May 7


How Did the Cavalry Start Horses?

By barbaraellinfox

May 7, 2012

Carter, Cavalry, Cavalry Horse, Cavalry Horse Training, Cavalry Horses, Harry Chamberllin, horse training, Horse Whisperer, horses, John Solomon Rarey, mcTaggart

A reader asked if I knew anything about the initial training of the U.S. Cavalry horses prior to their being ridden at Ft. Riley and whether the Army used harsh methods or did they follow the more humane methods, such as what we see in  “natural horsemanship” type of methods we see today.

My mind flew to images from the John Ford movies and leaping bucking horses and also to thoughts about Bob Lemmons, the Mustanger but my research shows that the Army had a particular standard for the physical attributes that qualified a horse as a Cavalry or Artillery animal and that men were trained to screen horses of a reasonably mature age.  The Cavalry was concerned about bringing the horses into a certain level of fitness, keeping them healthy and sound and making them the most useful for their appointed tasks.  The tasks for the horses ranged from sports and competition such as jumping, dressage, polo and fox-hunting, to hauling supplies and artillery, participating in drill and maneuvers, as well as fighting in wars.

The Army purchased horses that were old enough to begin work.  Prior to Congress establishing the Remount Service in 1908, the Quartermaster Department secured horses and mules through a bid process which proved somewhat unsuccessful.

In “Horses, Saddles, and Bridles” by General W. H. Carter, copyright 1906 the author writes the following:
“Rational treatment produces better results than harsh means in the training of horses. A little patience and expenditure of time on the primary lessons makes matters easier later on.
There are many books which prescribe in detail all the various steps in the training of horses, but these are seldom carried out in the service for the reason that men are not available for the performance of this important work, which, to be valuable, must be not only progressive but continuous.
The period of training will of  course vary with the amount of instruction the horse has received before purchase.  Horses frequently arrive at stations in such a forward state of training that all they require is to be familiarized with the sound of firing, trumpets, and other unusual noises and sights.   In general, however, the new horses require considerable work before they are fit for the ranks.
Occasionally an animal will be found to resist all training.  It is customary in the American service to apply the Rarey system to such animals until brought under subjection.  This system is sometimes applied to all horses in order to finish their education, to make them recognize how completely they are in the power of man, and to give the troopers a knowledge of the means to conquer refractory animals.”

Obviously in 1906 Military horses were not exposed to the relationship training that we see in the natural horsemanship methods that are popular today. In fact it appears that the attitude toward the horse was one of dominance rather than leadership. Carter saw Rarey’s methods as a way to bring the resistant horse under subjection, as a cure as opposed to a solid way to develop all horses.

If you’re interested in learning about Rarey’s methods, go to google books and search for The Art of Taming Wild Horses by John Solomon Rarey and you will find his book written in 1858  as a free e book. You could also visit this web site that asserts that John Rarey was the original “horse whisperer”   Rarey surely used some methods that modern “horse whisperers” use but I’m not so sure that his mental relationship with the horse was on the same plane as today’s natural horsemen.

Once the Remount Service took completely over from the Department of Agriculture in 1921 it oversaw the breeding of horses by supplying carefully selected stallions to equally carefully selected breeding farms.  The Army was not required to buy foals from the breeding farms but the Remount Farms became the main source for the Army horses.  A visit to will provide you with very interesting information about the Remount program.

My 1941 “War Department Technical Manual” titled “Operation of the Remount Breeding Service” goes into detail about the training of the horses from the time they are born.
“Weaning – at the time of weaning the foal should be halter broken and gentle enough that he will give no serious trouble. In fact, from the day of foaling the foal should never be afraid of people.  It is not necessary to make him a pet but rather treat him with calm unconcern and firmness that takes for granted that the foal will do exactly what is expected of him.” The Manual recommends that weanlings receive more handling as well as having hooves rasped regularly but little training except for hand

Excellent Type Cavalry Horse - Technical Manual - Operation of the Remount Breeding Service 1941

feeding, grooming and handling of the feet. When speaking of yearlings the manual states “From birth every attempt should be made to gentle the foal and give him confidence……. after yearlings are well gentled, most of them will allow a man to be lifted gently on to their backs and be led around without trouble.  When horses have reached this stage of training, there will be very little trouble in breaking them to ride.”
During all of this time the yearlings and two year olds are turned out to pasture to become strong. About mid summer  3 year olds “…should be brought in , re-gentled, saddled, and ridden for a short time each day. As soon as they are going quietly under saddle they can be used for moderate work on the farm or ranch, but should not be ridden hard.  During this time they should be ridden with a hackamore, or a hackamore with a snaffle bit suspended in the mouth. This bit should be drawn up snugly in the corners of the mouth so they will not be tempted to get their tongues over it.”  and later the manual says “Every effort should be made at this period to keep them calm, confident, and willing.  Particular attention should be given to preventing them from becoming afraid of having their mouths hurt.”
And “Unless the breeder can have his young horses worked by a thoroughly competent rider, who really knows how to train and handle them, it is far better to limit their work under saddle to exercise only. Improper training is worse than no training at all as a horse whose disposition or mouth has been ruined is of little value.”

The manual asserts that 4 year olds are not fully developed and states that most horses are sold as 4 year olds.

It seems as though the attitude changed from dominance during Carter’s time in 1906 to a kinder, more intelligent treatment of the horse by the time that the Remount Service was in charge of procuring horses for the Army. My assumption is that this is in part due to the efforts of men like Harry Chamberlin and McTaggart, who considered psychology an important element of horse training. The Army wanted a confident, well mannered horse but the colt starting was in the hands of who ever raised it.

I would offer that while today’s natural horsemanship methods are fulfilling and rewarding, they would not have been practical for the Cavalry from a time perspective and because of the volume of horses that were involved with the cavalry. And even though the attitude in horse handling had evolved toward a kinder, gentler, more well thought out method, the horse was required to be submissive.
In “Riding and Schooling Horses”, Lt. Col. Chamberlin writes  about the horse’s memory:  “The important point is to remember that the horse will not forget.  Therefore, assuming that your mount is well trained, if he goes contrary to your wishes, you must, then and there, by using tact and persistence compel obedience, and show him, once and for all, that you are his master.  On the other hand, as rapidly as a young or green horse is capable of understanding your desires, he, too, must be taught that your will is unsurmountable.”  Harry Chamberlin trained the horse by using skill rather than making an animal fearful or overwhelming it with force.
Harry Chamberlin, in “Riding and Schooling”, has this to say about the partnership… “Our equine friends are, for the most part, patient, faithful servants, giving much in return for little.  Those with thoroughbred blood – and many without- will usually go until they drop, if called upon – game to the end. Since they cannot tell of their ills or grievances, a horseman worthy of the name learns to study them with a benevolent, observing eye, and thus discovers all they cannot tell. So each rider should realize the part that his horse plays in their partnership, and in all justice, give his personality and needs the study and humane consideration that his unselfish service so surely merits.”

I fell safe with the opinion that Cavalry horses were not started with the methods that we see in today’s natural horsemanship venue. I believe that troopers frequently we very attached to their mounts and I believe that the modern Cavalry understood the value of humane treatment of the animals.  I’ll go out on  limb and say that, other than to a devoted horseman, (and there were many in the Cavalry) the horse was a needed utility that would not have  had a place unless he fulfilled a military requirement. Consequently he was as well treated and cared for as was required to keep him fit for good service.

With all that said, I would be very pleased to read comments from any reader who has more knowledge of the colt starting process of the Cavalry horse than I have because my knowledge only comes from the written information that I have on hand.

I would also suggest to anyone who is interested in the Cavalry horse that you visit our very knowledgable friends at the Society of the Military Horse .

Thank you for reading U.S. Horsemanship.

Barbara Ellin Fox

  1. Excellent article! I passed this one along to the rest of the ICA (International Cavalry Association) folks.

    A fascinating book to read is Lewis Edward Nolan – “The Training of Cavalry Remount Horses, A New System” which details the standard elements of cavalry remount training largely in use by most cavalry organizations up until the 20th Century in nations that didn’t adopt forward system riding.

  2. Thank you, Dan and thanks for passing the article along. I’m going to look for the book you suggest.

    Sometimes I have trouble getting my mind around all the things that were going on with the Cavalry at once and all the changes in the U.S. Cavalry from the beginning regarding the different manuals that were used and the increases and decreases in the Cavalry itself. I’d like to learn a bit more about how the Cavalry out west functioned around the time of the Indian wars.

    How’s your Caprilli project coming along?

    Thanks again,

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