Roles

A war horse is often thought of as a huge cavalry charger or a smart officer’s mount. Historically, however, the role of the war horse has been much more varied.

The number of horses in Britain grew from just over one million in 1811 to over three million in 1901. These animals could be mighty draught horses, hard-working farm horses like Joey, racing thoroughbreds, old ‘nags’ or tiny Shetland ponies.

In the countryside they pulled ploughs and carts; in towns and cities they pulled omnibuses and cabs. Pit ponies hauled trucks of coal underground in mines. Horses were ridden in races and hunts and for pleasure.

Pulling supply carts, Boer War, c1900
NAM. 1990-10-25-1

At the outbreak of the First World War, thousands of civilian horses were needed to serve alongside the soldiers. Different types were suited to different military roles. Riding horses were used in the cavalry and as officers’ mounts. Draught horses switched from pulling buses to heavy artillery guns or supply wagons. Small but strong multi-purpose horses and ponies carried shells and ammunition.

Not enough of Britain’s horses were fit for the Army so large numbers had to be bought from abroad.

‘We consider the encouragement of the breeding of horses suitable for artillery and light draught to be of the utmost national importance, bearing in mind the fact that on mobilisation a larger quantity of these horses is required than of the riding type.’

From the Report of the Committee on the Supply of Horses for Military Purposes, August 1915

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