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Horses in East Asian warfare

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

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]

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 Wu Hu attacks on China,[3] and the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia;[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]


File:Han Dynasty ceramic prancing horse.jpg
Ceramic statues of a prancing horse (foreground) and a cavalryman on horseback (background), Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD)
File:Tang Dynasty sancai saddled horse.jpg
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 was not seen in warfare prior to the 4th Century BC.[6]

Although mounted archers represented an initial tactical advantage over Chinese armies, the Chinese learned to adapt.[7] Conservative forces opposed change, which affected the proportional balance amongst cavalrymen, horse-drawn chariots and infantrymen in Chinese armies.[8]

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; 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.[9] 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.[10]

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).[11]

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.[12] (Other than the domestic Mongolian horse, the wild Przewalski's Horse also living in that region has never been domesticated.)

During the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 BC), records tell of a Chinese expedition to Fergana (in present-day Uzbekistan) and the superior horses which were acquired.[13] The horses were acquired for military use and for breeding.[14]

"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.[14]

During the Jin dynasty (265–420), records of thousands of "armored horses" illustrate the development of warfare in this period.[15]

File:Asia 800ad.jpg
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.[16] The Imperial herds numbered 325,700 horses in 794[17]

The Song (960–1279) through Ming dynasty (1368–1644) armies relied on an officially supervised tea-for-horse trading systems which evolved over centuries.[18]

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."[10]

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."[10]


Yabusame archers, Edo period.
File:Memorial stones soldiers and Horses.jpg
Cenotaph, soldiers and horses killed in Second Sino-Japanese War, Chiba city Japan

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.[19] Although records of horses in Japan are found as far back as the Jomon period, they played little or no role in early Japanese agriculture or military conflicts until horses from the continent were introduced in the fourth century.[20]

The Japanese samurai fought as cavalry for many centuries;[21] and horses were used primarily as draft animals and for war.[22] Amongst the aristocracy, some were especially renown for their horsemanship.[23]

The samurai were particularly skilled in the art of using archery from horseback. The archery skills of mounted samurai were developed by training such as Yabusame, which originated in 530 AD and reached its peak under Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199 AD) in the Kamakura Period.[24] They switched from an emphasis on mounted bowmen to mounted spearmen during the Sengoku period (1467–1615 AD).

In pre-Meiji Japan, horses were only considered in a context of warfare. As a general rule, no Japanese women rode a horse because the horse was reserved for samurai warriors;[25] however, Tomoe Gozen was an exception to the general rule.[26]

Since 1958, a statue of a horse at Yasukuni Shrine has acknowledged the equine contributions in Japanese military actions;[27] 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.[28]


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.[29]

Inner Asia

Non-Chinese opponents used the horse effectively in warfare, which only slowly developed into changes in the way horses were used.[30] 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."[31]

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 the men had excellent riding skills.

Oyama Shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan -- equestrian statue of the samurai leader, Maeda Toshiie

Horses in logistical support

Traditionally, the horse has been used as a pack animal, essential in providing logistical support for military forces.[32]

Any distinction between war horses and packhorses can be fungible. For example, in Japan, an equestrian statue honors a Sengoku period military figure, Maeda Toshiie; and his great war horse carries a heavy burden.

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. at Google Books
  4. Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book: Christian Europe and its Neighbors, pp. 91-94.
  5. Gilbey, pp. 26-27. at Google Books
  6. 6.0 6.1 Graff, David Andrew. (2002). Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900, p. 22. at Google Books
  7. Graff, p. 28. at Google Books
  8. Ellis, John. (2004). Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare, pp. 19-20.
  9. Goodrich, p. 100. at Google Books
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Sinor, Denis. "Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian history," Oriens Extremus, Vol. 19, No. 1-2 (1972), pp. 171-183.
  11. Goodrich, p. 99. at Google Books
  12. Gilbey, Walter. (1900). Small Horses in Warfare. p. 26. at Google Books
  13. AMNH: "The Origin of Horses."
  14. 14.0 14.1 Church View Antiques: "The importance of the horse in Chinese art."
  15. Graff, p. 42. at Google Books
  16. Graff, p. 176. at Google Books
  17. Graff, p. 228. at Google Books
  18. Perdue, Peter. (2005). China Marches West, pp. 36-52. at Google Books
  19. Friday, Karl F. (2004). Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, p. 96. at Google Books
  20. Friday, p. 103. at Google Books
  21. Turnbull, Stephen R. (2002). War in Japan 1467-1615, pp. 15-20. at Google Books
  22. Kōdansha. (1993). Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, p. 564.
  23. Titsingh, Isaac. (1834). Annales des empereurs du japon, p. 119 at Google Books; Sadaijin Minamoto no Tooru (源融?).
  24. Japanese Equestrian Archery Association: Takeda School of Horseback Archery.
  25. 19th century France, Japan share glances at Tokyo exhibit," Kuwait Times. January 25, 2009.
  26. Kitagawa, Hiroshi et al. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, p. 519; McCullough, Helen Craig. (1988). The Tale of the Heike, p. 291. at Google Books
  27. Yasukuni Shrine: Statues honoring horses, etc.
  28. Nogi jinja: image of paired horses. (Japanese)
  29. Gilbey, p. 27. at Google Books
  30. Latourette, Kenneth Scott. (1965). The Chinese: Their History and Culture, p. 144.
  31. Creel, "The Role of the Horse in Chinese History," What is Taoism?, p. 181. at Google Books
  32. Creel, p. 161. at Google Books



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