave with the inscription: “Here Lies Copenhagen, the charger ridden by The Duke of Wellington, the entire day at the Battle of Waterloo. Born in 1808 died in 1836. God’s humbler instrument, though meaner clay, should share the glory of that glorious day.”

5. Bucephalus was Alexander the Great's steed

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Mosaic of Alexander and Bucephalus in combat at the Battle of Issus.

Bucephalus (also spelled Bucephalas), is another of the world's most famous horses. Living around 355 BC to June 326 BC, this mighty horse was the renowned mount of Alexander the Great.

Bucephalus was named, so it said, after a branding mark depicting an ox's head on his backside. According to some accounts, the wild and unmanageable horse was very quickly tamed by a young Alexander after he realized the horse was afraid of its own shadow. He gently turned the horse's head toward the sun and was then able to mount him and attach the bridle.

Allegedly of the "best Thessalian strain," according to ancient historical accounts, the horse passed away in Punjab, Pakistan, following the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC.

Bucephalus was likely too old at that time to be ridden into battle, he died either from sustained during the fight or from old age just afterward. It is not entirely clear where the horse's body was buried, but soon afterward, Alexander founded a city in his beloved horse's memory and named it Bucephala.

6. Chetak sacrificed himself for his master

When horses go to war: The incredible history of man's actual 'best friend'
Memorial to Chetak in Haldighati, India.

Chetak is thought to be a Kathiawari stallion that was born and raised in Gujarat's Kathiawar region of India. The most significant part of the historical account of this horse is its incredible loyalty to its master.

Chetak, according to legend, was ridden by Maharana Pratap, the king of 16th century Mewar, at the Battle of Haldighati, fought in 1576 in the Aravalli Mountains of Rajasthan in western India. The battle didn't go well for Maharana Pratap (or Chetak), both were severely wounded.

The horse, however, brought the Maharana safely away from the conflict, only to succumb to his injuries shortly after. Whether the story is true or not, several monuments have been raised across India in Chetak's honor.

7. Comanche was the only confirmed survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Bighorn is one of the United States Army's worst defeats. Also known as Custer's Last Stand, the engagement was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes of North America.

From our point of view, one of the standout events of this battle was a single horse called Comanche. While widely cited as the sole survivor of the battle, it is known that other horses (and probably one bulldog) from the American forces also survived but were uninjured and so taken as trophies.

American forces found the horse, who was severely injured, in a ravine and nursed him back to health, and transported him to Fort Meade in 1879, where he was treated like a prince and even received military honors.

Several years later, Comanche sadly passed away in 1891 at the ripe old age of 29 from a bought of colic. Following his death, he became one of only four horses in American history to receive a military funeral with full military honors.

Today, his remains are displayed at the Natural History Museum in Kansas.

And that, warhorse lovers, is your lot for today.

Horses have accompanied humans in battles for more than five thousand years. They have shared glorious victories and crushing defeats alongside their human compatriots and died in their millions over the centuries.

For this reason, horses have rightfully earned their place in history and are, rightfully so, honored for their sacrifices.

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