The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XLVIII

The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter XLVIII. Of war-horses, or destriers.

Chapter XLVIII. Of war-horses, or destriers. Edit

I here have become a grammarian, I who never learned any language but by
rote, and who do not yet know adjective, conjunction, or ablative. I
think I have read that the Romans had a sort of horses by them called
'funales' or 'dextrarios', which were either led horses, or horses laid
on at several stages to be taken fresh upon occasion, and thence it is
that we call our horses of service 'destriers'; and our romances commonly
use the phrase of 'adestrer' for 'accompagner', to accompany. They also
called those that were trained in such sort, that running full speed,
side by side, without bridle or saddle, the Roman gentlemen, armed at all
pieces, would shift and throw themselves from one to the other,
'desultorios equos'. The Numidian men-at-arms had always a led horse in
one hand, besides that they rode upon, to change in the heat of battle:

    "Quibus, desultorum in modum, binos trahentibus equos, inter
     acerrimam saepe pugnam, in recentem equum, ex fesso, armatis
     transultare mos erat: tanta velocitas ipsis, tamque docile
     equorum genus."

     ["To whom it was a custom, leading along two horses, often in the
     hottest fight, to leap armed from a tired horse to a fresh one; so
     active were the men, and the horses so docile."—Livy, xxiii. 29.]

There are many horses trained to help their riders so as to run upon any
one, that appears with a drawn sword, to fall both with mouth and heels
upon any that front or oppose them: but it often happens that they do
more harm to their friends than to their enemies; and, moreover, you
cannot loose them from their hold, to reduce them again into order, when
they are once engaged and grappled, by which means you remain at the
mercy of their quarrel. It happened very ill to Artybius, general of the
Persian army, fighting, man to man, with Onesilus, king of Salamis, to be
mounted upon a horse trained after this manner, it being the occasion of
his death, the squire of Onesilus cleaving the horse down with a scythe
betwixt the shoulders as it was reared up upon his master. And what the
Italians report, that in the battle of Fornova, the horse of Charles
VIII., with kicks and plunges, disengaged his master from the enemy that
pressed upon him, without which he had been slain, sounds like a very
great chance, if it be true.

     [In the narrative which Philip de Commines has given of this battle,
     in which he himself was present (lib. viii. ch. 6), he tells us
     of wonderful performances by the horse on which the king was
     mounted. The name of the horse was Savoy, and it was the most
     beautiful horse he had ever seen. During the battle the king was
     personally attacked, when he had nobody near him but a valet de
     chambre, a little fellow, and not well armed. "The king," says
     Commines, "had the best horse under him in the world, and therefore
     he stood his ground bravely, till a number of his men, not a great
     way from him, arrived at the critical minute."]

The Mamalukes make their boast that they have the most ready horses of
any cavalry in the world; that by nature and custom they were taught to
know and distinguish the enemy, and to fall foul upon them with mouth and
heels, according to a word or sign given; as also to gather up with their
teeth darts and lances scattered upon the field, and present them to
their riders, on the word of command. 'T is said, both of Caesar and
Pompey, that amongst their other excellent qualities they were both very
good horsemen, and particularly of Caesar, that in his youth, being
mounted on the bare back, without saddle or bridle, he could make the
horse run, stop, and turn, and perform all its airs, with his hands
behind him. As nature designed to make of this person, and of Alexander,
two miracles of military art, so one would say she had done her utmost to
arm them after an extraordinary manner for every one knows that
Alexander's horse, Bucephalus, had a head inclining to the shape of a
bull; that he would suffer himself to be mounted and governed by none but
his master, and that he was so honoured after his death as to have a city
erected to his name. Caesar had also one which had forefeet like those
of a man, his hoofs being divided in the form of fingers, which likewise
was not to be ridden, by any but Caesar himself, who, after his death,
dedicated his statue to the goddess Venus.

I do not willingly alight when I am once on horseback, for it is the
place where, whether well or sick, I find myself most at ease. Plato
recommends it for health, as also Pliny says it is good for the stomach
and the joints. Let us go further into this matter since here we are.

We read in Xenophon a law forbidding any one who was master of a horse to
travel on foot. Trogus Pompeius and Justin say that the Parthians were
wont to perform all offices and ceremonies, not only in war but also all
affairs whether public or private, make bargains, confer, entertain, take
the air, and all on horseback; and that the greatest distinction betwixt
freemen and slaves amongst them was that the one rode on horseback and
the other went on foot, an institution of which King Cyrus was the

There are several examples in the Roman history (and Suetonius more
particularly observes it of Caesar) of captains who, on pressing
occasions, commanded their cavalry to alight, both by that means to take
from them all hopes of flight, as also for the advantage they hoped in
this sort of fight.

               "Quo baud dubie superat Romanus,"

     ["Wherein the Roman does questionless excel."—Livy, ix. 22.]

says Livy. And so the first thing they did to prevent the mutinies and
insurrections of nations of late conquest was to take from them their
arms and horses, and therefore it is that we so often meet in Caesar:

          "Arma proferri, jumenta produci, obsides dari jubet."

     ["He commanded the arms to be produced, the horses brought out,
     hostages to be given."—De Bello Gall., vii. II.]

The Grand Signior to this day suffers not a Christian or a Jew to keep a
horse of his own throughout his empire.

Our ancestors, and especially at the time they had war with the English,
in all their greatest engagements and pitched battles fought for the most
part on foot, that they might have nothing but their own force, courage,
and constancy to trust to in a quarrel of so great concern as life and
honour. You stake (whatever Chrysanthes in Xenophon says to the
contrary) your valour and your fortune upon that of your horse; his
wounds or death bring your person into the same danger; his fear or fury
shall make you reputed rash or cowardly; if he have an ill mouth or will
not answer to the spur, your honour must answer for it. And, therefore,
I do not think it strange that those battles were more firm and furious
than those that are fought on horseback:

               "Caedebant pariter, pariterque ruebant
          Victores victique; neque his fuga nota, neque illis."

     ["They fought and fell pell-mell, victors and vanquished; nor was
     flight thought of by either."—AEneid, x. 756.]

Their battles were much better disputed. Nowadays there are nothing but

          "Primus clamor atque impetus rem decernit."

     ["The first shout and charge decides the business."—Livy, xxv. 41.]

And the means we choose to make use of in so great a hazard should be as
much as possible at our own command: wherefore I should advise to choose
weapons of the shortest sort, and such of which we are able to give the
best account. A man may repose more confidence in a sword he holds in
his hand than in a bullet he discharges out of a pistol, wherein there
must be a concurrence of several circumstances to make it perform its
office, the powder, the stone, and the wheel: if any of which fail it
endangers your fortune. A man himself strikes much surer than the air
can direct his blow:

          "Et, quo ferre velint, permittere vulnera ventis
          Ensis habet vires; et gens quaecumque virorum est,
          Bella gerit gladiis."

     ["And so where they choose to carry [the arrows], the winds allow
     the wounds; the sword has strength of arm: and whatever nation of
     men there is, they wage war with swords."—Lucan, viii. 384.]

But of that weapon I shall speak more fully when I come to compare the
arms of the ancients with those of modern use; only, by the way, the
astonishment of the ear abated, which every one grows familiar with in a
short time, I look upon it as a weapon of very little execution, and hope
we shall one day lay it aside. That missile weapon which the Italians
formerly made use of both with fire and by sling was much more terrible:
they called a certain kind of javelin, armed at the point with an iron
three feet long, that it might pierce through and through an armed man,
Phalarica, which they sometimes in the field darted by hand, sometimes
from several sorts of engines for the defence of beleaguered places; the
shaft being rolled round with flax, wax, rosin, oil, and other
combustible matter, took fire in its flight, and lighting upon the body
of a man or his target, took away all the use of arms and limbs. And
yet, coming to close fight, I should think they would also damage the
assailant, and that the camp being as it were planted with these flaming
truncheons, would produce a common inconvenience to the whole crowd:

          "Magnum stridens contorta Phalarica venit,
          Fulminis acta modo."

     ["The Phalarica, launched like lightning, flies through
     the air with a loud rushing sound."—AEneid, ix. 705.]

They had, moreover, other devices which custom made them perfect in
(which seem incredible to us who have not seen them), by which they
supplied the effects of our powder and shot. They darted their spears
with so great force, as ofttimes to transfix two targets and two armed
men at once, and pin them together. Neither was the effect of their
slings less certain of execution or of shorter carriage:

     ["Culling round stones from the beach for their slings; and with
     these practising over the waves, so as from a great distance to
     throw within a very small circuit, they became able not only to
     wound an enemy in the head, but hit any other part at pleasure."
     —Livy, xxxviii. 29.]

Their pieces of battery had not only the execution but the thunder of our
cannon also:

          "Ad ictus moenium cum terribili sonitu editos,
          pavor et trepidatio cepit."

     ["At the battery of the walls, performed with a terrible noise,
     the defenders began to fear and tremble."—Idem, ibid., 5.]

The Gauls, our kinsmen in Asia, abominated these treacherous missile
arms, it being their use to fight, with greater bravery, hand to hand:

     ["They are not so much concerned about large gashes-the bigger and
     deeper the wound, the more glorious do they esteem the combat but
     when they find themselves tormented by some arrow-head or bullet
     lodged within, but presenting little outward show of wound,
     transported with shame and anger to perish by so imperceptible a
     destroyer, they fall to the ground."-—Livy, xxxviii. 21.]

A pretty description of something very like an arquebuse-shot. The ten
thousand Greeks in their long and famous retreat met with a nation who
very much galled them with great and strong bows, carrying arrows so long
that, taking them up, one might return them back like a dart, and with
them pierce a buckler and an armed man through and through. The engines,
that Dionysius invented at Syracuse to shoot vast massy darts and stones
of a prodigious greatness with so great impetuosity and at so great a
distance, came very near to our modern inventions.

But in this discourse of horses and horsemanship, we are not to forget
the pleasant posture of one Maistre Pierre Pol, a doctor of divinity,
upon his mule, whom Monstrelet reports always to have ridden sideways
through the streets of Paris like a woman. He says also, elsewhere, that
the Gascons had terrible horses, that would wheel in their full speed,
which the French, Picards, Flemings, and Brabanters looked upon as a
miracle, "having never seen the like before," which are his very words.

Caesar, speaking of the Suabians: "in the charges they make on
horseback," says he, "they often throw themselves off to fight on foot,
having taught their horses not to stir in the meantime from the place,
to which they presently run again upon occasion; and according to their
custom, nothing is so unmanly and so base as to use saddles or pads, and
they despise such as make use of those conveniences: insomuch that, being
but a very few in number, they fear not to attack a great many." That
which I have formerly wondered at, to see a horse made to perform all his
airs with a switch only and the reins upon his neck, was common with the
Massilians, who rid their horses without saddle or bridle:

          "Et gens, quae nudo residens Massylia dorso,
          Ora levi flectit, fraenorum nescia, virga."

     ["The Massylians, mounted on the bare backs of their horses,
     bridleless, guide them by a mere switch."—Lucan, iv. 682.]

               "Et Numidae infraeni cingunt."

     ["The Numidians guiding their horses without bridles."
     —AEneid, iv. 41.]

          "Equi sine fraenis, deformis ipse cursus,
          rigida cervice et extento capite currentium."

     ["The career of a horse without a bridle is ungraceful; the neck
     extended stiff, and the nose thrust out."—Livy, xxxv. II.]

King Alfonso,—[Alfonso XI., king of Leon and Castile, died 1350.]—
he who first instituted the Order of the Band or Scarf in Spain, amongst
other rules of the order, gave them this, that they should never ride
mule or mulet, upon penalty of a mark of silver; this I had lately out of
Guevara's Letters. Whoever gave these the title of Golden Epistles had
another kind of opinion of them than I have. The Courtier says, that
till his time it was a disgrace to a gentleman to ride on one of these
creatures: but the Abyssinians, on the contrary, the nearer they are to
the person of Prester John, love to be mounted upon large mules, for the
greatest dignity and grandeur.

Xenophon tells us, that the Assyrians were fain to keep their horses
fettered in the stable, they were so fierce and vicious; and that it
required so much time to loose and harness them, that to avoid any
disorder this tedious preparation might bring upon them in case of
surprise, they never sat down in their camp till it was first well
fortified with ditches and ramparts. His Cyrus, who was so great a
master in all manner of horse service, kept his horses to their due work,
and never suffered them to have anything to eat till first they had
earned it by the sweat of some kind of exercise. The Scythians when in
the field and in scarcity of provisions used to let their horses blood,
which they drank, and sustained themselves by that diet:

               "Venit et epoto Sarmata pastus equo."

          ["The Scythian comes, who feeds on horse-flesh"
          —Martial, De Spectaculis Libey, Epigr. iii. 4.]

Those of Crete, being besieged by Metellus, were in so great necessity
for drink that they were fain to quench their thirst with their horses
urine.—[Val. Max., vii. 6, ext. 1.]

To shew how much cheaper the Turkish armies support themselves than our
European forces, 'tis said that besides the soldiers drink nothing but
water and eat nothing but rice and salt flesh pulverised (of which every
one may easily carry about with him a month's provision), they know how
to feed upon the blood of their horses as well as the Muscovite and
Tartar, and salt it for their use.

These new-discovered people of the Indies [Mexico and Yucatan D.W.],
when the Spaniards first landed amongst them, had so great an opinion
both of the men and horses, that they looked upon the first as gods and
the other as animals ennobled above their nature; insomuch that after
they were subdued, coming to the men to sue for peace and pardon, and to
bring them gold and provisions, they failed not to offer of the same to
the horses, with the same kind of harangue to them they had made to the
others: interpreting their neighing for a language of truce and

In the other Indies, to ride upon an elephant was the first and royal
place of honour; the second to ride in a coach with four horses; the
third to ride upon a camel; and the last and least honour to be carried
or drawn by one horse only. Some one of our late writers tells us that
he has been in countries in those parts where they ride upon oxen with
pads, stirrups, and bridles, and very much at their ease.

Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus, in a battle with the Samnites, seeing
his horse, after three or four charges, had failed of breaking into the
enemy's battalion, took this course, to make them unbridle all their
horses and spur their hardest, so that having nothing to check their
career, they might through weapons and men open the way to his foot, who
by that means gave them a bloody defeat. The same command was given by
Quintus Fulvius Flaccus against the Celtiberians:

     ["You will do your business with greater advantage of your horses'
     strength, if you send them unbridled upon the enemy, as it is
     recorded the Roman horse to their great glory have often done; their
     bits being taken off, they charged through and again back through
     the enemy's ranks with great slaughter, breaking down all their
     spears."—Idem, xl. 40.]

The Duke of Muscovy was anciently obliged to pay this reverence to the
Tartars, that when they sent an embassy to him he went out to meet them
on foot, and presented them with a goblet of mares' milk (a beverage of
greatest esteem amongst them), and if, in drinking, a drop fell by chance
upon their horse's mane, he was bound to lick it off with his tongue.
The army that Bajazet had sent into Russia was overwhelmed with so
dreadful a tempest of snow, that to shelter and preserve themselves from
the cold, many killed and embowelled their horses, to creep into their
bellies and enjoy the benefit of that vital heat. Bajazet, after that
furious battle wherein he was overthrown by Tamerlane, was in a hopeful
way of securing his own person by the fleetness of an Arabian mare he had
under him, had he not been constrained to let her drink her fill at the
ford of a river in his way, which rendered her so heavy and indisposed,
that he was afterwards easily overtaken by those that pursued him. They
say, indeed, that to let a horse stale takes him off his mettle, but as
to drinking, I should rather have thought it would refresh him.

Croesus, marching his army through certain waste lands near Sardis, met
with an infinite number of serpents, which the horses devoured with great
appetite, and which Herodotus says was a prodigy of ominous portent to
his affairs.

We call a horse entire, that has his mane and ears so, and no other will
pass muster. The Lacedaemonians, having defeated the Athenians in
Sicily, returning triumphant from the victory into the city of Syracuse,
amongst other insolences, caused all the horses they had taken to be
shorn and led in triumph. Alexander fought with a nation called Dahas,
whose discipline it was to march two and two together armed on one horse,
to the war; and being in fight, one of them alighted, and so they fought
on horseback and on foot, one after another by turns.

I do not think that for graceful riding any nation in the world excels
the French. A good horseman, according to our way of speaking, seems
rather to have respect to the courage of the man than address in riding.
Of all that ever I saw, the most knowing in that art, who had the best
seat and the best method in breaking horses, was Monsieur de Carnavalet,
who served our King Henry II.

I have seen a man ride with both his feet upon the saddle, take off his
saddle, and at his return take it up again and replace it, riding all the
while full speed; having galloped over a cap, make at it very good shots
backwards with his bow; take up anything from the ground, setting one
foot on the ground and the other in the stirrup: with twenty other ape's
tricks, which he got his living by.

There has been seen in my time at Constantinople two men upon one horse,
who, in the height of its speed, would throw themselves off and into the
saddle again by turn; and one who bridled and saddled his horse with
nothing but his teeth; an other who betwixt two horses, one foot upon one
saddle and the other upon another, carrying the other man upon his
shoulders, would ride full career, the other standing bolt upright upon
and making very good shots with his bow; several who would ride full
speed with their heels upward, and their heads upon the saddle betwixt
several scimitars, with the points upwards, fixed in the harness. When I
was a boy, the prince of Sulmona, riding an unbroken horse at Naples,
prone to all sorts of action, held reals—[A small coin of Spain, the
Two Sicilies, &c.]—under his knees and toes, as if they had been nailed
there, to shew the firmness of his seat.