Mongol Horsemen. You wanna be on their side, believe me…


Hubby and I were both reading in bed the other night and out of the blue he turned to me and said, “Y’know, the Mongols had the most successful cavalry ever.  They could ride 50 miles a day and live off of their horses.  You should put that in your blog.”

Me:  50 miles a day??

Hubby:  “Yes!  And they were such incredible warriors, no one could beat them for many years.  They took over everyone.  Genghis Khan, you know…”

Me:  How did they live off of their horses?

Hubby:  “They drank their blood.”

Me:  (now sitting up in bed)  They WHAT?

Hubby:  “Drank their blood.  They drank the blood of their horses and also drank their milk.”

Me:  No way.

Hubby:  (now getting out of bed to go to his vast library of Military History books)  “Yes, way.”

Me:  So they would kill their horses and drink their blood and then bring nursing mares along?

Hubby:  “No, No, they didn’t kill them… they rode nursing mares and drank some of their blood – not enough to kill them, just enough to mix with milk to nourish the troops…”

Me:  They rode nursing mares for 50 miles a day?  And drank their blood?  This is getting ridiculous.

At this point, Hubby drops a 100lb hardback, bound with tree bark, Military History book and he tells me to read about 40 pages of tiny, yellow print.

Instead, I went to Mr. Google, thank you very much.

And so my quest began…

Obviously a re-enactment for the movie…


OK, well, after reading about them for the last hour, let me tell you that you want to make friends.  Be on their side.  If not, you’d better run very fast for very long and never look back.  Those Mongols were not a very warm and fuzzy bunch, if you know what I mean…

There are several reasons why the Mongols were so successful.  The first, simply, was that they really worked very hard at being very good at war.  They thought about strategy night and day … and then trained all the other time.  Practice makes perfect,  and they were pretty perfect at the barbarian stuff.


Mongol Warrior


The best part about all that I read was that Genghis Khan basically said, “No horse, no man.”  So, he insisted that all the men treated their horses like gold.

That was nice.

Here is an excerpt I read:

In some respects, these Mongolian ponies resembled what is now known as Prezwalski’s horse. Mongols held these horses in highest regard and accorded them great spiritual significance. Before setting forth on military expeditions, for example, commanders would scatter mare’s milk on the earth to insure victory.

The Mongols protected their horses in the same way as did they themselves, covering them with lamellar armor. Horse armor was divided into five parts and designed to protect every part of the horse, including the forehead, which had a specially crafted plate which was tied on each side of the neck.

They used a wood and leather saddle, which was rubbed with sheep’s fat to prevent cracking and shrinkage, allowed the horses to bear the weight of their riders for long periods and also permitted the riders to retain a firm seat. Their saddlebags contained cooking pots, dried meat, yogurt, water bottles, and other essentials for lengthy expeditions. Finally, a sturdy stirrup enabled horsemen to be steadier and thus more accurate in shooting when mounted.


Mongol saddle


Because without them, the Mongols would have to fight on foot.  And, since a large part of their culture was war, the horse was a significant partner.

Let’s go into how the horse helped the Mongol warrior…

First, their horses were small, scrappy, could live off of air (practically) and were very agile.  Therefore, these formidable but light horses could carry them into battle and then retreat quickly and stealthily into the surrounding woods.  If needed, they could travel for miles…  And, the Mongols had the breeding business down pat.   They had huge numbers of these well trained and well bred horses.  By culling the best warhorses for reproduction, the Mongols had a superior cavalry (whereas the Chinese failed miserably at breeding for some reason…).

Second, they didn’t ride them for 50 miles a day… they rode 4 different horses for 50 miles a day.  You see, what they did was each warrior had 2-4 horses.  He would armor one and ride it for a while, then switch.  In this way, the unarmored horses just ran along and were fairly fresh.

Thirdly, their horses grew up with the families.  These men were attached to their horses and they knew each other intimately.  The Mongols always used the same horses and they flowed together like water.

Lastly, yes, they did drink their blood.  But, not like a vampire.  If the troops were out of food, they would slit a non-lethal vein and drink some blood of the horse. That horse would not be ridden until he recovered.  But, usually the horses were shes.  Yup, they rode lactating broodmares into battle.  The milk really helped on the longer rides…  And, yes, the foals would come along.  Good training for the babies – start ’em young!

Can you imagine choosing lactating mares for battle?!  But, that is what they did.  And they won.  A lot.

Artist depiction


Not only did these little horses travel many miles in a day, but they had to train and learn tactical maneuvers.

One of the Mongol’s tricks was to flank and circle their enemy by moving more swiftly past them and quietly surrounding them.  Another trick would be to charge and then feign retreat.  When their enemy would go after the ‘retreating Mongols’ the surprise would be the fresh cavalry waiting for them.

And patience was a virtue with them… sometimes the Mongols would bait their enemy for weeks.  They’d fake as if they were retreating and barely keeping ahead.  Then once the Mongols got their foe where they wanted them, the heavy cavalry would come out of the woods and… well, you know the rest.

You see, the Mongols had two cavalries.  The lighter riders who wore less armor and could be incredibly swift and then the heavy cavalry that could move in for the kill.  But, don’t get me wrong, they were all lethal…

They could swivel backwards and wait until all fours were off the ground to release the arrow


Since the Mongols were one of the first to use stirrups, they could swivel in the saddle and shoot their lighter and stronger bows from any direction – even backwards.  The riders would time the arrow release to when all fours were off the ground – if you can believe that!

Another feat of horse mastery was tying tree branches onto the horses so they could drag the limbs along the ground and raise so much dust and noise that the enemy thought there were more of them.  (Try that with your average Show horse.)  To further insult their prisoners, they’d have them ride the extra horses so it appeared as if their troops were larger.

Every soldier was required to build five fires a night and let the shadow of their horses grow large in the reflections of the flames.

The Mongols had many other tricks but we won’t go into how savage they were in battle…

Genghis Khan statue at his tomb


Genghis Khan was the most famous Mongol leader.  His demands on his cavalry were harsh yet very, very effective.  His reverence for the horse was not to be questioned.  Through the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongols and their horses managed to lay foundations for an empire which governed much of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – the largest land empire the world has ever known.

And Khan knew he couldn’t have done it without the horse…

This is Genghis Khan’s mausoleum…


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10 comments have been posted...

  1. Emma

    First of all very good post. Just to clarify they never found the the tomb of the Chingis Khaan and there’s no such thing as his mausoleum. They still haven’t found where his burial was!!!! As far as drinking the horse blood I’ve never heard of such a thing. Although we do still drink the fermented milk to this day and wait anxiously for the season they make it because it is favored by many in Mongolia

  2. Karen

    I really enjoyed another interesting article – thank you!
    Have you seen the film, “Mongol”? It came out a few years back. It was fascinating to see their life on horseback, and yes, LOTS of war between clans and even friends. I’m not sure how accurate it was, but it sure illustrated how their lives revolved around horses, the land, and strategic positioning..
    here is a link to the trailer i googled:


  3. Linda Horn

    I wonder if the reason they rode mares was the same as Arab warriors. Not as much vocalization to tip off the enemy when the boys aren’t around. And kumis – fermented mare’s milk – must be an acquired taste. I think Julia Roberts tried it when she did the Mongolian horse documentary. As I remember, she tried pretty hard to keep her real reaction from her gracious hosts.

  4. Dawn Ratz

    I am very involved in medeival re-enactments, and specifically with equestrian sports. I chose a Mongul warrior persona when I ride because of all you stated. My mount is an 11 year old Percheron broodmare. Those mares have the fire in the belly you need in battle! I am also studing mounted archery and I am waiting for my Yumi (bow) so I can begin in earnest. Please feel free to look me up on face book, and look at my horse picts. More to come as we practice more.

  5. D'Arcy Allison-Teasley

    Thanks for sharing – what a fascinating topic. The Sarmatian mounted warriors were legendary horsemen, too, as well as the Border Reivers…

    Also, on the outside chance you haven’t heard of this: there is a play in the making called ‘WAR HORSE’ based on a book by Michael Morpurgo, in which they are using a life-sized horse “puppet” – might be a blog-worthy topic to explore?

    As always, I am in deep appreciation of your writing and of your intention to share all that is interesting, useful and inspiring in the world where horses and humans meet… thank you.

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