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Horses in Battle: Should They Live or Die?

Today, I’m talking about when it’s strategic to kill horses in battle in stories and when it’s better to let them live. As crappy a topic as this is to talk about, it’s necessary for a believable story.

Strategy is king in battle, and the endgame is victory. Horses, while important, are minor players. They’re vehicles for soldiers and commanders to employ, little more than a means to an end. No strategy is complete, however, without considering what might happen to the horses in the midst of battle. In Firefly, Captain Mal considers this in the episode Heart of Gold when he and his crew come to the aid of a bordello madam. Dead, a horse makes a good place to hide. Alive, it’s one big, frightful creature just trying to get away.

If you’ve ever been stepped on by a horse, you know the unique pain and the “Oh, shit, my foot’s broken. Nope, wait, it’s okay.” train of thought. That split second of distraction could be the difference between life and death in battle if a soldier is stepped on, trampled, etc., and in that instance can be beneficial for one side if they’re like Mal and his crew and fighting from a vantage point above or away from the horses.

One other advantage to horses is that, if trained properly, they can be the best tool on the battle field when fighting other mounted soldiers. Classical dressage employs several maneuvers, known as “haute ecole,” that were developed for the benefit of the soldier in battle. Again, though, these are only truly helpful if both horse and rider are properly trained.

Now, if both sides are in range of the stampeding horses, and especially if there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them, like in the Lord of the Rings, War Horse, or many other movies featuring soldiers on horseback, then live horses are equal parts advantage and disadvantage. They’re only helpful if they’re trampling the other guy.

Another (sad) advantage to a dead horse is one often shown in movies where the horses are killed while riders are still on them, then the riders are pitched off over the horse’s head as it falls and may even be rolled onto and injured or killed themselves. This then creates a road block in the middle of the charge to battle where other horses may stumble and soon enough, you’ve got a fifteen-horse pile up on the freeway with a high casualty count.

Additionally, if your character is a rider in the very front line, his or her chance of survival is much smaller. The horses and riders on the front line are usually pretty important people, leading their soldiers into battle, so in addition to being the easiest target, they are targeted first. They aren’t always the very best, because not every king or ruler will lead his men into battle, but they’re the next best thing.

I hope this short little post was helpful! Don’t forget to comment, like, or share, and if you have anything to add, let me know below!