Wednesday, April 27, 2016

New book on the war horse in ancient Greece by Alexandre Blaineau

This is a new contribution to the history of equestrian culture in the Greek world. By adopting the angle of the war horse, Blaineau aims to study the relationship between military equitation and the actions of mounted warriors on the battlefields of the Greek world.  Thanks to Xenophon (430-355 BCE), whose work often refers to equestrian issues, but also to other available sources (literary, epigraphical, and iconographic), it is possible to reconstruct specific details of equine husbandry, from the type of mounts raised to their integration in cavalry forces. Military horses came for the most part from regions with a marked tradition of horse breeding. Their conformation, given the needs of war (scouting, harassing the enemy, charging) required conscious selection founded on zoological knowledge. Xenophon and others also reveal the degree to which selective breeding practices in the classical period were consciously applied, and Xenophon's description of the ideal horse in his work on equestrian art illustrates an intimate knowledge of horses...
The history of the horse in Greece ... reveals in effect an ensemble of practices, techniques, and knowledge, but also the existence of a form of industry in which farmers, herders, grooms or trainers emerge as key players in the production of effective mounts for the cavalries of the Greek world.
-- Text from listing on, translated and adapted by Ian MacInnes

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Excellent translation of Grisone

Congratulations to Liz Tobey and Federica Brunori Deigan on the publication of this important translation of Grisone!  

Here's from the editor:
"Federico Grisone published Gli ordini di cavalcare (The Rules of Riding) in 1550, the first manual on manège riding, the ancestor of modern dressage. The Ordini codified a half-century of oral tradition of teaching this art and was a best seller and a welcome aid in educating noblemen at European courts in the art of the manège. Elizabeth Tobey and Federica Brunori Deigan have prepared the first modern edited English translation of the Ordini, which should interest Renaissance scholars and equestrians, and includes an introductory essay, a glossary of equestrian terms, and the transcription of the 1550 Italian first edition.

Grisone's treatise and the riding masters trained at his riding academy in Naples, Italy, spread the practice of the art of manège riding to courts throughout Europe. Twenty-three Italian editions of the text were published between 1550 and 1620 and the treatise was translated into French, English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Many of the concepts Grisone discusses in his treatise--such as developing contact between horse and rider and collection in the horse--are still major tenets of modern dressage riding. The haute école or High School movements of classical dressage are still practiced today by such traditional academies such as the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria and the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

New book from Brill on horsemanship manuals

Edited by Koert van der Horst

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Horses in the English Civil War: new book

Congratulations to co-editor Gavin Robinson for the publication of his book, Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War.

Here's the book description:

Horses played a major role in the military, economic, social and cultural history of early-modern England. This book uses the supply of horses to Parliamentarian armies during the English Civil War to make two related points. Firstly it shows how control of resources - although vital to success - is contingent upon a variety of logistical and political considerations. It then demonstrates how competition for resources and construction of individuals' identities and allegiances fed into each other. Resources, such as horses, did not automatically flow out of areas which were nominally under Parliament's control, but required the construction of administrative systems to make them work. This was not easy when only a minority of the population actively supported either side and property rights had to be negotiated, so the success of these negotiations was never a foregone conclusion. The study also demonstrates how competition for resources and construction of identities fed into each other. It argues that allegiance was not a fixed underlying condition, but was something external and changeable. Actions were more important than thoughts and to secure victory, both sides needed people to do things rather than feel vaguely sympathetic. Furthermore, identities were not always self-fashioned but could be imposed on people against their will, making them liable to disarmament, sequestration, fines or imprisonment. More than simply a book about resources and logistics, this study poses fundamental questions of identity construction, showing how culture and reality influence each other. Through an exploration of Parliament's interaction with local communities and individuals, it reveals fascinating intersections between military necessity and issues of gender, patriarchy, religion, bureaucracy, nationalism and allegiance.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

last cavalry charge?

Here's an interesting, lighthearted recent blog post on the subject of the last cavalry charge:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Revising Cavalry

[Cross-posted at Investigations of a Dog]

Over the summer I read two PhD theses which challenge a lot of preconceptions about cavalry in warfare, one on the Anglo-Saxon period and the other on the First World War.

  1. Kerry Cathers, “An examination of the horse in Anglo-Saxon England” (PhD, Reading University, 2002).
  2. David Kenyon, “British Cavalry on the Western Front 1916-1918” (PhD, Cranfield, 2008).

(Both of these can be downloaded free from EthOS, although you’ll need to log in and search for them as there are no direct links. Kenyon’s can also be downloaded directly from Cranfield, which is much easier.)

Historians used to assume without question that horses played little part in Anglo-Saxon warfare and society. Kerry Cathers has challenged these assumptions, showing that they are based on very little evidence. The lack of evidence makes it difficult to be certain, but there is enough to suggest that horses were widely used and known by the Anglo-Saxons. Horses were conventionally associated with warriors in Anglo-Saxon culture (Cathers, 181, 306). Although their most well known battles were fought on foot, Anglo-Saxon armies used horses for raiding and for transporting soldiers to battlefields (Cathers, 288-9, 383). The Aberlemno stone probably represents a battle between the Northumbrians and the Picts, and shows both sides using cavalry (Cathers, 276-82). Cathers also discusses the development of the stirrup and its influence (or not) on medieval warfare. She sides with critics of Lynn White’s view that the stirrup was the fundamental basis of feudalism. Ann Hyland found that Roman cavalry saddles provided a secure seat even without stirrups, and Littauer argued that the stirrup was developed to support the feet and avoid cramp on long journeys (Cathers, 189-90, 267-9). R.H.C. Davis attributed the couched lance to the great horse more than the stirrup, but still ended up privileging cavalry over non-military uses of horses, and deriving feudalism from a fairly narrow technological development. Cathers shows that Anglo-Saxon horses were no smaller than horses in other parts of Europe but that this fact has tended to be covered up by historians’ linguistic biases: referring to Anglo-Saxon horses as “ponies” signifies the idea of a small animal. She was also an early advocate of the idea that there is no such thing as native breeds, and that the idea was invented much later: “Though, as noted, some horse enthusiasts like to push the date of certain breeds back into the furthest reaches of the past, the claim that breeds existed during this period is entirely false and without substantiation ” (Cathers, 160). The spurious idea that the Exmoor pony is an authentic native breed led some historians to assume that Anglo-Saxon horses were similar. I don’t think a big horse would have been necessary for shock charges with the couched lance, because even the mass of a small horse could put a lot of momentum behind the lance. One particularly weird result of historians’ prejudice against the idea of Anglo-Saxon horses is that one place name study assumed that places including the element “wig” must be named after earwigs, and failed to mention the possibility that they could be derived from “wicgela”, an Old English word for stallion! (Cathers, 67-8)

If cavalry played a role in English/British warfare earlier than most people thought, they also remained important long after most people think they became obsolete. It might appear that the Western Front from 1916 to 1918 is not a very promising area for studying cavalry, but David Kenyon confounds expectations in even more detail than Stephen Badsey has done. The key to the argument is that although new technology created problems for cavalry it also created opportunities. Barbed wire was as much an obstacle to infantry as it was to cavalry. Neither could attack effectively unless the wire was removed by artillery, tanks or engineers. Machine guns and breech loading magazine rifles increased the firepower of cavalry as well as infantry. Between the Second Anglo-Boer War and the First World War, British cavalry were retrained to fight primarily as mounted infantry, although they were still trained and equipped to charge into close combat when the opportunity arose. In the early years of the First World War, every cavalry regiment had a machine gun section armed with Vickers heavy machine guns, which were transported on pack horses. In 1916 these were replaced with Hotchkiss light machine guns, and the Vickers guns were reorganized into Machine Gun Corps (Cavalry) squadrons (Kenyon, 33). This mobile firepower allowed cavalry to engage enemy machine guns in firefights. For example, when the 7th Dragoon Guards came under fire from German machine guns near Longueval on 14th July 1916, their own machine gun section knocked out the German guns (Kenyon, 60).

Although cavalry regiments mostly depended on firepower, changes in technology and tactics made cavalry charges more viable in some circumstances. From the medieval period into the nineteenth century the best way for infantry to resist a cavalry charge was to stand still in a very tight formation, because the horses would usually stop or turn away from an apparently solid object as long as the infantry had the confidence to stand firm. The massive firepower on early twentieth century battlefields made such close formations suicidal. When infantry dispersed to protect themselves from artillery and machine guns, they also made themselves more vulnerable to cavalry charges. On 14 July 1916 some German infantry were dispersed in a field near High Wood, sheltering in shell craters. This was the best way to protect themselves from artillery, which was the most likely threat, but they were charged by a squadron of the 7th Dragoon Guards, which had pushed through a gap in the German front line. Of these German infantry, 16 were killed by lances, 32 captured and the rest ran away (Kenyon, 60).

Rapid firing artillery was a much bigger threat than the machine gun. The worst combat casualties for British cavalry horses happened when their riders had dismounted to defend positions which were then shelled by the Germans, as at Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917 (Kenyon, 136). The increasing quantity and quality of allied artillery forced the Germans to abandon linear trenches and switch to defence in depth by the spring of 1917. In this system the front line consisted of a network of outposts rather than continuous trenches, designed to break up attacks gradually and funnel them into killing zones where they could be counter-attacked by reserves. Because the defences were more dispersed there was more room for cavalry to manoeuvre. Cavalry and infantry were able to employ fire and movement tactics which involved one unit suppressing an enemy position with its fire while another unit moved around its flank. Kenyon points out that these tactics had been in the Cavalry Training manual since 1912 (Kenyon, 109-10). When the allies broke through the Hindenburg Line in the autumn of 1918 and began advancing more rapidly, cavalry played a vital role in maintaining contact with the retreating Germans (Kenyon, 269).

Opportunities to use cavalry effectively in set-piece attacks were often missed because of failures in command, control and communication. While Kenyon rehabilitates the cavalry, he is critical of Cavalry Corps and its commander, Kavanagh. Having the cavalry divisions in their own Corps under GHQ complicated the chain of command, delayed the transmission of orders and intelligence, and made it hard to co-ordinate cavalry attacks with infantry and artillery. Cavalry divisions worked better when they were integrated into infantry corps attack plans but with the divisional commander free to use his own initiative to reach his objectives. There was also a pressing need for more cavalry squadrons to be attached to infantry divisions and corps for reconnaissance. Kavanagh was perhaps not well suited to command of a corps. His aggressive tendencies served him well as a brigade commander, but were directed at his subordinates more than the enemy once he was a lieutenant-general. The chain of command through Cavalry Corps HQ gave him too many opportunities to interfere with plans and overrule his divisional commanders, who were better placed to know what was going on at the front. Cavalry Corps also lacked the logistical infrastructure and heavy artillery which were found in infantry corps.

Despite all the problems, when cavalry were used effectively they were able to double the depth of “bite and hold” operations. Unfortunately, cavalry tended to be wrongly perceived as obsolete by people who didn’t understand them. The prejudiced opinions of a few tank officers have had a disproportionate influence on historians of the First World War. Tanks played a useful role in some battles, but they were much slower than cavalry. Wheeled armoured cars could move faster than tanks on good going but often got stuck in the mud. These problems weren’t effectively solved until the 1930s, when the British Army rapidly mechanized because horses genuinely were becoming obsolete. Erik Lund continues the story over at Bench Grass, with a look at mounted warfare and the development of the armoured division…

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

DNA Study of Thoroughbreds

Punctuated Equilibrium reports on a new DNA study of thoroughbreds which confirms that many foundation mares were British and that disproves claims that TBs have "pure" Arab blood. This data strongly supports Richard Nash's arguments, although I'm not sure that Bower's claim that "In the 17th and 18th centuries it was all about the boys," is quite right. In his chapter in The Culture of the Horse, Nash says that Weatherby started out recording the pedigrees of mares: "The original project of a national stud book was manifestly not to document the paternal influence of a particular group of stallions; indeed, for good and logical reasons, that project was properly gynocentric". He also showed that the influence of mares was uncertain and contested in the 18th century, so not "Originally, animal breeders thought that the important parent was the father and that any mare would do as a mother". There also seems to be some anachronistic mention of "British native breeds", but these weren't really invented until after the thoroughbred. Still, it looks like a really interesting and important study.

  1. M. A. Bower et al., “The cosmopolitan maternal heritage of the Thoroughbred racehorse breed shows a significant contribution from British and Irish native mares,” Biology Letters (10, 2010),  

  2. Richard Nash, “"Honest English breed" : the thoroughbred as cultural metaphor,” in The Culture of the Horse, ed. Karen L. Raber and Treva J. Tucker (New York; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).