“Riding to Arms” explores horsemanship’s complex role in war

"Riding to Arms" builds up a clear picture of the complex relationships between horsemen, horses and European and American cavalry life, horsemanship and cavalry training.
The French enter Essen (WW1). Photo by The Library of Congress

Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare, is a book, that as its title indicates, explores the complex continuities and changes in the relationship between mankind and cavalry horses in European and American equitation, dressage, and cavalry warfare, from the 16th century up to the early 20th century.

Over this period mounted cavalry tactics shifted from the mass heavy cavalry ‘shock action’ of the 17th century, through the light cavalry of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the ‘fire action’ of dragoons, dismounted and fighting on foot. The latter became standard for British soldiers after the South African wars.

Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare, by Charles Caramello.
Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare, by Charles Caramello. Read an adapted excerpt.

Cavalry training and ‘ways of riding’ demanded much more attention and time than infantry training, since men and horses needed it. This study demonstrates the centrality of the horse and its definitive role in much of past warfare, alongside an analysis of the ideas and theories of horsemanship, demonstrated in the literature that has underpinned cavalry training (the broader importance of these theories and their cultural impact on activities such as three-day eventing can be easy to overlook).

Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare
by Charles Caramello; University Press of Kentucky.
310 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 10 b&w halftones. ISBN: 9780813182308
Hardcover, RRP $US34.95. Available from University Press of Kentucky, Amazon, and other booksellers.

The author is Charles Caramello, whose work may already be known to many readers of Horsetalk.co.nz through his contributed essays and features, such as  “Hemingway’s horses”;  or “The Franco-German (dressage) war”), or perhaps via his earlier book on the 18th-century equestrian writings of Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke, and William Tyndale.

A keen rider, Caramello spent his career as a distinguished university administrator and accomplished scholar of literary texts and history, a professor of English at the University of Maryland. More recently he has sought to combine vocation and avocation and shifted impressively to equestrian history, still focusing largely but not exclusively on written texts, but now on the long and rich body of books and other works on horsemanship rather than on works of English literature. He is also a John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library, Middleburg, Virginia, whose library provided him with a real treasure trove of often otherwise unobtainable equestrian material.

Caramello tells us that his choice of texts was ‘meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive’ (p.xii) but the selection of books discussed includes established classics on horsemanship, equestrianism and the cavalry, such as the seminal writings of Francois Baucher (1796-1873), as well as reclaiming for us more obscure works that he argues have largely been overlooked and deserved to be revived. In all, there are more than 170 primary source texts listed in his bibliography. European texts are drawn on in translation, so there are still others to be explored. Though earlier sources are well represented, just over half of those chosen are from after 1900.

"Riding to Arms" builds up a clear picture of the complex relationships between horsemen, horses and European and American cavalry life, horsemanship and cavalry training.
The 7th Bengal Cavalry. Photo by SMU Libraries Digital Collections

The book is chronologically arranged. Chapter 1, Ryding and Breakinge, covers the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, tracking the ways in which writers addressed the change in emphasis from the preparation of horses for cavalry warfare to their role in enhancing the social prestige and aesthetic refinement of those who could afford their high cost. Focusing as it does largely on classic writers such as Richard Berenger, some of this was familiar to me, but with a new and interesting treatment. Chapter 2, Manège to Field, explored the multiple ways in which through the late 18th to the early 20th century cavalries drew on European manège approaches and English cross-country riding in attempting more consistently applied approaches to dressage and equitation. It also describes the competitive rivalries amongst the various equitation theorists and writers of cavalry instruction manuals in laying claim to expertise, and the debates about the role, importance, and practicability of haute école schooling. Chapter 3, Light Horse, Dragoons and Others, a long and carefully researched chapter, shows the rise and fall of military use of horse cavalry over the long 19th century and takes readers into the world of disputes over the cavalry tactics and military horsemanship that were characteristic.

Chapter 4, Remounts and Wastage, marks a shift of approach, from humans to the horses of the early 20th century, in terms of their varied military utilities, and as key cultural images. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the book contains 10 illustrations of recruitment posters and horses’ use during the (First) World War, or ‘The Great War’, the term that dominated until the early 1930s and so is used in many of Caramello’s sources. Historians often remind us of the 20 million or so military and civilian human deaths of the period. Caramello is at pains to point out that horses and mules also died in large numbers, as horses were literally exploited as ‘horse power’, a means of transport. Chapter 5, Hunting in the Trenches, seems very much a stand-alone chapter, bringing together the contrasting worlds of foxhunting and the trenches, drawing on Caramello’s English Literature expertise to bear on two classic semi-fictional autobiographies by Siegfried Sassoon, the English war poet, soldier and writer.

By the 1930s nearly all national cavalries had de-horsed, moving towards mechanization. The civilian world moved towards an equestrianism linked to new competitions such as three-day eventing. Even so, between the wars, the cavalry retained what military theorist Liddell Hart described as a ‘’sentimental devotion” to the horse. I recall from my own research into the history of inter-war sport that even in 1938, after mechanization, the British War Office still provided cavalry officers with chargers, arguing to the Treasury that sports such as polo, point-to-point racing and cross-country hunting had a ‘definite military value’ in helping training for war. But in 1951, when E.G. French wrote his elegiac lament, Goodbye to Boot and Saddle: The Tragic Passing of British Cavalry, their world had passed.

The book is aimed primarily at scholars and students of equine and military history. The very useful notes cover almost a quarter of the book. Yet there is certainly enough here for general horse enthusiasts for them to find much of interest, most especially in the key equestrian and cavalry approaches, ideas and debates of the past. Caramello has a real feel for the horse and its role, and this shines through alongside his revealing analysis.

This is not a book to be devoured at a sitting, but one to be pored over, chapter by chapter, revealingly opening up the writings of the past. It provides a steady and carefully controlled canter across the terrain.  Each chapter can stand individually, so that readers interested in a particular period can explore it in detail. Overall, Caramello’s fascinating book builds up a far clearer picture of the complex relationships between horsemen, horses and European and American cavalry life, horsemanship and cavalry training, offering new insights and much greater depth than hitherto.

Professor Mike Huggins
Professor Mike Huggins

Professor Mike Huggins is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cumbria. He has published a wide variety of material on leisure, sport and tourism, including several specialist books and many articles on the history of British and American horse racing.

Huggins is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the British Society for Sports History, a Fellow and former President of the European Committee for Sports History, and is on the editorial consultancy boards of five peer-reviewed academic leisure and sports history journals in Britain, France, the USA and South America.

He won the prestigious NASSH book award in 2000 for the best book on sports history published that year, and in 2009 received the International Society for Sport History and Physical Education Award for his ‘outstanding scientific contribution to the history of sport’.


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