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Introduction to Mounted Combat

© 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


"In one respect a cavalry charge is very like ordinary life. So long as you are all right, firmly in your saddle, your horse in hand, and well armed, lots of enemies will give you wide berth. But as soon as you have lost a stirrup, have a rein cut, have dropped your weapon, are wounded, or your horse is wounded, then is the moment when from all quarters enemies rush upon you"

Winston Churchill, 1898

     The history of Mounted Combat can be traced at least as far back as the ancient Assyrians in 750 BC. It continued through the Eastern horse cultures of the Scythians, Sarmatians, Magyars, and Avars. Classical literature chronicles the exploits of Greek, Persian, Roman and heavily armored medieval European armies. The role of mounted troops evolved with the introduction of firearms; but continued to be a valuable branch of the military throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and into World War I.

     Polish Lancers mounted on horse, charged against German tanks just west of Grudziadz at the beginning of World War II in 1939. Even as late as April 1941, the U.S. Army was training its mounted cavalry in the desserts of West Texas, preparing against a possible invasion through the rough terrain of Mexico.

     The elevation of the foot soldier to mounted warrior had a profound effect on the technology of warfare, and ultimately on the societies that evolved to support those warriors. The cult of the mounted warrior is expressed in the code of Chivalry for the European Knight, and Bushido, the Way of the Warrior in Eastern cultures. It has existed in various forms on almost all the continents and cultures, from the steppes of Russia and plains of Mongolia to the Great Plains of America and the horse culture of the American Indians.

     There have been a number of treatises and books written at various times by different authors, in an attempt to pass on the latest training methods for horse and rider. Each treatise is a product of its own time, reflecting what was then known about equestrian physiology and tempered by the requirements of the arms and armor then in use.

     Perhaps the earliest work was by the Greek Author Xenephon, whose "Treatise on Horsemanship" was published circa 350 B.C. Many of his principals are still considered valid today. The first written instructions for jousting were compiled by no less a personage than the King of Portugal - Duarte, in his book "The Art of Good Horsemanship" published in 1434. By the seventeenth century, a number of books advocating regional schools of riding skills were being published. This coincided with the decline of the Great Horse as a breed and the advent of the Renaissance Horse with thoroughbred bloodlines. Jacobi's "Instructions on the Principles of the Cavalry" c.1616 and Pluvinel's "L'Art de Monter a` Cheval" c. 1624 were both popular riding manuals aimed at the refined gentleman. John Cruso's "Militarie Instructions for The Cavalrie" published 1632, was meant more as a training guide for the army. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw the rise of scientific horse breeding and refined dressage techniques. Manuals on mounted combat continued to be issued sporadically sometimes by Masters of Defence such as Messr. H. Angelo's "Hungarian and Highland Sword" published in 1789. Thomas Stephens published a "New system of broad and small sword exercise..." specifically for the cavalry in1843. Some later manuals also include specific instructions for the use of the light lance.

     The twentieth century saw what may be the last manual written for practical training of the mounted soldier, fighting with sword or lance. In 1914, the War Department: Office of the Chief of Staff authorized the printing of a small, 40 page manual entitled "Saber Exercise" written by a young Second Lieutenant and Master of the Sword at the Mounted Service School of the Fifteenth Cavalry, George S. Patton. Surprisingly enough, Patton advocated a return to the use of the Cavalry as a kind of SHOCK force, much like the role of medieval knights. Perhaps Patton saw it as the last hope of sword and horse against the changing face of modern warfare.

     At any rate, the role of mounted cavalry in the military has been made ineffective by the weapons of modern warfare. A mounted police trooper however, still possesses the advantage of a knight over lightly armed peasantry, whenever he faces a crowd from horseback. Those ancient skills are still relevant to his task of horse to ground combat, crowd control, reconnaissance, and pursuit and capture. The modern trooper still seeks to understand and master these skills today.

     When I began jousting in 1983, there were no "How To" books for training horses or riders in Medieval Warfare. At the time, the Renaissance Faire movement was still relatively young, and resource books for costumes and weapons were hard to come by. The horses and riders of the troupe I joined, had to be trained in what was essentially a lost art form, gleaning what information we could from obscure references and the occasional old movie stuntman. Over the years, through trial and error, we were able to "re-invent the wheel"- a painful and lengthy process. It was always encouraging, when research uncovered a piece of information, proving the path we were on was the right one.

     The skills developed in this process were necessary for training riders and horses in the re-creation of Medieval and Renaissance Jousts. I went on to apply those skills to other periods for film and re-enactment purposes, and finally to assist police officers in their mounted patrol duties.

     The purpose of this guide then, is to assist knowledgeable horsemen in the preparation of horse and rider for EQUESTRIAN COMBAT, whether real or simulated. It attempts to establish a basic, universal starting point for training horse and rider that can be built upon or modified to suit a particular reader's need or interests, regardless of period.

     It is not within the scope of this guide to review the entire history of mounted combat, or impart fundamental training in horsemanship or martial arts. It assumes the reader is at least an intermediate rider, and already has training in some form of martial art. If the reader lacks basic experience or training in either of these areas, it is strongly advised that he/she acquire those skill separately before attempting to combine them.

     This guide will outline skills and drills to accommodate the horse and rider to the sights, sounds and contact of battle. It will detail the use of various weapons commonly wielded from horseback, and explain their field of engagement. It will provide insights into choreographing and simulating combat for outdoor theater or film, as well as drills that can be employed by the modern trooper in pursuit and crowd control. And finally, plans are offered for the construction of useful props and equipment, all in a modern text that is easily accessible.

     Equestrian sports are always inherently dangerous. This is doubly so with the addition of gunfire, loud sounds, waving swords and the contact of melee engagement. The reader is encouraged to wear proper headgear AT ALL TIMES, and advised to don additional pads for training. Proper riding safety should be observed, and never work around other horses and riders not trained for combat.

     When a calm temperament is acquired, a stable weapons platform is achieved. This allows the rider to practice his martial art with maximum efficiency. A balanced, coordinated marriage of Equestrian and Martial skills will prove invaluable to historical re-enactors, film wranglers, fight choreographers, and mounted troopers everywhere. Once these skills are mastered, they will be able to trace with pride a direct link to the earliest mounted warriors, and join the ranks of the brotherhood of the order of CHIVALRY.


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