# Would it be plausible to ride a rhinoceros into battle?

Another question from Reddit that may fit the format of this site.

Elephants used to be used for warfare in the past, and even those are hard to tame. Would it be possible that instead of horses, rhinos are used for cavalries?

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Horses are used for their great acceleration and speed, as well as being able to carry quite a heavy load. They can rear up and aid the knight in battle, as well as be trained quite well to charge the enemy without shying away.

Elephants can be very aggressive when the situation warrants, and their hide is very tough and thick, making it very hard to kill. They were huge targets, however, so archers and ballistic devices could target them easily and bring them down without them so much as touching a soldier.

Rhinos, however, are a whole different beast. Sure, they can get up to some insane speeds and gore the living crap out of someone, or even a horse, but they have very poor eyesight. Not to mention, do you know anyone who would be brave enough to approach a wild Rhino? They are extremely aggressive, and would most likely be extremely hard to train. They are quite dumb beasts, and will take a few hundred years of taming and breeding in order to train them to fight.

And when they do get to the battlefield, their poor eyesight will lead them astray. They will pick up speed over time, and get ready to charge a man on his horse with a javelin, but all the horse has to do is veer off a few feet to the right when the rhino is a few dozen meters away and the rider will be perfectly safe to lop off the rider's head as the rhino charges off into the forest.

All in all, they just aren't made for that sort of thing. They are very clumsy with their poor eyesight, and would be left in the dust by the cavalries consisting of horses alone.

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The bad eyesight is not a problem when crashing into a tight infantry formation. Heavy cavalry, and elephants, were not used against individual fighters (who could just dodge out of the way), but to break up formations. – vsz Mar 13 at 12:02
Wild horses are probably quite unsuited for combat too. You’d just have to invest the time and resources to breed rhinos for combat. As for the eyesight: If you can’t breed for better eyesight the human could still steer the rhino. – Michael Mar 13 at 12:42
@Michael: The fundamental difference is that horses are herd animals, so you can train them by becoming part of the herd structure. See any number of books/web sites on "Natural Horsemanship". (And FWIW I ride a mustang, and have often approached within a few yards of local wild horse herds. Don't try that with a rhino!) – jamesqf Mar 13 at 18:53
@jamesqf Just noting "Mustangs are often referred to as wild horses, but because they are descended from once-domesticated horses, they are properly defined as feral horses.". As far as I know there are no wild horses anymore since the last Tarpan died out. (But I could be easily wrong) – David Mulder Mar 13 at 20:28

It might be possible to have rhino cavalries, but they would most certainly not be very advantageous.

# Pros of a rhino cavalry:

• The weight difference between a rhino and a horse would mean that a charging rhino would shove a horse (alongwith rider) aside with some heavy damage. Little humans would be flung aside like pebbles.

• The extremely aggressive nature of a rhino, combined with its speed and weight would mean that the rhinos can go on crazy rampages once inside the enemy lines. The kill spree would be so fast, each rhino would be killing a human in an average of 7 seconds.

• The thick hide of a rhino means it can take more damage than a horse and still stay alive and functional.

• Like elephants, a surprise rhino formation would scare the pee of the enemy infantry (and possibly cavalry too), providing a massive morale advantage to their side.

• Horses who have never encountered a camel before, are scared of camels' smell and are likely to go stampeding. This effect would be much more profound with rhinos.

# Cons of a rhino cavalry

• Considering the aggressiveness of rhinos, they would be extremely hard to domesticate. (Fun fact: rhinos don't even condone the presence of other animals in their vicinity. Even lions stay the heck away from them.)

• Considering the aggressiveness of rhinos, they would be extremely hard to train not to charge randomly in the presence of massive crowds (armies). That could end up with a lot of casualties in friendly fire category.

• Being so large, rhinos would be very easy targets for archers and spearmen. Flaming arrows would be particularly horrific for rhinos (just like elephants) and would send them retreating in a stampede, crushing their own men.

• A rhino's back is too wide and round for easy seating of a human. It would be very uncomfortable and hard to stay on a charging rhino's back.

• Considering that rhinos have a shorter height than camels and horses, riding a rhino would not provide as much height advantage over infantry as a camel or horse would provide.

# Conclusion

Rhinos might be used as a surprise weapon against unsuspecting armies. Then again, the strategy would be to let loose a horde of rhinos behind or at the sides of the enemy lines and send them rushing towards the targets. Using rhinos to ride into battle and use them effectively as beats of burden would be impossible considering the behavior of today's rhinos.

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I don't remember in which battle, but I guess it was in Roman times, a bull herd was used against an army in a surprise attack. There were not riders on the bulls, it was just a herd of angry bulls being sent crashing into the enemy lines to cause some chaos. I guess a similar strategy could be used with rhinos. Don't ride them, just position them so that when released they would hopefully charge through the enemy ranks. – vsz Mar 13 at 12:07
In support of this answer, the author of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel did extensive research on African animals and why Africa's abundance of animals did not help Africa develop more quickly. The author specifically talks about the temperament of a number of animals in African and the fact that they cannot be domesticated or tamed. The rhino is one of the animals the author makes mention of. – Dodzi Dzakuma Mar 13 at 12:11
7 seconds: [citation needed] – Soham Chowdhury Mar 13 at 15:23
a surprise rhino formation is a phrase I didn't ever expect to see. When I think of rhinos, stealth is not something that ever came to mind. I guess if you wait until battle is underway, and the enemy can't disengage quickly, you could catch them off guard with rhinos that were behind a hill. – Peter Cordes Mar 13 at 20:02
@Youstay Igo: Indeed, some of us think it was more a case of wolves (partially) domesticating humans. Also, the Cape Buffalo is a very different creature (not the same species/genus) from the Asian Water Buffalo, or the American Buffalo. – jamesqf Mar 13 at 23:07

Not really, but it isn't what is actually meant when talking about rhinoceros cavalry either.

What it actually means is soldiers riding animals that look like rhinoceros, but actually are different in ways that allow using them as cavalry. Whether this is due to long periods of breeding them possibly with magic assist or genetic engineering, intervention by gods (paladins of the rhino god mount up!) or simply because it is a different world and the pseudo-rhinos just are different that way is up to the creator. And usually the actual details beyond the general hand wave are not relevant either.

So the question isn't really whether it is plausible, but how it is made plausible in this particular setting.

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One thing you'd have to look at in making plausible is endurance. Well-conditioned horses can travel up to 100 miles (160 km or so) in a day, about equal to humans, and close to the top of the mammalian endurance scale. (Top is the sled dog, as long as the weather's cold.) Humans and horses are among the few animals that can cool themselves by sweating, so your riding rhinos would likely have to be genetically/magically engineered to have sweat glands. – jamesqf Mar 15 at 4:53

While Rhino cavalry seems a bit unlikely, it might be possible to use rhinos in a different manner.

Cavalry is traditionally used for scouting, pursuing fleeing enemy (cavalry is often held in reserve and dispatched after the enemy line is broken) or only occasionally to strike into enemy formations (especially heavy cavalry, and then only if they have ranged weapons that can outreach the enemy infantry).

The users of rhinos would be taking a herd and (carefully) transporting them into the battle area. Once in place, and possibly surrounded by a temporary corral, the army waits and looks at he disposition of the enemy. Once the key formation is identified, the rhinos are goaded into a frenzy, and then the corral gate is opened, and a very brave cavalryman on a very fast horse is waiting up front. The cavalryman rides towards the enemy formation with the herd charging right behind. With a bit of luck he can veer off at the last moment and 10-20 angry rhinos crash into the enemy shield wall/phalanx/infantry square and shatter the formation.

With a wide hole punched into the enemy line, your own forces can stream into the breech and begin the process of rolling up the enemy. Timing it right should allow you to break in while the enemy is disrupted, and hopefully they have killed or hamstrung most of the rhinos so you won't be dealing with rampaging beasts in your own formation. If you think that might be a problem, then simply remain in a defensive formation with pikes out front and wait for the enemy to collapse as rampaging beasts maul and trample their troops.

This is going to be one of those high cost/high risk/high payoff ploys that only really work the one time, so make sure you save it for a major battle, and don't spoil the surprise on a minor skirmish somewhere.

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I don't know a lot about rhinos; what evidence is there that they'd follow a guy on horseback after you got them angry? Is there reason to believe they wouldn't spread out or head for something else that caught their interest? This is assuming they can be kept ready for this moment without breaking their corral, or killing each other when cooped up. – Peter Cordes Mar 13 at 20:07
Your description of the use of cavalry is specific only to a certain time period. During certain medieval war theaters heavily armed cavalry was the center core of your army (and often the one deciding factor) - and charging infantry formation was their main business. Rhinos would be absolutely brilliant for this. I imagine that even when charging in one line abreast, they would essentially be unstoppable even by a tightly packed formation. – fgysin Mar 14 at 9:48

Unlike what others here mentioned, it seems that it isn't hard at all, to tame rhinos, when they don't grow up in the wilderness. And they develop a strong bond to their zookeepers.

(src, unfortunately only the German Wikipedia https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panzernashorn#Interaktion_mit_anderen_Tierarten, the english one doesn't mention taming at all)

So it might be possible, to train them to be send into battle, to break up infantery formations ... but if you would be able to calm them after they went amok, I wouldn't be so sure. And if it would be worth the effort, as Rhinos grow slowly, is another question.

But for using them as cavalry, they are probably too stubborn and their (round) backs are not a nice place to be, when they stamp around.
Otherwise it would have been done allready ...

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The source in that Wikipedia article being Schenkel and Lang: Das Verhalten der Nashörner. Handbuch für Zoologie 8 (46), 1969. Apparently not a work by rhino specialists and also not exactly up to date; but then again, why would they write something like that without reason! Interesting. – leftaroundabout Mar 13 at 23:04