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The Horse:
Selection and Training

© 2000 Maitre R.P. Alvarez, All rights reserved

Richard Alvarez bio


Introduction to Mounted Combat
The Horse: Selection and Training
The Rider: Technique and Tack

Saddle, Lance and Stirrup


"A good horse is one with many good, few indifferent, and no bad points."
"Animal Management" British War Office Handbook, 1908

With that quote in mind, the selection of the proper horse for mounted combat comes down to an understanding of what the role of the horse is to be. Simply speaking, cavalry mounts can be divided into two classes, "Light" and "Heavy". These terms apply not only to the physical characteristics of the horse itself, but also to the different branches of the cavalry service. The selective breeding of stock to develop these special traits was brought on at least partially to develop better war-horses.

When one thinks of the armored medieval knight, the assumption is that huge horses were needed to carry the rider and his armor. The modern Clydesdale or Shire horse comes to mind. The fact is these modern breeds were not in existence in medieval times. Although the primary equestrian bloodlines had all reached the Mediterranean countries of ancient Rome, the exact breed of the medieval war-horse has been lost to us. Breeds, once established, can quickly be lost if not constantly maintained. This was especially true of the larger warhorses, which were expensive to feed and maintain in peacetime. The medieval breeds were built up and lost again and again over the centuries as war and economics dictated their maintenance.

Horses have always been able to carry 25-30% of their own weight. Thus a small, 850 pound animal could reasonably be expected to carry 170 to 255 pounds. This is the weight of a fully equipped 11th century knight in 35 pounds of chainmail. The Knights depicted in the Battle of Hastings Bayeux Tapestry (c.1077) are riding what appear to be small mounts, even allowing for artistic license. Such animals today might be classified as light horse cavalry.

Robert the Bruce fought Edward I of England by putting his foot soldiers on small ponies, in order to harass Edward's troops on the march. Edward took a cue from Robert and had his foot soldiers mounted on small `hobby' or hobby horses from Ireland. Lightly armored mounted archers continued to ride the smaller horses through the 14th century.

As the weight of defensive armor increased, so too the need for larger horses and the selective breeding for size began. The term "Great Horse" first appears in English records in 1282, more than two centuries after the Battle of Hastings. It is assumed that the horse that was bred at this time resembled something like the Percheron or Holstein breeds of today. The term "Great Horse" was descriptive of the size and skill of the warhorse, rather than a particular breed or bloodline. Another term for the warhorse was "Destrier" which was derived from the Latin word "dexter" or right hand. It is thought this might be because the Great Horse was led at the right-hand of the squire, or alternatively because the horse was trained to take the right lead.

The "Great Horse" tended to be a little taller than the lighter "Palfrey" or riding horse. It was between 65-69 inches tall (or 16-17.1 `hands') and weighed approximately 1,200 to 1,550 pounds. This enabled it to carry approximately four hundred pounds. This maximum size was probably reached sometime in the late 14th century. A 16th century knight with plate armor for his horse would still fall well within these weight limits. So too would a Napoleonic Cuirassier of the 19th century, or a fully equipped trooper from World War I.

Modern Breeds of the large size that might be suitable today include the Percheron, Holsteins, Shire and "Warmblood" combinations. Even large Quarter Horses and "Thorcheron" cross breeds can carry the requisite weight.

The Author rides a "heavy horse", a Belgian, in equestrian games.

The "Great Horse" began its fall from favor during the reign of Henry the Eighth and by the 17th Century the Thoroughbred had begun to make it's appearance. In the transitional period, there were many disagreements over what constituted the "perfect" horse. As new schools of equitation developed, the demands of modern warfare dictated the needs for faster, more agile mounts. The Great Horse left the battlefield and was reserved for ceremonial jousts.

The "Light" horse is noted for its speed and maneuverability. It is usually not much taller than 60 inches (15-16 hands) and weighs between 850 and 1,100 pounds. The earliest medieval horses probably would have fallen within this size range.

The Author sits astride his "light horse" in armor.

In later eras, the light horse was expected to carry an un-armored or lightly armored trooper and his equipment to the battle, where he would dismount and fight on foot. This type of trooper, called a "Dragoon" after the small musket he carried, came into being just before the Thirty Years War in Europe. The Dragoons, while principally mounted infantry, were also expected to use their swift horses for reconnaissance, foraging, pursuit, messenger and outpost duty. They were especially useful in harrying tactics, and hit and run attacks. The Napoleonic "Hussars" typify the height of Light Cavalry deployment. As a breed, the modern Arabs and Barb blood line serve this need well as does the short but sturdy Cob.

One only has to think of the unarmored Indians on their fast mustangs or the lightly armored horse cultures of the Scythians, Avars or Magyars sweeping down from the steppes to see the advantage that a light, fast horse presents against infantry and even heavier cavalry. The Plains Indian's mustangs were themselves descendants of the noble Spanish Andalusian, Barb and `Austurion'. Left to the wild over two centuries, these Spanish horses reverted back to a feral breed well suited to the plains, with high endurance, and low maintenance requirements.

Finally, the U. S. cavalry prior to the outbreak of World War II was seeking as its cavalry mounts, horses that were the offspring of a farm horse dam and a Thoroughbred sire. Presumably, this gave the horse the requisite combination of strength, stamina and speed to face the demands of modern warfare in the 20th century.

The Union officer rides an Appendix quarterhorse... a Quarterhorse/thoroughbred mix well suited to cavalry work.
The Confederate officer rides the lighter Saddlebred/Quarterhorse mix.

With over 86 breeds of horse available to the modern reader, what then are the criteria to be used in selecting a horse for mounted combat?

The preceding paragraphs should point out that the particular breed of horse is not as important as its' individual characteristics. The characteristics to be considered are; Size, Endurance, Strength, Color, Sex, Age, and most importantly TEMPERAMENT.

The size of the horse should suit the rider. Although history tells us of horses so short and riders so tall that their legs almost touched the ground, the mere fact that they were recorded for posterity proves the uniqueness of such an arrangement. Generally speaking tall or long legged riders should sit a taller horse.

The size of the horse should be considered in relation to the weight of the rider and his gear, including the saddle, weapons, armor and any horse armor or trappings. Calculate this weight and make sure it falls within the 25 to 30% range of the total weight of any horse you are considering for mounted combat.

Endurance is definitely a factor of bloodlines, though horses - like people - may or may not be perfect examples of their breeding. If the horse is to be used for long distance riding, outpost duty, or sustained running combat, consider a healthy injection of Arab or Thoroughbred blood in the mix. If the horse is going to be used for short ceremonial parades, heavies jousting in full plate, or Re-enactment of Heavy Cavalry, then the draft bloodlines are recommended.

Color can be a consideration when a particular unit such as "The Scot's Grey's" are being portrayed. Other military units and most modern police troopers prefer darker bays for the camouflage it provides in woodland territory. In the same light, duns, palominos and buckskins are better suited for the desert. Of course, one should always consider the dramatic impact of mounting the "Good Guy" on a white horse and the "Bad Guy" on the black charger for theatrical presentations.

The sex of the animal is part and parcel to its temperament. In medieval times, a European Knight thought it unmanly to ride into battle on anything other than a stallion. This preference lasted at least until the sixteenth century. The eastern horse cultures on the other hand, considered the mare more suited to combat.

The management of a stallion presents its own problems, especially if the rider is going to mix with other mares. Likewise the season of the mare often presents its rider with a temperamental mount at a most inopportune time. One also has to consider the loss of the use of the mare in its later stages of pregnancy. The modern rider would do well to consider the even temperament of the gelding for most mounted combat purposes.

Age is a relative concern among horses. While a racehorse is considered "aged" by 11 or 12, many cavalry horses can continue well beyond that point. The Author owns and regularly works an exceptional light horse that is over 18 years of age. At any rate, a horse will not usually be suitable for cavalry work until the age of 4. Age will often have a bearing on temperament, with older horses being calmer and more seasoned to the trail.

All things considered then; size, breed, age, sex and color, the selection becomes most crucial when temperament is considered. It does no good to find a beautiful, high-strung horse that defies training to the sights and sounds of combat. Once a likely candidate has been found to fill the needs of the rider, the horse should be put to the test with an "Audition" to determine its temperament and aptitude.

While auditioning the mount, keep a close watch for an indication of the horse's temperament. The visual signs of a horse's temper include the eyes, nostrils, ears and posture. Watch for the telltale laid back ears of anger. The eyes should be clear and calm - not wide, white and wild. The nostrils will flare to take in a new scent, but they should relax to normal after the horse inspects an object. His posture may stiffen or tremble at new sights, but relax again after a few moments.

A horse must remain calm when approached by eager strangers.


It is a good idea to audition a horse under the saddle you plan to use for cavalry work. If possible, have another trained horse ready to work with you. Work the horse in a large, empty arena with plenty of room to test his action and response to stimuli, without frightening other horses in the ring or stable.

The key to the audition sequence is not to teach the horse all the skills at once, but to discover rather, if the horse has the aptitude and willingness to learn these skills. In short, is he "teachable" within the constraints of your time limits? This is determined in the audition, by finding those stimuli that the horse exhibits a resistance to and seeing if you can calm the horse, and get him to try again.

The ability to calm a disturbed horse and his willingness to accept your command to try again are the underlying basis for good horse training. This coupled with the philosophy of "graduated exposure" enables the cavalry mount to acquire those skills necessary for mounted combat.

Once mounted, check the horse for ease of handling on the flat. It is best if the horse will go both ways under bit, that is - direct rein and neck rein. Neck reining is the more important of the two as often the right hand will be occupied with a weapon and the left hand might be armored or encumbered with a shield. For this reason, "Western" horses often tend to move into cavalry work with a little more ease than "English" but this is not a hard rule.

Put the horse through his paces, working him at all gaits over the flat. Check for ease in lead changes. Flying lead changes are a big plus as the demands of combat often call for instant changes in direction. Watch for signs of alertness from the mount. Is he paying attention to your commands? An alert and attentive horse is one that responds immediately to your commands, but settles down once they have been executed.

Once the horse is "in hand" place a footman in the center of the arena. Put the horse through a series of passes near the footman, at a walk, trot, and canter. Be sure and pass the footman on both sides. How close can you pass? Ideally you should be able to pass the footman at half an arm's length. Cavalry work will require action against infantry as well as mounted opponents. If the horse shies, does he allow you to pass closer next time?

Next put a flagpole without the flag in the hands of the footman. Does the horse notice? If so, how quickly does he accept it? Try again the passes on left and right hand.

With the horse in hand once more, add the flag to the flagpole. This is one of the more difficult tests for a horse to pass. Only a small percentage will not shy from a fluttering flag. Approach the footman as close as the horse will allow you. When the horse first halts of his own accord, wait a moment for him to study the flag. Soothe him with vocal encouragement and light pats. After a moment, ask him to move a little closer. If he moves forward again even a short distance before halting, he should be considered a possible candidate. If the horse backs away at the forward command or turns and fights the bit, think twice about how much time you have to train the animal.

Next check the horse for head shyness. Instead of a sword, use a three-foot section of white PVC tubing. This is less dangerous to drop or discard, and is more visible to the horse. Have the footman hand you the PVC once you are mounted. At a standstill, slowly raise the pipe up past the horse's head in his field of vision. Be prepared for a bolt away from that side. Again, watch for how willing the horse is to accept this. If he seems ready, try this action again at a walk trot and canter. If he reacts violently, and gets out of hand, discard the pipe, quiet the horse, and think twice about accepting him as a candidate.

Once the horse has settled down, test him for sound shock. While mounted, have the footman stand just off your left knee and clap his hands once loudly. Be ready for a sharp reaction. Try this test on both sides, from behind and above the horse. Does he seem calmer or more agitated with each sound? This test will be important for those using firearms.

If another horse is available, try a few passes. From opposite ends of the arena - trot slowly toward each other, passing each other left to left with about fifteen feet of separation. Continue the pass until you reach the opposite end. Turn and repeat, each time closing the distance between you by two to three feet. Does the horse veer away? Worse yet, does he veer toward the other horse? Watch for a willingness to close the gap.

It is important in this early stage not to SPOIL the horse to training by trying too much too soon. If the horse shows an aptitude for cavalry training, and he meets the other criteria of the rider, he should be considered as a candidate for cavalry school.

The demands of combat put upon the Cavalry mount are unique and require a special approach. The elements of combat that usually disturb a horse are Sounds, Contact, and Sights - that is, startling visual stimuli. In training the horse to remain calm, the philosophy of "graduated exposure" should be observed.

Simply put this means starting off with small doses of the annoying stimuli and increasing them slowly in short training sessions over a period of days and weeks. The training sessions should be kept short, no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. But work the horse at the problem every day. It is always best to reward the horse with words and a gentle touch in addition to any treat. Thus, while mounted, he will accept the kind word with the same appreciation as a bit of apple, carrot or sugar. Cruelty in training horses is costly. If a disciplinary action is taken with whip, crop, or spur, the mount should be rewarded immediately upon completing the task.

“Lead with the carrot, follow with the stick.”

In combat, horses are often presented with the sudden appearance of objects around their head and eyes. This can be a sword, lance, waving shield or flag. The modern trooper is sometimes confronted with objects such as opening umbrellas, pedestrians with fluttering raincoats, rattling baby strollers, or loud vehicles with flashing lights.

It should be noted here that horses are thought to be color blind, although there is some indication that they can see blue. Objects that contrast sharply with their surrounding backgrounds are more visible to the horse. The muscles that control the focus of the horse's vision are slow to work. Often they will raise their head to examine an object close at hand. This motion of the head, should not be confused with head shyness.

To accommodate the horse to a fluttering object such as a flag or raincoat, start by holding the flag folded or waded into a small ball in front of his nose. Let him touch it with his nose. Unfold it a little and rub it along his face and neck. Soothe the horse with pats and words. Unfold it finally till it is hanging loose, and allow him to nose it again. Pass the loose flag over and around his head slowly and back away from him so he can get a good view of it again. Be sure to show it to him on both sides of his face, as vision problems in horses can sometime present slightly different images on different sides.

Attach the flag to a pole. Hold the pole horizontally and gradually pass the flag around the horse's head again. If the horse is calm, hand the flagpole to the rider. While standing still, the rider should gently lower the flag on the horse's off side. Be prepared for a reaction and to throw the flag clear if necessary to calm the mount.

On a windy day, have a footman hold the flag vertically in place. Walk the horse slowly up to the fluttering flag. If he shies or balks try again. Dismount if necessary and lead the horse to the flag. Be aware of the point at which the horse starts to resist. Take him a little closer, then stop and reward him. Try to pick up from the advanced position on the next day.

Horses that have a problem with flags, banners, flapping raincoats, umbrellas and the like, can be trained to accommodate them by constant exposure in their stalls. Try draping the flag over the door or against a wall. Move the flag around the stall so the horse sees it in different locations and eventually drape it over or near his feed bin. This will require him to nose the flag to get at his hay or grain.

The same principal can be used to accommodate the horse to objects like strollers and shopping carts.

Work the problem horse immediately before his feeding. Place the cart or stroller in the middle of the arena. With a small amount of feed in a bucket, lead the horse to the object. When he balks on the approach, stop and give him a taste of the feed. Work him as close to the frightening object as you can over the course of several days. When he finally gets next to it, let him feed from the bucket and slowly lower it into the cart. For the next few weeks feed the horse once a day, out of the offending object.

For horses that exhibit head shyness from the sword or baton, follow the basic principles described above. While mounted, gently raise the baton on both sides of the horse's face. Again, don't confuse head shyness with focussing. Don't forget the reward. Horses will often begin to accept the baton, lance or sword when other demands are put on them simultaneously. See the section marked SKILLS AND DRILLS for games designed to accommodate the horse to the use of sword and lance.

Bright lights can pose a problem to Troopers working at night in city traffic. Similar problems arise when horses are subjected to the demands of shooting under the harsh lights of film sets. Accommodating the horse to bright lights will require a nighttime training schedule.

If possible start the work in a lighted arena at night. Because the lights are high and far enough away, they generally do not frighten the animals. Clip a small, "Scoop" light with 150-watt flood in it to a fence about head high to the horse. Aim the scoop at the ground. Work the horse toward and around the light. After a few minutes, angle the light toward the horse's eyes, and continue working.

As the horse begins to be comfortable around it, ride up as close as possible and hand feed him directly under the scoop. For variation, change the intensity of the bulb. Add the occasional flash of a photo strobe at a distance and work it closer. Don't forget to include bright headlights and emergency flashers for troopers.

Work the horse a little each night, gradually adding more lights of brighter intensity. Finally, remove the arena lighting and work the horse directly into the spotlight, passing through floods and shadows.

Where arena lighting is not available, start practice at dusk. Turn the lights on, and work the horse gently until darkness has descended.

Horses that show a tendency to frighten at sharp sounds must be treated carefully. It is important not to agitate the horse beyond learning in each session. For those wishing to accommodate a horse to gunfire. Start with a sharp cracking sound at a long distance. Use a cap pistol, slapstick, or percussion caps fired without a charge.

Make sure the arena is cleared and notify all concerned individuals that you will be firing the caps. Start as far away as possible and fire shots at random while the horse is put thorough regular paces on the flats. Gradually work the horse closer to the sound. Pay attention to his demeanor. Don't forget to soothe and reward him after each shot.

After working the horse a little each day for several weeks, begin to clap your hands while mounted on horseback. When the horse accepts this, try the slapstick or cap pistol. Don't push the horse too far in each session. One or two manageable shots are a good place to stop. Don't forget to reward the horse.

With constant PATIENT training, the horse will accept a footman firing shots nearby, or allow the rider to fire from off his back. Even then, start with small caps and work up to a full load.

Some accommodation to the sounds of the street and combat can be acquired through the use of recordings played in the barn. Start with recordings of martial or parade music, and randomly add the sounds of drumbeats, gunfire, crowd noise or sirens. Start by playing the tape at low levels for an hour or so prior to feeding. Increase the level a little each day. The horse will gradually come to accept the sounds as preparation for his feeding. DO NOT play the sound track continuously. Horse, like people, can become over stimulated and need a little piece and quiet.

For the rider wearing heavy armor or harness, the sound of his jingling equipment presents another source of concern for the nervous mount. Start by dropping a coin into a tin can and tying it to the saddle. Work the horse through his usual paces. Move the can from point to point on the saddle. Gradually add more coins and more cans until the horse ignores the sound of clanking armor.

Horses generally avoid rough physical contact with other horses, unless there is a particular enmity between two animals. In which case, horses should be discouraged from kicking or biting at other animals or people.

For the trooper or performer who must work amongst a crowd, a biting horse can be a problem. If a horse has a tendency to bite at hands that are extended toward him, try this. Take a chicken leg, hot dog or piece of unseasoned meat and heat it in a microwave until it is too hot to touch. Pick it up with a mitt, and offer your open hand to the mount. When he nips at it, withdraw it. Now quickly offer the hot meat "Palmed" in your hand to him and allow him to bite into it. The resulting scald should cause him to hesitate before trying it again. Perform this ritual once or twice a day for a week and he should be broken of the habit. If possible, have different handlers perform the same action so he does not come to respect only one person. I have had similar luck by simply offering the horse my armored elbow or gauntlet to bite. When the teeth connect with the cold steel, they usually get tired of trying.

The opposite problem of horses shying from contact with other horses or footmen is addressed in SKILLS and DRILLS, through the use of games employing the MELEE or group action. Play these games for short periods and don't forget to reward your animal's good behavior.

Horses are social animals with a herd instinct. The usefulness of social accommodation should not be ignored. If a company already has a trained horse or horses, incorporate them into the new horse's exposure to the stimuli. Quite often a new horse will settle down quickly when he sees from the experienced horses that there is nothing to fear.

At some point the arena must be abandoned for real life. Trail work is a necessary part of "Street proofing" a trooper's mount. When the horse has mastered the stimuli in the arena, move out to riding along lightly traveled roads. Calm the horse at passing traffic. When he spots an object on the trail that frightens him, turn him toward the object and lead him slowly in. Allow him to touch it with his nose. Do this at every occasion and he will eventually tire of this process. When the occasion presents itself, ride the mount in civic parades. This will present the ultimate test in composure with at least come control over contact with pedestrians.

In closing then, the principle of Graduated Exposure should be employed when training a horse to accept unsettling stimuli. Work the horse for small periods, reward his progress and above all, be PATIENT.


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This file was last modified Sunday, Mar 26 2006, 17:15:11 EST