What advantages would bovines have over horses when used as cavalry?

I've got a culture whose way of life is based around cattle, and I'm wondering what kinds of advantages they might have in combat over traditional horse-based cavalry if they rode a breed of bovines specifically bred for fighting. I don't want to limit them to just what we think of as a standard 'cow', but would like them to have mounts that are at least something cow-like, such as buffalo, bison, or gaur.

The riders are a distinctive culture that focuses on nomadically ranging cows across a large area of wet forest and swamp across a wet basin on the interior of the continent, and they've been there long enough to have bred and trained some of their animals into mounts capable of running and fighting. They do, however, have access to horses, as these are raised by another culture that lives on the far side of one of the mountain ranges surrounding the basin in some drier coastal plains. What I'm wondering is whether or not there is a reason, besides the practicality of already having the animals around, that they would be used in combat.

Furthermore, if cows can be used to an advantage in combat over horses, what sort of role will they take on the battlefield, and how would using them as a primary cavalry mount change the way a culture conducts warfare? This isn't to say that the bovine riders don't have any horses, but merely that the majority of their cavalry does not use them. Should they be far superior in some role, such as perhaps being superior scouts as a result of being faster, horses would be used.

Do they have any such advantages, or would they realistically be replaced by horses for combat?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Ever tried sitting on a cow? I have, as a kid. They're kinda wide for human legs. And spiny as hell. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Dec 18 '14 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ Bison, buffalo...and the Auroch, which became extinct in the 1600s. $\endgroup$ – Jasper Blues Dec 18 '14 at 20:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Wet forest, swamp, and wet basin? That doesn't seem like a likely place to herd Ungulates $\endgroup$ – Mooing Duck Dec 18 '14 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ @MooingDuck At first I thought so too. . but then we do have Carabao like this in the Philippines : rockefellernews.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/carabao.jpg . . . they work the swampy rice fields, which uncleared are naturally jungle. $\endgroup$ – Jasper Blues Dec 19 '14 at 0:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The wet basin was chosen as a reason to have bovines as the primary animal in place of horses. Equids seem to flourish in open grasslands (the African savanna, central Asia), while lots of bovids live in forests and swamps (water buffalo, wood bison, gaur). I had also read that the splayed hooves that bovids have provide better traction in mud than a single hoof, though I haven't been able to corroborate that fact. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 19 '14 at 14:08

There are a few assumptions to make here before answering, most of which fall under the lines of 'define cow'.

If you are going for buffalo:

  • A cavalry charge (in knight terms) was at its most destructive from sheer momentum. Ya, the mounted rider can help with the invent of the lance, but the ability to break a defensive line has more to do with the weight of a horse being thrown at the weight of a man (hence pikes being an effective defence). In terms of sheer weight, a stampeding buffalo is significantly heavier and would have considerable more breaking power when hitting a defensive line.
  • Powerhouse head. A horse's head is somewhat small and leaves horse's chest open while it gallops forward. A charging bison looks like a giant armored skull designed for headbutting coming at you and leaves little for weak spots.
  • Buffalo are big-ass creatures and can take surprisingly large amount of damage before being brought down.
  • They are significantly more brutal creatures than horses and would easily gore and toss around a human soldier like he's nothing. While a horse doesn't do as much post charge, a buffalo can gore and toss around people like they are paper dolls.
  • I would think a charging buffalo wouldn't think twice about going head-on with a horse while a horse would either need some pretty specific training or risk spooking instead. This was an effect of the elephant as well, elephants were particularly nasty when ran at horses.

Downsides are more in maintainability:

  • Buffalo aren't an easy ride and require some pretty specific animal handling to control. Long treks on buffalo back don't seem feasible.
  • Larger and lazier than horses. Bigger creatures tire quicker and don't have the same stamina horses ultimately possess.
  • Food consumption. A herd of buffalo requires a significant land mass to feed.
  • Larger target. Arrows (and bullets) are more effective against these giants as they are easier to hit from sheer size.
  • Less sure on this, but in comparing them to Elephants, I would think the possibility of bison/buffalo 'spooking' and rampaging over their own troops is a possibility. Romans developed the tactic of covering pigs in oils, lighting them on fire, and sending the squealing herd into elephants. This would panic the elephants and cause them to rampage. As dangerous as these large 'beasts of war' are to the enemy on the battlefield, they also posed some degree of risk to friendly troops as well.
  • Bison/buffalo are ultimately wild creatures. Horses have been domesticated for thousands of years and, like dogs, a relationship with humans is at the core of their spirit. This simply isn't true with Bison. You may be able to get around this point with your setup had this nomadic culture began forming bonds between Bison/rider in the same way a horse/rider does, but odds are, the Bison are going to retain some 'wild' qualities making handling of them far more difficult.

Ultimately, my answer is "yes, more than feasible". They come with specific advantages and disadvantages, but so did elephants and they saw their use. If you have access to them and can handle them, why not?

If this question is only about cows... I hate to say it, but human involvement has selectively bred cows to be eating machines. The majority of their internal make-up is focused on digestion and we have focused evolutionary pressures on these creatures to be the best eaters they can be, not much else. Unless cud can somehow be weaponized (or perhaps using the tremendous amount of methane that these creatures emit). They are also lacking in the endurance domain (once again, they are bred to eat not run).

I really hope you're not referring to dairy cows - that would seem udder nonsense.

On more add...

Unlike the previous 'unicorn charge' question, it's debatable if a horse's head and neck are really capable of withstanding the impact of their own charge. Buffalo, on the other hand, can fully use their horns for charging and goring as their physical make-up is designed to support themselves during these impacts. If you want to see nasty youtube footage, deaths from yellowstone bison annually is a measurable number and I remember at least one bison video where it charges a car and the car pretty obviously loses.

I guess if you lose the battle, you've unintentionally provided the opposing army with a great deal of food reserves ^^ Opposing generals can rally their troops with 'Tonight, we eat steak!'

Buffalo vs car https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZ45m_D-rv4


  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm referring to bovines in general, mostly looking at wild ones like bison, aurochs, and gaur for inspiration. I reworded my question to be a bit less cow-specific, and hopefully less confusing. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 18 '14 at 19:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think your Bison would make pretty good shock troops...kinda like a less domesticated elephant would, and just like an elephant they would be difficult to maintain and train. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Dec 18 '14 at 20:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @oldcat - Buffalo weren't slow...American Bison are comparable to horses at full speed, they can easily reach over 40mph, possibly more if trained (not sure how a rider would hold on at top speed)...it's more a matter of how long they can maintain it. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Dec 18 '14 at 20:11
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat Even if bison or buffalo are slower or less manuverable than horses, you're basically just looking at the difference between light and heavy cavalry. If properly bred, domesticated, and trained, bison-riders could make great heavy cavalry. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Dec 18 '14 at 20:39
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Bison: They can move at speeds up to 35 mph (56 km/h) and cover long distances at a lumbering gallop. Horse: The gallop averages 40 to 48 kilometres per hour (25 to 30 mph), but the world record for a horse galloping over a short, sprint distance is 88 kilometres per hour (55 mph). // Doesn't seem like there would be much difference in practice for animals specifically bred as war mounts. No difference we can presume anyway. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 18 '14 at 22:37

Cows would have a couple advantages and of course disadvantages. I think they tend to be slower, and certainly less agile than horses, nor do they appear to be as smart as horses either.

The big advantages I would see is they come with their own weapons, Horns. Many cows tend to be more massive than your average horse as well.

But you gave a wide range of possibilities. so I'll go with Bison.

Certainly things like bison would be a terrible thing to stand in front of charging at you. Bison are as fast as a horse, not as maneuverable but good enough. A stampede of bison riders would break almost any defensive line. Bison can be broke to the saddle there was even a tv show.

So I would say it could be possible and work well. One problem I see is peoples who tend to domesticate animals for work don't tend to eat them. We ride horses, we don't eat them (no real reason not too) we generally eat cows, not ride them. Oxen might be one of the few that can sit on the fence. But I think they are generally worked until they can't, at which point you need to be pretty hungry to eat that tough old meat.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ While it is a taboo in the U.S, horse meat is eaten in countries like Italy and Japan. $\endgroup$ – user2813274 Dec 18 '14 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Would it make more sense, then, to have separate lines/breeds of riding and eating cows? I'm thinking of something larger and more bison-like for combat, and something smaller and more cow-like for food. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 18 '14 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ @ckersch yes, actually that would be a likely scenario. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Dec 18 '14 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ peoples who tend to domesticate animals for work don't tend to eat them. May be purelly accidental. The animals we use for work are few and expensive (need to be big, after all). It is not that you would not eat them, but the ones you have you use them for work until they are old (and almost inedible) because it gives you a better ROI. For your needs of meat, you get a better investment in other animals which grow faster/are less delicated (chicken, pigs). $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Dec 18 '14 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 yes that is the point. You'll be less likely to eat the bovine you've trained for the saddle, since then you have to train another one... $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Dec 18 '14 at 21:35

Our ancestors had both cows and horses. They bred one for riding and one for eating for a very good reason.

There are very few ways cattle would be better for riding.

The most likely scenario is that they trade for horses then breed them for riding and cattle for eating exactly the same way as we did in our world...

The only way I can see this working is if there is a reason not to use horses. For example camels are used in deserts where horses would not cope well. Perhaps the grazing is particularly bad for example and horses struggle but adapted native grazers are fine.


For use as cavalry, I'd say that buffalo, cows, and other "edible livestock" generally fall short of a horse. I've seen the answers that say that cows have horns as weapons, but I don't really see that as great advantage as compared to the speed and maneuverability of horses or the versatility of infantry. Cows, even those not bred for food purposes, tend to be slow and slow to learn. They are also eating machines, while horses tend to be a little less focused on food.

If your nomads have access to horses at all, you can be sure they'll breed them and become the superior horsemen. It's what cowboys do.

On the other hand, if you are looking to shoehorn cattle into war, there is a power that they have that an infantry or cavalry doesn't have: herd mentality. 3 people on horseback can get 1,000 head of cattle to stampede, and woe be unto the infantry who is in the way. Have you ever seen Jurassic Park The Lost World? The stampede through the camp comes to mind. Depending on your choice of livestock, you could have a thousand thousand pounds of "usually meat" pounding through enemy lines. This makes a lot of sense from a tactical sense.

Just my thoughts, but I've worked with cows for years, and I would rather walk than hop on Bessie any day of the week.

  • $\begingroup$ Could cattle be bred and trained to differentiate between their handlers and the enemy? I'm thinking that, rather than stampeding them blindly, the nomads may use bison more in the manner of hunting dogs, except 3000 pounds and with fur. Twenty or thirty of them armored and charging as a group seems like it could be a great way of breaking up formations. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 18 '14 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, the enemy can just move aside and you've just sent your tribe's food supply and wealth into enemy lines. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 18 '14 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ I imagine at 30 abreast they'd be tough to dodge, particularly if they're supported by infantry. Perhaps they'd make the most sense if the enemy is reliant on structured infantry, a la the ancient Romans? $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 18 '14 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say that training traditional cattle to differentiate between people is unlikely, though if we are only going for "cattle-like", that's up to you. I've just never really seen cattle differentiate between people. Now, action - yes. My father can handle cows, and they "know" him in that respect as opposed to me, but I simulate his actions, they respond the same. $\endgroup$ – Malakai9999 Dec 18 '14 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ They'd be tough to dodge, especially when you aim them at supplies and campsites. A formation on the battlefield might be able to recognize the threat, but an encampment would hear thunder, and then it would be too late. An army on the move could avoid it maybe, but the baggage train would be the target, and without supplies, well... $\endgroup$ – Malakai9999 Dec 18 '14 at 20:44

There is a certain value in specializing your efforts. The main advantage of a horse is speed. A cow or oxen might be stronger or more durable, which is why they are used to draw carts and plows at times, but even there horses are preferred.

Horses are more nimble than cattle, so are more likely to be able to work in difficult terrain.

In a battle, you might as well skip the cattle and use infantry. Speed is equivalent, or better. Men are far more reliable than any animal, and can handle rough terrain.

So if you are going to train animals for mounted use, it is far better to use the best animal for the job. There's nothing a cow-rider can do that men on foot can't do just as well.


You might be better off with cow-like horses. Ie, cows that are effectively horned horses, bread for meat and milk. Which, barring the horns, is exactly how Mongol society worked.


You might think about why no one has ever done this. While people have bred cattle as draft animals (ox, water buffalo, &c), AFAIK no culture has ever seriously used them as riding animals. (Aside from e.g. occasional attempts to ride dairy cattle as a kid.)

As for buffalo, ask why in the maybe 10,000 years of Plains Indians and their forerunners living near and hunting buffalo, there was apparently no attempt - or at least no successes - at domestication. Yet as soon as the Spanish introduced horses, the Plains tribes adopted them and changed their entire culture.

One factor, I think, might be the anatomy of the horse's jaw. The front and rear teeth are separated by a sensitive, toothless region called the bar, into which a bit can be placed. This makes it much easier to exert pressure to control the animal when it's nervous or frightened, wants to buck the rider off, &c, which would probably be the case in warfare. (Though I hasten to add that with a bit of skill & training, you don't ordinarily need to use this at all, but can direct the horse with small touches of reins, weight shifts, or even - if you're blessed - just by thinking.) I don't think the ox or other animals have anything similar.

  • $\begingroup$ Interestingly, there seems to be strong evidence that horses were domesticated by a group in central Asia for milk and for hunting other horses. This group (the Botai) did not have domesticated cattle. American horses were driven extinct around the time that Native Americans crossed in the Americas. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Dec 18 '14 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ Cattle have this also $\endgroup$ – feas Apr 18 '15 at 1:41



Those where heavily armored horse units, a kind of shock cavalry that emerged in ancient times and influenced the medieval knights. On horses it needed quite strong horses to support horse armour, horseman, horseman's armour etc. They where usually slower than light cavalry and less suitable for scouting, but very usefull as shock troops to dismantle enemy formations. A variation of the cataphract was the cammel cataphract.


Even on the strongest horses there was a limit on weight. So if you are using cattle or bisons to make cataphracts, they might support a heavier load. Meaning stronger armours for both cattle and horseman, and bigger lances.


Cattle are usually slower than horses. Knectic energy is proportional to mass and the square of speed. This means that a lighter horse at faster speed will hit the first enemy lines with higher power than cattle cataphracts would. But once hit, mommentuum is spent and cattle might acceellerate faster due to power-to-weight ratio.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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