Horse Archers: The Feared Unit of Ancient and Medieval Warfare

Across the Ancient and Medieval worlds, archers mounted on horses wield a powerful combination of speed and firepower. As such, horse archers were almost unbeatable.

Sep 4, 2023By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology

horse archers


A horse archer is a cavalryman armed with a bow who can shoot while riding on the back of a horse. This style of warfare appears to have developed on the open plains of Eurasia as a way to hunt and protect animal herds. In war, the combination of horse and archer proved to be incredibly effective. As such, horse archers were found in Europe, Africa, and Asia, as well as in the Americas after the reintroduction of the horse. The speed and mobility of the horse, combined with the range and firepower of the archer, won innumerable victories on the battlefield. This meant that for centuries, the horse archer was the most feared and effective fighting force in the Ancient and Medieval worlds.


Origins of the Horse Archer

wall relief assyrian horse archer
Wall Relief of Horse Archers, Neo-Assyrian 865-860 BCE, From The British Museum


The horse archer is believed to have developed on the vast Eurasian plain as the Bronze Age was giving way to the Iron Age. The nomadic lifestyle of the peoples living in this region lent itself to the development of horse archery. Superb horsemanship was required for hunting and herding, and there was the ever-present threat of raids from neighboring communities. It was these same conditions which, more than a millennium earlier, had given rise to the chariot. However, as horses were bred to be larger and bow-making technology improved, the sheer cost of the chariot came to outweigh its utility. Horse archers were cheaper, faster, mobile, and could be fielded in greater quantity than the chariot.


Around the 9th century BCE, horse archers appeared in the art of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Also around this time the nomadic Scythians began to make their presence felt. Since the Eurasian steppe was resource-poor, the nomadic peoples of this region were never as numerous as their settled neighbors. Nor could they compete in terms of the quality or quantity of their arms and armor. It was the development of the horse archer that changed this equation. Armies of horse archers could move further and faster, effectively multiplying the power of these nomadic peoples. Thus, the Scythian horse archers made entire empires tremble and may have served as the inspiration for the mythical centaur.


Horse Archer vs. Mounted Archer

print of robin hood scottish
Print of Robin Hood, Scottish Early 16th Century, From National Library of Scotland


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Horses and bows were, of course, not unique to the nomadic peoples of Eurasia. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between the horse archer and the mounted archer. At the most basic level, the horse archer fights as a type of cavalryman and remains mounted on their horse in battle. The mounted archer, on the other hand, rides to the battlefield on a horse and then dismounts in order to fight. In the Ancient and Medieval worlds, this was a very important distinction as it determined how a battle would be fought.


georgians mongols hayton corycus print.
Battle between Mongols and Georgians, Armenian 13th Century, From Wikimedia Commons


Despite all of the advantages that fielding horse archers conferred on an army, there were many Ancient and Medieval cultures that did make use of them. This includes, as well, those that made use of mounted archers. For some, it was a matter of geography or the environment not being suitable for raising the necessary horses. Horse archers needed wide open spaces in order to be effective, so mountainous regions and thick forests could pose problems. Some regions were just not suitable for raising horses, which made them too valuable to risk in battle. There were also those that lacked a culture of mounted combat of any kind. Both the Greeks and Romans, for example, favored infantry. As such, not every culture that could make use of horse archers chose to do so.


Horse Archer Equipment

recurve bow italian indo persian
Recurve Bow, Italian or Indo-Persian c. 1500, From The Metropolitan Museum of Art; with


The most important equipment used by both Ancient and Medieval horse archers were, of course, the horse and the bow. Over the course of the Ancient and Medieval periods, there were great advances in the development of horse tack. Saddles, horseshoes, and stirrups provided great advantages to the riders. However, all that was really required for a successful horse archer was the ability to ride with both hands free. This was a matter more of the rider’s skill than any piece of technology. The same is true of the bow. Certain types and styles were more suitable for use on horseback, but this did not mean that they could not be used at all.


recurve bow diagram modern
Recurve Bow Diagram, Modern, From


Usually, however, the shorter composite recurve bow was preferred. These bows were short enough to conveniently be used on the back of a horse while also maintaining their range and power. Generally, horse archers went into battle with little to no armor. Their horse’s speed was their primary means of defense. Occasionally, there were some heavily armored horse archers who would also engage in melee combat, but this was not the norm. Most horse archers preferred to avoid direct melee combat as much as possible. However, since that was not always avoidable, most usually had some kind of sidearm like a sword, dagger, or axe.


Tactics of the Horse Archer

scaraboid with persian archer
Scaraboid with Persian Archer, Achaemenid 500-301 BCE, From The Museum of Fine Arts Boston


In battle, horse archers generally fought as light skirmishers. Their goal was to exhaust and wear down their opponents. They relied on hit-and-run tactics to cause disorder and confusion by luring the enemy out of formation so that they could be surrounded and destroyed. These tactics originated from the same sort of movements that were used to hunt and herd animals on the steppe. They allowed the horse archer to make use of their greater speed and mobility while also not coming to direct blows with the enemy. Once the horse archers had sufficiently worn down, exhausted, and disordered their opponents, they would move in to deliver the finishing blow.


mirror with hunting scene
Mirror with Hunting Scene, Tang 8th Century, From The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Ancient and Medieval horse archers often fought in conjunction with more heavily armed and armored units, such as cataphracts. Once the horse archers had sufficiently worn down the enemy, it was these heavy troops that would deliver the finishing blow. Heavy horse archers, however, operated a little differently. Unlike their light counterparts, who fought in a fluid, swirling manner, the heavy horse archer fought in a well-defined formation. They shot arrows in volleys to weaken the enemy before charging in to fight in close-quarters combat. This was intended to break up the enemy formation so that the charging cavalry would have more success when they made contact.


Horse Archers Across Eurasia

overlay for bow and arrow case
Overlay for a Bow and Arrow Case, Scythian 4th Century BCE, From The State Hermitage Museum


The earliest evidence of horse archers is found on the Eurasian steppe and in the art of the Neo-Assyrians during the early Iron Age. At this time the Nomadic Scythians were raiding across the Caucuses into the Ancient Near East. Horse archers replaced chariots in many ancient armies as they were cheaper to recruit, train and maintain. While the Neo-Assyrians and Medes made use of horse archers, it was the Achaemenid Persians who were one of the great driving forces behind their spread. The Greco-Persian Wars and conquests of Alexander the Great introduced the concept to the Hellenistic world and possibly India. Contact between China and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom helped supply the necessary horses for the development of Chinese horse archery as a way to combat its own barbarian invaders. Rome and the so-called “Barbarian invaders” then ensured that horse archers spread to every corner of the Mediterranean and Europe.


cylinder seal with horse archer
Cylinder Seal with a Horse Archer, Achaemenid 5th Century BCE, From The British Museum


By the Medieval period, the horse archer was already an established feature across the Eurasian continent. However, the concept continued to spread, reaching the shores of Japan and the jungles of Vietnam. It was also during the Medieval period that some of the greatest horse archers ever seen made their appearance. Few armies were able to compete with the Turkish and Mongol horse archers who swept across Asia, Europe, and Africa. It was the horse archers that, during this period, built some of the largest land empires that the world had ever seen.


Horse Archer Battles

bowl turkic horse archer
Ceramic Plaque with a Horse Archer, Parthian 1st-3rd Century CE, From The British Museum; with Bowl with a Turkic Horse Archer, Persian 12th-13th Century, From The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Possibly the greatest horse archer battle of Antiquity was the 53 BCE battle of Carrhae which was fought by the Romans under Crassus and the Parthians under Surena. Crassus’ 40,000 Romans marched into battle and were lured into the flat desert terrain by Surena’s 10,000 Parthians. Continuous attacks by the Parthian horse archers gradually wore down the Romans. The Romans attempted to deal with the horse archers but were overwhelmed by the supporting Parthian cataphracts. When the battle eventually came to an end, some 20,000 Romans, including Crassus, had been killed, and another 10,000 were taken prisoner. Parthian losses were minimal.


During the Medieval period, there are far more examples of horse archer battles to draw from, but the 1071 CE battle of Manzikert is an excellent example. Here 40,000 soldiers under the Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV faced off against Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan’s army of 30-50,000. As the Byzantine army advanced, the Seljuks fell back while the Seljuk horse archers maintained a steady rain of arrows. Individual Byzantine units attempted to come to grips with the horse archers who simply galloped away. With night approaching and his army spread out, Romanos ordered a withdrawal to reorganize his forces. It was at that moment that the Seljuks charged. Most of the Byzantine troops immediately fled, though others fought back heroically. Ultimately, however, the Byzantines were defeated, and Romanos himself was captured.


Highwater of the Horse Archer

battle of leignitz european
The Battle of Leignitz, European 1353, From The Getty Museum; with Rashid-ad-Din’s Gami’ at-tawarih (Pursuit of Rashid-ad-Din by the Mongols), Mongol/Persian 14th Century, From Wikimedia Commons


The absolute high-water mark of the horse archer’s domination of the battlefield came in the 12th and 13th Centuries CE. It was at this time that the Mongols, under the leadership of Chinggis Khan and his immediate successors, created the greatest land empire the world has ever seen. Mongol horse archers won victories in battles that stretched from Japan to Central Europe, literally fighting their way across the Eurasian continent. The dominance of the Mongol horse archers was not the result of any new tactic or revolutionary technology. They fought in a manner and with weapons that would not have been unfamiliar to the Seljuk and Parthians. Rather, it was their organizational prowess, discipline, and the skill of their leaders that made the Mongol horse archers so formidable.


It was this that also proved to be their undoing. Rarely were the Mongol horse archers defeated on the battlefield, and when they were, it was usually by an enemy that fielded horse archers of their own. What brought about their downfall was civil war as various Mongol warlords fought each other. This did not mean that their horse archers were any easier to defeat, just that they now focused as much effort on fighting each other as they did on external enemies. It was not the first time that this had happened either. The best horse archers were usually drawn from nomadic tribes, whose constant infighting made it difficult for them to keep an army together for an extended period of time.


Legacy of the Horse Archer

kawasaki racecourse yabusame kishashiki
Modern Horse Archer Hilary Merrill, 21st Century CE, From Decathlon; with Kawasaki Racecourse Yabusame Kishashiki, Japan 2019, From The Japanese Equestrian Archery Association


Horse archers were always weak against massed archers who could outshoot them and who were smaller targets. However, it was the eventual development and maturity of firearms that rendered the horse archer obsolete. Still, it was a long process, with horse archers continuing to win battles well into the 19th century. Repeating firearms, railroads, and mechanized transportation ultimately brought an end to the dominance of the horse archer, even on the steppes and plains. As a result, the skills and traditions of the horse archer began to disappear until a modern revival in many parts of the world over the course of the 20th century. Today various schools of horse archery can be found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.


painting bamsi beyrek mongol
Painting of Bamsi Beyrek, Turco-Mongolian c.1300, From Cowboy Country Magazine


For millennia the horse archer was able to dominate the battlefields of the Ancient and Medieval world. Though often challenged, they were rarely defeated. While they could not capture large, fortified cities, they did greatly contribute to the creation of some of the greatest empires that the world has ever seen. Their speed, mobility, and skill with the bow inspired innumerable great works of art and literature. As a result, many cultures have adopted the horse archer as an important aspect of their cultural heritage and identity. The practice of horse archery is now thriving across the globe, with many schools and styles representing its long history. If you have the opportunity to see a horse archery demonstration, take it, and in some small way, you will be able to experience a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.

Author Image

By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.