Horses in East Asian warfare

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 (cavalry tactics).[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 against past kingdoms of 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 chariot -- Detail of a bronze mirror c. 5th-6th century excavated Eta-Funayama Tumulus in Japan.

Horse warfare in national contexts


Han Dynasty ceramic prancing horse
Ceramic statues of a prancing horse (foreground) and a cavalryman on horseback (background), Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD)
WLA ima Saddled Horse
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.[5]

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),[6] 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.[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.[5]

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 cultivated 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 was not anticipated from this configuration, but strength and endurance are characteristic features.[12]

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.[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]

Asia 800ad
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]
Cavalry of the Chinese new army
Chinese cavalry of the Qing New Army.


Most Japanese horses are descended from Chinese and Korean imports, and there was some cross-breeding with indigenous horses which had existed in Japan since the stone age.[19] 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.[20] The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki mention horses in battle.[21]

Amongst the Imperial aristocracy, some were especially renowned for their horsemanship.[22] It was cavalry, not infantry, which proved to be decisive in the Jinshin War of 672–673, in Fujiwara no Hirotsugu's rebellion in 740 and in the revolt of Fujiwara no Nakamaro in 756.[23]

Samurai fought as cavalry for many centuries,[24] and horses were used both as draft animals and for war.[25] The increasingly elaborate decorations on harnesses and saddles of the samurai suggests the value accorded to these war horses.[21]

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 no Yoritomo (1147–1199 AD) in the Kamakura period.[26] The conventions of warfare in Japan switched from an emphasis on mounted bowmen to mounted spearmen during the Sengoku period (1467–1615).

Amongst the samurai, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) was known as an excellent horseman, which forms the foundation of an anecdote about the shōgun'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.[27] At Nikkō, the burial place of the horse ridden by Ieyasu Tokugawa in the Battle of Sekigahara is marked with an inscribed stone.[28]

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[29] 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;[30] 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.[31]


Earthenware Funerary Objects in the Shape of a Warrior on Horseback 도기 기마인물형 명기 07
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.[32]

The earliest horse warfare of Korea was recorded during the ancient Korean kingdom Gojoseon. 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.[33] 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.[34]

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 of the Mongols were called cerigyn nojan. The wars of Genghis Khan were mounted campaigns;[35] and Mongol horses were better cared for than the horses of their enemies.[36] These horses were well-protected and equipped, including lamellar armour with five parts to safeguard specific parts of the horse.[37]

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.[38]

The limited pasture lands in eastern Europe affected the westward movement of Mongolian mounted forces.[39]

During World War II, many Mongolian horses were sent to the Soviet Union.[40]

Inner Asia

Dunhuang Zhang Yichao army
Mural commemorating victory of General Zhang Yichao over the Tibetan Empire in 848. Mogao cave 156, late Chinese Tang Dynasty

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,[41] 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.[42] 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."[43]

Horses in logistical support

Traditionally, the horse has been used as a pack animal, essential in providing logistical support for military forces.[44]


VN lancer

Wood relief, 13th century Vietnam. Unlike medieval knights with couched lance, Eastern cavalrymen preferred holding the lance with both hands. HCMC Museum of National History.

Tiger hunt

Wood relief, 17th century Vietnam, showing a mounted archer with his bow fully drawn while galloping forward, in the foreground a kneeling arquebusier is taking aim. Hạ Hiệp communal house, Hà Tây.

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. ^ a b Graff, David Andrew. (2002). Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900, p. 22., p. 22, at Google Books
  6. ^ "LINE Dictionary : English-Thai, Chinese-English, English-Chinese Dictionary".
  7. ^ Graff, p. 28., p. 28, at Google Books
  8. ^ Ellis, John. (2004). Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare, pp. 19-20.
  9. ^ Goodrich, p. 100., p. 100, at Google Books
  10. ^ a b c Sinor, Denis. "Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian history," Oriens Extremus, Vol. 19, No. 1-2 (1972), pp. 171-183.
  11. ^ Goodrich, p. 99., p. 99, at Google Books
  12. ^ Gilbey, Walter. (1900). Small Horses in Warfare. p. 26., p. 26, at Google Books
  13. ^ AMNH: "The Origin of Horses."
  14. ^ a b "Church View Antiques]: [ "The importance of the horse in Chinese art."]". External link in |title= (help)
  15. ^ Graff, p. 42., p. 42, at Google Books
  16. ^ Graff, p. 176., p. 176, at Google Books
  17. ^ Graff, p. 228., p. 228, at Google Books
  18. ^ Perdue, Peter. (2005). China Marches West, pp. 36-52., p. 36, at Google Books
  19. ^ Friday, Karl F. (2004). Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, p. 96., p. 96, at Google Books
  20. ^ Friday, p. 103., p. 103, at Google Books
  21. ^ a b 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.
  22. ^ Titsingh, Isaac. (1834). Annales des empereurs du japon, p. 119, p. 119, at Google Books; Sadaijin Minamoto no Tooru (源融).
  23. ^ Friday, Karl F. (1996). Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, p. 37, p. 37, at Google Books
  24. ^ Turnbull, Stephen R. (2002). War in Japan 1467–1615, pp. 15–20., p. 15, at Google Books
  25. ^ Kōdansha. (1993). Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, p. 564.
  26. ^ Japanese Equestrian Archery Association: Takeda School of Horseback Archery. Archived 2012-05-18 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Sidney Institute (NSW, Australia), Tokugawa Ieaysu
  28. ^ Chamberlain, Basil Hall. (1913). A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, p. 200., p. 200, at Google Books
  29. ^ 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
  30. ^ "About Yasukuni Shrine│Yasukuni Shrine".
  31. ^ Nogi jinja: image of paired horses. Archived 2010-01-05 at the Wayback Machine (in Japanese)
  32. ^ Gilbey, p. 27., p. 27, at Google Books
  33. ^ Ebrey, 120.
  34. ^ Lee, Peter H & Wm. Theodore De Bary. Sources of Korean Tradition, page 24-26. Columbia University Press, 1997.
  35. ^ Blunden, Jane. (2008). Mongolia: The Bradt Travel Guide, p. 79.
  36. ^ Neville, Peter. (2006). A Traveller's History of Russia, p. 14, citing James Chambers, (1979). The Devil's Horsemen.
  37. ^ Li, Xiaobing. (2012). China at War, p. 288.
  38. ^ "The Horses of Genghis Khan" at; retrieved 2013-2-2.
  39. ^ Keen, Maurice. (1999). Medieval Warfare:A History: A History, p. 197.
  40. ^ Hendricks, Bonnie L. (2007). International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, p. 287.
  41. ^ "胡服骑射英语怎么说,胡服骑射的英文翻译,胡服骑射英文例句和用法".
  42. ^ Latourette, Kenneth Scott. (1965). The Chinese: Their History and Culture, p. 144.
  43. ^ Creel, "The Role of the Horse in Chinese History," What is Taoism?, p. 181., p. 181, at Google Books
  44. ^ Creel, p. 161., p. 161, at Google Books


Altai horse

The Altai is a horse breed developed in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia.

Batak pony

The Batak pony, also called the Deli pony is a pony breed from Indonesia. Originating in Central Sumatra, it is thought to have descended from Mongolian Horse and Arabian blood, and has continually been infused with additional Arabian blood to improve its quality. The Batak is selectively breed by the Indonesians, and is often used to upgrade the quality of the horses and ponies on nearby islands.

Calabrese horse

The Calabrese is a breed of horse originating from Italy, generally used for riding. They were developed from horses bred in Italy before the founding of Rome, and the breed has continued to be developed to the present day through infusions of Arabian, Andalusian and Thoroughbred blood.

Carriage driving

Carriage driving is a form of competitive horse driving in harness in which larger two or four wheeled carriages (often restored antiques) are pulled by a single horse, a pair, tandem or a four-in-hand team.

In competitions the driver and horse(s) have to complete three tests including Dressage, Marathon and Obstacle Driving. The International Federation for Equestrian Sports oversees International Shows. The FEI Driving rules are followed in these competitions which aim to protect the welfare of the horse and also ensure fairness in competitions.Pleasure competitions also have classes which are judged on the turnout, neatness or suitability of the horse(s) and carriage.

Comtois horse

The Comtois horse is a draft horse that originated in the Jura Mountains on the border between France and Switzerland.


Equidae (sometimes known as the horse family) is the taxonomic family of horses and related animals, including the extant horses, donkeys, and zebras, and many other species known only from fossils. All extant species are in the genus Equus. Equidae belongs to the order Perissodactyla, which includes the extant tapirs and rhinoceros, and several extinct families.

The term equid refers to any member of this family, including any equine.


The Garrano, from Gaelic gearran, a pony of the Iberian horse family, is an endangered breed of horse from northern Portugal, mainly used as a pack horse, for riding, and for light farm work. An ancient breed, the Garrano has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years but is in decline due to predation and loss of interest in breeding for agricultural use.

It has many similarities with the Galician horse and the Dartmoor pony.

Journal of East Asian Studies

The Journal of East Asian Studies is a peer-reviewed academic journal published triannually by Lynne Rienner Publishers. It was established in 2001 and is abstracted and indexed by Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, International Political Science Abstracts, and Social Sciences Citation Index. As of 2012 the editor-in-chief is Stephan Haggard.

Kalmyk horse

The Kalmyk horse, also called the Kalmykia horse, is a rare horse breed descended from horses first brought to Russia by the Kalmyk people from Dzungaria during the 17th century.


The Knabstrupper or Knabstrup is a Danish breed of horse with an unusual range of coat coloration.

List of equestrian sports

Equestrian Sports are sports that use horses as a main part of the sport. This usually takes the form of the rider being on the horse's back, or the horses pulling some sort of horse-drawn vehicle.


The Maremmano is a breed of horse originating in the Maremma area of Tuscany and northern Lazio in Italy. Traditionally a hardy working horse used by the Butteri for livestock management, it is today principally a saddle horse. Extensive crossing with Thoroughbred and other breeds has led to a more athletic type, the Maremmano migliorato, or "Improved Maremmano".


The Marismeño is a rare breed of horse indigenous to the marshes of the Guadalquivir River, from which it takes its name. It is now found particularly in the Doñana National Park, which lies mostly in the province of Huelva, in Andalusia, southwestern Spain. Until recently it was not considered a breed; recognition and recovery began in 2003. It is listed in the Catálogo Oficial de Razas de Ganado de España in the group of autochthonous breeds in danger of extinction.

Moyle horse

The Moyle is a rare horse breed. The breed is thought to have origins in the horses bred by Mormon people in Utah during the mid-1800s, and it is believed that the Moyle horse of today was bred by Rex Moyle in the mid 20th century, incorporating Mustangs and Cleveland Bays into the lineage. DNA studies in the 1990s indicated that the Moyle horse has genetic markers suggesting some common ancestry with the Spanish Horse. Moyle horses often have small frontal skull bosses, referred to as "horns" on their foreheads, a trait seen only in a few breeds, such as the Carthusian horse of Spain. They are also noted for unusual freedom of movement in the shoulder, associated with the positioning of their forelegs a bit farther forward than other breeds.The Moyle is most commonly brown or bay, but comes in almost all solid coat colors. They rarely have face or leg markings.


The Novokirghiz horse is a breed of horse developed in the 1930s in Kirghizia (Kyrgyzstan). It was developed by breeding the Old Kirghiz with Thoroughbred, Russian Don, and Anglo-Don horses. It is also known by the name Novokirgizskaya (Russian).


The Sanfratellano (or Razza di San Fratello) is an Italian light horse breed that originated in San Fratello, Sicily. They are a hardy breed that is used for riding, packing, and light draft work.


The Tawleed horse breed was developed in the Khartoum region of Sudan. This breed was formed by breeding native horses with an exotic breed. Tawleed horses are used as riding horses and they are known for their resistance to heat and drought. There are no pedigrees or bloodlines currently available for this breed.


The Württemberger, Baden-Württemberger or Württemberg is a Warmblood horse breed originating in Germany. They are primarily riding horses, and are selectively bred for dressage and show jumping.

Xilingol horse

A horse of central Inner Mongolia, the Xilingol is a light horse that is used both for riding and for draft purposes. In the 1960s, it was developed by breeding Russian Thoroughbred, Akhal-Teke, Sanhe, and Chinese Mongolian, after which Kabarda and Don breeding were introduced into the breed. The Xilingol stands at 15.2 hands high and come in all solid colors.

Countries and regions
Ethnic groups
Politics and economics
Science and technology
Equine science and
and sport
Evolution and history
Horse breeds, types
and other Equidae


This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.