The older, wiser, more experienced horses might have an easier time of it. The wiser horses will pick up on fear cues from their riders, if they trust their riders. Horses are herd animals. There is rank within the horse herd. Has the group of adventurers that has been traveling together for a while? Have they kept the same horses together for a while? If the herd has been together long enough to establish a pack hierarchy, the younger horses will take fear cues from the horse alpha.
I have seen this happen. I took riding lessons for a few years. I consider myself a mediocre rider at best. My instructor was excellent. My instructor had some young, high strung horses. She had one horse that was 28 years old, which is up there in years for a trail horse. This horse had been there, done that, and didn’t care about much. When the instructor wanted to work with the young horses, to help then build confidence and calm down, she would ride the young horse and would ask me to ride the old horse. I saw those young horses freak out over every bird flapping by, every overhead light that suddenly turned on, every breeze that jostled a leaf. But the old horse was there. The old horse didn’t care. Since the herd leaders weren’t freaking out, and the riders weren’t freaking out, the young horses didn’t totally lose it. They would jerk and shy for a moment or two, but that was it.
I saw the old horse lose it exactly once. We were in the covered arena. The instructor was on foot in the center of the arena. I was on the old horse. We were walking in a circle. Suddenly, one of the big overhead halogen lights exploded. That horse flinched like hell and geared up for a full gallop. Got about one step into a gallop. Then he dropped back into a walk (though it was one hell of a power walk), changed course, and made a beeline for the instructor. He got to the instructor and stopped. She gave him an apple. We stood there for a few minutes. Then we went back to our exercise. No problem. That horse knew I was a rookie rider. He didn’t waste one minute listening to my opinions of the situation. He was surprised and frightened. He was able to control his fear, pick a rational response, and act on it. He responded in a controlled fashion and got close to the person he trusted most.
Those younger horses would have been all over the arena.
In short, horses are social animals with a ranking system. The horses will look to their horse leaders. If you have an established herd of horses, if you have a confident, calm, experienced rider on a strong, old, wise alpha horse, that pair will advance. The rest of the herd will bunch up and do what it takes to stay close to the alpha. That is safety.
If you have a bunch of strangers riding together, and a bunch of young horses who are unfamiliar with each other, and nobody knows who is in charge, you will have panicked equines all over the landscape.
A Pocket Full of Sunshine -
Someone right next to the arena did not plan their Christmas decor with the nearby horses in mind. Frantic blinking lights, rotating laser light show, loud music, and a party in full swing. Cars full of loud guests. Doors flapping open and closed. In the dark. Literally 15 feet away from the arena. My instructor was absolutely disgusted. Nobody had planned for this.
I was on the old, wise horse.
My instructor asked me “Do you have your pocket full of sunshine?” This refers to the practice of stuffing your boot tops full of carrots, apple chunks, peppermint candy or anything else that will possibly fit in there.
Yup, my boots were full.
She said “Ride over there and get him used to that crap.”
So we walked around the arena toward the ruckus. When my horse got a little shivery, I would reassure him. I used my knuckles to gently rub the base of his neck. I told him what a good horse he was. I watched his ears. When his ears were pointing back at me, I knew he was paying attention to me and not to the distractions. I don’t mean ears lying flat back. Ears standing upright but swiveled in the direction of the rider means “I am paying attention to you.” When he was ignoring the distractions, I tapped him quickly twice on the side of his shoulder. This means “good horse, have a treat”. He swiveled his head around, close to my boots. I pulled out a chunk of sunshine and fed it to him. We proceeded around the arena in this fashion for a few minutes. Eventually he was more focused on the peppermint candy than on the distractions.
Seriously, horses love those circular red and white peppermint breath mints.
Soon he was cruising around the arena, crunching away on snacks and ignoring the random green lasers in his path. Good horse.
Your cavalry riders weren’t planning on dragons that day. But they know their horses. They know that weird stuff crops up and they might not have the luxury of spending the next three weeks getting their horses used to that weird stuff. They have desensitized on the fly before. A dragon, even a dead dragon, will surely put a strain on their training. It might take a few snack stops. It would put a strain on the rider, sitting on a frightened, shaking horse, yards away from a giant reptile corpse. I could see the rider praying that a breeze didn’t stir a bit of the dragon’s wing, or that a death spasm didn’t cause that snake-like tail to twitch. But it is plausible that an experienced team could overcome their fear and approach. The unknown happens all the time. If you are a professional rider, you don’t ever mount up without a pocket full of sunshine.