Book Review: ‘Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare’

By Charles Caramello

Review by Louisa Woodville

Charles Caramello’s Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare is a stunning work of scholarship and erudition — in the author’s words, a book not so much about the history of horsemanship, but rather “the horse in history.”

It also a thorough historiography, as Caramello cites more than 60 authors, researchers and lecturers who have written about the evolution of mounted warfare in relation to the training of horses and riders. He ushers us into this equine-human world via the Greek Xenophon, the earliest-known author of horsemanship, whose ideas medieval and Renaissance authors developed

  • the Portuguese King Dom Duarte, who penned The Art of Riding in 1430
  • the Neapolitan Federico Grisone, who published his Rules of Riding in 1550
  • Massari Malatesta’s 1599 Compendium of the Heroic Art of Chivalry.

These authors cover the horse’s role in single-mounted combat as well his ability to achieve airs above the ground, and how the two disciplines relate to each other. Horses, we are reminded, were also pivotal in securing for their owners and riders social prestige, be it in combat, festivals, or tournaments.

The French, Caramello explains, developed these 17th Century concepts and took them to the dressage arena (manège), a discipline for which they became famous. Complementary to this practice was cross-country riding, primarily hunting, which the English and Irish took up with a vengeance, a pastime that blossomed in the 19th Century and continues, though in far fewer numbers, to this day. Not forgotten is the fact that horses, including those slated for war, also worked, transporting infantry, supplies, munitions, and artillery, well up to the 1930s, when the inevitable rise of mechanized warfare made horse cavalry obsolete.

Caramello also covers how horses’ conformation changed as the tactics of war did; the heavy-bodied, Crusader-type horses appropriate for single-mounted combat metamorphosing into lighter-bodied ones fleet of foot that could lead a troop in formation. In this way—and by reviewing trainers’ theories and hands-on advice—we come to understand the formation of the modern cavalry, dependent on the French manège coupled with the more robust galloping fox- and other hunting required. Firearms changed the art of warfare and the type of horses required for it.

The 19th Century—a long one, when considering training horses and the the new modes of warfare—witnessed cavalry tactics that had to adapt to the new weaponry of firearms. Caramello leads us to how horses were now selected and trained to accommodate this change. Now reconnoitering the enemy and protecting troops were an important part of warfare, so gone were the heavy-set horses favored in earlier centuries. Battlefield charges required with cavalry members riding in close formation, armed with firearms rather than weapons of steel—a change that led to mechanized warfare that characterized the Great War. Horses died in the millions, presaging the end of horse cavalry.

Horses in any century, we are reminded, took as much time to train as men. “In addition to proper breeding and training, cavalry horses had to display mobility, speed, stamina, and obedience, and had to possess boldness and mettle, since the horse was the cavalryman’s principal weapon, notably in its weight and speed in shock action, as well as his means of transport,” writes Caramello.

Men’s nostalgia for cavalry exploits today is played out in the less violent disciplines of foxhunting, polo, dressage, and eventing—the latter two Olympic sports that make different demands of the horse than did cavalry charges. Caramello will give any reader a thorough background to judge not only horses and riders in combat, but horses and riders in any discipline that is found to this day.