They shoot horses, don’t they?
By Dan Wilson
There is a battle scene in the movie “Braveheart” in which a mounted English soldier is charging Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, sword in hand, with the clear intent of delivering a killing blow to Wallace when we see Wallace duck, swing his broadsword parallel to the ground, unhorsing his antagonist who is quickly killed by Wallace.
What we are spared from seeing by the careful editing is the amputation of the foreleg of the charging horse which allowed horse and rider to be brought to the ground. The scene allows the viewer to interpret the event without the graphic image of the amputation, this, in a movie in which the viewer is treated to dozens of images of human decapitation and loss of body parts.
As a kid growing up the in the fifties and sixties I had a steady diet of cowboy movies and there is one staple of most of those movies—a group of menacing Indians on horseback circling a fortification, group of settlers, a wagon train or dismounted cavalry, and we see many of the Indians falling neatly from their horses as they are picked off by their besiegers. The horses of course, run off, riderless.
This is the image that perhaps most, if not all people, have of mounted warfare. But at some point, logic must intervene. In actual battle, it was the horse more often than the rider, that got shot, not only because of their much larger mass, hence providing a much larger target, but the kind of marksmanship required to hit the much smaller rider would be beyond the skill level of the average soldier.
But, that doesn’t make for good cinema and moreover, viewers would avoid any movie that showed carnage to animals.
I would argue that squeamishness has distorted our view of history as well, especially the history of mounted warfare. I would venture a guess that I could ask any number of historians how many soldiers were killed in the American Civil War and they would all provide the answer of 650,00 to 700,000 but if I would to ask how many horses and mules were killed they would probably draw a blank (1 million or so.) Or try WWI (about 8 million).
Horses are treated as collateral damage. Even the death of a horse is regarded in dismissive terminology. “He had his horse shot out from under him” is the common phrase. Napoleon for example, during the course of his military career had numerous “horses shot out from under him.” The very term implies that someone aimed too low and oops, the horse got killed even though that horse acted as a shield and took the bullet, arrow, or projectile instead of its rider.
In reality, horses make for a better target, and unhorsing the rider is just as effective in removing the threat as killing the rider. Warriors made no distinction between horse and rider in combat. War is brutal and animals suffered from that same brutality.
At the Battle of Agincourt (1415) the English defeated a much larger French force consisting largely of mounted knights. The English longbowmen unleashed volleys of arrows at the knights, who were armored. But their horses were not.
“As always the horses suffered most from the arrows, becoming unmanageable, bolting, while those that did reach English lines were impaled on the six-foot stakes that were at a horse’s breast-high.”
Historians agree that at Agincourt the panicking and injured horses threw their armored riders who, virtually helpless on the ground, were then easy prey for English troops armed with maces and axes. Some accounts describe the horses looking like pincushions from the arrows.
Some historians have raised questions about historical accounts of mounted warfare. J. Edward Chamberlin studied the tactics of ancient war chariots.
“The standard account has it that battle engagement involved chariot charges. But a big question mark is in order here. As historians who know about horses have pointed out, the clashes that would have been an inevitable—and indeed intentional—part of any chariot (or cavalry) charge would have been devastating for the horses. So why would any serious warrior, unless absolutely required, indulge in them? Horses were too valuable to but put at such risk, and given the number of horses used to pull chariots, the losses would have been catastrophic.”
Chamberlin posits that chariots were most likely used to transport warriors quickly to needed trouble spots to fight as a mobile strike force from a stationary position rather than the images left us in bas relief of an archer firing arrows at an enemy from a moving chariot.
“For the soldier riding “shotgun” with the driver able to fire an arrow or throw a javelin with any accuracy during a charge, the chariots would have to be going at one of two speeds: a full gallop or a slow cantor…Going flat out at a full gallop, a chariot could not turn quickly and avoid a collision. And at a slow canter, it would become an easy target.”
Horses could also sustain more damage and give their riders a greater chance of escaping harm.
Ann Hyland cites numerous graphic examples of horses’ sufferings in medieval warfare among those the Bayeaux Tapestry, the artistic depiction of the Battle of Hastings (1066).
The tapestry “shows three horses being violently overturned. One has an empty saddle as his rider pitches off, another no saddle at all, and the rider of the third has been thrown forward on to his horse’s neck obviously injured, while an Englishman wields a lance against him and at the same time jerks the horses girth loose. Yet another horse, still upright, has his skull cloven by an axe. In the border below two riderless horses gallop away from the conflict. Grouped together, this scene shows more of violence and its costs than the rest of the tapestry, indicates that horse losses were heavy, and illustrates the type of wounds suffered by the animals..”
She describes this engagement from the Crusades.
“In an encounter with a Frank his horse was hit beside the throat-latch and its head skewed to one side, the lance coming out of the lower end of the neck (near the withers) and piercing Kamil al-Mashtub’s thigh. Both horse and rider survived; the horse was again injured severely in a later engagement by a lance thrust into the frontal bone (of the forehead) which forced it inward. Even when healed, the hole was big enough for man’s fist…Other horses suffered mortal wounds. One had its heart pierced in combat at Hims, and while arterial blood was pumping out still carried Usamah out of danger before collapsing and dying.”
She describes another mount in the same action “even with its entrails spilling out, and strapped up by a surcingle to stop it treading on them, it stayed on its feet through the battle.”
The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War (1854) is illustrative. With the invention of gunpowder cavalry tactics had to adapt, often timing a head-on charge while infantry troops were reloading. But these attacks became more infrequent as the firepower increased. The ill-fated charge of the brigade on an artillery emplacement at Balaclava shows the effect projectiles have on mounted horses.
Thanks to Tennyson’s poem the common belief is that the majority of “The 600” were wiped out, but that was true of the horses, not the riders. Out of 673 men, 113 were killed and about 180 were wounded. However, 460 horses were killed outright or had to be dispatched due to wounds. About one-sixth of the men were lost compared to two-thirds of the horses.
So were horses targeted? We know that it was common knowledge that horse-drawn artillery were always a target, especially the horses, because disabling one horse was enough to disable the team.
But as to battle tactics the historical record is scant.
Robert Watt’s treatise on the Ninth U.S. Cavalry’s campaign against the Apache Indians from 1879 to 1881 reveals horses became the targets as the Apaches, fighting on foot learned that by killing or disabling the cavalry’s horses they could achieve a tactical advantage. Horses were harder to replace than the men.
“The Apaches wrought the most extensive damage by deliberately targeting the regiment’s horses and mules in ambushes. They also led the Ninth Cavalry on long, grueling pursuits across difficult terrain that eventually wore down or killed the unit’s mounts.
Watt writes, “By June 1880, the Apaches had effectively dismounted the Ninth Cavalry.”
Watt was able to utilize the army’s records of animal losses to show the devastating effects of the Apache tactics.
“Approximately 271 of the 395 horses lost by the Ninth Cavalry from 1879 to 1880 can be directly or indirectly credited to hostile Apache action…Indeed, of the 42 horses lost in August 1881, 33 were shot dead by Apaches.”
As a result, the campaign against the Apaches was a failure.
“The regiment faced opponents whose principals of war struck consistently at its weakest point: the ability to supply its companies with sufficient horses and mules and to keep those animals alive in the field.”
Admittedly the historical record on animal casualties is meager and more research needs to be conducted. However, we should not think of horses as bystanders who sometimes get killed by chance. The outcome of battles was measured in human casualties. Although horses were participants and their casualties mattered as to the outcome as well, they are not included in that calculus. They were targeted more often than we care to think because they were instruments of war and those instruments had to be destroyed.
 Desmond Seward, “The Hundred Years War”, 1978. P. 166.
 J. Edward Chamberlin, “How the Horse Has Shaped Civilization..” 2006. Pp 151-152.
 Ann Hyland, “Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades.” 1996. P. 97.
 Robert N. Watt, “Horses worn to mere shadows”, The Ninth U.S. Cavalry’s Campaign Against the Apaches in New Mexico Territory, 1879-1881. The New Mexico Historical Review, Spring 2011. P. 197.