King Dom Eduarte and why riding skill matters more in a mounted duel than arms/armor

Apr 2018

Link to the translation of a book on jousting and horsemanship which was written by a Portugese king in the early 15th century. Note that the bulk of the book is spent talking how to make sure that you always remain stable on your horse while riding, fighting, or wearing armor (as well as the importance of always appearing steady and brave in the process, rather than grasping at the mane with both hands). According to him, even in battle the majority of falls are actually due to lack of skill at staying on the horse and preventable:

Chapter XIX - How and why some fall off the beast

I said before that we can fall off the beast forward, backward or to either side of the beast, as a consequence of any action we take, like handling and throwing a spear, striking with a sword, or any similar which we do not master as we should.

It is a fact that most of the men who fall from the beast during a battle, a joust, a collision with an obstacle or due to a willful action from an opponent, are unable to avoid it due to lack of knowledge and will, and do not act as they should have; and most of them fall down because they could not get the proper help from their own bodies, legs, feet and hands. am not saying all of them, because some suffer such violent collisions that it would have been impossible for them to stay mounted even if they were very strong. But if their will is strong and they know how to use their own advantages, they will be able - most of the time - to avoid falling down or suffering decisive collisions. And it happens that during a fight those who lack the will or required skills are unable successfully to face the enemy's strength or cunning, and fall down very rapidly.
On page 35, he even points out how heavy armor can even end up being a significant disadvantage when on horseback:

. . . And if I have mentioned the clothes I can also address the armor; if the horsemen carry light armor, they can move faster in everything they have to do. This is because your knees are bent and your heels are down. You need the room in your footwear to flex your ankle to achieve this leg/ foot position. and therefore they will feel like stronger horsemen. There are some who say that that option is a disadvantage when they are not riding, but I say that being heavy in the saddle causes them to move slowly
and it is much worse if they get themselves unbalanced. Therefore the disadvantage is greater than the advantage. Nevertheless, I agree that heavier armor is advantageous for personal defense.
This doesn't mean that heavy armor always meant that the rider was slow and clumsy. But it does mean that even if an armored rider can afford a very strong, fast, expensive horse, he will need ton of training and practice as well before he is able to ride and maneuver at full speed without losing his balance.

A different author, Pietro Monte, writing about a hundred years later similary noted the risks involved in accepting a duel on horseback:

In my judgement, indeed, no man with strong limbs should fight with another rider, in coming together of one on one, since they are put at the favour of horses or brute animals. But when the clash of lances is past, they remain safe enough as long as they are well armoured, and then it is easy for the weak one to be protected against the strong one, especially since various misfortunes usually happen because of the horses; this can be beneficial to the weak one, but on foot anyone can more manifestly demonstrate his strength.
This is in contrast to a fight between armored men on foot, which he claims would usually be decided by whichever man was larger and stronger. To avoid these "various misfortunes" then, a rider needs to have spent a great deal of time learning to control his horse and keep his balance in order to have the upper hand.

Riding skill makes the difference when ranged weapons are involved as well. One on one a bow, pistol, or carbine from horseback only provides an advantage as long as the shooter can keep his distance, which in turn just depends on who has the faster horse and who is the better rider. If two horse archers were to meet each other on an open plain, one of which was better at shooting while the second was better at riding, then the second one would have a significant advantage.

If two horsemen met each other on an open plain, the first of which was fully kitted out with armor, sword, bow, lance, and two pistols while the second had only a sword but was far more skilled at riding, I think I'd still say that the second guy is more likely to win.
May 2018
So, if I understand correctly, in a duel between two horsemen in an open terrain, being able to keep your balance on a horse is more important than being larger, heavier and more armored than your opponent... Is the same thing is true when it comes to clashes between two compact formations of horsemen?
Apr 2018
So, if I understand correctly, in a duel between two horsemen in an open terrain, being able to keep your balance on a horse is more important than being larger, heavier and more armored than your opponent... Is the same thing is true when it comes to clashes between two compact formations of horsemen?

That question I'd say is much more complicated. For much of the past 2000 years or so the most common sort of fighting tended to be minor skirmishes between small groups of mounted men while scouting, patrolling, raiding, etc. and that's what soldiers or warriors in many areas were most experienced with. Larger battles on the other hand tended to be pretty rare and as a result you can find pretty widely differing theories on what the best way to have 100s or 1000s of horsemen fight effectively at once actually was depending on the specific region and time period.


Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
Mass combat, battles is quite different from individual combat. Organization, discipline, morale. there's quite a difference between a good warrior and a good soldier. In the Napoleonic period Cossacks and Turks were often excellent horsemen, skilled with weapons but totally incapable of standing up to better organized and disciplined European cavalry. The French were often inferior man for man but their better organization meant they were often more effective. Often the discipline to regroup/rally after charge and not impetuously continue on to further disorganization and defeat. The maintaining of reserves and commitment at the right time was important.

Some important cavalry commanders thought maintaining order and formation was much more important than impetuous speed advocating charging at the trot rather than the disorder of galloping.

The Mongols added organization and discipline to an highly skilled warriors with weapons and superb horsemanship making a extremely formidable force.

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