Sunday, July 06, 2008

Re-enacting medieval cavalry -- Henrik Olsgaard reports

Henrik Olsgaard is one of the founders of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and has always been one of the class acts of that group. Armor I saw him wear in 1975 -- which he made himself -- would be top drawer in any re-enactment group today.

Henrik has been to the Battle of Hastings re-enactment twice, and was depicting a Norman cavalryman both times. In a recent private conversation he described some of his experiences, and he has kindly allowed me to reproduce much of that material here.

Henrik makes no great claims to historical insight into the use and effectiveness of cavalry in the Middle Ages, as you will see below, but at least he's given re-enactment a try and speaks clearly and sensibly about his own experience. The role and importance of cavalry in the High Middle Ages, once considered unambiguously the "age of cavalry," is a very controversial subject among professional military historians, and discussions of the issue often lead to broad generalizations. I have no idea how many such historians have much experience of riding, or riding in difficult conditions where horses must face ferocious human beings waving sticks at them. Henrik has at least done that.

The following account has been lightly edited by me, and arranged in what seemed to me the best order. Any awkwardness results from the fact that you are reading only one part of a conversation that included a number of other people.

Tracking down YouTube videos of Hastings re-enactments is left as an exercise for the reader.

Image: The 2006 re-enactment, from a gallery of pictures taken by Jonathan Krarup.


-Horses are herd animals that group together and follow the leader - especially in frightenng circumstances. But once frightened out of their gourd, they are virtually uncontrollable and will usually run in whatever direction they are pointed in, till they fall or are convinced they are safe- which usually is after they are exhausted. Stallions also are more aggressive and will fight if not frightened, by the circumstances they are in. Training can help them learn what to expect and convince them not to be frightened most of the time. Mares are normally less aggressive and so more controllable, yet they still can be aggressive if trained to be so. Yet either gender will be out
of control if in flight mode. Since they are big and strong, their panic can be very destructive if they are using all their strength to "get away".

The severe bits and spurs that were used at some periods, by some horsemen ( prick spurs with sharp points 3 or 4 inches long with disc stops to prevent deeper penetration into the horse's side, or bit arms that were 12 inches long to provide extra hard pressure when the reins
were pulled, making breaking of the lower jaw an easy possibility, for instance) show the amount of effort it sometimes took to "get the horse's attention" when it was in panic mode.

Usually a horse will not run into obstructions or over unusual looking ground - painted bars on a flat pavement, for instance, is very good at stopping a horse from walking on it. They have to be trained to do so. Polo ponys are trained to run into things, like other horses, during the game of Polo, and the horse used to hit the shieldwall at Hastings was a polo pony, the owner said.

I believe horses need a lot of training to actually run into a formation and once injured in the process, will likely avoid it in the future. Moving up to within sword or spear length, however is likely a better possibility that most horses will do with a little amount of training. A long spear can allow the rider to strike with the force of the moving horse, before it stops at the point of contact and if running parallel to a formation's face, allows the rider to reach laterally with his lance and strike with the movement of the horse added to this own. Of course use of guns from horseback allows rapid movement to within range, discharge and then rapid movement out of
range to reload, etc.

The main advantage I've found at Hastings, of poorly trained horses is they provide rapid transportation all over the battlefield and radically reduce fatigue on the part of the armored warrior in the process. They also provide an elevated platform from which to wield any weapon and provide major assistance in entering or exiting a combat engagement at high speed, if desired. The elevated position allows the warrior to see better where to focus his attention or enter or exit combat, to his advantage. It also allows him to be more visible to his companions for whatever advantage it can provide - be it directing their movement or offering support or scaring their foes. Lastly it provides assistance in negotiating the circumstances of battle by helping when the rider is injured or weak from exhaustion, so he can retreat or continue , in spite of his condition.

At Hastings 2006 I saw one of my cavalry companions charge the Saxon shield wall on his well trained horse and it hit full force at a gallop with its chin way in the air so its chest slammed into the shield and knocked over several people, who were quite surprised and pissed off that it happened. The rider told me later he thought he had the go-ahead from the line of Saxons, to charge it, and he'd worked hard to train his horse to charge a shield wall, well before the reenactment. It was a joy to see, but not to experience being hit. A couple of the downed Saxons got bloodied by it, I was told.


Another thing I saw that weekend was a German rider - he had a big white beard and was riding a white horse and can be seen in many U-tube video clips- went down with his horse in a big cartwheeling somersault as they galloped downhill after assaulting the shieldwall. I was going slower when I saw him go down and after looking forward to be sure my horse wasn't going to trip I looked back at them and they were both on their feet standing next to each other again. Still pictures and video clips show them riding again a few minutes later, but none that I've seen show them falling or getting back up. An eyewitness from the Netherlands,who was watching from downhill said the rider's kite shield - which was tied close to his body with the enarms and guige straps, kept the high saddle pommel from crushing the rider as the horse rolled over him on the ground. I corresponded with a friend of the rider, who was riding there too and he said both the rider and horse were unhurt and fine afterward. That was amazing to see and especially that no one was hurt. I wish there were some video or still pictures of it. But in both cases, the shieldwall charge and the falling horse and rider, they happened to the west side of the battlefield and were well away from the spectators who were to the east side and there were lots of warriors and horses in the way, in between, blocking most people's view and camera angles. Any hidden cameras that the reenactors snuck/sneeked (?) onto the battlefield were usually not pointed at the horses so most action is lost to them and the few other cameras spread around to the north or south just seem to have missed those two pieces of the action.


Most ( 60 +/-) of the 90 or so horses at Hastings 2006 were rented from various stables for those of us who didn't own our own, there. The remainng 30 or so horses were privately owned and had a great variety of training and experience. The German rider on the white horse was part of a group of Germans who all rode together in Conroy number three ( of five Conrois that year) Most of the horses in that group were white and one was dalmatian dog spotted. They usually performed in 12th century reenactments and wore full mail to cover feet and hands.

In the case of the horse that charged the shieldwall, the owner said he trained his horse to do that manouver. You'll have to ask him why, but I presume because he thought it would be useful and fun. None of the other horses did that and in fact most never got even within spear length of the shieldwall since they were nearly all intimidated by a shouting and clamoring confrontation of scary looking "animals", that to prey animals ( the horses) looked like they would bite them in
half. Most of the rental horses had never seen such a thing before and didn't know what to make of it and certainly didn't want to approach within touching distance except with a lot of urging on the rider's part. I know my horse refused to get close unless another horse went first and showed the way. It was rather frustrating and this is the same thing the other two horses that I rode in 2000 at Hastings did as well. There, however my Conroi leader rode ahead and charged along the shieldwall so we all followed and galloped along the face and stabbed with our spears over the top at the Saxons behind it. In 2006 , my Conroi leader didn't ride up to the wall, but hung back urging us to go on and attack. Perhaps he couldn't get his horse to get close and lead the way, either. In any case our conroi didn't make much contact with the shield wall, but once some of the Saxons broke out into the open we were able to get closer to individual warriors and I managed to make a kill in single combat with Scott from the "Vikings U Like" guys who sell Viking jewelry and belt fittings at Pennsic and Estrella War . I gave him my silk lance pennant as a memorial to his "death".

I have been told by several people who were on foot, that the vibration of the approaching horses was very intimidating to the people on the ground, but likewise the rumble and clashing of the people was very intimidating to the horses as they approached a strange environment. The riders and horses did practice the day before the battle to try to get ready for the battle, but that practice was limited to formation riding as a group, so we would look pretty for the spectators, not so the horses would be ready for combat. We should have had some simulated combat training too, but they never did that.

On the second battle reenactment day the horses were a little better since they already had experienced the combat the day before and that helped a little, but not very much.


In re-reading what I said here, I'd like to offer an addendum, lest anyone think this experience was indicative of true mounted combat, of the period, beyond the most general sense.

When I described riding past infantry and stabbing at them over their shields, I feel it needs to be stated that this was rather hard to do, the stabbing over shields part. What I mean is that the combat rules in effect specifically forbade striking the head, face or neck of anyone ( for safety reasons )! So to strike over a shield, whether from the ground or from a higher position, on horseback , was difficult if not impossible since the head was in the way when approaching from the front and a ban on striking from behind, made that option unavailable. This is unfortunately, the major aspect of the Hastings reenactments that made simulating real combat nearly impossible, to the extent the SCA does at its combat events. Anyone could just hang their shield in front of their torso ( the legal target area) and ignore head and leg shots since they didn't count, and never move their shield to defend themselves. It was up to the opponent to manouver his weapon around the static shield defense to make a killing blow. This was generally only possible in close and often open combat - where you could circle the other guy. From horseback where the horse was holding back or faced with a shield wall barrier, getting behind with a weapon was nearly impossible. My open field combat worked when I finally managed to slip my spear blade past a single shield and stab my foe in the gut, behind his shield.

-- Henrik Olsgaard

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Anonymous Tim said...

This is very interesting, especially the pair that "cartwheeled." I was at an American Civil War invitation-only reenactment this past September when a horse-drawn ambulance, proceeding at a fast trot, lost one of its lynch pins and had one of its wheels spin off. The horse, perturbed by the ambulance, got into "flight" mode and the ambulance crew bailed out of the dragging vehicle at a speed they estimated as about 20 mph, rolling like shot rabbits across the hillside. They were mostly battered and shaken but not seriously injured. The horse was eventually stopped and turned around by some mounted officers. Again, the interesting thing to me was to discover just how much of the "accident" would never have been obvious to someone who only read, rather than experienced, the historical record. Vast difference between a journal entry "our ambulance lost a wheel" and the very dramatic, readily understandable event itself.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Ray (aka Raynold of Wharram) said...

I agree with so much that is said here, but the one thing that I think that is under stated here is the training that goes into the horses. I personally joust with horses and have trained three for it and at least worked with the fourth. Now think about it for a second, herd animals means that it is the absolute opposite desire of horses to run at one another - when one horse sees a horse going one way they are naturally inclined to both head that way. All but one of the horses trained to go at the other horse do so willingly and generally without even so much as leg pressure when they get in the lane - knowing full will there will likely be a loud concussion in the midst of that may very will rock the saddle slightly unbalance the load. Yet three of four get so keyed up and ready about going, it is hard to hold them in check. The fourth, well, once he starts he is the same way, but as the day goes on, he gets more reluctant about actually getting into the position to proceed. That is, though much more because he what we would call very herd bound and it does seem to unnerve him a bit.

11:30 PM  
Anonymous Ray (aka Raynold of Wharram) said...

Meant to add to that last comment (and don't see a way to edit it while awaiting approval) that the typical training and exposure to such things that the horses are getting at such an event as the Battle of Hastings is minimal - at least my friends that have been and ridden have expressed that. Even the ACW horses are likely minimal exposed compared to what was have historically occurred. Horses were used everyday in both time periods. Similar to that, when I am gearing up to a do a jousting tournament or show, I try to ride at least three times a week, generating similar situations as much as is possible. Also keep in mind that doing some of the early forms of tournaments, where it was a melee on horseback with often 40-50 riders in an area each trying to dislodge crests was to not only keep the knights well trained, but get the horses used to such stupid things as men do on them.

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Rod Walker said...

I am going to have to disagree that the medieval bits with 12inch shanks and medieval spurs are meant to be harsh and used to overpower/hurt a horse.

It has been shown with a re-constructed Norman bit that whilst it looks severe to modern eyes and it serves a very specific purpose, and this is to be effective when used with small hand movements such as those that have to used when a large shield is hanging/strapped on the left side.
Have another look at some surviving curb bits and you will see that what looks like spikes etc in the horses mouth are actually keys and rollers, just like on modern bits.
There are plenty of modern equestrian disciplines that use what look like harsh bits.
I have horses trained for the joust and mounted combat that will charge right over a shield wall. We ride them in snaffle bits. It comes down to training. A knight needed a well tyrained horse that would obey his commands. Having a vicious bit does not help this.
There are plenty of surviving bits that are just like modern snaffle bits.

6:37 PM  
Blogger MAC said...

Regarding Rod's comment about bits: it's true that the main use of the curb bit is to be able to exert pressure with minimal strength/hand movement, but that also makes it true that a curb with a long shank could break a horse's jaw. Medieval sources, such as Dom Duarte, as well as historians such as Oakeshott, discuss the difficulty of controlling an unruly horse in the field, Olsgarde's point, and that the spurs and bit existed for just such a purpose. John Clark in "The Medieval Horse and its Equipment" says that the large number of snaffle bits in medieval excavations stem from the fact that they were the bit primarilly used in hauling. Indeed, when you see a mounted knight in an artwork, he is nearly always using a curb bit (or perhaps a pelham). Also, jousting in a straight line is a far different animal than fighting in a mellee, which is essentially like a polo games (in which curb or gag bits are almost exclusively used).

10:13 AM  

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