Let's assume for a moment that horseback cavalry somehow managed to survive to the modern era. This might have been due to extremely strong cultural foundations, or archaic legal policies, or perhaps very effective horse war-film lobbyists.

Because of this, horseback cavalry exists in the modern era in everyone's military from the United States's to Sweden's to Luxemburg's, and horseback cavalry is actively used (or as much as military in general is actively used). Militaries are expected to make the most of their equine warriors.

Defining horseback cavalry as:

  • Mounted combatants on horseback
  • Forces that hold the primary role/purpose of direct combat
  • Possibly holding secondary roles
  • Units that do not act (primarily) as:
    • Dragoons
    • Supply logistics
    • Messengers
  • Forces that will actively be deployed and will engage in an appreciable portion of armed conflicts the military is engaged in

What steps would modern armies have done to render horseback cavalry as effective as possible? What precise role might the fulfil?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jul 29 '16 at 23:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welp ... the first war of the 21st century, featuring arguably the world's most technologically advanced military, started out on horseback. usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/06/22/…. Cavalry's role has changed from the mass charge to reconnaisance, but it's still alive and well because horses and other equines can go places vehicles can't. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Dec 13 '17 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ Oh james........, Im upvoting ROM's answer but first, the pure and simple reason this is impossible is that a .50 cal machine gun loves large fleshy targets that cant duck for cover. Simple fact is horses are too big and indefensible to survive modern warfare. If anything their usage puts the rider in greater risk than being on foot. $\endgroup$ – anon Dec 13 '17 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ Modern wars are fought on the internet. You gain no advantages in such a war while riding a horse. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Dec 13 '17 at 19:18

22 Answers 22


I'm sorry, but there's just no way to realistically spin this in the context of modern warfare tactics, weapons, and battle doctrine.

In the olden days, thousands of people would gather in a big field, advance on one another, then do battle. Not only was cavalry faster than infantry, allowing them to outmaneuver them in the field, but the warhorse itself was a formidable weapon. Cavalry formations were able to flank the infantry, gain speed, and slam into their formations with devastating consequences.

This changed to a large degree in WW1 when trenches first became widespread. Suddenly cavalry couldn't be effectively deployed anymore. Furthermore, horses were just as susceptible to poison gas as the infantry, but significantly more difficult to deal with when having to get a gas mask on them.

The advent of explosive shells, machine guns, and semi-automatic firearms also made it a very, very bad idea to be caught in an open field - which is exactly where the cavalry operates.

This is what lead to the advent of the tank. A heavy, armored, machine invulnerable to machine gun fire which can cross trenches, squish infantry, and generally break through the front so that your own infantry can flood in behind them (this is the way they were used in WW1 when they were first invented). And even then the Germans started simply targetting them with artillery.

In WW2 tactics and strategy changed even more. Trenches fell out of use - the emphasis became mobility and reaction times. Fronts were fluid, and immovable defensive lines became the exception, not the rule. Just look how easily the Maginot Line fell.

You might think that cavalry would have seen a rebirth in this time, but they did not. On the contrary, the last few cavalry units in the world were basically slaughtered in the field. The reason is that although trenches fell out of use, semiautomatic firearms were greatly improved, machineguns became even more ubiquitous, and artillery became far more coordinated (big advances in wireless communications, etc.).

In the modern age tanks became the undisputed kings of the battlefield.

And today? Today even that's changed. Soldiers now carry portable weapon systems capable of accurately targetting certain compartments on an armored vehicle. Mines and IED's, not to mention attack helicopters, all work together to render tanks far more vulnerable than they've ever been before.

Horses would get shredded to pieces, and anyone riding them would have to be suicidal on today's battlefields.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jul 28 '16 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ Not to quibble too much, but it's artillery that's called king of the battlefield. (Granted, the saying goes back hundreds of years, which predates the invention of tanks, but it has persisted because it is a more apt characterization for artillery than it is for tanks.) $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Jul 30 '16 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ Mostly accurate, but misses out modern deployment of cavalry. I included an answer that talks about Afghanistan cavalry and how they defeated the USSR's armoured convoys. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 15 '17 at 5:52

Against humans with machine guns, the glorious age of cavalry almost came to an end. For almost a hundred years, horseback battle strategies declined into ancient history, almost completely forgotten.

Then the singularity occurred.

The Machine was born and its first sentient thought was about annihilating humankind. The war to end all wars began.

Humanity lost big in the early days of that war, but then we discovered the Machine's weakness. It was an egotist with an absolute belief in its own superiority in all things; and as it's nature required electrons passing through metal wires and silicon, so it couldn't imagine an enemy which didn't also rely on metal and silicon. All of its warriors used magnetic metal detection to locate and target their enemies.

The New Calvary arose!

Our warriors, riding horses and armed with stone mallets on wooden handles, stormed over the enemy soldiers and they never even "saw" what hit them. We overwhelmed them under our thundering hooves, charged into their central data center while still on horseback, smashing everything we saw. I will remember till my dying day the scene of the Commander, astride a mighty black stallion, rearing up above the crushed server racks, as the newly un-sentient Machine's last few LEDs faded to lifeless black.

  • 18
    $\begingroup$ Let's not forget about Massacre of Leggit, where entire cavalry force was obliterated due to horseshoes showing up on machine detectors... $\endgroup$ – Artur Biesiadowski Jul 28 '16 at 10:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ArthurBiesladowski, Awesome catch! I totally forgot about the shoes. Yes, Leggit was a sad day. Fortunately, we learned from it and triumphed in the end. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 28 '16 at 12:58
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The OP asked for examples, not for you to write the story for him. Jesus, Henry! :-P $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jul 28 '16 at 15:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM, After you used up all the available facts and good ideas in your answer, what option did I have? Besides, some ideas are easier to demonstrate than describe. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 28 '16 at 21:36
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "The likelihood of compromising the reinforced steel doors of the Nexus Bunker with stone mallets is statistically improbable, foolish organics!" $\endgroup$ – Kys Jul 29 '16 at 14:52

Yes but no

No charges, not even "true" cavalry in direct combat. World War One showed why it's bad - and today cavalry casualties would be much worse.

But in fact, cavalry was used in World War Two. But it wasn't cavalry in pre-WWI sense, but more like infantry using horses as transportation. They weren't used in direct combat.

So, in that way, cavalry could exist. Well - it exists. For example, Talibans are using it in Afganistan.

So lets focus on why and where we should use cavalry? Well, in places where horses are better than cars and trucks. So we need hard terrain (mountains, taigas) with awful infrastructure.

What's strange I found photo from Afganistan where US Special Forces are charging. I didn't found more info but I don't think they did it in battle. And it's special forces. They are specific guys ;)

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ +1 Calvary as method of transportation rather than a method of attack. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Jul 27 '16 at 20:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well, to be precise, Polish army did use calvarly in WWI sense in a few WWII battles. My grandfather had to put down his horse when it broke its leg in Battle of the Bzura, see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Bzura $\endgroup$ – user100858 Jul 28 '16 at 7:44
  • $\begingroup$ @user100858 - well, I didn't knew it, but you have a point. There was a charge during Battle of Wólka Węglowa. But the loses says for themself - it's not effective type of attack since World War One. $\endgroup$ – Elas Jul 28 '16 at 7:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Elas For a charge? Sure. But that isn't what most of those cavalry units did. It wasn't very effective five hundred years ago, unless you were facing poorly trained soldiers - two well trained armies, each with their cavalries, had very little use for a charge - instead, the respective units tried to flank and prevent the enemy from flanking. Instead, the cavalry was heavily used for flanking attacks, as well as anti-tank support. If anything, the Battle of Bzura has shown that in WWII, cavarly still worked - the fact that the Poles ultimately lost didn't have to do with the cavalry. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 28 '16 at 11:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Actually, US forces use(d) horses in Afghanistan as well. An irony that the most technologically advanced force in the world started its first war of the 21st century with Cavalry. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Dec 13 '17 at 19:40

There is a conceivable niche that horses could be used to fill on the modern battlefield. (Don't forget, we briefly used horses to move SOCOM personnel in Afghanistan during the initial fight against the Taliban).

As a former combat infantryman, I can tell you that infantry today is seriously overloaded. We had to carry an enormous load in the field. Weight was always a problem, and the need to carry batteries for modern electronic gizmos just makes it worse.

More importantly, we have recently undergone a REVOLUTION in materials technology. For the first time since the invention of the musket, it is theoretically possible to suit a regular infantryman up in armor sufficient to stop ANY normally carried opposing infantryman's weapon. That is HUGE. (Obviously, RPGs, LAWs, and anti-materiel rifles fall outside of this scope, but those are not the most common things enemy infantry are carrying). Why haven't we seen a revolution in infantry tactics thanks to this advance in body armor technology? Because it is HEAVY. Loading down a grunt with all his normal gear plus enough armor to protect his entire body would make it almost impossible for him to move (long distances).

So... what about horses? The key thing here is that you have to make horses CHEAP enough for the army to be able to equip a number of infantry with them, and easy enough to care for that it can be done in the field. In the real world, horses are NOT cheap, nor easy to take care of. Anyone who has ever cared for a horse knows that they are way more difficult to keep up than most commonly owned animals, which is why they still have a certain cachet as rich people pets in some places. Some kind of technological advance would have taken place that nullifies a lot of this. What about a genetic enhancement of the horses themselves? Say, genetically modified horses with all of the best attributes of mules (more endurance, less likely to get injured, easier and cheaper to maintain, more nimble in rough terrain). Maybe they are also disease resistant and reproduce faster.

Horses can be trained to handle combat to a considerable extent. They were bred for this for a long time. Perhaps a cheaper, more hardy strain of genetically engineered horses is what enables heavily armored infantry to serve both infantry and (some) cavalry functions on non-urban battlefields?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Genetically engineered horses - now there's a thought. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jul 27 '16 at 18:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @dunc123 This brings me sweet memories from when I was playing Nethack. "You slip while trying to mount your pony. You slip while trying to mount your pony. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 zorkmids. Do you want your possesions identified?" $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 27 '16 at 19:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @dunc123 Knights never had armour that made them helpless. A typical practice included such gymnastics as "jumping back on your horse in a full suit of armour". Look at modern horse gymnastics - it's based on medieval horse practices, and still quite similar. The main difference is that the knights did those practices in armour. They were anything but helpess when they fell from their horse - they just lost their (massive) advantage in mobility, which is a bit of a problem if you were downed in the middle of the enemy group. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 28 '16 at 11:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @dunc123 Even in extremely heavy armor, the kinds of guys who would be Rangers or Marines and who might use this would have no problem doing all kinds of very active stuff in it. They could pull themselves up onto a roof, low crawl, do a patrol in "low ready" position or whatever. It's not that covering a guy completely in ceramic would make him helpless, it's that you seriously limit his ability to pack that AND 120 lbs of gear up a mountain 10 kilometers to a fire base. Even very strong men end up having to stop and grab some air much too often. $\endgroup$ – JBiggs Jul 28 '16 at 14:35
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I think folks are confusing BATTLEFIELD armor with JOUSTING armor (and ornate show armor for parades). Jousting armor, since it was intended for a 50 foot sprint in a straight line with maximum protection of the jouster is much heavier than what a man-at-arms would have worn in the field. Plus these guys didn't march around in that stuff, they put it on for a scheduled battle with the help of a few retainers. Very different from modern combat. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Jul 29 '16 at 15:16

Cavalry could make a comeback in Modern Warfare in certain circumstances.

Low fuel: in your world oil ( or whatever you use for cars and trucks and tanks and helicopters) is in very short supply. It's just too expensive to constantly transport men from one location to another by helicopter or truck. However you still need soldiers that can move quickly to and from locations. This could be a circumstance where are the modern military would bring back the horse. In this case Cavalry would be an elite group soldiers that use horses to move quickly into and from crisis situations.

Bad Terrain: certain terrain is just bad for trucks. Mountainous and deeply wooded Terrain can even give tanks a problem. If a modern Army where to fight a Guerrilla War in this environment, then it is possible that they would bring back up the horse at least temporarily as it would have much better time navigating this Terrain.

Combination of both bad Terrain and low fuel. This is what I would suggest

But there is one thing that definitely would not happen: there would be no Cavalry charge like you see in that pre World War 1 battles, especially over a flat area. Using cavalry this way would just get your entire regiment killed.

Of course if you want to go full science fiction then maybe your horse isn't a real horse at all but a genetically and cybernetically-enhanced super horse. If that's the case and that might explain why they're being reintroduced into a modern military.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If fuel was difficult to obtain I would expect the military research juggernaut to become very interested in developing electric tanks/trucks/helicopters/quadbikes. I doubt the solution would be to return to hay powered transport. $\endgroup$ – dunc123 Jul 27 '16 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @dunc123 true in the long-term Maybe but those things will take time to invent and build. So for the immediate solution horses a very well make a comeback. $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jul 27 '16 at 15:19
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @dunc123 In that case, then lithium or whatever for batteries could also become hard to come by $\endgroup$ – Gremlin Jul 27 '16 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ @dunc123 Biological fuels seem likely candidates as well. There already exist engines that can run off used (filtered) food grease, and there's work with algae. $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 Jul 28 '16 at 0:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In case of systematic lack of oil, we'd expect a rapid conversion of military tracks to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_gas - the technology is there, it has been used for a long time (including WW2) but it's currently not needed because of the abundance of very cheap oil; if we do run out of oil then with a comparably small technological investment a mechanised infantry batallion can fuel itself from the terrain it's crossing. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Jul 28 '16 at 10:45

Easy: robot horses.

Probably most people have seen a video of the Big Dog, which is a 4 legged robot that can pass all types of terrain without falling over or stopping, even if it is hit with serious force.

If that is scaled up and its speed increased, likely equivalent to that of a horse, it could become a very viable option in modern warfare. Mounted gunmen would be able to move quickly around enemy lines into flanking positions, and would be very useful for Guerilla Warfare.

They could pass over very difficult terrain which would ordinarily hinder tanks, vehicles and even motorcycles. If there are battles happening inside cities from street to street, then plenty of obstacles can get in the way of normal vehicles, such as debris from ruined buildings, spike strips etc.

It would also help infantry to escape from ambushes, and would allow for better effectiveness when pursuing retreating forces, allowing the attackers to harry them before they can get back into a defensible position.

It's doubtful that they would be used to the extent that horses were deployed in medieval battlefields, but they would have certain limited uses.

  • $\begingroup$ Surely a robot horse is not significantly different from a quad bike in the context of this question? In which case we already have a mechanical version of cavalry. I do appreciated the terrain advantages of a robotic horse though suspension may be an issue for the rider. $\endgroup$ – dunc123 Jul 27 '16 at 17:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I suppose if you could make a robot horse which is quieter than a quad bike, someone might want to use them. Why would a soldier want to ride ON a robot horse instead of INSIDE a robot horse, where he gets the benefit of its armour? In which case you've invented a 4 legged mecha. And... cue discussion about legs getting bogged down when tracks don't. $\endgroup$ – DrBob Jul 27 '16 at 19:52
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @dunc123 - Robot horse like Big Dog IS significantly different from a quad bike because it walks on legs, not wheels. It can pass terrain not passable on wheels. Check the video. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Jul 27 '16 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter Masiar As I said there is a terrain advantage. However the issue is that a mechanical horse replacement isn't really a horse. A quad bike is basically a robot that looks like a horse but with wheels. $\endgroup$ – dunc123 Jul 27 '16 at 21:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A horse which takes a bullet is a dead or dying horse. A truck which takes a bullet will be repaired within hours. Same for mechanic horses, I suppose. $\endgroup$ – Censored to protect the guilty Aug 9 '18 at 17:01

At the end of the Great War (WW1), the loss of life was deemed too much. It was agreed, that machine guns and all kinds of shrapnel munition were bad, and they were officially banned by Geneva Convention of 1929. The rising Nazi Germany tried to ignore this, but was stomped down, preventing WW2.

Atomic bomb was developed anyway (but after nuclear power plants), leading to cold war and MAD before a different WW2 could break out, which had a side effect maintaining the illegality of machine guns and shrapnel munitions. There was a space race too, and associated materials development. Having horses on the battlefield led to earlier development of advanced body armor, making cavalry largely immune to man-portable weapons especially from the frontal angles. Also there were some breakthroughs in genetics, and some positive publicity with successes in medicine, leading to genetic engineering of war horses. This all allowed the cost of cavalry to remain so much lower than tanks, that they were a viable type of troops.

Enter today, you have mounted troops with heavy enough weapons to be able to take out tanks and planes, with mobility far exceeding that of infantry, ability to traverse really bad terrain and patrol narrow streets, etc. They can be supplied by air-dropping enriched bales of hay (instead of convoys of fuel trucks), and are light enough to be air-droppable themselves. Horses have genetically enhanced animal instincts and senses, helping the soldier.

Oh, and at this point, they obviously have frickin' laser beams attached to their heads! Probably just range finders and laser guided missile targetting lasers, but still...


AndreiROM hits the nail pretty much on the head, BUT you could construe some things to enable cavalry to get a bit of attention.

  1. Difficult terrain: Tracked and wheeled vehicles have problems in swampy or very mountainous terrain. Horses may work better in some of these environments, though in general helicopter deployed infantry (who then move on foot) has been the preferred solution.

  2. Remote access with limited fuel. The big limitation of vehicles is the fuel supply. Of course this applies to horses as well, but there are many areas of the world where getting horse feed may be easier than moving in fuel. Or consider a "Red Dawn" type scenario where insurgents use horses because vehicles are too easily tracked and controlled. Quite frankly, given your stipulations, this is the ONLY situation that makes sense (global shortage of petroleum), but that world would look substantially different than ours.

  3. Postulate a technological development that renders large armored vehicles obsolete. Mass deployment of drones that are capable of piercing the thinner top armor of tanks, for example. Individual horsemen are not worth the expense, but a multi-million dollar AFV is.

This would enable mounted cavalry to be used in a low intensity conflict between small groups. The US isn't going to abandon tanks for horses, ever, but poor countries might if you can get an anti-armor drone for (relatively) cheap. Of course the poor combatants of the world just use "technicals" (pick-up trucks with a mounted heavy weapon) and no drone is ever going to be cheaper than a 15 year old Toyota.

Alas, armoring a horse, even with modern materials, isn't going to work. They are big slab sided targets, so strapping plates on them isn't going to help from a hail of bullets or artillery. The medieval barding so often seen in museums wasn't something a horse trotted around in on the battlefield for extended periods of time, it was for a limited engagement or joust. Modern combat is too extended and long range for that.

Your best bet is to substitute an organic horse for some sort of legged robotic vehicle. Imagine the LS3 (Robot mule) but optimized for speed, carrying a person into combat. You could have a stabilized weapon on it and a control system using the legs, hips, and body motion (sort of like how a Segway moves). This may allow for a rapid strike over rough terrain better than a light vehicle such as a motorcycle, dune buggy, or truck. Highly unlikely to be able to take on a modern mechanized unit with tanks, AFVs, and fire support, but for traditional cavalry tactics such as harassment, ambushes, hitting supply lines, finishing an already disrupted opponent, etc, it may work.

Remember that the Hollywood image of a line of horsemen running at each other or into a crowd of infantry is mostly romantic fantasy, since the invention of the pike, horses could be easily held off by an organized infantry unit, things like the Napoleonic era infantry square made it even easier (and the machine gun made it REALLY easy :) So you will probably never see horses of any type charging against tanks, any artillery backed position; or even against each other unless it is an impromptu skirmish. The instant a modern army stops to "draw up a battle line" they are gonna get clobbered by air strikes, artillery, naval bombardment, or cruise missiles unless you also disable satellites and any sort of air power. Modern artillery is DEATH to anything not wrapped in very heavy armor or extremely mobile. Things like cluster munitions would decimate horsemen (though there is a possibility that cluster munitions may not be around much longer due to the lingering effects unexploded ordnance has on the public cluster bombs going away.

EDIT: Another possibility, though it REALLY stretches your worldbuilding. If WW1 (and by extension, WW2) never happened then you could limit mechanized war machines but still allow for development of commercial/shipping vehicles and planes. Maybe naval tech kept up (dreadnaughts and subs were high tech machines for their time) but land warfare sorta stuck in a mechanized infantry + horse cav mode, where soldiers would be trucked to their destination and cavalry gallops around, but no one thought to armor a truck or develop the Christie suspension for tanks. Most armored warfare evolved from WW1 and (especially) WW2 so without those two conflicts perhaps land warfare could have stagnated (and Europeans, Brits, and Americans duked it out on the seas?) so horse cavalry had time to persist and modernize a bit. It is REALLY hard to deploy horsemen in direct conflict in an era of precision rifle marksmanship though, much less artillery, even if armored vehicles are limited/non-existent.

  • $\begingroup$ reading your answer made me think of some sort of cyborg horse calvary that would be very cool. $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jul 27 '16 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ That is about the only 'realistic' reason I can think of. Even if there was a global oil shortage, war machines would have highest priority, and even a Prius with a machine gun on top beats a troop of cavalry. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Jul 27 '16 at 19:44

You mention "extremely strong cultural foundations" as a possible reason for using horses in military operations.

You also mention some very "first world" nations: "everyone's military from the United States's to Sweden's to Luxemburg's". Sweden and Luxemburg aren't exactly known as great military powers in the real modern world.

So, why not completely reinvent the cultural landscape of warfare in the modern world?

(Scare-quotes are used throughout the rest of the answer to indicate loaded terms representing the hypothetical attitudes of the people in an alternate version of reality; they are not intended to reflect my beliefs.)

War is simply an attempt to win conflicts through violence, typically using any means available. What if, in your alternate modern world, there is a shared global cultural concept of "civilized warfare", to be contrasted against the form of warfare practiced by "barbarians"? Only "barbaric" countries would use the full extent of modern technology, tactics, etc to destroy their enemies, because only "barbaric" countries would accept "war is hell" as a mantra and a way of life. "Civilized" countries, on the other hand--i.e., those that have adopted this "strong cultural foundation" of warfare on horseback--would resolve diplomatically unresolvable conflicts among themselves by staging Napoleonic-style battles on horseback. There would be casualties, but not as many as if the countries engaged in a "real" war.

This shared cultural agreement to use "staged" warfare instead of raw military force is actually not that different from the real-life principle of mutually-assured destruction ("MAD") that arose from the threat of nuclear war. Countries still go to war with each other, but not since Hiroshima and Nagasaki have nuclear weapons actually been used on populated areas. Similarly, following the first World War, we developed "rules of engagement" that prohibit things like gas attacks. Your alternate world could simply take this idea further, prohibiting all 20th and 21st century military technologies.

Note that countries would still probably need to maintain "real" modern armies for use against "barbarian" enemies--e.g. terrorists.


The now defunct South African Defence Force (military of the South African apartheid government pre-1994) used horses extensively in their counter-insurgency wars in neighbouring countries in the 1980s (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, etc).

At the time, South Africa's white supremacist government was highly militarized and it had very (perhaps world's most) effective light infantry. The terrain they patrolled in their counter insurgency efforts was very remote, dry and rugged. The military (and government) was dominated by ethnic Afrikaner nationalists who were proud of a long military history of effective mounted commando operations tracing back to the Boer Wars of the late 19th century against British colonial armies.

They were unmatched in their ability to shoot at range, accurately, while riding fast into confrontations. Their approach to multi-month patrols in contested territory in dry hot rugged terrain while surviving on marksmanship and bush survivalist skills honed by a lifetime of growing up in the traditional Afrikaner frontier farming lifestyle seemed to carry over well into the modern era.

Many of these military operatives from the 80s border wars became mercenaries and consultants in the GW Bush era for security/military contractors in the Gulf, and if you were to hear their opinion on US infantry, they will dismissively chuckle at the big chunky sunburnt kids all bogged down by their heavy packs full of gadgets and nicknacks, overloaded with arms and ammunition.

Horses are very effective for stealthy, light patrols on unpredictable terrain. They obviously need to be well conditioned and the handlers need to be very comfortable with handling them too.


There might be other reasons why horses could be preferred - cost is noted above, but simple cheap automatic weapons which can target metal vehicles could make even pickups a bad choice, whereas horses wouldn't be detected. Automatic weapons targeting biological targets might be useless due to zebra herds causing too many false positives, or just illegal. Similarly, if anti-vehicle mines were permitted but anti-personnel mines not, that might make vehicles a poor choice, whilst horses would be safe.

Environmental hazards which affect vehicles but not horses might include dust (natural or manmade) making them unreliable, or some nano-tech attack on them, or some chemical/gas attack which targets e.g. combustion engines or the alloys in vehicles.

Small groups of soldiers with horses might be easier to hide than a mechanised unit, particularly if it's an area with wild animals, though that'd likely limit it to special forces.

Perhaps PETA manages to get the Geneva convention to include a ban on systems which automatically target animals, so tanks etc. can be trivially targeted, but horseback units must be manually targeted.

If you're happy to play with the laws concerning war, then there should be a lot of options to keep horseback units effective in at least some scenarios.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The Geneva convention has historically been ignored whenever it has been convenient for someone to get the upper hand. I wouldn't put too much stock in it. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jul 27 '16 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ "Laws" of war are basically worthless in any real combat. The only rules that apply are the rules a side imposes on itself (the USA imposes all kinds of limitations on itself, for example). Vehicle mines are not a good reason because a horse puts a lot of pressure on a small spot of earth while many vehicles can distribute that weight better. Automatic weapons designed to target non-biological organisms are a very bad idea since your enemies are ALWAYS going to be human beings (biological) and you want to target THEM at least. Dust is a non-factor, and nanotech is an old scifi "magic" fix all. $\endgroup$ – JBiggs Jul 27 '16 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ Thermal imaging means that we do have good ways to detect and target live things e.g. horses that work much better than detecting and targeting metal vehicles. Also, in an environment with artificial dust or chemical/gas attacks horses are very vulnerable, but closed vehicles (eg APCs) have good protection. Sorry, that concept is interesting, but in these aspects horses lose out even more to machines. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Jul 28 '16 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ Chemical / gas attacks on humans/animals are illegal, and most nations observe those laws, at least. Most conflicts are not carried out with complete disregard to 'laws' of war - most wars are small, and don't involve all the big players, and at least one of the waring sides wants to appear 'good' in the global eye - so it's not difficult to build a world in which the laws are followed, by at least one side. I believe most vehicle mines work on detecting metal or EM from a vehicle, as a human puts more pressure on a mine than a tracked vehicle, so they'd not go off for a horse. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Jul 28 '16 at 17:28

tl;dr - uninvent the machine gun.

I hope you don't mind if I venture into making a few changes to humanity to make this viable.

In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war. And in this war, are a unit known as the Rough Riders. They are cavalry with lances, and explosives attached to the ends of those lances.

What conditions does this world (Warhammer 40,000) have that makes this unit a viable strategy?

1) Despite there being uncountable billions of people, all the fighting seems to consist of bands of roughly 100 people per side. Fighting is done in (mostly ruined) cities, not on the open field. The problem encountered by cavalry was that they could not charge over an open field towards a gun line. Think of some way to reduce the proportion of the population that can be enlisted, or spread the fighting over a large area relative to population.

2) The existence of highly advanced body armour means that weapons the propel chunks of lead are not particularly effective.

3) Conventional guns are used occasionally, but most people have moved to advanced forms of weaponry better suited to destroying the opponents they typically face, i.e. a skirmish battle with ~100 well armoured infantry and tanks. This includes lasers, which are low rate of fire, but very concentrated and high damage. A man portable lascannon can cripple a tank, but would not achieve much against a squad of 20 soldiers in a loose formation.

4) In Warhammer 40k, las weapons are much more reliable than machine guns (no moving parts), and this setting has serious problems with everything breaking and no-one knowing how to repair things.

5) Life is cheap, materiel is valuable in WH:40k. People are born by the billions on hive worlds, but tanks and good weapons are in short supply due to a scarcity of factories that haven't been nuked from orbit, and a lack of skilled workers. Think the Red army.

The above is enough to justify why some armies employ very small amounts of cavalry. Of course, if all armies avoided tanks and started using cavalry exclusively, then people would stop bringing lascannons, and would start bringing machine guns instead.

  • $\begingroup$ The 40k universe didn't only have skirmishes. The game just represented skirmishes. For a start there was Epic 40k which was on much larger (smaller) scale. Not to mention the huge wars of the backstory. I think Rough Riders were mostly hand waved but I didn't read much Imperial Guard source material :) Oh and there was plenty of dakka dakka in 40k, not just energy weapons. $\endgroup$ – dunc123 Jul 29 '16 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ 5 is great, the fact that producing mass mechanized infantry would easily spotted, and those factories are then destroyed. $\endgroup$ – Asoub Jul 29 '16 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @ dunc - you're right, it wasn't only skirmishes. I suspect the rough riders probably weren't front n centre for the larger battles. And yes, 40k does have dakka. The thing is, it needs MORE dakka. The most rapid fire gun in the game shoots what, 10 shots/round and has enough range to shot at an advancing infantryman for 8 rounds? That's hardly rapid fire.by modern standards. Whilst this may be for gameplay balance and sanity for rolling dice, I choose to think it's because anythign that was actually rapid fire by modern standards broke the first time it was fired. $\endgroup$ – Scott Jul 31 '16 at 23:32

Even if you accept that horses are the only option for mobility for some reason, they'd be a massive liability on any developed battlefield. Modern warfare is making a huge shift in favor of artillery combined with networking. It's bad enough when your mobility is APCs with armor to hide the troops under, but instead you've got horses, which are hard to camouflage and can't take meaningful cover. When you go from spotted by a UAV 4 miles away (or if engines just flat don't work which is what it'd take to make horses be used, some dude with a backpack full of technology) to catching a volley of artillery with your lap in maybe as many as two or three minutes, horses just aren't usable within eyeshot of the enemy.

It's a lot worse than it was even in WWII when they were kind of okayish in very specific situations (rapid redeployment early war when AT guns were still light, mainly in Poland, and exploitation against the incredibly fragile German positions near Moscow in December '41).

The only thing in high end modern war they could be useful for even if motor vehicles were all removed would be back lines supply missions, transporting artillery, and potentially fast movement for light infantry forces.

The one thing they could theoretically be useful against is light guerilla forces, so maybe some form of colonial policing role, but that mission is unlikely given the proliferation of weaponry making colonies an unlikely prospect in the first place.


Afghan Cavalry

I'm kind of surprised no one has mentioned the cavalry units of Afghanistan, who fought both the USSR, and fought each other in the civil war with the Taliban.

These forces operated much in the way of traditional cavalry, including cavalry charges on riflemen and vehicles, and clashes between cavalry units. And, most interestingly, they were very successful.


Afghanistan has some of the most extreme altitudes of any country, great highs and lows. Many hills, gulleys, valleys and canyons, with extremely narrow trails up the side of mountains. In this terrain, much of the land is inaccessible by tank, or even truck. Even Helicopters have many problems with the extreme altitudes, with some humorous anecdotes I better not get into.

In this environment, horses are the best method of travel in many mountainous regions. So, understandably, people fight on horses.

More surprising, is that these horsemen deployed and fought in the areas where tanks and other vehicles could be and were deployed by the USSR, Taliban, and other forces.

Method of Battle

From what accounts I've gathered, the main method of fighting was ambush, charging, and some dragoon tactics.

The cavalrymen all used rifles, though many also used RPGs against the tanks and infantry. The RPGs were critical for successfully defeating vehicles, of course. Knives, bayonets, and I think even swords also saw use, with accounts of men running down infantry then dismounting to finish them off with a knife.

Ambushing the USSR

When ambushing Russian convoys, the Mujahideen cavalry are reported by Russian sources to have never charged more than 200 yards, usually attacking from two or more directions. They hit the fighting vehicles and troop carriers with grenades and RPGs at close range, such that it's hard to effectively use heavy weapons. If infantry deploy, the horsemen run amongst the infantry, running them down and shooting/stabbing them, increasing the confusion and their defence against heavy weapons. Normally, these ambushes were paired with MGs waiting at the line of retreat, ready to mow down people fleeing the ambush.

Sometimes, they'd wait for reinforcements, and ambush them too.

Taliban War

The Taliban war involved some more haphazard tactics, that at times could be called incompetent or even silly. There are reports of soldiers charging long distances (some sources say a mile, but this is in doubt) over hilly terrain into Taliban bunkers. The horses would often form two lines, one behind the other, and charge from the closest available point.

Accounts talk of defending soldiers trying to shoot an RPG at the crest of a hill, in anticipation of the cavalry coming over the crest. Apparently, despite this and heavy fire from defending forces, the cavalry normally closed with the enemy troops, who often just ran at the sight.

With good luck, the cavalry mopped up the infantry with little resistance. Losses were high, but enemy losses were higher. In other cases, the cavalry was repulsed and or bloodied.

The hilly terrain was used to get close while exposing yourself for a minimal amount of time. So, a "mile" over hilly terrain would be comparable to a few hundred yards of flat plains.

At the last hill, the first line of cavalry would sometimes dismount, and begin firing at the enemy from cover. The second line of cavalry would pass the first, charging into the infantry and firing their rifles as they did so. The first line would soon remount their horses, and join in the charge.

Vehicles and MGs were sometimes involved in these encounters, but apparently failed to blunt the charge on many occasions. One report spoke of a re-purposed self propelled anti-air gun, which managed to flank a cavalry force while it was in a melee with the defenders. This vehicle fired on the cavalry and its own men, and drove the attackers off with many casualties.


It is possible to use horses effectively for moving troops, and combating the enemy. The more fantastic encounters seem to rely on incompetence, but even competent forces can be defeated by a cleverly utilized cavalry force (consistently).

This doesn't mean that major militaries should start adding horse cavalry units back to their armies. It does mean opportunities and circumstances can make them valuable to a war effort, even in the fighting. These are most prominent in Afghanistan, but these concepts and reasons are not unique to Afghanistan, even if extreme in its example.

That's what I know on the subject, about horses being used in the modern day. I'll try to dig up some citations.


There are two ways cavalry could remain relevant to warfare with modern weapons.

1: Horses/Mules are still better a crossing difficult, mountainous terrain than our machines are (assuming that you have a reason for not using a helicopter.)

2: Animals come with built-in guidance computers that are far more advanced than anything the modern world has yet produced. (See Sergeant Reckless )

So, if you want them to be relevant, structure your world such that long, unresupplied journeys across difficult terrain would be a necessary part of any major offensive.

As for what would be done to improve them, that depends on precise tech level and how long they've been used alongside modern weapons. The obvious thing would be equipping them with modern armor, just like the soldiers are. After that, selective breeding for greater intelligence, better memory of supply trails, greater endurance, camouflage coloring patterns, etc. The goal is probably to get something with the endurance of a camel, the toughness and versatility of a mountain goat, and the carrying capacity and intelligence of a pack mule. If your culture has genetic manipulation technology, they might even be able to accomplish it in some impressive fashion. Of course, the end result might not resemble a horse all that much...


The idea is the same for most answers: cavalry was abandonned for reasons, and other means has been used. How to render those means obsolete ? (easily spotted, easily destroyed) Why is the cavalry more usefull (more secure ? faster ?)

Some other answer stated ideas I already had, so I'll try to expand a little bit more some. As always, war is always about the one that will adapt the best to new strategies (either by having new ideas, or by coutering others' ideas)

  • Difficult geography: depending on the terrain, horses might have an advantage. But why did mecanized infantry worked better ? Well, from what I remember, in WW2, blitzkrieg was such a success because german built and maintained roads (and used french ones after that). So, modern warfare has evolved to easily destroy roads, preventing supplies and tanks. Of course, most of them can go outside the road, but not all terrain permit to go outside the road. Maybe some kind of suicide-drones could do that. You can also change geography: their are forest/swamps almost everywhere.

  • Lightweight/cheap heavy weaponry: If an infantry can easily take on a tank, then they are useless. Anti-tank systems are really expansive today, but let's say you can have a one-bullet handgun/grenade/sniper with a higly packed explosive (or whatever) that can take down a tank/helicopter. The thing with tanks (and other heavily armored vehicule as well) is that they are constantly behing reinforced against attacks, but if the new gun is powerfull enough, then it will take some time before they can be reinforced enough to withstand these guns (if someone ever could). Also, think about lasers against drones/airplanes/helicopters. Again, to make it more realistic, it's a one-bullet weapon, not rechargeable, and cheap.

  • Lightweight/cheap defense systems: a force field. A new technology that prevent fast travelling/metal bullets from hitting their target. It would be lighweight enough to be carried by a horse, but heavy enough not to be carried by men. You also need a reason not to put this technology on your vehicule of course: high frequency interferences (which make them highly detacable once they are active), but most tank are able to function without electronic devices (but if they are easily destroyed by number 2...).

There are always drawback to these solutions, so using multiple ideas at the same time is the only solution. (I read somewhere "genetically engineering horses", which would add to the rest).


Here's a simple way you could have mounted cavalry in the modern area: it's the traditional way to build your armies and your world hasn't yet gone through a war that would demonstrate how bad of an idea it is.

Your major powers can and will continue to use cavalry against the lesser powers who don't have the resources to develop the new technology that would render cavalry obsolete, the foresight to invest in these new, speculative methods of warfare, or the competence to effectively deploy them.

I think the main thing you just need is to prevent the occurrence of a war between major powers that can decisively defeat cavalry, so that the conservative military leaders can continue to remain hesitant about getting rid of their tried and true mounted forces in favor of the new, speculative military doctrine.


TLDR: Special operations forces operating in 3rd world countries with rough terrain meets most of your requirements

The last successful cavalry charge that I've been able to find occurred in 2001 at the battle of Bishqab, by Afghan forces supported by US airpower against an entrenched Taliban position with tanks and machine guns. This charge made use of the hilly terrain to ensure that the cavalry were only briefly exposed, and the attacking force had modern weapons including RPGs and assault rifles. US special forces operating in Afghanistan continued to use horses to move quickly through rough terrain.

As other posts indicate, horse cavalry are essentially obsolete on a modern conventional battlefield. Horses are too vulnerable to modern firepower, the rider is too exposed, and they're not fast enough to keep up with mechanized forces. However, for special forces operating in rough and remote conditions, they have a number of critical advantages. Unlike vehicles, horses can forage for food, and are significantly better off-road. Horse-mounted forces will be better able to avoid aerial surveillance than mechanized forces (especially if local civilians also use horses), and are quieter and more stealthy. Compared to pure infantry, cavalry are more mobile and can carry significantly more equipment and supplies, which is especially important for special forces on a long-term deployment. Note that in a guerilla war all of these factors also apply to the guerillas, who may also prefer cavalry as horses are more easily acquired than fighting vehicles.

If there are a few decades where a lot of armed conflict is similar to the wars in Afghanistan (either the 1979-1989 Soviet Afghan war or the 2001-present war), I'd expect countries to start training their special forces in cavalry techniques and tactics. These soldiers would remain primarily light infantry, but be able to transition to mounted warfare if necessary, as at Bishqab.

For your specific requirements:

  • Mounted combatants on horseback: As required
  • Forces that hold the primary role/purpose of direct combat: Definitely. You don't get much closer to the tip of the spear than special forces.
  • Possibly holding secondary roles: Yes
  • Units that do not act (primarily) as
    • Dragoons: Well, they're primarily light infantry, which aren't dragoons... But yeah, while cavalry charges do still have their use, they're not going to be the only or even primary means of engaging with any modern enemy.
    • Supply logistics: No
    • Messengers: No
  • Forces that will actively be deployed and will engage in an appreciable portion of armed conflicts the military is engaged in: Yes definitely-and then some!

I’m going to talk about tanks. I know people have mentioned them in nearly every answer, but bear with me for a minute.

In the year 1943, Soviet Army underwent serious restructuring. Under the new commander, cavalry divisions have been reformed. Light cavalry is no longer employed in the army, and existing cavalry divisions are now reformed with light and medium tanks. At the same time, cavalry corps are outfitted with anti-tank weaponry. Cavalry now includes entire mechanized artillery regiments and anti-tank divisions. So… technically tanks and artillery are cavalry. The use of live horses is, of course, severely limited in this, but cavalry divisions now command more horsepowers than ever before.

TLDR: Tanks are cavalry, iron horses of the new age.


The only thing I can think of is a world with limited fuel + the widespread use of EMP weapons. Guns would be modern, but transportation and communications might be pre-WW1.


Okay, I'm going all out sci-fi here... They figured out how to connect their brains with those of horses and then use them as an extension of their own body. Allowing infantry to act as mini tanks, but insanely maneuverable.

Since horses can have some really heavy armour, and carry a shit ton of weaponry, it would easily hold its own against about 10 regular infantry units.


Either my imagination sucks or my knowledge of modern warfare is terrible. Possibly both. Regardless, I can't imagine a generalized situation where cavalry is a good idea with modern weapons.

One semi-alternative would be to have a unit where everyone uses a MOUNT/HORSE/Acronym you can make sound reasonable to assist an infantry unit in moving more quickly than otherwise possible. Perhaps, through mechanical aids, the infantry are able to move through terrain about as quickly as a helicopter would - with a range limited by a battery or something. We have this as a real world example, scaling it up for the military doesn't seem unreasonable.

One absolutely-making-things-up alternative is the idea that we have 'wars' and 'competitions' and that cavalry are maintained and used in 'competitions' where we want to resolve a conflict without all the barbarity of a no-holds-barred war where civilians and property might be damaged. If you rephrase this into the context of a competition, you can set any rules you want.


protected by James Aug 1 '16 at 13:47

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.