As a lover of horses and of history, I could not help noticing a long time ago that horses have often been used successfully to suppress peasants’ revolts. (The most recent example in England was at Orgreave Colliery.) I used to often wonder about this. After all, cavalry, although important, did not play a decisive part in most battles between armies. Lots of other factors came into it.
Three things could usually defeat cavalry.
- Other cavalry.
- Firepower, or archery power.
- Well trained infantry: the Roman tortoise, the Saxon shield-wall, the 16th and 17th century hedgehog, Wellington’s red squares.
So they were not invincible. Why did they always seem to defeat revolting peasants? Were they just lucky?
On looking into it, I soon discovered that rebels were often indisciplined and ill-led.
- They tended to rush towards the enemy, especially if they believed they had the advantage in numbers. Rushing against a mounted enemy never works. The trick is to stand still and strike at the right moment. It is impossible to time your blow with sword, spear or axe correctly when running. You cannot judge the speed of an approaching horse, while you are moving too.
- The opposite is not true. A cavalryman is always good at timing his blow at an enemy on foot, whether running or standing.
- If you are on foot, the advantage of numbers works best if you stick together. Rushing almost always means getting out of formation and allowing the men on horses to strike you down one at a time.
- The above point is even more true when you remember that cavalry were almost always professional soldiers or men of the ‘noble’ warrior class. Men who spent most of their time practicing fighting on horseback.
- Peasants were usually in part-time forces and their quality varied. They were usually accustomed to being led by their social superiors, who were, naturally, on the other side when they revolted.
And this explains why horse-ownership was banned or discouraged in the Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy Chapter 17 verse 16).
It is thought that the reason for the rather negative view of horses in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is that God did not want the leaders of Israel to employ cavalrymen or charioteers, because they would use them to oppress the people and because they would be tempted to go in for unnecessary foreign wars. On the other hand, an infantry made of local volunteers would be harder to use in such ways. (I do not believe God was opposed to owning horses as such. So there is no need to feel guilty if you are a horse-owner.)
All this I learnt a long time ago. One big question continued to bother me for a long time, however.
Why did the peasants not try to form their own cavalry, even temporarily? All right. They didn’t have horses and they couldn’t ride! (A lot of farm work was done by oxen until the 18th century.) But surely they could have stolen some horses, even if they did not have any of their own. And at least some peasants must have been reasonably competent riders?
When the answer occurred to me, I was annoyed that I had not thought of it before. As I so often find. It is due to a certain physical property of horses. I will explain it in detail in another article. Until then, think about it.