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Why Did Horses Never Favour Revolting Peasants?

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.

  1. Other cavalry.
  2. Firepower, or archery power.
  3. 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 undisciplined 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.

Class war?

  • 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.

When horses were the main form of transport, many people probably rode from one village to the next, but 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.

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 hind leg. 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.

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!

Source by John Harvey Murray

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