Horses in East Asian warfare

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Horse chariot -- Detail of a bronze mirror c. 5th-6th century excavated Eta-Funayama Tumulus in Japan.

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]

Japanese samurai prepare to man fortifications against Mongol invaders, 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–Xiongnu War and Five Barbarians incursions into the Central Plain,[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 warfare in national contexts[edit]



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.[5] 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.[6] The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki mention horses in battle.[7]

Amongst the imperial aristocracy, some were especially renowned for their horsemanship.[8] 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.[9]

Samurai fought as cavalry for many centuries,[10] and horses were used both as draft animals and for war.[11] The increasingly elaborate decorations on harnesses and saddles of the samurai suggests the value accorded to these war horses.[7]

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.[12] 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.[13] At Nikkō, the burial place of the horse ridden by Ieyasu Tokugawa in the Battle of Sekigahara is marked with an inscribed stone.[14]

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.[15] 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;[16] 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.[17]


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.[18]

The earliest horse warfare of Korea was recorded during the ancient Korean kingdom Gojoseon[citation needed]. 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.[19] 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.[20]

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;[21] and Mongol horses were better cared for than the horses of their enemies.[22] These horses were well-protected and equipped, including lamellar armour with five parts to safeguard specific parts of the horse.[23]

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.[24]

The limited pasture lands in eastern Europe affected the westward movement of Mongolian mounted forces.[25]

During World War II, many Mongolian horses were sent to the Soviet Union.[26]


Vietnam is acquainted with horses throughout history,[27] but their tactics and employment differed by dynasty. The horses serving the war were mainly domestic horses scattered throughout the country such as Bac Ha, Phu Yen, Da Lat, and the Southern grass horses. They belong to the group of dwarf stallions, with short stature, mainly used for hauling and pulling suitable for difficult terrain, adapting easily to the climate, and resistant to disease and injury. War horses are mainly used by commanders, mainly because of preference for infantry combat and war elephants; however, the cavalry forces were considered to be equal to their Chinese counterparts.

Inner Asia[edit]

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,[28] 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.[29] 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."[30]

Horses in logistical support[edit]

Traditionally, the horse has been used as a pack animal, essential in providing logistical support for military forces.[31]


See also[edit]


  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. ^ Friday, Karl F. (2004). Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, p. 96., p. 96, at Google Books
  6. ^ Friday, p. 103., p. 103, at Google Books
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Titsingh, Isaac. (1834). Annales des empereurs du japon, p. 119, p. 119, at Google Books; Sadaijin Minamoto no Tooru (源融).
  9. ^ Friday, Karl F. (1996). Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, p. 37, p. 37, at Google Books
  10. ^ Turnbull, Stephen R. (2002). War in Japan 1467–1615, pp. 15–20., p. 15, at Google Books
  11. ^ Kōdansha. (1993). Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, p. 564.
  12. ^ Japanese Equestrian Archery Association: Takeda School of Horseback Archery. Archived 2012-05-18 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Sidney Institute (NSW, Australia), Tokugawa Ieaysu
  14. ^ Chamberlain, Basil Hall. (1913). A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, p. 200., p. 200, at Google Books
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ "About Yasukuni Shrine│Yasukuni Shrine".
  17. ^ Nogi jinja: image of paired horses. Archived 2010-01-05 at the Wayback Machine (in Japanese)
  18. ^ Gilbey, p. 27., p. 27, at Google Books
  19. ^ Ebrey, 120.
  20. ^ Lee, Peter H & Wm. Theodore De Bary. Sources of Korean Tradition, page 24–26. Columbia University Press, 1997.
  21. ^ Blunden, Jane. (2008). Mongolia: The Bradt Travel Guide, p. 79.
  22. ^ Neville, Peter. (2006). A Traveller's History of Russia, p. 14, citing James Chambers, (1979). The Devil's Horsemen.
  23. ^ Li, Xiaobing. (2012). China at War, p. 288.
  24. ^ "The Horses of Genghis Khan" at; retrieved 2013-2-2.
  25. ^ Keen, Maurice. (1999). Medieval Warfare:A History: A History, p. 197.
  26. ^ Hendricks, Bonnie L. (2007). International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, p. 287.
  27. ^ "Bảo tàng Lịch sử Quốc gia".
  28. ^ "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".
  29. ^ Latourette, Kenneth Scott. (1965). The Chinese: Their History and Culture, p. 144.
  30. ^ Creel, "The Role of the Horse in Chinese History," What is Taoism?, p. 181., p. 181, at Google Books
  31. ^ Creel, p. 161., p. 161, at Google Books