Tag Archive | cavalry

Hay is for horses, and other early modern wisdom

That old ‘hey is for horses’ line is pretty old: Jonathan Swift used it in A complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation from 1738. More generally, the number of equine metaphors are indicative of how important horses have been to human (excluding sub-Saharan African and pre-contact American) history: rein in, saddle up, hoof it, jockeying for position, champing at the bit are just a few of the English sayings that remind us of our special relationship. [Note: I tried to limit this post to just three equestrian puns, but horsing around is too much fun.]

The combination of a logistical thread promised much earlier in the year and previous discussion of cavalry leads logically to a separate post on fodder, which only makes sense since, as mentioned in the inaugural logistics post, fodder was likely the third-most important foodstuff for the men (after their own food and drink), and probably the first for the horses (water could be first, but I’ve read somewhere that green forage tended to have a fair amount of water content). The whole topic leaves me with all sorts of questions, so this is just a first attempt to delve into the details of how horse supply worked. Gavin or somebody could probably point me to better discussions already in print. I should probably have looked at a few of the secondary sources on the topic, but that’s why this is a blog post and not an article manuscript. So what follows is a somewhat rambling first attempt to get my head around the subject. You can lead a horse to water…

I’ll preface this post by admitting my ignorance here, for my knowledge of the details of early modern logistics is far less than it should be, although I think that is largely a function of the lack of literature on the subject. In addition to previous comments I’ve made on the difficulty of studying logistics, understanding fodder is particularly difficult for us today because it deals with horses, beasts which most moderns are unfamiliar with, as well as with agriculture, the details of which most moderns are equally unfamiliar with – Erik might refer to an agricultural knowledge economy or some such. Then too, it requires us to look outside of military history (narrowly defined) to the history of agriculture, rural society, and transportation. So I’m admittedly stretching here when talking about the details. Don’t take it from the horse’s mouth: let me know where I screw up. [I’m going to ignore more exotic beasts of burden like oxen, mules, donkeys, burros and their ilk…] Read More…

Investigations of a Horse

Gavin’s Investigations of a Dog blog is starting a new series of posts on cavalry. Feel free to follow along and comment.

Big Book of Horses

Now horses dance for their supper at the Olympics (dressage), but they used to fight for their food. So it’s worth noting that Gavin’s new book on horses and the English Civil War (or whatever people are calling the conflict these days) is just published:

Robinson, Gavin. Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War: Extracting Resources and Constructing Allegiance. Ashgate, 2012.

More info at his blog.

Horsing around with scale bars

Apropos a previous post on the different measurement systems used in early modern cartography, I just came across this example that is unique (to me at least).

Carte d'une partie de Piemont

Carte d’une partie de Piemont

I’m not positive, but it looks like the top bar indicates the distance one can travel in an hour on horseback, i.e. 2 heur[es] de ch[eval]. Of course it’s annoying that they don’t left justify the two bars, so you can directly compare the 1 hour to the number of Piemont milles.

Other interpretations?

Notice how the French text beneath the bars also lets the reader know that four Piemont milles (“miles” or “thousands”) equal two French lieus (leagues), each of 2500 toises. It ain’t easy being an early modern.

Seeing a man about a horse

No discussion of cavalry and forage would be complete without an acknowledgement of the darker side. Gene Wilder and Daisy the Sheep; Tijuana donkey shows; Harry Potter in Equus. That exhausts my knowledge of pop culture bestiality references. But we can’t blame this decline in moral standards on the 60s – ask Catherine the Great. For a bit more historical context, I provide the following, from Mother Ross (aka Mrs. Christian Davies), in late 1708:

“The duke of Marlborough, after the siege of Brussels was raised, encamped at Alost. While we were here, I observed an officer, who, by his laced clothes, I con­jectured to be one of the guards, strolling backwards and forwards in the intervals of the camp; I fancied he had a mind to steal some of our horses, and for that reason watched him narrowly; at length I saw him lead off a mare, belonging to a poor woman, into a ditch, and with her commit, by means of the bank, the most detestable sin that can enter into the thoughts of man. Colonel Irwin and another officer, both of Ingoldsby’s regiment, happening at that instant to pass by, caught him in the fact, seized and gave him into the custody of the provost, where he remained till the duke, who had left the army, returned, when he was tried, condemned to the gallows, and executed accordingly. …. The mare which this officer was enamoured with, was shot; but the duke first paid the poor woman who owned her, the full value.”

My Pretty Pony

The Mother Ross narrative has been attributed to Daniel Defoe, but everything written between 1700 and 1730 seems to have been attributed to that prolific author at one point or another, so I’m not sure of the current consensus. In any case, I’m tempted to try to find the court martial account of that trial. If it really happened and an officer of the Guards was involved, you’d think it would’ve been a topic of conversation.
But even if Defoe did make it up, it was certainly in the air. I came across an interesting blog entry awhile back that suggests that shooting the horse in such a scenario was in fact not unheard of:
But, lest you worry about your rights being trampled upon and the victim being punished, it’s still legal in CT!

Speaking of horses…

An outrageous story from the NYTimes on the high number of horse deaths on U.S. racetracks – 24 horses die PER WEEK racing or training – 3,600 over the past three years, or 5.2 per 1,000 starts. Owners dope up the horses (steroids, painkillers…) and there’s almost no regulation for most race tracks, particularly casino-operated ones. Quarter horses (i.e. sprinters) are more likely to get injured than thoroughbreds.



(May be behind a paywall).

Looks like Gavin should come to the U.S. with a camcorder if he needs more footage of horse collisions…

War Horses

I still have a week before my vacation in the Caymans (and the chapter is due), but since so many seem to be interested in cavalry, I might as well make a dedicated post to it. Previous discussion took off in the Face of Battle post, about halfway through the comments.

I’m far from an expert on cavalry, and given how few secondary sources there are dedicated to it, it looks like I’m not alone. So what interests me would be if we could get a better sense of the parameters of early modern cavalry, i.e. figure out what exactly we know about it. I’m happy to focus for the time being on tactics, but only because it looks like a fair number of people are interested. I could do a separate post for discussion of cavalry operations if there’s interest. Some future series of posts will be dedicated to operational matters.

Things that I would love to see in the discussion: Read More…


The discussion on cavalry continues in the Face of Battle post. I need to really shift into writing mode for the next two weeks (and then it’s a week vacation), but I’ll try to post once a week until I can get back on a regular schedule in early March. In the next week or so I will try to put up a new post to harness the unleashed energies of this horde of charging… horses. Logistics will have to wait till March I’m afraid.

In the meantime, two points of possible interest.

First, I assume I’m not the only one to have seen the debut of the (US) History Channel’s Full Metal Jousting. In case you are interested in a competitive reality-TV series based on winning a modern jousting tournament, it may be your cup o’ tea. I’m sure we could probably bribe the network into crashing horses into one another if we came up with enough money.

Second, a blog written by a medieval reenactor (SCA) has recently written a couple of posts on knightly combat in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period that might be of interest to the group: Will McLean’s A Commonplace Book. Perhaps in the future we should accumulate as many descriptions of early modern cavalry combat as we can – to get a better sense of what cavalry tactics did and didn’t include.


Busy with a looming chapter and scanning newspapers. But never fear, there will be new posts, if only once or (more likely) twice per week.You can always subscribe to the RSS feeds and be alerted when new content is posted. You can also subscribe to Comments.

This month we’ll slowly merge away from battle (always to return) and into logistics, starting with a post on the relationship between logistics and battle. Also to come is more on maps and a continuation of the promised musings on self-publishing. Lots of other things down the line.

In the meantime, there’s a discussion about cavalry going on in the comment section of the Face of Battle post. I have oodles of questions for Gavin Robinson, and everyone else is invited to contribute. Cavalry tactics is really out of my league, and I’m guessing probably for many others as well (so little is written on it), so I think it will be informative.