Horses in East Asian warfare

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Horse chariot -- Detail of a bronze mirror c. 5th-6th century excavated Eta-Funayama Tumulus in Japan.

Horses in East Asian warfare are inextricably linked with the strategic and tactical evolution of armed conflict. A warrior on horseback or horse-drawn chariot changed the balance of power between civilizations.

When people with horses clashed with those without, horses provided a huge advantage. When both sides had horses, battles turned on the strength and strategy of their mounted horsemen, or cavalry. Military tactics were refined in terms of the use of horses.[1]

Arriving Japanese samurai prepares to man the fortification against invaders of the Mongol invasions of Japan, painted c. 1293

As in most cultures, a war horse in East Asia was trained to be controlled with limited use of reins, responding primarily to the rider's legs and weight.[2] Horses were significant factors in the Han-Hun Wars and Wuhu incursions on China,[3] and the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia and into Europe;[4] and they played a part in military conflicts on a smaller, more localized scale.

Horse warfare in national contexts


Burmese horses are somewhat smaller than the Chinese breed, but they are more adept at jumping. Attempts were made during the British Raj to breed Burmese horses with Arabian stock, hoping to develop an "Indo-Burman" horse breed which might be better suited to the varying conditions of the Indian subcontinent.[5]


Ceramic statues of a prancing horse (foreground) and a cavalryman on horseback (background), Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD)
A sancai lead-glazed earthenware horse statue with a saddle, Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)

There were horse-driven chariots of the Shang (c. 1600 - c. 1050 BC) and Zhou (c. 1050 - 256 BC) periods, but horseback riding in China, according to David Andrew Graff, was not seen in warfare prior to the 4th century BC.[6]

King Wuling of Zhao (340 BCE-295 BCE), after realizing the advantages of light cavalry warfare over that of the heavy and cumbersome chariots, instituted reforms generally known as "胡服骑射" (wearing of the Hu-nomadic people's attire, and shooting arrows from horseback),[7] which greatly increased the combat-effectiveness of the army of Zhao.

Although mounted archers represented an initial tactical advantage over Chinese armies, the Chinese learned to adapt.[8] Conservative forces opposed change, which affected the proportional balance amongst cavalrymen, horse-drawn chariots and infantrymen in Chinese armies.[9]

The benefits of using horses as light cavalry against chariots in warfare was understood when the Chinese confronted incursions from nomadic tribes of the steppes.[6]

Feeding horses was a significant problem;[citation needed]and many people were driven from their land so that the Imperial horses would have adequate pastures. Climate and fodder south of the Yangtze River were unfit for horses raised on the grasslands of the western steppes.[10] The Chinese army lacked a sufficient number of good quality horses. Importation was the only remedy but the only potential suppliers were the steppe-nomads. The strategic factor considered most essential in warfare was controlled exclusively by the merchant-traders of the most likely enemies.[11]

The Chinese used chariots for horse-based warfare until light cavalry forces became common during the Warring States era (402-221 BC); and speedy cavalry accounted in part for the success of the Qin dynasty (221 BCE–206 BCE).[12]

The Chinese warhorses were culled from the vast herds roaming free on the grassy plains of northeastern China and the Mongolian plateau. The hardy Central Asian horses were generally short-legged with barrel chests. Speed is not anticipated from this configuration, but strength and endurance are characteristic features.[13]

During the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), records tell of a Chinese expedition to Fergana (in present-day Uzbekistan) and the superior horses which were acquired.[14] The horses were acquired for military use and for breeding.[15]

"Horses are the foundation of military power, the great resources of the state but, should this falter, the state will fall"
-- Ma Yuan (14BC - 49AD), a Han general and horse expert.[15]

During the Jin dynasty (265–420), records of thousands of "armored horses" illustrate the development of warfare in this period.[16]

The map of Asia in 800 shows Tang China in relation to its neighbors, including the Uighur Empire of Mongolia.

Horses and skilled horsemen were often in short supply in agrarian China, and cavalry were a distinct minority in most Sui dynasty (581–618) and Tang Dynasty (618–907) armies.[17] The Imperial herds numbered 325,700 horses in 794[18]

The Song (960–1279) through Ming dynasty (1368–1644) armies relied on an officially supervised tea-for-horse trading systems which evolved over centuries.[19]

Tea and horses were so inextricably related that officials repeatedly requested that the tea laws and the horse administration be supervised by the same man. From the perspective of the Chinese court, government control of tea was the first step in the creation of a rational and effective policy aimed at improving the quality of horses in the army."[11]

In the late Ming Dynasty, the marked inferiority of the Chinese horses was noted by the Jesuit missionary and ambassador Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who observed:

"[The Chinese] have countless horses in the service of the army, but these are so degenerate and lacking in martial spirit that they are put to rout even by the neighing of the Tartars steed and so they are practically useless in battle."[11]


Most Japanese horses are descended from Chinese and Korean imports; and there was some cross-breeding with indigenous horses which existed in Japan since the stone age.[20] Although records of horses in Japan are found as far back as the Jōmon period, they played little or no role in early Japanese agriculture or military conflicts until horses from the continent were introduced in the 4th century.[21] The Kojiki and Nihon shoki mention horses in battle.[22]

Amongst the Imperial aristocracy some were especially renowned for their horsemanship.[23] It was cavalry, not infantry, which proved to be decisive in the Jinshin War of 672-73, in Fujiwara no Hirotsugu's rebellion in 740 and in the revolt of Fujiwara no Nakamaro in 756.[24]

Samurai fought as cavalry for many centuries;[25] and horses were used primarily as draft animals and for war.[26] The increasingly elaborate decorations on harnesses and saddles of the samurai suggests the value accorded to these war horses.[22]

Yabusame archers, Edo period

The samurai were particularly skilled in the art of using archery from horseback. They used methods of training such as yabusame, which originated in 530 AD and reached its peak under Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199 AD) in the Kamakura Period.[27] The conventions of warfare in Japan switched from an emphasis on mounted bowmen to mounted spearmen during the Sengoku period (1467–1615 AD).

Amongst the samurai, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) was known as an excellent horseman, which forms the foundation of an anecdote about the shogun's character. One day he and his troops had to cross a very narrow bridge over a raging river. All were wondering how he would ride over this dangerous bridge. Ieyasu dismounted, led the horse over the bridge to the other side, and then he re-mounted his steed.[28] At Nikko, the burial place of the horse ridden by Ieyasu Tokugawa in the Battle of Sekigahara is marked with an inscribed stone.[29]

In pre-Meiji Japan, horses were only considered in a context of warfare and transportation of cargo. As a general rule non-samurai and women did not ride in a saddle as this was reserved for samurai warriors, however, Tomoe Gozen was an exception to the general rule[30] The appearance of women and non-samurai on horseback in Meiji period prints represented an innovative development.

Since 1958, a statue of a horse at Yasukuni Shrine has acknowledged the equine contributions in Japanese military actions;[31] and opened, full bottles of water are often left at the statues. Other public memorials in other locations in Japan commemorate horses in Japanese warfare, e.g., the Nogi Shrine in Kyoto.[32]


This Silla horse rider pottery is among the National Treasures of Korea

The Korean horse is the smallest of the East Asian breeds, but the breed is very strong with noteworthy stamina in terms of its size.[33]

The earliest horse warfare of Korea was recorded during the ancient Korean kingdom Gojoseon[citation needed]. The influence of northern nomadic peoples and Yemaek peoples on Korean warfare dates from the 3rd century BC. By roughly the 1st century BC, the ancient kingdom of Buyeo also had mounted warriors.[34] The cavalry of Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, were called Gaemamusa (개마무사, 鎧馬武士). King Gwanggaeto the Great often led expeditions into Baekje, Gaya confederacy, Buyeo and against Japanese pirates with his cavalry.[35]

In the 12th century, Jurchen tribes began to violate the Goryeo-Jurchen borders, and eventually invaded Goryeo. After experiencing the invasion by the Jurchen, Korean general Yun Gwan realized that Goryeo lacked efficient cavalry units. He reorganized the Goryeo military into a professional army that would contain decent and well-trained cavalry units. In 1107, the Jurchen were ultimately defeated, and surrendered to Yun Gwan. To mark the victory, General Yun built nine fortresses to the northeast of the Goryeo-Jurchen borders (동북 9성, 東北 九城).


The warhorses (cerigyn nojan) of the Mongols were called them "Celestial Horses" by the Chinese. The wars of Genghis Khan were mounted campaigns;[36] and Mongol horses were better cared for than the horses of their enemies.[37] These horses were well-protected and equipped, including lamellar armour with five parts to safeguard specific parts of the horse.[38]

By 1225 Genghis Khan's empire stretched from the Caspian Sea and northern China; and his horses grew to be highly prized throughout Asia. Mongolian horses were known for their hardiness, endurance and stamina. Descendants of Genghis Khan's horses remain in great number in Mongolia.[39]

The limited pasture lands in eastern Europe affected the westward movement of Mongolian mounted forces.[40]

During World War II, many Mongolian horses were sent to the Soviet Union.[41]


Clay figurine from the 10th century. HCMC Museum of National History.

Although the legend of Thánh Gióng dating to as far back as the Văn Lang era[when?] mentions war horses, written versions of this legend date only to the 12th and 13th centuries, thus it cannot serve as reliable source for early mounted warfare in Vietnam. The earliest physical evidences of domestic horses has been found in bronze figurines excavated from Han and Tang Dynasty burials from the 2nd to the 10th centuries when Annam was under Chinese rule.

Following the end of Chinese domination, the native dynasties of Vietnam continued to employ mounted archery to counter Chinese and Champa cavalry. The need to create a non-regular but well trained and equipped combat force urged the Lý dynasty to open Xạ Đình (shooting range) in the capital in 1070, which members of the nobility were expected to attend and train diligently in the art of mounted archery.[42] During the reign of Lê Thánh Tông, among 66 "Ty" of Household Guard, there were 7 "Ty" of crossbowmen, arbalestiers and mounted archers. "Ty" is a unit of 100 troops. Among 51 "Vệ" of Capital Troop, there was 1 horse archer "Vệ" and 4 cavalry "Vệ". A "Vệ" comprised 2000 soldiers.[43]

Armored horses were mentioned a few times in the army of Prince Trịnh Tùng. The Prince once personally commanded four hundred armored cavalry to repel a much larger Mạc force. In 1592 again he assaulted the Northwest gate of Đông Kinh-the capital of his Mạc foe with 5000 elite troops who rode on bull elephants and armored steeds.[44]

The rival of the Trịnh clan in the south is the Nguyễn clan who based themselves in a new frontier with limited resources and scarce manpower. To be able to maintain a standoff with their much larger and wealthier foe, the Nguyễn needed every able-bodied man in their disposal to be armed and learned in martial practices. In 1663, Nguyễn Phúc Tần decreed all of his civilian officials to hone their archery on horseback. In 1679 he constructed new road to connect Vạn Xuân shooting range and Thanh Lệ station, and erected two hippodromes.[45]

Well into the early modern era, mounted warriors still trained with the sword, lance and bows and arrows just as they had 700 years previously. 18th century historian and geographer Lê Qúy Đôn wrote that in the national examination established since 1724, cavalrymen were required to shoot three arrows at targets 100 feet (30 m) away at a gallop.[46] However, as firearms were introduced, the transition from cold weapons to gunpowder warfare in the cavalry branch was swift and thorough. Lê noted that in his lifetime, mounted archery was no longer practiced. Instead horsemen were trained to shoot targets with a carbine on horseback while galloping at full speed.[47] It is not known why the cavalry branch was uninterested in taking up firearms sooner, even though guns and rifles had been a common scene in infantry and marine divisions since the late 16th century. Perhaps shooting on horseback was only made possible by the advent of flintlock mechanism in the 18th century.

In the 19th century, cavalry was relegated to the status of ceremonial troops and messengers. Mounted warfare was almost absent in all conflicts from wars with Cambodia and Siam to French invasions.

Inner Asia

The empires of China had at various points in history engaged their nomadic neighbors in combat with reduced effectiveness in cavalry combat, and have a various times instituted reforms to meet a highly-mobile adversary that fought principally on horseback; one such important reform as clearly recorded in Chinese historical text was King Wuling of Zhao (340BC-395BC), who advocated the principle of 胡服骑射, the "wearing of Hu nomadic people's clothing, and the firing of arrows from horseback" during the Spring and Autumn period,[48] which greatly helped increase combat effectiveness against the cavalries of the nomadic combatants.

Nomadic opponents at the borders of the various empires of China generally used the horse effectively in warfare, which only slowly developed into changes in the way horses were used.[49] The Chinese scholar Song Qi (宋祁, 998-1061) explained,

"The reason why our enemies to the north and west are able to withstand China is precisely because they have many horses and their men are adept at riding; this is their strength. China has few horses, and its men are not accustomed to riding; this is China's weakness.... The court constantly tries, with our weakness, to oppose our enemies' strength, so that we lose every battle .... Those who propose remedies for this situation merely wish to increase our armed forces in order to overwhelm the enemy. They do not realize that, without horses, we can never create an effective military force."[50]

While China had many men in Chinese cavalry, very few of them actually had horses to ride; and if they did actually have a horse, they did not ride well. In stark contrast, the military forces arising from Inner Asia had many horses and had excellent riding skills[citation needed].

Horses in logistical support

Traditionally, the horse has been used as a pack animal, essential in providing logistical support for military forces.[51]


See also


  1. American Museum of Natural History (AMNH): "The Horse," warfare.
  2. Equestrian Federation of Australia: Dressage Explained.
  3. Goodrich, L. Carrington. (1959). A Short History of the Chinese People, pp. 83-84., p. 835, at Google Books
  4. Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book: Christian Europe and its Neighbors, pp. 91-94.
  5. Gilbey, pp. 26-27., p. 26, at Google Books
  6. 6.0 6.1 Graff, David Andrew. (2002). Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900, p. 22., p. 22, at Google Books
  8. Graff, p. 28., p. 28, at Google Books
  9. Ellis, John. (2004). Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare, pp. 19-20.
  10. Goodrich, p. 100., p. 100, at Google Books
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Sinor, Denis. "Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian history," Oriens Extremus, Vol. 19, No. 1-2 (1972), pp. 171-183.
  12. Goodrich, p. 99., p. 99, at Google Books
  13. Gilbey, Walter. (1900). Small Horses in Warfare. p. 26., p. 26, at Google Books
  14. AMNH: "The Origin of Horses."
  15. 15.0 15.1 Church View Antiques: "The importance of the horse in Chinese art."
  16. Graff, p. 42., p. 42, at Google Books
  17. Graff, p. 176., p. 176, at Google Books
  18. Graff, p. 228., p. 228, at Google Books
  19. Perdue, Peter. (2005). China Marches West, pp. 36-52., p. 36, at Google Books
  20. Friday, Karl F. (2004). Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, p. 96., p. 96, at Google Books
  21. Friday, p. 103., p. 103, at Google Books
  22. 22.0 22.1 Nussbaum, Louis Frédéric and Käthe Roth. (2005). "Horses" in Japan Encyclopedia, pp. 354-355;, p. 354, at Google Books citing the Kojiki and Nihon shoki.
  23. Titsingh, Isaac. (1834). Annales des empereurs du japon, p. 119, p. 119, at Google Books; Sadaijin Minamoto no Tooru (源融?).
  24. Friday, Karl F. (1996). Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, p. 37, p. 37, at Google Books
  25. Turnbull, Stephen R. (2002). War in Japan 1467-1615, pp. 15-20., p. 15, at Google Books
  26. Kōdansha. (1993). Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, p. 564.
  27. Japanese Equestrian Archery Association: Takeda School of Horseback Archery.
  28. Sidney Institute (NSW, Australia), Tokugawa Ieaysu
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  30. Kitagawa, Hiroshi et al. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, p. 519; McCullough, Helen Craig. (1988). The Tale of the Heike, p. 291., p. 291, at Google Books
  31. Yasukuni Shrine: Statues honoring horses, etc.
  32. Nogi jinja: image of paired horses. (Japanese)
  33. Gilbey, p. 27., p. 27, at Google Books
  34. Ebrey, 120.
  35. Lee, Peter H & Wm. Theodore De Bary. Sources of Korean Tradition, page 24-26. Columbia University Press, 1997.
  36. Blunden, Jane. (2008). Mongolia: The Bradt Travel Guide, p. 79.
  37. Neville, Peter. (2006). A Traveller's History of Russia, p. 14, citing James Chambers, (1979). The Devil's Horsemen.
  38. Li, Xiaobing. (2012). China at War, p. 288.
  39. "The Horses of Genghis Khan" at; retrieved 2013-2-2.
  40. Keen, Maurice. (1999). Medieval Warfare:A History: A History, p. 197.
  41. Hendricks, Bonnie L. (2007). International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, p. 287.
  42. Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, Ngô Sĩ Liên 1993, pp. 105–134.
  43. Nguyễn Thị Dơn, 2001 "Collection of Lê dynasty weapons in Ngọc khánh" p.63.
  44. Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, Ngô Sĩ Liên 1993, pp. 597–618.
  45. Lê Quý Đôn, Phủ biên tạp lục.
  46. Nguyễn Thị Dơn, 2001 Collection of Lê dynasty weapons in Ngọc khánh p.149.
  47. Nguyễn Thị Dơn, 2001 "Collection of Lê dynasty weapons in Ngọc khánh" p.173.
  49. Latourette, Kenneth Scott. (1965). The Chinese: Their History and Culture, p. 144.
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  51. Creel, p. 161., p. 161, at Google Books