Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


An army unit consisting of mounted soldiers are commonly known as cavalry. Cavalry fight from the backs of their mounts, which most often are horses or camels. Infantry travelling by horse and fighting on foot are instead known as dragoons.

Modern cavalry units are generally not mounted on horseback (save for ceremonies), but are generally armored forces, who fight from armored vehicles, or are embarked in aircraft.

Table of contents
1 Light cavalry--heavy cavalry
2 Origins
3 Demise
4 Social angle to cavalry units
5 Famous cavalry forces
6 See also

Light cavalry--heavy cavalry

Historically, cavalry was divided into light and heavy cavalry. The difference between them was primarily how much armor is worn by the soldiers, and thus how powerful their mounts had to be in order to sustain the burden.

Early light cavalry (like that of the Roman army) was typically used to scout and skirmish and to cut down retreating infantry. Heavy cavalry like the Byzantine Cataphract were used as shock troops, to charge the main body of the enemy and decide the outcome of the battle.

During the Gunpowder Age armored cavalry became obsolescent and the main difference between light and heavy cavalry was their training--either for harassment and reconnaissance or for close-order charges.

Since the development of armored warfare the distinction between 'light' and heavy' armor has persisted along broadly the same lines. Armored cars and light tanks have adopted the reconnaissance role while medium and heavy tanks are regarded as the decisive shock troops.


Before the Iron Age, the role of cavalry on the battlefield was largely performed by light chariots. The power of mobility given by mounted units was recognized early on, but was offset by the difficulty of raising large forces and by the inability of horses (then mostly small) to carry heavy armor.

The chariot was first adopted by nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples on the boundaries of civilization in conflicts with civilized peoples. The chariot was quickly adopted by settled peoples both as a military technology and an object of ceremonial status. Pharaoh rides a chariot into battle in the Egyptian New Kingdom, just as the Sun rides a chariot over the sky in Egyptian mythology.

Chariots were quickly superseded by horses when selective breeding resulted in horses able to carry the weight of a fighting man. They retained ceremonial uses, for instance carrying the victorious general in a Roman triumph.

In the armies of the Greeks and Romans it played a relatively small role — in both civilizations conflicts were decided by massed armored infantry. The cavalry in the Roman Republic remained the preserve of the wealthy landed class — the class eventually dominated by the Roman emperors, who came to power and often succeeded to the throne by virtue of being successful generals of the Roman legions of citizens fighting on foot.

The decline of Roman infrastructure made it more and more difficult to field large infantry forces, and during the second and third centuries cavalry began to take a more dominant role on the battlefield, also in part made possible by the appearance of new larger breeds of horses. The appearance of the stirrup allowed for the appearance of the heavy mounted knights, who were employed as shock troops, whereas earlier cavalry had to be consigned to the flanks. Knights remained dominant military force in western Europe until the rise of pikemen and longbowmen, and then musketeers, relegated cavalry again to a supporting role. Knighthood quickly became associated with land ownership and senior positions in the feudal social structure.

In eastern Europe cavalry remained important much longer and dominated the battlefield until the early 1600s, because of long distances and better tactics. Huns, Mongols and Cossacks are examples of succeeding horse-mounted peripheral peoples successful in military conflicts with Western civilizations due to the strategic and tactical mobility.

After defeat usually westerners quickly adopted eastern cavalry tactics; one of the most famous examples is Gustavus Adolphus. As European nation-states became established they were keen to recruit border peoples to serve in a formal role in national armies; for instance Cossack cavalry regiments were an important part of the Imperial Russian Army until the Revolution.


In the 20th century the advent of modern vehicles with effective engines and armor, such as tanks, provided the opportunity for vehicles to replace horses as the key mobile element of an army. This change was made even more necessary by the development of the machine gun and other weapons which could easily destroy cavalry formations.

The demise of cavalry as a decisive force on the battlefield came in the First World War when large cavalry forces were slaughtered while failing to achieve a strategic breakthrough on the Western Front. They nevertheless played an important role on several fronts, particularly in the Middle East.

After World War I cavalry was gradually abandoned as a major combat weapon by the industrialized powers. The last cavalry charges in modern warfare were seen in the Second World War. However, there have been some engagements in twentieth and twenty-first century guerilla wars involving cavalry, particularly by partisan or guerilla fighters in areas with poor transport infrastructure.

Cavalry traditions and insignia were often passed on to armored formations. In the Canadian Army a number of both regular and reserve units have cavalry roots. These include Lord Strathcona's Horse, The Royal Canadian Dragoons and The South Alberta Light Horse. Several current divisions of the United States Army and other modern armies retain the name "cavalry" due to their origins in the era of horse cavalry; they generally consist in armored forces (the United States also has air cavalry units on helicopters).

Social angle to cavalry units

From the beginning of civilization to the 20th century, ownership of cavalry horses has been a mark of wealth amongst settled peoples. A cavalry horse requires considerable expense in breeding, training and feeding and has very little productive use except as a mode of transport.

For this reason and because of their often decisive military role, the cavalry has typically been associated with high social status. This was most clearly seen in the feudal system, where a lord was expected to enter combat armored and on horseback and bring with him an entourage of peasants on foot. If landlords and peasants came into conflict the peasants would be ill-equipped to defeat armored knights.

In later national armies the cavalry often remained a badge of social status (with the typical exception of "frontier" units like Cossacks). For instance an officer of the (British) Horse Guards was (and is) relatively likely to have attended elite schools and to come from a socially privileged background.

Famous cavalry forces

See also