The scene we are going to look at in this post is from Game of Thrones Season 1 when Ser Loras Tyrell challenges Ser Gregor Clegane "The Mountain" to a joust. In this scene, Ser Loras rides a white mare and Ser Gregor rides a black stallion (click here to watch). You will notice the black stallion starts nickering and becomes agitated when the white mare gets close to him. As Lord Petyr Baelish "Littlefinger" then explains later to Ned and Sansa Stark, the white mare is in heat, giving off a scent signaling she is ready to mate and causes the the black stallion to become distracted, which ultimately makes Ser Gregor lose the match.
The sex of the horse was an important factor to consider for soldiers and noblemen when choosing a war horse. Considering the two choices - a stallion (male) or a mare (female)- there were benefits and vices to each sex. Stallions develop thicker muscles than mares, which helps them to carry heavier loads and run faster. They also tend to have more energy. The main drawback in stallions is their proneness to become aggressive. In the wild, stallions fight each other over mating rights to the mares. Domesticated stallions still have these strong instincts to fight and reproduce, which generally makes it difficult for their human masters to control them when other horses are nearby, especially mares in heat. There are exceptions to this general statement as many well trained stallions in high level competitions today do not always, if at all, exhibit aggressive and uncontrollable behavior.
Mares tend to be more docile than stallions, but they also can have troublesome behaviors, especially when they are in heat in the spring and summer months. They can be inclined to nip and buck at other horses, and be overall grumpy. Some mares become very sensitive and unfocused, and have a difficult time minding their riders.
So, which sex did army soldiers tend to use? From records, stallions were the most popular choice, partially because the mares were reserved to reproduce and replenish the cavalry. However, there was still the problem of how to manage a group of testosterone-filled stallions and keep them from injuring each other while out on campaign.
There were some simple solutions to manage the stallions naughty behaviors, such as taking the very aggressive stallions away from the group and keeping mares away from the stallions. Wild stallions, who do not have a herd of mares, will live in “bachelor groups” and are able to cooperate with one another without any problems, so it can be assumed cavalry stallions could tolerate each as long as there were no mares to compete over. Muzzles were also used on some stallions who had the inclination to bite, but this was only a temporary solution until the stallions were trained out of that behavior.
A proactive method to prevent aggressive behavior from developing in male horses was to castrate them, turning them into geldings. Castration has been a practice in many ancient cultures for centuries. If a colt was castrated early, he could avoid developing aggressive behaviors and become very docile. He would not attempt to flirt or bolt at the mares and would not feel the need to fight other males.
Today, most horse owners castrate their male horses unless they plan to breed them. When castrated, horses usually are sedated and given an anesthetic before their testes are removed by a veterinarian. But how did people castrate stallions before the time of modern animal medicine and not get hurt by the horse who did not care to have his testicles removed? Well, there are a couple methods that have been found in old records. One method found in ancient Roman records was to use “gelding irons.” We can only guess what the irons looked like or how they immobilized the horse, but my guess is they would be used in the same way people use rope to temporarily impair a horse. Today in the US, some farmers will tie-up a colt’s legs, knock him over, and have others sit on him while someone cuts the testes with no anesthetic. Since horses are considered livestock like cows and sheep in the US, horses are not required to have a trained veterinarian castrate them, while in Great Britain, it is required by law that horses have a licensed veterinarian with medicine to perform the procedure.
Another method was to tie the testes so they would atrophy and fall off. This method had less risk of infection since there was no open wound, but would still be uncomfortable for the horse. Whatever the method used to castrate a stallion before modern drugs, it was never an easy task for the horsemen or a comfortable one for the horses.
Today, most people will opt to castrate their stallions to make them more manageable. Modern medicine limits the risk of infection, but back in earlier times, it would have been tough to risk having a well-bred stallion be castrated and be open to the great possibility of infection. Many people who do handle stallions today are usually very experienced horse handlers, and take extra precautions when handling them in the vicinity of mares. I personally thought it was very clever what Ser Loras did in this scene to give him an advantage. Maybe Ser Gregor should think about riding a mare next time.
Special thanks to Ruby and Hannah for their insights in working with stallions.
Ruby Butchers is the author of EquiPepper.com focusing on changing negative attitudes towards Thoroughbreds, in particular ex-race horses.
Hannah Ibbotson is the author of Jack's Kissing Spine Story that tells her journey with her horse Jack, and his recovery from kissing spine.
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.