So why did horses never favour rebellious peasants?

I have previously written about one reason for the failure of peasants’ revolts of all kinds down the ages. It was the use of cavalry by the ruling classes. See So why did horses never favour the peasants.  In that blog, I raised the question of why the peasants never fought fire with fire, using borrowed or stolen horses.

This is my theory.

When horses were the main form of transport, many people probably rode from one village to the next. Few would have needed to learn anything at all advanced. Most beginners find it is relatively easy to ride a horse at a walk, although a trot can be quite uncomfortable until you get used to it. A canter is often easier – until the horse stops or turns!

People would have found a real difference between basic riding and the more advanced stuff, if they rode in a battle, even in a skirmish. Sharp turns at speed are difficult. In everyday situations, you would probably be going in straight lines, or something like, most of the time. In battle, manoeverability is usually everything.

It was the way horses moved!

The reason horses were so unhelpful to the peasants is a result of their way of moving. At a trot, a horse moves diagonally opposite feet together: left fore and right hind, and vice versa. At a canter, one diagonal pair breaks up, making a three-time rhythm: lead foreleg, diagonal pair, other hindleg. On a circle or a bend the animal will keep its balance best if its lead foreleg is the one on the inside of the circle. To ride a figure of eight, you should change the lead, and hence the pattern of the other legs, in the middle. This may sound a bit sophisticated, but wild horses often change leads when cantering round bends or zig-zags, although many have a favourite lead, like being right or left handed.

In the past, most people might not have fully understood all this, but you can get the practice right without understanding the theory. Any professional cavalryman would know how and when to ride a change of lead. A peasant would not.

How important is this?

If you try to make a horse do a sharp turn on the wrong lead, there are several ways it might respond:

  • ignore the stupid instruction
  • make a very wide, gradual turn
  • drop down to a trot (this can be most unseating if you are not expecting it)
  • try to change leads and stumble or even fall (I have known this to happen)
  • do a neat change (if it is an experienced, agile horse)

You can guess that you would not like any but the last option. You could find even the last a bit unseating if you were not prepared. If you are wearing any sort of armour and carrying weapons you are top heavy and more likely to fall off or cause the horse to stumble. In battle, any mistakes can be fatal. You do not want to be fumbling.

I believe this explains, at least in part, why a handful of trained cavalrymen could usually defeat a lot of revolting peasants. Don’t blame the horses!

A Horse's Shoe - horses were unlucky for some
Horseshoe – horses were unlucky for some!

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