How does a cavalary charge work?

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I don’t understand why Horses wouldn’t be afraid to charge into a wall of humans with weapons. And if they would do it, wouldn’t the first row tumble and all the other incoming horses would trip over them resulting in a domino effect?

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You’re absolutely right. And in cases where a solid formation held their ground, they failed for exactly those reasons. A head-on cavalry charge was a psychological tactic, designed to try and get the enemy to break their formation upon which they would be promptly routed.

Alternatively, you could attempt to charge from their flank or rear where they were unprotected.

Correct. Cavalry charges are great for hitting routed armies and finishing them off while they retreat, especially if they retreat in poor order

Training Training Training

Also avoiding the pointy end!

You can’t just take a random horse from a farm and drop it into battle and get good results

You have to train the horse to follow commands and to do so during the crazy noise of battle. Horses are skittish creatures, modern ones get terrified by plastic bags so convincing them that you really do want to charge full speed towards all the shouting and clashing metal is difficult, you have to spend many years riding them around those noises and riding in formation with others during those conditions so that when it comes time for the fight its just another training day and nothing bad has happened around those noises before.

The most important thing for a cavalry charge to be successful though is to *not go in the front*, don’t charge the pointy end! Cavalry gets destroyed by pikes and spears, that’s why so many armies used them for so long, but pikes are spears require staying in a tight format and can’t turn effectively. If a group of spearmen are fighting another group then you can hit them from the back or sides and at most one rank of guys will be able to turn and stick you with the pointy end, but the rest won’t be braced in the right direction and will just get tramped by the horses. Horses are big creatures, generally over 1000 lbs, when people get hit by a horse they go down and the horse tends to remain upright.

[This post from a military historian](https://acoup.blog/2019/05/04/new-acquisitions-that-dothraki-charge/) should be helpful, especially if you’ve seen *A Game of Thrones*.

Give horses some credit.

It is highly unlikely that horse would just tumble like that. They are freakish big and strong.

A 1000+ pound war horse in full gallop will trample any human and barely feel it beneath its hooves.

Horses also had armor. There were heavy cavalry units with larger horses that were heavily armored for more head on attacks, and light cavalry with fast horses and light armor for flanking or attacking retreating troops.

Horses don’t run in to dense formations of jeering warriors anymore than they would a wall. This is why the British square worked, cavalry could do no more than circle the formation and take pot shots. Before gun powder the best you could do would be to turn at the last minute and gallop along the length of the enemy line thrusting with spear or slicing with blade. The romantic image of a cavalry charge is not what it is often portrayed to be in art work or film- yes they might be committed into an exposed flank or rear as a desperate attempt to route the enemy but more often they would be use to run down broken forces or as a means of area denial. They could of course be used to attack loose formation were there would be space between the combatants to allow free movement. Other than this it was more common for them to be used in a skirmish role, think mongol horse archers who could stay mobile whilst engage with their bows, whittling the enemy down, or later dragoon’s who were used as a sort of mobile rapid response force-redeploying quickly on horse back before dismount and engaging on foot. There were of course heavy cavalry but they were mostly used as I have described. In the medieval times the ‘knights in shinning armour’ were inevitably noblemen who had every intention of going home after the battle. They would usually let the peasantry do the dangerous bit before swooping in to claim the glory once the worst was over. There are of course always exceptions.

Other answers here cover the mechanics of a cavalry charge pretty well, so I’m going to go somewhere else. What most amateurs underestimate is the importance of the cavalry charge as a psychological weapon.

A cavalry charge is essentially the world’s largest game of chicken. The cavalry is displaying a threat, consisting of tons of muscle and steel and murderous intent coming at you very fast. They want whatever they’re charging to go “Bugger this for a game of soldiers!” and try to leg it. This will probably end badly for whoever is running, since they are limited in their means to fight back, disorganized and showing their backs.

The chargees, as it were, want to stand still and present a threat of their own, usually in the form of pointy sticks (with or without bang, depending on the time period). However, this only works enough people actually present a threat. If the horses see a hole in the wall of pointy sticks they will head for it, because horses are, as OP rightly observed, much smarter than their riders and not keen on dying.

The chargers, can, of course, head back and start again if it looks like the chargees ain’t moving, but at the same time, they want to get as close as possible to present the most credible threat. And so, the great game of chicken goes….

You can get a properly trained horse to do all kinds of things, including charging a spear line. Especially if there’s other horses close on either side, so they have nowhere else to turn.

Elephants, however? They are much harder to train, which has lead to embarassing moments in military history when an elephant charge pulls up short and refuses to go near the pointy sticks.

Horses are big and heavy. Imagine you are a child and an adult is running at you at full speed and they are holding a broom as a lance. It would be frightening.

So cavalry charges often worked because poorly trained troops would break and run when they saw a bunch of horses coming at them. Once the enemy are routed running them down on horseback was easy and keeps the retreat going.

But you do need to remember that cavalry was not used the same way throughout history. For the Ancient Greeks and Romans cavalry were a quick strike force that could charge to a weak point and attack it. Since they did not have stirrups the cavalry would often dismount to fight.

The counter to that type of cavalry was other cavalry and those units would often skirmish with each other. If one side had cavalry dominance it was a big advantage.

Once stirrups were invented then warriors could fight from horseback. Then the classic charge with spears/lances became a thing. A man charging you with a spear mounted on the back of a horse that is trained to trample and kick would be a terrifying thing especially to green troops.

Of course regardless of the time period they did not always work. Enemy cavalry could countercharge. Trained troops with pikes could present a formidable defense. Sometimes the ground was too soft or muddy. We tend to remember the successes because a cavalry charge looks cool.

So why do they work? Because a horse charging at you is actually quite a scary thing if you are not used to it or don’t have the right tools to defend against it.

There’s an anecdote from Napoleons March on Russia where he needed more horses because numbers are more intimidating than trained horses. In order to get such numbers he took horses from all sources (except Prussia because he’s racist) so military horses, farm horses, even horses too weak for both of those and to train them he had his men shoot guns and cannons right in front of the horses until they stopped panicking. Then he just had to get those horses to carry loads they couldn’t carry because he was going senile and incompetent. To answer one of your questions.

Depends somewhat on what time period you’re talking about, and what cavalry unit you’re talking about. Ancient Macedonian cavalry for example used double ended spears in their charge, while the common medieval cavalry used lances which they would have to drop after hitting someone. Cavalry charges could also be with sword or saber, particularly common in the 18-20th centuries.

As to answer you’re question about horses charging enemy weapons, you are correct to some degree. War horses would be specifically trained to not be as skittish around weapons, but even a trained warhorse won’t be suicidal. A big decider if a cavalry charge was successful or not was how well the infantry they were charging held their position. You ask about horses charging a wall of humans but think of the reverse. You see a wall a horses charging towards you, even if you manage to avoid the enemy weapon, you’re almost certainly going to be trampled by the hooves of the horses. Many people are going to see a cavalry charge and break formation trying to get the hell out of there.