Horses have performed multiple roles throughout military history; they’ve been used for transportation, reconnaissance missions, cavalry charges, packing supplies, and communications. And—when taught to kick, strike, and bite—they became weapons nearly as deadly as those their riders were wielding. War horses also had a potent psychological impact on men in battle—their powerful presence could boost morale and courage, or instill uncontrollable fear in enemy troops.
Though the heyday of the cavalry is over, the impact of the horse’s role in the military is still felt today. Largely motivated by increasing the battlefield efficiency of their cavalries, militaries have made tremendous advancements in horsemanship, breeding, husbandry, and gear. Horses were selectively bred to be taller, stronger, and faster, and many foundation bloodlines were established thanks to martial breeding programs. And riders developed more efficient means of controlling their mounts through better tack technology. The invention of the solid-treed saddle and paired stirrups allowed soldiers to have increased mobility and stability. The importance of leg and seat aids also became more understood, freeing up the rider’s hands and allowing them to use their weapons more accurately.
Many of today’s riding disciplines have roots in military training and conditioning: The standardization of battlefield maneuvers became the foundation of dressage; three-day eventing came from cavalry exercises to develop more versatile animals and mounted shooting is an obvious descendant.
Although war horses played a crucial role in the advancement of Western Civilization, they are largely unsung heroes who have faded from public consciousness. The following animals are horses who played a critical role in American military history.
“…a favorite and splendid charger named Nelson, a light sorrel, 16 hands high, with white face and legs, and remarkable as being the first nicked horse seen in America.” —George Washington Parke Custis, President George Washington’s adopted son
Considered “the best horseman of his age” by Thomas Jefferson, President George Washington was widely renowned for his incredible riding prowess, as well as being a fine judge of horseflesh. One of his favorite mounts was a tall sorrel named Nelson, gifted to him in 1778 by Governor Thomas Nelson of Virginia. Washington had been looking for a new horse to see him through the Revolution and in gratitude, named his new warhorse after the governor.
Although it was another of Washington’s horses, Blueskin, who was most often memorialized by artists thanks to his striking grey coloring, Nelson was Washington’s favored mount during battle as he was far less likely than the jumpy grey to startle at the sound of cannon fire. Indeed, Nelson carried Washington through much of the Revolutionary War. In fact, Washington chose to ride Nelson during the history-changing surrender of Lord Cornwallis and the British Army in 1781.
After his retirement from the battlefield, Nelson spent the rest of his days being affectionately pampered at Washington’s Mansion House Farm. In a collection of remembrances, Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, wrote that as the president toured his grounds, he would make a point to stop by Nelson’s paddock, where “the old warhorse would run, neighing, to the fence, proud to be caressed by the great master’s hands.”
“If I was an artist… I would draw a true picture of Traveller… Such a picture would inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth, and describe his endurance of toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold; and the dangers and suffering through which he has passed.” —Robert E. Lee, in a letter to Markie Williams
A true horse of the Confederacy, Traveller was a Virginia-born Saddlebred originally named Jeff Davis after the President of the Confederate States of America. In 1862, General Robert E. Lee purchased the grey from Captain Joseph M. Broun, and rode him throughout the duration of the Civil War.
Traveller’s name change was inspired by his unusually quick pace and incredible stamina. It was remarked that the horse was often ridden over 40 miles a day, and Lee’s son had this to say about the animal’s punishing pace:
“The general had the strongest affection for Traveller…and his allowing me to ride him on this long march [to Fredericksburg] was a great compliment. …I think I am safe in saying that I could have walked the distance with much less discomfort and fatigue.”
It is stated that Traveller went into battle more than any other horse of the Civil War, and his bravery on the battlefield—along with that of his rider—was remarkable.
During the Overland Campaign of 1864, soldiers literally had to grab at the horse’s bridle to prevent the powerful animal from galloping their commander to the dangerous front lines.
Following the war, Traveller accompanied Lee to Washington College (since named Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va., where Lee served as the school’s president for his remaining years. Traveller lived out the end of his days there, dying a year after Lee.
In 1971, after years of being constantly relocated and vandalized, Traveller’s remains were finally buried in a wooden box encased in concrete, just a few feet away from the Lee family crypt, so that he may be forever close to his master. In a touching tribute to the warhorse, the stable on campus, where he lived his last days, traditionally leaves its doors open so that the spirit of Traveller may roam freely.
Comanche (c. 1868–1891)
“He carries seven scars from as many bullet wounds. There are four back of the foreshoulder, one through a hoof, and one on either hind leg… Comanche is not a great horse, physically talking; he is of medium size, neatly put up, but quite noble looking.” —from the Bismarck Tribune, 1878
Sometime around 1868, a little “claybank” colored colt of indeterminate breeding was sold with a group of mustangs to the cavalry unit, to be used in the Indian Wars. The horse was assigned to Captain Walter Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry and proved to be an indestructible animal, carrying his rider successfully through multiple skirmishes, despite arrow and bullet wounds. Keogh named his brave little horse Comanche, after the fighting spirit and courage of the Comanche Indians.
In June of 1876, General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry—with Captain Keogh and Comanche—to one of the most botched and bloody military battles, the Battle of Little Big Horn. When the melee was over, Comanche was one of the only survivors on the battlefield, and just barely. His state was so grievous that the Sioux, who usually took enemy mounts as spoils of war, left the gelding to die.
But he didn’t. Two days after the battle, a U.S. soldier found the little horse and transported him to Fort Lincoln, N.D., where he was slowly nursed back to health and retired, with honors.
In 1878, Colonel Samuel Sturgis commanded that in honor of “being the only living representative of the bloody tragedy of the Little Big Horn,” that Comanche would “not be ridden by any person whatsoever, under any circumstances, nor [would] he be put to any kind of work.”
Comanche was eventually moved to Fort Riley, Kan., where he was made Second Commanding Officer of the 7th Cavalry, allowed to wander the grounds, and often found enjoying beer and biscuits begged off the officers and their wives.
After his death in 1891, Comanche was given full military honors, one of only two horses to be given a full military funeral for their service.
Black Jack (1947–1976)
“Black Jack has been a poignant symbol of our nation’s grief on many occasions over the years. Citizens in mourning felt dignity and purpose conveyed, a simpler yet deeper tribute to the memory of those heroic ‘riders’ who have given so much for our nation. Our people are grateful to Black Jack for helping us bear the burden of sorrow during difficult times.” —President Richard Nixon
A powerful military tradition since the time of Genghis Khan, the riderless horse symbolizes a rider’s last journey; the boots face backward in the stirrups to represent the fallen soldier having one last look at his loved ones.
Black Jack, who served as the riderless horse for more than 1,000 Armed Forces funerals, was a member of the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. Known as the Old Guard, the regiment is the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry regiment, dating back to 1784. Though Black Jack never saw a battlefield, his is a major contribution to America’s military traditions.
From the start, it was clear that Black Jack was not meant to be a riding horse—he threw off rider after rider while being started at Fort Reno, Okla. His black coloring, animation, and striking good looks, however, made him ideal for the position of the riderless horse.
Black Jack performed the role for many notable figures, including Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and General Douglas MacArthur, but it was his participation in President John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession that made him a national treasure. The striking image of the coal-black horse with boots backward in the stirrups was a poignant and stirring symbol of the beloved fallen president. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was so moved by the sight that she bought Black Jack after his retirement in 1973.
After 29 years of military service, Black Jack was laid to rest at Fort Meyer, Va. Along with Comanche, he is one of two horses in U.S. history to receive full military honors in recognition of his service.
Sergeant Reckless (1948-1968)
“I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades.” —Lieutenant General Randolph McC. Pate
The plucky little mare that became a beacon of hope for embattled soldiers during the Korean War was bought for $250 from a young boy at the Seoul racetrack. Trained to be a packhorse for the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, she soon became a unit mascot. A notorious eater, Reckless was known to eat everything from scrambled eggs to chocolate to poker chips (at least $30 worth).
Her military role was to carry supplies and ammunition to combat zones and, if necessary, evacuate the wounded. She knew the routes from the base to the front lines so well that she was often able to travel them without a handler. The pinnacle of her military contribution occurred in March of 1953, during desperate fighting at the Battle of Outpost Vegas. On March 27, Reckless made an incredible 51 trips to frontline units, carrying 386 rounds of ammunition—nearly five tons—through enemy fire.
Her true service, however, was bringing hope and happiness to war-weary soldiers with her indomitable spirit. Sergeant Major James E. Bobbitt recalled, “It’s difficult to describe the elation and the boost in morale that little white-faced mare gave Marines as she outfoxed the enemy bringing vitally needed ammunition up the mountain.”
For her service, Reckless was promoted to the rank of corporal in 1953 and sergeant in 1954. She was decorated with two Purple Hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with star, a National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, a United Nations Service Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, all of which she proudly wore on her regal red and gold blanket.
The war hero was retired on Nov. 10, 1960, with full military honors, and lived out her days at the stables at Camp Pendleton in California.