I am finally going to write about a horse movie! One of my favorites is Hidalgo which was inspired by Frank Hopkins and his tale about participating in the “Ocean of Fire” race across Arabia in 1891 with his Mustang Paint named Hidalgo against the native desert Bedouins and their purebred Arabian horses. Hopkins’ story has come under scrutiny as there is very little evidence to support his claims. According to his accounts, he raced his Mustang Paint against a hundred Arabian horses across 3,000 miles of desert along the Persian Gulf and the borders of modern day Iraq and Syria. He won the race on the 68th day, 33 hours ahead of his nearest competitor. I’ll let everyone come to their own conclusions on whether Hopkins’ credibility has been tarnished by cynical naysayers or he was just full of horse s**t.
No offense towards Mustangs, but the real stars of this movie were the desert Arabians. If you were going to choose a breed to ride across a massive desert, you would be wise to choose a horse that has been shaped by this harsh and very unforgiving environment. The Arabian horse was (and still is) a jewel born from the deserts in the Middle East. Islamic stories claim Allah created the horse from the four winds as he embodies the spirit from the North, strength from the South, speed from the East, and intelligence from the West. Anyone who has been around Arabians for any amount of time can affirm these attributes.
The desert environment has created very unique characteristics in the Arabian breed. All purebred Arabs have dark skin to avoid sunburn, and they have large nostrils and lungs to breath in more oxygen to support their unique cardiovascular system that allows them to sweat and cool off quickly. They also have a more compact and thin structure which allows to them to stay more sound by not putting as much strain and stretch on their tendons.
They also have one less vertebrae in their backs to help them carry heavier loads. Though they maybe a smaller horse breed, standing usually between 14.2 and 15.1 hands, they require less food and water which is essential to them surviving in an arid environment. Many stories prove how well designed these horses are for going the distance in a short amount of time. For example, in Cairo, an Arabian once traveled 90 miles in a record 7 hours and 52 minutes. So going back to Hopkins’ story, I really have a hard time believing that his Mustang would have beaten his nearest Arabian competitor by 33 hours. Very likely, his horse would have been dead from exhaustion long before he would have reached the finish line if he pushed him that hard. A Mustang can very likely outrun an Arabian in a short sprint, but when it comes to desert endurance racing, there’s no debate on who would come out the champion.
Horse endurance racing is still a very active sport all around the globe, but being inspired by this movie, let’s focus on long distance desert racing that is still active in the Persian Gulf. In Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, an annual 125-mile race has occurred every year since 1998 in the Seyh al-Salam desert. Racing around a 19-mile course, think of this as a NASCAR race, but with horses. There are “pit stops” where the horses are hydrated and rested for a time by their support team with extensive veterinary inspections, there are strategies on pace and placement towards the beginning and middle of the race, and then the real push comes towards the end. Only a third of the participants will finish. The horses need to carry at least 150 pounds, so really anyone - man, woman, short, tall - can participate. The race takes about 10 hours to complete at a steady canter, and surprise, surprise, all the horses are Arabians or mostly Arabian.
There are other races done in the Persian Gulf, such as in Qatar where they race 75 miles in about 8 hours. Here is a video showing a race from 2012.
The American Mustang has its own legends and place in the world, but when it comes to running vast distances across deserts, the Arabian reigns.
I am going to examine the cavalry charge scene from a Game of Thrones (GOT) episode in season six titled “Battle of the Bastards” when Jon Snow (good guy) and Ramsay Bolton (very bad guy) battle for control of Winterfell. I am also going to discuss the special training required to make an effective cavalry horse.
The cavalry scene can be watched on this YouTube link here. It’s seven minutes long, but I will be focusing on the first four minutes. While viewing, imagine what all five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch - would detect if you were present in this battle. Warning: If you are sensitive to violence and gore, please don’t watch this.
In this scene, we saw a medieval-style battle with heavy cavalry, archers, and armored soldiers. This is one of the most epic battles I have ever seen on screen. Many battle scenes in movies and TV are usually too clean and unrealistic, especially when it comes to the casualties of both man and beast, but Game of Thrones has never shied away from violence and gore.
Having a cavalry granted armies many advantages, such as greater tactical mobility, greater striking force, and greater intimidation. As you saw in the scene when the camera was behind Jon Snow and the vast wall of horse flesh was rushing towards him, you could imagine the fear the actual foot soldiers would have had knowing they were going to be trampled or likely stabbed to death before getting a chance to strike a blow. (BTW, that shot of the horses coming at Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) had no CGI. Those were actual horses running towards the actor.)
Like a soldier, a cavalry horse needed special training before it could stand on the battlefield. One of the first stages of training, after the horse had been broken to ride, was to accustom it to the elements of a battle. Horses are herbivores, which means they are the prey in the food chain. All their instincts scream for them to run at any perceived threat, which has helped them to survive throughout many millennia. Horses will run or shy away from obnoxious smells and strange sights. Even elements we would not think as a threat, the horse could perceive differently. I have seen a number of horses panic at the sight of plastic bag floating by in the wind. A cavalry horse had to be convinced to ignore its primal instincts and trust its rider's commands to be successful in and, hopefully, survive a battle. From this GOT battle scene, let’s examine what a horse's five senses would have detected:
Sight: Other horses, men, swords, lances, bows, flying arrows, men wearing armor, flags flapping in the wind, fire, and a not-so-friendly looking giant.
Hearing: Yelling, screaming from both men and horses, weapons clashing, bones breaking.
Taste: Dirt, sweat.
Smell: Burning flesh (did you see the flayed men on the burning X-shaped crosses?), urine and feces, sweat, fear.
Touch: Moisture, cold, wind, heavier rider wearing armor and weapons.
All of these elements could cause a disruption to a horse’s obedience, which could turn into a deadly situation for its rider. If something is strange, horses will usually run and ask questions later. Horsemen in charge of training the cavalry horses would need to expose the horses and desensitize them to these elements of battle while they were young. Trainers would very likely ride in armor while carrying weapons and holding flags, maybe have a fire burning near by, and possibly have some rotting corpses around the training area. Although, I am not sure how Ramsay Bolton’s cavalry did not shy away from the giant since giants had been thought to be extinct before Jon Snow found one beyond The Great Wall. During the Third Macedonian War (171-168BC) between ancient Rome and Macedonia, Prince Perseus of Macedon made mock-ups of elephants to desensitize his horses so they would not shy away from the Roman war elephants during battle. My childhood horse was a very docile Arabian, and we would take rides on rural roads. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles would pass us and he never spooked. Barking dogs would run up to the end of their fences, sheep would bleat, and other horses would come to greet us, but my horse would confidently walk by. But one day while passing by a familiar sheep farm, he saw a llama for the first time, and all the sudden we were on the other side of the road cantering away. It never occurred to me he would be afraid of a llama. He had never seen one before and assumed it was dangerous. Anytime we passed by this farm and the llama was out, I would have my horse stop and gaze at the llama from a distance. After awhile, my horse realized this llama was not a demon that was going to come over the fence and eat him alive, and he eventually walked confidently past. Again, it comes back to things we may not see as threatening, but horses do.
Once the horses had been desensitized, they would need to be taught special maneuvers that could give a soldier a greater chance of success in defeating the enemy and surviving the battle. Many skills a cavalry horse would need to learn are very similar to what a modern day cattle or reining horse learns. For example, flying lead changes would be useful to change direction quickly while staying balanced to avoid being speared with a lance, rollbacks and back-ups could get the horse and rider quickly away from advancing enemies, and sliding stops could help keep a soldier wearing armor from being launched over his horse's head if they need to come to a sudden stop.
Other useful skills would be to have the horse rear and strike with its hooves, kick, bite, and ram on command. Check out these photos on this blog from Horse Nation that show the skills of the cavalry horses from the 1920s and 1930s.
A cavalry horse was as a much of a soldier as a man in the army. The amount of bravery and training a horse needed to run into a battle is astounding and they should be revered when one looks back at the epic cavalry battles in history. This scene from GOT is able to give us an idea of how brutal and bloody a battle could be for both the men and the horses involved.
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.