A Call to the Cavalry: is the Horse Still Relevant in Fulfilling Man’s Needs?

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

Each February 9th, Indonesia celebrates its National Cavalry day. Why this particular date? It’s actually in commemoration of the establishment of the Perwira Senjata Bantuan Panser (roughly translated as “Panzer Aid Assistance Officers”) as part of the Indonesian Army. This unit was established based on the Army Chief of Staff Decree No. KPTS-2/ Kasad/Pnt/50 on 9 February 1950. This unit was led by Raden Mas Sujarso Surjosurarso; a graduate of the Netherlands Royal Military Academy in the town of Breda, who also had several years of serving the Dutch royal army under his belt. The motto of the Indonesian National Army’s, especially its Cavalry unit, is Tri Daya Cakti, which portrays three types of tactical strengths; movement, firepower, and the element of surprise or shock. The cavalry now regards all matters relating to armored vehicles, tanks, and canons; back in the day, they were all about soldiers on horses.

The world cavalry is derived from the mid 16th century French word cavalerie. Taking it back even further, its origins are actually from Latin’s caballus, where most European languages derive their words for “horse” from. Yes, the horse becomes the center of the English word cavalry, which is roughly translated into “horsemen” or “warriors who fight mounted on horseback”. Those who were given the opportunity to ride into battle on horseback had the advantage of height, speed, and mass over their opponents on the ground.

The initial role of the horse on the battlefield, which dates back to around 1500BC, was to pull four-wheeled wagons, which later on evolved into chariots used in battle. The horse has always been an important figure in human mobilization yet tanks now commonly replace them. Before the invention of modern warfare technology used to replace them, horses were trained to behave in a “manageable” manner, which often contradicts with their natural instincts such as fleeing from sudden movements and signs of danger. The horse itself was shaped into a weapon, additionally equipped with the power of its bites and kicks.

The first historical evidence of fighting on horseback, according to the American Museum of Natural History, was not until 900BC; when the nomadic, ancient Scythians of Siberia went on to raid the Greeks and fight the Persians. They were known for their charges on horseback; a sight that was said to have possibly inspired the imaginings of the Greek Centaur. The horse’s image as a warrior became even more cemented with the Trojan horse event and with its depictions on ancient ceramics. We even have the domestication of the horse to thank for in regards to the invention of trousers that provided comfort from long periods on horseback.

Yes, we owe a lot to the Equus ferus caballus (also known as the horse); it’s no wonder they hold a special place in the hearts of many. Sometimes forgotten, their bravery for standing beside man in modern warfare has been documented in both visual and written form. It then becomes quite baffling to see that, in this day and age, there are still those who use (literal) horsepower for everyday activities. The use of horses to fulfill needs of humans is starting to come into question, since most of them are considered tertiary needs rather than primary ones. Should we take a closer look into what we use horses for nowadays, it’s mostly for entertainment and ceremonial needs. Plowing and SAR (Search and Rescue) activities are sometimes still dependent on the power of the horse; however, just like all other needs, this unquestionably can be substituted with automated technology. In a puzzling turn of events, the United States has released an official document named Army Training Publication (ATP) 3-18.13, Special Forces Use of Pack Animals; a guide on the functional aspects of the use of animals in operations of war, released in 2014. Their defense for the continuation of animal use is the existence of remote environments that can only be reached with the help of pack animals.

One ancient occupation that we still submit horses to is the pulling of carriages. Despite efforts in place against it, the sight of horses pulling large, heavy carriages for human entertainment is still common. In Indonesia, there still exists the traditional horse-pulled carriage mode of transportation called “delman” amidst motorcycles and automobiles. Most recently, in the Indonesian social media realm, there was a viral video showing a delman coachman fiercely beating his horse over and over. Fortunately, an animal welfare organization was able to track the horse down and rescue him to safety, although he was already in poor physical condition. The coachman was nowhere to be found, said to have fled the scene. In New York City, horse-drawn carriages have been secluded to Central Park, away from the bustling streets, but activists are still advocating for their complete halt.

Perhaps a truthful way of depicting man’s relationship with the horse is reflected in Fortunino Matania’s “Goodbye, Old Man”. In the painting, a soldier is seen parting ways with his fatally injured animal companion after going through what we can only imagine as traumatic experiences together. At first, we as humans tend to only look out for ourselves, trying to find ways to make our daily activities less burdensome. We delegate and drag the horse into our ordeals, making them fight our fights and toil in our tasks. It is only in the end, when we are on the brink of losing them, do we get struck in awe by their loyalty towards us… and see them as fellow living and sentient creatures that lead lives of their own.