‘The War Horse’ and A History of the Horse in War

Posted by on Apr 6, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

Michael Morpurgo’s romantic novel, The `War Horse’, a popular theatre production and now set to become an internatioanal Spielberg  smash cinema hit in 2012, revolves around the relationship between a horse and his trainer.

At the outbreak of World War I, Joey, young Albert Narracott’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Joey serves in the German and British Armies, befriending Topthorn (another army horse) along the way, and gets caught up in enemy fire; death, disease.

Fate takes hold on his path and leads him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in No Man’s Land. But Albert cannot forget Joey, and, although not old enough to enlist in the army, he embarks on a dangerous mission to find him and bring him home to Devon.

Horse in War
The first recorded use of horses in warfare dates back to over 5,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of horses ridden in warfare dates from Eurasia between 4000 and 3000 BC. A Sumerian illustration of warfare is seen to depict some type of equine pulling wagons from 2500 BC. By 1600 BC, recognition of the importance of tack, lead to improved harness and chariot designs, which made chariot warfare more common throughout the Ancient Near East. Training manuals for war horses were soon essential, with the first being a guide for training chariot horses, written about 1350 BC. As formal cavalry tactics replaced the chariot, so did new training methods, and by 360 BC, the Greek cavalry officer Xenophon had written an extensive treatise on horsemanship. A revolution in the addition of tack, including the invention of the saddle, the stirrup, and later, the horse collar lead to advancements in riding and warfare.

Many different types and sizes of horses were used in war, depending on the form of warfare. The type used varied with whether the horse was being ridden or driven, and whether they were being used for reconnaissance, cavalry charges, raiding, communication, or supply. Often overlooked, mules and donkeys as well as horses played a crucial role in providing support to armies in the field.

Modern-day Olympic equestrian events are rooted in cavalry skills and classical horsemanship.
The first equestrian events at the Olympics were introduced in 1912, and through 1948, competition was restricted to active-duty officers on military horses. Mechanisation of warfare reduced the number of military riders, so after 1952 civilian riders were allowed to compete. The three-phase competition known today as ‘Eventing’, developed out of cavalry officers’ needs for versatile, well-schooled horses, reflected in the demands of the three events. Fox hunting mainly gave rise to show jumping, however, the cavalry considered jumping to be good training for their horses, and leaders in the development of modern riding techniques over fences, such as Federico Caprilli, came from military ranks.

Beyond the Olympic disciplines are other events with military roots, which can be seen in competitions with weapons, such as mounted shooting and tent pegging, test the combat skills of mounted riders.