The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 3 - December 1968

Ponies in Warfare with Especial Reference to South Africa

by Major G. Tylden

The reaction of most people to any mention of a mounted man in warfare is that he should be riding a large, strong horse and be wearing some form of armour! He would combine considerable pace in attack with some form of the arme blanche, sword, battle axe, mace or lance. Yet it is more than probable that a majority of the wars in which equines were employed in battle were waged by men using ponies and some combination of missile and shock weapons. For some three hundred years the word "Horse" has been used to describe the average cavalry and this form of nomenclature lasted on well into the present century; in fact a good many men who read this article will recall their fathers and indeed themselves having belonged to "Somebody's Horse". They will in fact have been mounted riflemen riding the justly valued and renowned South African pony!

It will be as well, at this stage, to define roughly what is meant by the term pony. A pony is generally considered to be about fourteen hands two inches (or two inches under five feet; measured at the highest point of the wither just in front of the saddle. A pony's weight would be about 800-900 lbs. If very strongly built he could be classed as a cob. He should for war have a considerable amount of Eastern or, in other words, Arab blood. A cob could be fifteen hands and again, speaking roughly, a horse from 15 hands upwards. Since the First World War, which ended in 1918, a large amount of professional opinion has held strong views that for campaigning fifteen hands is the largest size equine which can be profitably employed; the emphasis being on the word profitably. The point being that the smaller, within reason, an animal is, the less food he requires and the more work he can do, as will appear.

Presumably the most satisfactory mount for large scale (world wide would be a better term) warlike operations is the still unchanged Mongol pony of Genghiz Khan's armies of seven or more centuries ago. Standing under fourteen hands, thickset, and presumably a cross of Eastern sires with a primitive type of Far Eastern Asia, this pony once took his masters from Mongolia to China, India, the Near East and on to the gates of Vienna. These incredibly tough mounts were used in both cavalry fighting with the arme blanche and as a moving platform for highly skilled archery. They were considered by Frederick the Great, one of the leading cavalry commanders and organisers in history, as of the very greatest value. Writing in about 1 760 he tells us that "large horses are completely useless for cavalry", they should not exceed fifteen hands three inches, that the third rank of his Dragoon Regiments -- we should class them as Medium Cavalry -- always rode Tartar ponies, that some Dragoon units had all Tartar ponies, as "they can be used every day" and that the Hussar troop horses were the same. These Tartar ponies were what we should call Cossack ponies and were the direct descendants of the Mongol ponies. In parenthesis it may be noted that the Mongol pony of this century when exported to Hong Kong, trained and raced, is called quite incorrectly, the China Pony. They have always had a good turn of speed.

Except in appearance the South African pony has a great deal in common with the product of Mongolia. There has always been a great deal of Eastern blood in South Africa and on this unsurpassable foundation thoroughbred sires from Great Britain had very notable effects. As bred in the old Cape Colony and used by the Voortrekkers, the ponies emerged as incredibly hardy, surefooted, fast, docile if properly treated, most comfortable to ride, excellent for light harness work and ideal for any exigencies which a campaign might bring forth. It was after the Great Trek that the Basuto began to breed the new celebrated pony that carries their name. For many years these ponies were not broken in until they were four or five years old, having run wild in the mountains under terribly hard conditions. Their hardihood was, and still is, almost proverbial. They differ much less from other ponies bred in the Republic of South Africa than is generally believed, but probably they run a little smaller.

There were, of course, considerable numbers of horses, as distinct from ponies, bred in the country and up to the discovery of diamonds in the early seventies of last century large numbers were exported to India for both Cavalry and Horse Artillery. From this time onwards, mainly ponies were bred and all authorities are agreed as to their excellence for standing up to the hardest work on very short rations without any but the shortest possible spells of rest. We have Major General Sir E. Y. Brabant's evidence of the admirable mounts of the Imperial Cape Mounted Rifles of the fifties. He calls them "the best military animals in the world" and adds that they carried over 20 stone in marching order. Many bore the brand of Piet Pienaar of Colesberg and they lasted extremely well without having anything the matter with them. There are many illustrations showing them as short backed strong active ponies. It was noted that the 7th Dragoon Guards who came to South Africa in the forties looked too large for the small troop horses bought locally but the extra weight carried made no appreciable difference, as the once well known cavalry charge at the Gwanga on the 8th June, 1846 showed. A large force of Xhosas was caught in the open and suffered severe losses. This action showed that the Cape pony -- the C.M.R. charged with the Dragoon Guards -- could function as well as larger horses in the role of cavalry troop horses. In the fifties Lieutenant, later Colonel, Valentine Baker rode a Cape charger through two campaigns, took the horse to India, to the Crimea in 1855 and then to England. He wrote as follows, "the Cape is in my opinion the beau ideal of a light cavalry horse; strong, compact, hardy and temperate and bearing the change to any climate without deteriorating. He is a small, coarse looking, cross made animal; but wonderfully hardy and enduring". Baker was a very experienced man with great knowledge of the Arab, Persian and Turcoman remounts in use in India. There were a number of breeders turning out good looking ponies though Baker's remarks on the subject were substantiated by other writers. It was probably often Arab blood -- very much liked -- that gave good looks, for there is evidence that in the seventies and eighties of the last century the ponies from the north of Basutoland showed marked Arab characteristics. As is well known it was under Mahomet that the Arab increased so much and these ponies, the foundation stock of all the best known riding breeds in the world, took their Mahometan riders in their white cloaks right across North Africa, through Spain and up to the centre of France, the furthest point reached. This was a hundred years after the death of the Prophet. The Arab is still very much to the fore and the so called Barbs, cross bred Arabs of N. Africa, Egypt and Syria also made their mark as troop horses right up to modern times. The charge of these 14.2 hand ponies at Omdurman in the Sudan just before the South African War is famous and compares well with what the South African ponies did at the Gwanga.

In fact the Cape pony will stand comparison with any other breed as a troop horse, as this account is intended to show.

There is a considerable amount of evidence about them during the South African War of 1899-1902. The points stressed by men who really knew what they were writing about were the hard conditions under which the mares bred and reared their foals with little food except the roughest pasture and not infrequently having to be driven long distances with very little water to fresh grazing when one of the inevitable droughts made it obligatory. Somehow most of the foals would survive and became hardy, incredibly surefooted and they retained a very fair amount of speed and great activity. "You couldn't kill a South African pony with an axe, as the Irish used to say of their tough mountain ponies", is one quotation. You couldn't and still cannot throw him down either, however bad the going.

A good pony needs a real horsemaster (not the same thing necessarily as a good horseman) and that the South African is. The mounting of a Commando and the management of the ponies was superlative. A very considerable percentage of the men took two or even as many as four or five ponies with them and the spare mounts were herded by Africans not far from their masters always on an unexposed flank. So these ponies were grazing most of the time and those in the ranks so to speak could graze with the bits in at halts. Six miles an hour was an average pace and forty miles a day could be covered without undue strain. If necessary a very fast approach march of anything up to thirty miles could be attained. It is obvious that changes of mounts conferred a very great mobility, much greater than was possible with the average big troop horse of European armies. The American cavalry at times mounted their regiments on Broncos, Western ponies 14 hands two inches weighing 600-800 lbs, "as active as cats", with admirable results. The American cavalryman, like the Commando men, rode light, with as little impedimenta as possible on the saddle.

None of the imported horses could compare for efficiency with the South African home product and every British soldier who could, got hold by hook or by crook, of what he called a Boer pony.

By 1914 the tremendous losses in horseflesh during the South African War had been made good with no increase in size and again the troop ponies showed the same extraordinary hardihood and disregard of rough conditions. In Botha's well known and admired campaign in South West Africa in 1915 there was no chance of any spare mounts accompanying the regiments. The distances covered and the incredibly small losses in the remounts once again showed what the South African pony is capable of doing. Coen Brits's push with his Transvaalers right up to the North was especially noticeable in this regard as was the cornering of the Germans at Otavi by Manie Botha and the Freestaters. World War II was not fought with horseflesh but it is permissible to close this account with a memory of the splendid troop horses, not all ponies, collected for the mounted Commandos that could not and did not function in their proper role.

Tylden, "Horses and Saddlery", pub. J. A. Allen 1965, illus. Deals in great detail with the South African horse generally. The Bibliography is very full.
Jay Luvaas, "The Education of An Army", Cassell 1964 and Liddell Hart, "Great Captains Unveiled", 1927, for the Mongol invasions.
Jay Luvaas, "Frederick the Great on the Art of War". The Free Press, New York, 1966, pp.81, 82. for Frederick's views.
Fuller, "Decisive Battles of the Western World", Eyre & Spottiswoode 1954, for the Mahometan invasions. In Volume 1.

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