What is the average life expectancy of a cavalry horse? Or rather, “what was the average life expectancy of a cavalry horse?” would be a better way to ask that question. That’s an interesting question to ask and there are a number of variables involved that makes a definitive answer difficult to arrive at.
I get any number of emails concerning this particular question and as such, I thought that I would ramble on a bit about it a bit.
From the literature that I have read containing statistical data, and from anecdotal evidence from former cavalrymen in the US Army I actually knew, there are a number of answers to this question.
General W. H. Carter, US Army notes in his 1906 edition of Horses, Saddles and Bridles that there was one particular horse that was still in active service at around thirty years of age, but that was an exception rather than the rule. I don’t have the book in front of me right now but if I recall correctly, the horse was a veteran of combat.
That said, there are a number of variables involved in coming up with a definitive answer, most particularly whether we’re talking about peace time or war time and which war we are talking about. Another item to be called into question is how long a horse was expected to survive under the rigors of the combat environment. This last question is the easiest to ask given the body of military documents and other literature more or less commonly available.
Generally, as a sweeping rule, a cavalry horse (trooper’s horse, artillery horse, teamsters horse, or any horse in service for that matter) was expected to last, or rather survive under optimum conditions, thirty days or so in the field. That was the expected performance under the harsh conditions and requirements demanded of the horse.
Horse in the US Army Remount program were chosen upon conformational requirements, overall health conditions and temperament. One of the major consideration was whether or not the regulation saddles actually fit a given horse’s back. This was largely because the Army found it easier to make one kind of saddle with little variation in design and find horses that fit the saddles rather than fit thousands of saddles to horses of varying conformations. This was later changed with certain modifications (like a felt covering for the bars of the McClellan Saddle used on modified M1904 and later models which could have various felt wedges sewn in for a better fit – “How to Properly Fit a McClellan Saddle” )
The McClellan Saddle’s bars were allegedly designed to fit a wide variety of horses and improve in the quality of fit as the horse’s back ‘fell away’ during the hardships of service in the field. I say allegedly because in war time horses were only slightly less expendable than the trooper that sat on its back. You can always get more troopers but good horses are hard to find. But that is part and parcel of warfare.
Now, excluding disease, mishandling, exposure to disease, proper veterinary and general care, and levels of usage, and proper rest and rehabilitation after hard field service a cavalry horse can live just as long as any other horse, if it survives service in the field relatively unscathed.
The survival of a horse in combat is an altogether different proposition. There are a number of stories of horses surviving incredible hardships resulting from combat, especially in WW I. Most of these stories, no matter how absurd they might appear to be on the surface are probably true. Horses and humans have a number of things in common one of which is that both are extremely hard to kill as a general rule.
A horse can survive several cavalry charges and many years in service and yet live to be more than thirty years old. Then again, it could live less than thirty seconds if the enemy had machine guns or the rider made a fatal mistake. One has to remember that on the Western Front in WW I, both sides in total suffered about 9,000,000 equine casualties from combat, disease and complications from poor handling or lousy horsemanship. Essentially, the life expectancy of horses in the field and in the combat environment in WW I (or any other war) wasn’t much different from the life expectancy of the human in the same conditions. Once the festivities started, all bets were off and survival became mostly a crap shoot for everyone involved.
One of the things that was noted after WW I was that horses also suffered from the same maladies their human counterparts did (that is, those who survived). It’s been noted that horses that survived combat also suffered from ‘shell shock’ or what we might call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which is a nice way of saying Shell Shock. And that’s just the mental aspect. If a human can suffer from the effects of combat, horses can too and in the same ways from the same causes. Either way, it’s not a winning proposition for either.
So, all things considered, the sweeping generality of the question of “what is the average life expectancy for a cavalry horse?” is essentially the same as to the same question when asked of humans. The answer all depends upon the individual, whether it survived combat in the first place, and in what condition that survival was.
To echo and paraphrase Vladimir S. Littauer on this subject, I, for one, am quite happy that horses are no longer subjected to warfare service on such a massive scale (or any scale, hopefully) as in WW I (or any other war for that matter).