Mechanical vehicles are a recent invention, dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Before that, people did not drive but rode animals. However mounts are not automobiles that you can drive off with, park and later resume your ride. They have limits, lives and peculiarities. This article is an adventurer's introduction to animal mounts.
Note on measurements: The height of mounts is often measured in 'hands', at shoulder height. One hand is 4 inches or 0.1016 meters.
People have tried to tame many types of animals for riding. With some species they were successful, with others, like zebras and all carnivores, not. Goats, reindeer and llamas have been domesticated but are too small to be ridden. Below is a list of animals that have proven suitable. Several species are split into sub-species, breeds and/or variants. Only those available in ancient and medieval times are covered. Pre-civilization species like mammoths and modern breeds like thoroughbreds, Belgian farm-horses and several others are omitted.
These are the fastest steeds on Earth, highly prized by the aristocracy. Though swift, they are relatively vulnerable to exhaustion, lack of food or drink and the rigors of rough terrain. Therefore many a knight rides a common horse to battle and mounts his war horse only when the fighting starts.
A relatively small horse that evolved in the forests of Eurasia. From these many European horse breeds, including several large ones, descend. Ponies are relatively docile, easy to handle and quite strong for their size.
Steppe horses are smaller and less strong than most other types. But they have better endurance, can withstand extreme temperatures and live off dry scrub instead of fresh grass if they have to. They are half feral (wild) and only guided by their riders, not strictly controlled.
Middle Eastern horse:
These are the largest horses, strong, intelligent and good sprinters. They are adapted to the climate of the Middle East and can withstand heat and drought well. Middle eastern horses are the main ancestors of many modern horse breeds.
- Forest pony:
Donkeys or asses are used more as pack animals than as mounts. They have a reputation for stubbornness, though when human and donkey have a conflict the latter is often right, sensing danger. There is a wide range of sizes in donkeys. Often the smallest ones (150 - 180 kg) are called burros, medium sized animals (180 - 225 kg) simply donkeys and large ones (225 - 275 kg) asses.
Mules are the offspring of a male donkey ("jack") and a female horse ("mare"). An animal born from a female donkey ("jenny") and a male horse ("stallion") is called a hinny. Almost all are infertile, but as long as there are horses and donkeys on hand new ones can be bred. In size and appearance they are a clear cross-breed between the two parent species. They are stronger, more intelligent and more sure footed than horses, making them ideal pack animals.
Camels are not as swift as horses, but are superb desert travellers. They can withstand extreme temperatures, dehydration and lack of food. This enables them to go several days without food or water, gorging themselves full again once an oasis is reached.
The one-humped Arabian camel. It is about 18 - 19 hands tall and 300 - 600 kilograms in weight. Its soft broad feet are well adapted to sandy deserts.
The two-humped camel from central Asia. It is larger than the Dromedary, 18 - 23 hands tall and 300 - 1000 kilograms in weight. The Bactrian handles rocky and mountainous terrain better than the Dromedary.
Elephants are slow and varocious eaters, but very strong. They can carry a few people on their back, though this is bad for their spines. In war, they can terrorize both man and horses.
Stands 20 - 35 hands at the shoulder and weighs 2 - 5 tons.
Larger than its Indian cousin, 22 - 40 hands tall and 2 - 6 tons in weight, and more difficult to tame.
- Indian elephant:
Early Bronze Age
Horses were domesticated roughly around 3500 BCE onward.
The first such horses were not ridden, because they were still quite wild and also because they were too small to carry and adult man.
Instead they were mainly used as sources of milk and meat.
These early horses were all ponies, standing 8 - 14 hands tall and weighing 200 - 350 kilograms.
Around 3000 BCE they were a common sight as draft animals, pulling wagons and also ploughs.
Indian elephants were domesticated somewhat earlier than horses; donkeys and dromedaries around the same time as the latter; Bactrian camels some 5 centuries later than dromedaries. All except elephants were used for milk and meat like early horses; all inlcuding elephants as draft and pack animals.
Late Bronze Age
In 2000 BCE steppe nomads made some drastic improvements to the clumsy wagons that had been used before. They invented the spoked wheel and created the chariot, a light two-wheeled vehicle pulled by 2 to 4 horses. The horses themselves were hitched to these vehicles with improved harnesses, breastcollars and breeching. This created an excellent mobile missile platform and revolutionized warfare. Some four centuries later, when the design of the vehicles had been perfected, chariot armies conquered vast sways of land in the Old World.
Around 800 BCE the Scythians, a people from the Eurasian steppes, had managed to breed larger and stronger horses.
These were some 13 hands tall on average and weighed 250 - 350 kilograms.
This allowed the nomads to take the next step and start riding horses on their backs, creating true cavalry.
They were the first to field mounted archers in battle,
a tradition that was maintained by other steppe peoples like the Sarmatians, Huns, Xiongnu, Turks, Mongols and Magyars into the late Middle Ages.
Shortly after the Iranians found a defense against the new lightning nomad raids in cataphracts: heavy cavalry that was well armored yet fast enough to pursue the steppe horses. With cataphracts, both rider and horse were (partially) armored, with scale or mail. The heavy horses that were strong enough to carry all that were called Nisean chargers. They were raised to large sizes on a diet that contained a lot of alfalfa and other protein-rich ingredients.
Meanwhile in Arabia another type of cavalry was created. Camels were large and strong enough to carry humans without alfalfa, but their humps made riding them very difficult. This was solved by bedouins who invented the camel saddle around 1200 BCE.
Over time, the gear that was used to ride horses evolved along with the animals themselves.
Around 200 BCE the tree saddle was perfected, a partially wooden saddle with a pommel fore and cantle aft.
This improved the stability of the rider, especially to absorb recoil when he plunged a lance into a target,
though rider weight, strength and horsemanship remained more important.
Somewhere around 500 BCE Indians created toe-loops to give the feet of the rider some grip. Around 250 CE steppe nomads and the Chinese had improved these to true stirrups. Contrary to some theories, these help little in absorbing shocks of lance thrusts, but they allow the rider to stand in the saddle and strike down with force. As such they increase his ability to wield short range weapons like swords, maces and axes.
Around 900 CE it became common to equip horses with horseshoes with nails, though the first of these were already used several centuries earlier. Horseshoes reduce wear an tear on the hooves of the horses, allowing them to range further. They are sometimes used for donkeys and mules too, but never by camels or elephants.
European knights were horsemen who over time relied more and more on the heavy charge, heavy armor and strong horses. Their destriers were among the largest before the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless the size of Medieval horses was not excessive, on average 14 - 16 hands high and weighing 300 - 500 kilograms. The destriers were at the upper end of this range. Lighter and swifter horses were more common, serving the ranks of light cavalry.
In this period horse breeding developed from an art into a science. Breeding was very targeted and produced the roughly 200 horse breeds that we know today. Some major 'breeds' like the Akhal-Teke, the famous Arabian and the Berber Barb are often regarded as the ancestors of these modern breeds, but they are almost as different from the true ancestral breeds as the other types. During the Industrial Age horses became taller, 15 - 18 hands on average. Now they range from cute ponies via sleek riding and racing animals to strong and sturdy work horses that can weigh up to 900 kilograms.
In history, people discerned animals not so much by breed as by function. These are the most common horse types:
- Sumpter: Pack horse, seldom used for riding. You can ride them, but their girth is wide, making sitting on them uncomfortable.
- Hackney: Ordinary riding horse.
- Rouncey: Quality riding horse.
- Courser: Fast hot-blood horse, used for hunting or warfare.
- Palfrey: Horse with an ambling gait that makes riding relatively easy and comfortable. The smallest ones, called jennets, often of Iberian origin, were very popular with noblewomen.
- Destrier: Heavy war horse, strong enough to carry a knight with weapons and armor. These were always trained for war.
Gaits and speeds
Animals can move at different gaits. These can be partially trained, but are mostly hard-wired in the animal species or breed. These are the most common ones:
- Walk: A gentle walk, a 4-beat gait. All animals can do this. Speeds range from 3 - 4 km/h for elephants, 5 km/h for camels to 7 km/h for large horses.
- Amble: This is not a single gait, but a category with many variants in it. A prime example is the tölt, an ambling gait practised by the Icelandic pony. All ambles have in common that they are easy 4-beat gaits, comfortable for the rider because vertical and sideways movements of the mount's body are minimal. As such, they are very popular with amateur riders. Only a minority of horse, donkey and mule breeds can manage an ambling gait. For elephants, it is their natural gait for everything faster than walking. With it, they can charge at some 18 km/h; top speed is 25 km/h for Indian elephants and possibly 30 km/h for African elephants.
- Trot: A 2-beat diagonal gait that is easy for the animal but not comfortable for the rider, unless he or she is an accomplished horseman / amazon. The speed of a trot varies a lot. For horses, it ranges from about 6 km/h to 19 km/h, averaging around 12 km/h. Donkeys and mules are slightly slower; camels and elephants do not trot.
- Pace: A 2-beat gait that switches back and forth between the left and right side of the legs. It is often confused with ambling gaits but is a distinct gait of its own. As with the former, only some breeds of horses, donkeys and mules can manage it. For camels it is their natural medium fast gait, with an average speed of 15 km/h.
- Canter: An asymmetrical 3-beat gait than can be both faster and slower than a trot. As with trotting, canter speed is variable. For horses, it ranges from 13 km/h to 25 km/h, averaging around 20 km/h. Donkeys and mules are slightly slower; camels and elephants do not canter.
- Gallop: A fast but tiring 4-beat gait with long powerful jumps. The gallop has the greatest variation in speeds. The faster it is, the shorter it can be maintained. Horses can keep up a slow gallop of 15 km/h for hours, a fast gallop of 44 km/h for short periods and reach sprinting speeds of 70 - 80 km/h or more. Again donkeys and mules are slightly slower. Camels can keep up a fast gallop of 40 km/h for short periods and reach sprinting speeds of 60 km/h. Elephants are too heavy to gallop.
The speeds listed above are for unburdened or lightly burdened animals. Heavy riders, multiple riders, armor and baggage slow them down. This affects small animals like ponies more than large ones like camels and elephants.
A brisk day trip for a riding horse is 8 hours of riding, in which 50 - 60 kilometers are covered over flat terrain.
Almost all the travelling is done at walking pace, though still tiring for the animal because of the many hours.
Forced marches can increase this speed by a factor of 1½. These strain the animals so much that they can only be kept up for a few days.
Hasty couriers can achieve speeds up to 150 - 200 kilometers in 24 hours by frequently changing horse and riding both day and night. Of course the riders themselves need to be changed also; after 24 hours of riding they are exhausted, even though some masters manage to catch some sleep in the saddle. On the lower end of the scale are caravans and other long distance travellers. They manage only about 40 kilometers per day but can keep this up for weeks on end.
Donkeys walk slower than horses and manage only 3 - 4 hours per day when carrying burdens, therefore cover only 20 kilometers per day at caravan speed. Mules do better, being almost as fast as horses. Camels walk slower but have the greatest endurance of all. They can cover 35 kilometers per day at caravan speed, or 2 - 3 times as much on a forced march. Elephants that walk at an easy pace cover some 20 kilometers per day, but if pressed they can do more. This prevents them from proper foraging, so they need to be fed from supplies, which is a huge burden because they eat a lot.
Like humans, animals cannot walk all the time and need pauses between periods of travel. At these stops, mounts are preferably unsaddled, watered, groomed and given some freedom to graze. When stopping for the night, such care is a must.
Terrain affects travel like nothing else. Mounts are most suited to flat, open terrain. Light terrain like gentle rolling hills or open forest will not slow them down significantly. Medium terrain like plains with boulders and pebbles, soft sandy deserts, steep hills and medium dense forest reduces travelling speed by 25% on average. Likewise, these types of terrain prohibit fast gaits like canter and gallop in many places. Heavy terrain like mountains, dense forest or jungle, swamp or flatlands covered with a thick layer of snow slows everything down to a careful walk. Travel speed per day is cut by 50% - 75%; fast gaits are impossible. In ultra-heavy terrain like mountain tops, underground caves mounts cannot be used at all.
Horses in war
Horses are herbivores, herd animals whose natural instinct is to run away from battle rather than into it.
So the easiest way to use a horse in war is to keep it away from it.
Troops like hobilars, dragoons and others did just that: ride to battle on horseback, but dismount to fight.
To steer a horse into combat requires training to disregard noise, blood or fire and can suppress its flight instinct. These trained 'war' horses may even be taught to bite and kick and so act as fighters themselves too.
The most obious way to use horses in actual combat is to make use of their speed. They can pull chariots or carry riders who fire arrows or javelins, keeping out of reach of more heavily armed infantry. Two horses can pull a light two-man chariot with a speed of around 10 km/h without much trouble and engage in short galllops of 25 km/h. True cavalry can move even faster. This is the 'Asian' light cavalry style, which requires both good horsemanship and archery skill. The light cavalry style is also suitable for scouting, screening heavy infantry that is still forming up and/or pursuing fleeing enemies.
Heavy cavalry does not keep distance but engages enemies head on.
It is more expensive and more rare than heavy cavalry.
It often uses heavy, strong horses but not necesessarily so.
By definition it uses close formations and melee tactics, which can also be applied to lighter horses, though they are at a disadvantage against the heavies.
Heavy cavalrymen are armored and often the horses are too.
They charge down on enemies, wielding spears, lances or shorter weapons.
A heavy cavalry charge has a speed of about 20 km/h; more wears the horses out quickly and also tends to break up the dense formation.
Weak infantry will almost certainly break when faced with a charge of heavy cavalry. They create gaps in their formation through which the horses can infiltrate, shoving aside people on the ground, while the riders strike left and right. But disciplined infantry armed with pole weapons will yield no such gaps and can beat off any such attack.
Donkeys, mules and camels in war
Most things that apply to horses in war apply to donkeys, mules and camels too. Because of their endurance, they are more often used as riding and pack animals and less in actual battle, though this is not uncommon. The smell of camels is offensive to horses and may frighten them off.
Elephants in war
Elephants, like other animals, need to be trained to keep them from panicking from the terrors of combat.
They provide excellent platforms for archers and javelin throwers, who are perched high and can thus range far.
The elephants themselves too can be trained to fight with their trunks and tusks and to trample enemies.
Sometimes chains were fastened to their tusks so that they could sweep over whole groups of enemies.
The elephants scare other smaller mounts and even humans too, if they have never encountered them before.
But experienced troops know how to deal with the big animals, peppering them with javelins, cutting their tendons, ramming spears into their abdomens or using fire to drive them crazy. Killing the driver is another way to confuse them. Once panicked, stampeding elephants can be as dangerous to their own troops as to the enemy. Therefore every professional army with elephants always surrounds them with infantry to guard their legs and bellies and/or equips them with armor.
Mounts in war in general
The use of mounts in war is limited by terrain and weather. They are very useful on flat plains, but infantry defeats cavalry in dense forests or mountainous terrain. Mounts need fodder and thus far reaching expeditions must be staged in the warmest months of the year, when fresh grass is available.
A horse that works 2 - 3 hours per day needs 2% of its body weight in dry food per day.
This increases to 2½% for 4 - 5 hour workdays and 2¾% for 5 - 8 hour workdays.
Hard working horses cannot maintain themselves on hay alone; this needs to be supplemented by more nutritious grain.
However care must be taken not to overfeed the animals, or to stuff them with food right after a few hours of hard riding.
Horses need 20 - 55 liters of water per day, depending on workload, temperature and humidity.
While most horses cannot digest poor quality scrub, donkeys and mules can. In general they need a quarter less food per unit of body weight than horses. If worked hard, they require extra nutrition just like horses do.
Camels too need about 1.5% of their body weight of dry food per day but need less water, around 1 liter per 25 kg of body weight per day. Unique to camels is that they can go without food or water for a week or even more, though they need to urgently replenish their stock afterwards. They can do so at an astonishing rate, some animals drinking 200 liters in just a few minutes.
Indian elephants can eat 150 kg of dry food per day, African adult male elephants 3 times as much. On average they eat 6% - 8% of their body weight per day, though digest only a third of that because of inefficient digestional tracts. An elephant needs 100 - 200 liters of water per day. The actual quantity of food and water depends on the nutritional value of the food, which can range from dry twigs to juicy greens and fruit.
Horses that are frequently ridden or otherwise worked need regular care.
They need to be groomed daily, especially when cooling down after a ride.
Their hooves need to be cleaned; teeth must be checked and diseases like colic or laminitis combatted by vetenary care.
Horseshoes are important if a horse walks a lot on rocky ground, limiting wear and tear on the hooves. On the other end of the scale, horses that daily plod through damp soil develop soft hooves and need to be shoed too. Horseshoes need to be replaced every 6 - 10 weeks. Horses that are forced to walk or run for too long and/or through too heavy terrain, run the risk of going lame. If this happens, they must be allowed to rest to recover from the injury, otherwise it may become permanent.
Nomad peoples often castrate their stallions, creating geldings. This prevents the horses from creating too much offspring. Also, stallions are difficult to handle during the breeding season, while geldings can be used all year round.
Donkeys, mules, camels and elephants need care similar to horses. Camels have little need for grooming, while elephants need to be bathed to keep their skin healthy.
Horses are often classified as either 'hot-bloods' or 'cold-bloods'.
The former are on average fast, intelligent and spirited; they are often used as racing, hunting or war horses.
Cold-bloods are more calm and docile, used as draft horses.
But a division in two categories is coarse. Though not as intelligent as humans, all described mount species are relatively smart animals. Each has a distinct personality. Some are playful, some cautious, some are aggressive biters, some have a phobia, etc. A skilled rider spents time to learn the peculiarities of all his/her mounts.
Animals that are used as mounts must be physically fit.
If they are stabled for too long they grow weak; regular exercise is important.
To ride them, they must submit to being loaded with saddles, baggage and human riders and commanded where to go.
This taming is relatively easy when started early, more difficult with adults who have lived in the wild.
Steppe horses remain half feral even after being tamed and will revert to full rejection of humans if left unused for a few months.
If riding is important, mounts and riders should become familiar with each other. If they work together for a few years they made develop an intimate relationship and the mount will pick up the subtlest of commands from the rider.
Horses that are to be used in war should be accustomed to noise, fire and spilling of blood. This is hard because especially the latter is rare in normal life, so the horses never fully get accustomed to it.
Most horses, donkeys, mules and camels are controlled with bit, bridle and reins.
They come in many varieties, for example bridles with and without bit, extensive or minimal halters.
These allow the rider to give sharp detailed steering commands to the animal.
If horse and rider are well trained, the need for such equipment is less; the rider can partially steer his/her horse with the knees.
If sharp maneuvering is not required, animals are controlled with a simple whip.
This is the common method to steer a donkey that is plodding along at walking speed.
Mahouts steer elephants with chains and an "ankus", a sharp metal hook, with which they prod the elephant's sensitive areas.
Horses, mules and donkeys can be ridden bareback, but prolonged chafing can hurt both horse and rider. A minimal smoothing device is a blanket; a good saddle is better. Riding saddles are relatively flat, while war saddles have pronounced pommel and cantle, to allow the rider to remain seated in the rumble of combat. For camels, their humps make a (camel) saddle mandatory for riding them. Elephants can be ridden bareback by one or two persons, but if more are to be carried they are often burdened with "howdahs", sitting 'beds' equipped with canopies. Camels too can carry howdahs, which are of course much smaller.
Animals that are ridden into combat benefit from extra gear.
Stirrups help seating the rider more thoroughly.
They allow riders to stand and strike down with force.
A risk is that when a rider is unhorsed, a foot remains caught up in the stirrup, so the rider is dragged along by the horse.
When the rider is well armored, enemies may attack the mount, so that it too requires armor. This is called 'barding'. Because barding can be very heavy and hinders movement, it only protects the upper part of the body, never the legs. Sometimes it protects only the front of the mount, not the rear, or only the neck and/or parts of the head.
Mastering a mount is a skill that must be learned if an adventurer is to ride frequently.
Anybody can ride on an already tame mount at walking speed that is led in the right direction.
Commanding an animal where to go or racing at high speeds require more skill.
Expert riders can perform jumps, tight turns or ride their mount without equipment.
Likewise, they know how to tame a wild animal and have a good understanding of 'secondary' skills like horse care.
Lassoing cattle, fighting from horseback, especially practicing archery or 'jousting', charging with a lance, are difficult skills of their own that must be supplemented by good horsemanship. Other, less aggressive activities include sports like buzkashi, tent pegging or polo, or performing acrobatics while riding.
- Equine data: http://historicalnovelists.tripod.com/equineda.htm
- Animal gaits I: http://vanat.cvm.umn.edu/gaits/index.html
- Animal gaits II: http://bowlingsite.mcf.com/Movement/Footfall.html
- Pony/horse speeds: http://www.olddominionrides.org/EndurancePrimer/01.html