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Why Did Military Leaders Ride Horses In Battle?

February 16, 2018

Why did military officers ride horses into battle?  Why did Roman centurions wear a distinctive crest on their helmet, allowing everyone, including their enemies, to easily single them out?  Why have military leaders always been up front, suffering casualties out of proportion with their numbers? 


The answer is simple.  If troops cannot see, hear, or know that their leaders are with them and sharing risks, then they will waver.  It is an interesting aspect of leadership.  In order to be an effective leader, it is not enough to be tactically savvy, or a good organizer, or have good people skills.  In battle, you have to be visible.  Troops que off the leader.  If the leader looks calm despite the violence and chaos, the troops are reassured that it is all going according to plan.  If the leader looks panicked or disappears, the troops will likewise start looking for reasons to panic and disappear. 


Nobody likes to be sent out alone.  One of the cardinal rules I learned in the Army is that you never send soldiers out by themselves.  People need someone else to commiserate with, to encourage each other, and to share risks with.  And a large part of a leader’s role is to be that person. 


There is a common misconception about the American Revolution that has been coined the “rock-wall-tree theory”.  It is the belief that the Americans won the war because they were smarter and hid behind rocks, walls, and trees instead of standing in lines like the British.  It is absolute nonsense.  With muskets, linear warfare at close range was the most effective and efficient way to bring firepower to bear.  The British had the best army in the world.  One of George Washington’s greatest frustrations was the inability of the militia, and initially, the Continental Army, to stand and slug it out with the British volley for volley.  The American soldiers had to learn to accept great personal risk or they would never be effective soldiers. 


George Washington is ranked as one of the greatest leaders in American history.  In a contest hosted by the English National Army Museum, George Washington was selected as greatest foe the British Empire ever faced on the battlefield.  But he was not ranked great because of his tactical prowess or strategic genius, but because of his ability to inspire a ragtag army to fight the best military in the world and win.  George Washington was willing to make great sacrifices, on and off the battlefield.  He nearly lost his life at the Battle of Princeton when he charged into the fray to rally American soldiers.  George Washington understood his role as a leader sometimes required him to be where his troops could see him, up front and risking his life alongside theirs.


Sharing more than their share of the risks is one of the heaviest burdens a leader must shoulder. 



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