They shoot horses, don’t they?
The recent media-hyped furore over two horses sadly killed in this year’s Grand National steeplechase got me thinking about how our attitudes have changed to the horse over the last hundred years or so.
Nobody could accuse me of being unsentimental about horses. I can’t watch ‘Black Beauty’, and having sat through both ‘Phar Lap’ and ‘Seabiscuit’ on DVD at home the thought of taking wife and daughter to Spielberg’s forthcoming adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse’ and having to sit through it in a cinema full of people fills me with dread.
Part of the problem is our modern perception of the horse as a large, friendly and generally harmless animal. Really, the horse is the same as it was then; a servant of man. Except that, in the West at least, now it serves us in the slightly different capacity of ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘mode of transport’. And because relatively few people have real contact with horses nowadays, overreaction on the ‘cruelty’ front is understandable to some extent.
Battlefield reaction to mounted troops was very different. Never having been in a combat situation, where my life was in danger, it’s difficult to be completely objective. But I suppose the reaction of any infantryman faced by a mounted opponent is the same today as it always was – kill the enemy before he kills you. And the easiest way to disable a cavalryman was to kill his horse.
In theory that sounds quite simple. You’ve got a musket, and a horse is a pretty big target. Problem was that muskets weren’t very accurate. It seems crazy to us today, but unless your target was no more than fifty yards away you were just as likely to miss it as hit it. Why?
Many of you will know muskets were muzzle-loaded. To be able to ram the ball down the barrel the ammunition had to be slightly smaller than the barrel diameter. This gap, or ‘windage’, meant when the musket was fired the ball would rattle up the barrel so there was no guarantee it exited in a straight line. Muskets were not even fitted with sights; they would have been pointless. It was a case of ‘poke muzzle in the general direction and pull trigger…’ and hope something gets in the way. Some troops had rifles, as anyone who’s watched or read Sharpe knows, but while these were accurate up to several hundred yards in skilled hands, they were few and far between.
This made trying to shoot a galloping cavalryman really difficult. The bigger target was easier to hit – the horse might not stop, but wounding it was a better result than missing your shot altogether. And if you did manage to kill the horse, the now dismounted cavalryman was usually left with just his sabre – his pistol and carbine were holstered on the horse. And you might have reloaded your musket by the time he got to his feet.
So regrettably, the order to infantry menaced by charging cavalry was usually “Shoot the horses!”
Reality can sometimes be pretty bloody.
PS. Jockey Peter Toole was still in a coma last night after suffering serious head injuries from a fall in an earlier race on Grand National day. Shame he didn’t get the same level of press coverage.
Update 14th April: According to the BBC, Peter Toole was critical but stable yesterday after coming out of his coma. Fingers crossed he makes a full recovery.