Horses vs shieldwalls—what actually happens?

I’ve ridden horses. Horses are smart. When they said horses wouldn’t charge a line of men who stood firm, I believed them. And then I went on a holiday to New Zealand and got to ride one of the horses that was in Lord of the Rings. And there they told me the horses had so much fun and momentum in the charge of the Rohirrim that nothing would have stopped them. So… who’s right?

To be honest, I still sided with the armchair historians, that is, until recently. I saw something that forced me to reconsider my position and admit, maybe horses did charge into lines of people more than we expect.

I saw the behind the scenes from a recent film. I believe it was either Outlaw King or The King, both of them great films. Regardless of what film it was though—the picture above shows a snapshot of what happened next. The horseman (and multiple horsemen after him) charged straight into the line of men, no problems. As one of my friends pointed out to me—the man in the picture above got knocked over and didn’t get back up (and I hope he didn’t suffer anything too bad from it) but it’s a sign of how powerful a cavalry charge could be. And why? How could this set of stuntmen and stunt horses prove that cavalry charges might have been more effective than we think? Because it happened.

In Hollywood films we are used to watching horses riding in to save the day, and in video games you can tell them to go anywhere and they’ll do it. So maybe this isn’t a question for people who’ve only grown up with pop culture and haven’t questioned it. But for those of you who have, and have wondered, would a horse actually do that, the historians have told us again and again—they’re much more likely to turn away at the last moment if what they’re facing looks like a solid block. A horse isn’t going to run into a brick wall, or a wall of pikes.

And yet, here we have horses—stunt horses mind, but we’ll get to that—who are trained well enough to charge straight into a solid line of men. And they did it. I couldn’t believe it. An argument used by armchair historians is that part of the success for a block of men to withstand a cavalry charge comes from their ability to stand together in a disciplined, tight formation. If they can do that, the argument goes, the horses will treat it like single block and won’t believe they can charge through it. That’s the belief that this stunt disproved—at least for some of the time.

See, if a stunt horse can be trained to ride through a solid block of men, that doesn’t mean all horses would do that. The horses I rode growing up certainly wouldn’t have. But it means some horses can be trained to do so. And that got me thinking. Perhaps we were wrong to think of this as a static, binary problem: if the soldiers stand together enough, the horses won’t charge them, if they don’t stand together though, the horses will. Perhaps we should, instead be considered two factors that affect both the soldiers and the horses.

The first is how ‘bomb-proof’ they are. I’m not sure how often you’ve used the term, but we used it a fair bit growing up. It’s how we described one horse compared to another. My brother’s horse, for example, was very skittish so we said he wasn’t very ‘bomb-proof’. Mine on the other hand, was pretty reliable and more ‘bomb-proof’ (though like I said, not so bomb-proof I’d wager on her running through a solid line of men). I think what you have is an arms race of conditioning between the soldiers and the horses. Can the men be trained to actually stand still under the weight of a cavalry charge? If so, the pendulum swings in their favour. But, can the horses be trained to charge through tighter and tighter objects? If so, the pendulum swings back in their favour. Though both sides would benefit from having a more bomb-proof attitude—I think it’s ultimately down to how bomb-proof the horse is in the face of its current threat—that’s the key issue, because the key question is, will the horse actually charge.

But there is something I think even well-conditioned horses would shy away from. And that’s big pointy sticks. I think there’s a secondary arms race between the size of the horse (I think they’d be more confident the bigger they were relative to the threat they faced), compared to the size of the spears facing them and, to a lesser degree how big any shields might have been. If you see a solid line of interlocked shields with spears coming out of it long enough to stab the horse, I can imagine most horses shying away from that. But, perhaps not all. However, the longer you make the spears, the less I can believe they would charge through. I really do doubt even a great thoroughbred warhorse, conditioned from a foal, would have charged a Macedonian phalanx from the front or a renaissance tercio square. I don’t think conditioning was the only arms race, and I think at the extremes, the equipment of the soldiers, combined with enough conditioning, could have probably been enough to deter almost any horse from charging them.

But, that’s the extremes, and I don’t think most battles would have been fought at the extremes. I think rather than the common armchair historian belief that horses would largely only charge people who were already running away, is certainly too narrow-minded. Sure, at the extremes, horses were always great for chasing fleeing soldiers, and a tight, disciplined wall of very long spears probably would keep even the best of them away. But I think there was a huge grey area in between where the size of the horse, the size of the spears and shields as well as the conditioning not only of the soldiers but the horses as well, would have all contributed to whether or not the horses charged.

So that makes me shudder just that little bit, to imagine myself as a soldier staring down a cavalry charge. Because I think unless you were at the extremes, you really couldn’t be certain what was going to happen. You were taking a huge gamble by standing there, but possibly the best gamble you had. And the same goes for the horse and the horseman. They probably weren’t certain of what would happen either. It gives me even more respect for those countless people who died on battlefields in the past, and those who lived through them. And, as with that stuntman who didn’t get back up, it has me consider again not just how brave they must have been to be there—but ultimately how dangerous it was. And how glad we live in a world where we don’t know for certain the answers to these questions—because it’s a world that in some ways at least, is safer than it was in the past.

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