Mongol cavalry in full attack (
Genghis Khan and his Mongols created the largest contiguous land empire in history, the Mongol Empire, which covered sixteen percent of all land on our planet. In the 13th century, twenty-five percent of the world population lived under the Mongols.

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The key to the unprecedented success of the Mongols was their cavalry. It was the best light cavalry the world had ever seen.

The Mongol horses were the engine of their military campaigns


Reenactment of the Mongol cavalry (Image:

The Mongolian horses were small but unimaginably fast, strong, and with incredible stamina. Each warrior had two to four horses so they could always rotate to the rested one. By doing so, the Mongol cavalry could cover long distances at high speed. The Mongol army could travel 160 kilometers (100 miles) per day.

Every soldier had a supply of dried and ground meat, which was easy to cook with water. Besides that, they drank mare’s milk and if needed also mare’s blood. Thus, the speed of the Mongol army wasn’t dependent on supply lines. The only real limitation was the need for good pastures for the enormous number of horses.

The Mongols learned how to ride at the tender age of three years. Their entire lives rotated around horses. They felt at home being on a horseback. The Mongols used to say:

“If the horse dies, I die; if it lives, I survive.”

The Mongol bow was the most important Mongol weapon


Mongol cavalryman releasing his deadly arrow (Image: Pinterest/
Mark Beerdom)

The Mongols could turn in their saddles and shot at the enemy in any direction while being in full gallop. To ensure a steady shot, they released arrows only when all four legs of their horses were on the ground. That was only for a split second. This was truly an insane mastery of archery!

The composite Mongol bow had a range of over 450 meters (492 yards). In comparison, the English longbow hit targets that were 275 meters (300 yards) away.

Light cavalry units have at least two types of bows — one to fire from the saddle and one to use when dismounted.

The Mongols could fire six arrows a minute. They used different arrows for different occasions. For example:

long-range arrowsshort-range arrowsarmor-piercing arrowswound making arrowswhistling arrows to scare an enemyarrows dipped in naphtha and set on fire.

The Mongol cavalry used also sabers, battle-axes, lances, lassos, and daggers.

The Mongol armor was light

The Mongol cavalrymen wore lamellar leather armor, made of horse hides soaked in urine. Such armor was light and flexible. They put armor over their heavy coat. Under the coat, they wore protective silk shirts. An arrow hitting the silk doesn’t break. Instead, the silk wraps the arrow, allowing for easier removal of the arrow from the flesh.

The Mongol horses had the same type of armor as their riders — the leather armor.

Besides the armor, the Mongol soldiers used also small leather shields.

The deadly tactics of the Mongol cavalry

A Mongol commander (Image:

The light cavalry comprised sixty percent of the entire Mongol cavalry. The remaining forty percent was heavy cavalry, which used lances. The usual tactic was to start a battle with the light cavalry. Once the enemy was in disarray because of the barrage of arrows, the heavy cavalry charged.

The Mongol cavalry usually tried to encircle or flank its opponents. Once they encircled the enemy, they would leave an opening in the encirclement for the enemy to flee. If the opponents would stay together as a unit, they would be much harder to defeat. But being on a run, they were easy targets for the fast Mongol cavalry.

If the battle was going bad, they would retreat, reorganize and re-enter the battle.

If the enemy force was too large, they executed a feigned retreat. This was the most difficult cavalry maneuver because a feigned retreat can quickly change into a disorganized flight.

The Mongols would do the following steps in this maneuver. In the middle of a battle, they would appear panicked and would flee the battlefield. In most cases, their opponents would pursue them and thus stretch themselves out. The Mongols would turn around and begin killing them one by one.

The Mongols could feign a retreat for days before they would strike back at the pursuing enemy!

Genghis Khan organized the Mongol cavalry upon meritocracy. If a cavalryman excelled himself, they would promote him to a commander. The commanders had permission to execute orders in the way they considered the best. This command structure together with superb training made the Mongol cavalry very flexible on the battlefield.

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One of the unique characteristics of the Mongol cavalry was the level of autonomy each unit had. Their generals set their goals, but they allowed each unit to reach the goals in the best way possible. We could say the Mongols dropped micromanagement and adopted the ‘unboss’ culture.