How terrifying is it for well-armored elite cavalry to charge at infantry?Not just as shieldwalls or blocks of spears, but even disorganized infantry?

Dec 2011
Iowa USA
It was always extremally difficult to stand against charging cavalry. Even in the beginning of 20th century there was recommended that every infantry unit gets "charged" by cavalry as mental training. The discipline of standing infantry was their only hope of survival - if infantry is shattered it is easily slaughtered and most of casaulties happened in this case. Certainly depending on period the balance was either favoring infantry or cavalry. For example Roman infantry was effective agaist most of cavalry units, however already not so much against heavy cavalry of Parts. Europe's heavy cavalry was dominant until introduction of effective pikemen units and dethronized by mixed formations like tercios.
Have you ever stood against a unit of mounted policemen? Just try...
Can't imagine standing ground against mounted police, no.

But I'm socialized to be just a little faster than at least one of my droogies ("Clockwork" reference couldn't resist) when we noticed them, too. Police on foot or in the their cruiser, not mounted. Interesting thread, and I realize how much there is to learn on the 17th century tactics. Dutch vs. Louis XIV, Poles and Turks, et cetera.
Dec 2016
Depends on the individual's courage and experience, some might have been pretty at ease charging and meeting with the enemy and be excited about it, others less trained would be nervous of the outcome of such a face-off.
A unit composed of experienced tough guys who love melees and know their business will most likely not be terrified at all (and possibly be overconfident) as opposed to conscripted soldiers who have little mounted training.

For the latter there is a lot going on: hearing the orders yelled, keep formation and distance with your comrades, keep focus on the enemy positions and very importantly maintain strong discipline with the horse!

Extra protection and training certainly increases confidence and morale but yes even if you are riding a big horse advancing to meet the enemy with adrenaline pumping it will always bring some stress and it takes guts because you don't know how prepared the opponent line will be and if you have to reel away you risk getting hit in turn or charged by enemy cavalry or fall off your horse.

Even today's riot-control horse units know that charging crowds is no mere walk in the park and requires vigilance and discipline.

Just don't believe what you see in television and games, not the most credible of sources.
Sep 2017
United States
In addition in Total War its common even against disorganized militia caught in an ambush (like say sending scouts hidden in the wounds to attack them from their unprotected flanks) for cavalry men to lose morale especially after a prolonged fight to flee (in particular if the cavalry men aren't elites like Templars).
Not really related to real history, but I don't know which game you're playing. Catching militia in their rear (particularly when they are moving/out of formation) always ends poorly for the militia.

Even some of the lowest quality cavalry (Scout Equites come to mind) will gut the rear ranks pretty easily.
Mar 2018
Personally, I struggle to imagine any situation on a battlefield that isn't terrifying. The question is whether it is terrifying enough to be of military significance. I don't know of any cases were heavy cavalry was routed before taking any casualties, just by the sheer intimidation of infantry holding their ground. Perhaps there are some accounts of heavy cavalry trying to half their charge at the last moment, trampling itself as the horses at the back pile into the ones at the front, and the unit flees in its own confusion?
Likes: Spike117
Feb 2019
Infantry properly armed with long weapons, such as spears, pikes, long guns with bayonets, combined with the training, discipline and leadership to present a solid wall are quite impregnable to cavalry charges. Lacking any of that, a cavalry charge is terrifying to foot soldiers and is then overwhelming.

In battle, every formidable maneuver has a counter that negates the maneuver.
Indeed--a charging horse can be turned aside with a broom-handle. But this takes nerve and training.
Likes: Edratman
Jan 2015
Oh, lordy, he's back...

...However I borrowed a book from the library today on Medieval Warfare, and on the Battle of Hasting it described the Norman Knights charges against the Anglo-Saxon shieldwall as something so terrifying that the Norman knights "displayed a most legendary courage very rarely seen in the early Medieval battlefield" and mentions several times how the Norman knights almost routed.
As much as it pains and surprises me to agree with Wrangler29, I have also read something that claimed the Norman cavalry at Hastings was indeed rather taken aback when Duke William ordered a frontal charge against the Saxon line. (This was many years ago and I have no idea where, but it pre-dates the Internet so it must be true!) The Saxons were famous as good infantry, and cavalry just hadn't developed the massed charge with couched lances quite yet. It does seem pretty clear that the Normans couldn't budge the Saxons for several hours. Of course, this doesn't mean the Norman knights were particularly *scared*, only that they thought it was a bad idea. And they were right.

Unfortunately, Wrangler29, that's about all the support you get from me...

In addition the book has some battles during the fall of the Roman Empire and the years following it where the last of the Roman Equites and Patricians fought against impossible odds that would have "made brave men flee" as they made desperate attempts to fend off Germanic tribes using their cavalry or to hold onto far away territory. It mentions in Britannia how typical Roman cavalry would hesitate to charge even disorganized Celtic warbands wandering the countryside especially in forests and swamps and it took the Equites, the most elite of the Roman Army's horsemen and often coming from Rome's aristocracy, to be able to hunt down these disorganized local bandits.
Absolutely ludicrous, pretty much the exact opposite of history. The Roman upper classes fought as cavalry only in Rome's *earliest* years, the monarchy and early Republic. After that they generally only served as officers. By the time of the Empire, Roman cavalry was mostly recruited from provincials, i.e., GAULS, Germans, Spaniards, etc. Never heard of any Roman force "hesitating" to attack any "disorganized" force. Who comes up with this stuff???

For the rest, we've told you specifically a thousand times that TV AND MOVIES AND GAMES ARE **NOT** HISTORY. Stop even letting them get into your brain. Just stop. Please.

Likes: Yuyue


Forum Staff
Feb 2009
Eastern PA
Indeed--a charging horse can be turned aside with a broom-handle. But this takes nerve and training.
Yes, it is the horse that is smart enough to shy away from the solid wall of foot soldiers. The rider is the one that lacks that sensibility.

Bayonet charges are also attacks intended to induce fear and disruption into an infantry formation, no different than a cavalry charge.
Feb 2019
Pennsylvania, US
I'd think a person would be far less afraid on a horse than on foot...

Through the process of desensitization, you can bring a horse to accept any number of otherwise frightening stimuli. Horses in warfare would have been trained to face many of the elements that would elicit a flight response from them normally - things like sudden movements, loud noise, the smell of blood... As a line of armed men is the obstacle most likely to confront a war horse, that would definitely be one of elements they would train heavily for - horses typically avoid stepping on people, so you have to train that out of them. In the past horses were trained (or allowed) to kick, strike and bite, becoming a weapon themselves. Horses are capable of killing by disemboweling or severing the jugular (going for the throat being the most instinctual place for a horse to attack)... Dressage gaits like the piaffe and terre à terre were originally used for battle - for preparing to charge or for out-maneuvering the enemy (the terre à terre is still used with great effect in bull fights to avoid a charging bull). With the advent of firearms, horses were not only trained to be comfortable with shots fired at close range, but to even lay down as a shield for the rider to fire from behind...

Extensive training - as well as selection of the most suitable mount (a temperament thing) - were required to make a horse willing to fight. As many of my friends who do team penning or cow cutting can testify... some horses thoroughly enjoy confronting another animal, challenging it and chasing it. Some horses will work cows without a rider on their back - some will actually put themselves between their dismounted rider and danger (though this is not that unusual, it is part of the bond between horse and rider... I've had a horse protect me from an aggressive horse while I was on foot). The point here being that they can be trained to act in a *predatory* manner - quite the opposite of their nature - to the point that they will perform this behavior without a rider demanding it.

It would have to be the most unforeseen, foreign, new experience for horses to flee en masse - or that they were reading the sheer panic of their riders and realized they were in hot water (it seems like nothing terrifies a horse more than seeing their rider's fear) ... it's more likely that they will continue charging long after you've fallen off, much like how horses complete a jumper course or a race long after their riders fell off.

As a knight or cavalry soldier, on your horse, who you have trained extensively with and who understands your commands (literally, you just have to clench your butt and they feel it :lol:), and who is excited to "work" and preform the tasks it has been practicing... I think it would fill a person with confidence. A horse is inclined to do whatever it practices the most - a wild horse is practicing it's own survival techniques - humans try to cultivate a "human" mind in the horse, and if the horse performs that task a certain number of times, that will be his default. You could literally train a to horse throw itself onto a row of sharp objects because it practiced mock battles were it rammed into 'practice foes' and wasn't hurt in the past.

I'd feel 10x more confident with a horse who I had bonded with than a bunch of other people on foot... personally. A good horse is like a good dog - with a tendency to be faithful unto death.

Anyways... here is a good video showing the beginning steps of teaching a horse to confront and then learn to shove a foot soldier... just 1 month of progressively training for this would make a pretty fearless horse: Video of War Horse Training Basics

Here's a good video on mounted police horse training, where the comparison of one horse being equal to 10 officers on foot is made: Mounted Police Horse Training

And here's a photo of a WWI cavalry horse laying down to provide a shield for his rider... and having a gun fired right next to it's head... good boy/girl. :)

WWI cavalry horse.jpg
Feb 2018
Not all cavalry fight the same way, even in the same era, so how terrified one felt likely depended on the specific situation. Medieval knights focused on a single, devastating couched lance charge designed to break the enemy formation in one go, but lacked flexibility. They fought as small numbered units (relative to infantry) with a 1:1 ratio of riders to horses. Central Asian cavalry and Jurchen/Manchus had extra remounts that could allow them to act more aggressively, and they used rotational charges and (at least the Mongol Empire armies) changed formations mid-battle. These armies would sometimes have 100% cavalry.

I keep seeing in various posts that cavalry cannot succeed in charges against an ordered infantry formation, but this is not in accordance with the primary sources of the truly elite cavalry in certain eras, even in the 17th century. Manchus and Winged Hussars had units with extremely heavy armor that could simply plow through stable formations like a square, or attack over rough terrain and trenches. Infantry in a tight spear wall (or any kind of formation) are most definitely not immune to cavalry charges. But you would likely need an elite level force like the Manchu, Mongol, or Winged Hussars in these situations. Charging head on into ordered infantry was hardly a go-to tactic, but it seems to have been a viable option if necessary like at Klushino or Sarhu. These situations were discussed in previous threads, i,e Would Pikemen units hold their own against Mongol cavalry?

Some quotes from there (thanks to all those who translated them):
Famed Ming general Qi Jiguang who successfully used pike formations against the Japanese wokou, but found them bad against Mongol cavalry:

"Within the Central Plains, when countering bandits, we can use long pikes to battle the enemy, then how is the long pike difficult to use? It is when 10,000 enemy cavalry are charging with a power like that of a rainstorm. A pike's long thin body can only be used to stab, and upon contact with a horse, the pike will break. This is having one pike only injuring one horse, hence the pike is not reusable. We have ChangDao [two-handed blade] and rattan shields wielded by a pair of hands, but the north have no rattan, but light wood that weighs no more than 10 jin. These can also be used. When the body is concealed behind the shield, and with head downcast [the soldiers] roll forward with the Changdao to cut the horse's leg, this is how infantry becomes victorious. '

The Jurchen/Manchu had a specific unit that was supposed to die in the initial attack in order to distort the enemy formation:

"The tactic of the slave force (Jurchen), is that the death squad is in the front, the elite force at the back. The death squad put on heavy armor, rides two horses when charging upfront, even if they die, those in the back still advances, without fear of retreating because the elite forces at the back will kill them if they do. When the charge disrupts our formation, the elite soldiers then take advantage of that to attack--this tactic is based on those of Aguda and (wanyan) wushu."

Wnnged Hussar tactics at the battle of Klushino by eyewitnesses/hussars:

"about this I shall remember, for it is beyond belief, that the squadrons managed eight or ten times to fall upon the enemy. (…) After these repeated charges and hand-to-hand fighting against the enemy, our equipment was broken and our strength was dissipated (…) The horses were also ready to drop from exhaustion, because they had not received sustenance since dawn and for five hours of battle, they had served with a great will but were reaching the limits which nature imposes."

""[Hussars] Ramming with chests of horses almost all fences, which were initially used by the enemy, bravely plowed into his [Jacob De la Gardie's] army".

""Our horsemen, in a brave charge ramming fences with which the enemy treacherously strengthened their defences, and plunging into pikes with chests of horses, suffered a lot of damage in horses."

It's great to hear first-hand accounts of those who have great experience with horses. Thanks for sharing!
Feb 2019
Pennsylvania, US

The Jurchen/Manchu had a specific unit that was supposed to die in the initial attack in order to distort the enemy formation:

"The tactic of the slave force (Jurchen), is that the death squad is in the front, the elite force at the back. The death squad put on heavy armor, rides two horses when charging upfront, even if they die, those in the back still advances, without fear of retreating because the elite forces at the back will kill them if they do. When the charge disrupts our formation, the elite soldiers then take advantage of that to attack--this tactic is based on those of Aguda and (wanyan) wushu."
All these accounts your shared were amazing to read.... but this particular one is the most bad@** thing I've read for a while. :rockhand:
Likes: Edratman