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Training the Animals

mule at Camp Clark Nevada 1916Mule breaking at Camp Clark, Nevada, 1916. How long before someone gets kicked?

Training for horses and mules before and during the war varied widely depending on whether the animals were intended for use by the cavalry, or as general riding horses, or as draft or pack animals.

Given enough time, the cavalry could produce as well-trained a horse as anyone, civilian or military, could want. Likewise, the Quartermaster Corps excelled at training pack mules, and was more than adequate at bringing along draft animals.

All of the standards, though, were put aside when the pressure of war became extreme.




Cavalry Horses

The U.S. Army Cavalry Drill Regulations of 1916 have extensive instructions on training both cavalry horse and trooper. For training riders and to some extent horses, the U.S. cavalry used the French cavalry manual from its school as Saumur, and the U.S. even published a summary of answers to exam questions from Saumur as an official U.S. publication.

Cavalry horses were brought along in progressive stages of training that, for a young horse, ideally lasted two years. During the first year there were three distinct phases covering work in hand unmounted, preliminary work mounted, and finally further conditioning and training.

During this first year the horse wore a single snaffle bit in the first two periods and progressed to wearing two snaffle bits during the third period. While not common today, this was preparation for the fourth period, the entire second year, in which the horse wore a double bridle with a curb and snaffle bit, technically referred to as “bit” (the curb) and “bradoon” (a snaffle with smaller rings so as not to interfere with the curb bit shanks).

The Horse's First Year

Join the CavalryThe first period of training, unmounted, addressed the basics of being a cavalry horse: leading or “being ponied,” that is, being led by a rider on another horse; longeing (pronounced "lunging"), that is, working on the longe line, a webbing tape about 30 feet long held by the trainer around which the horse was taught to circle at various paces, various sizes of circle, and obeying voice commands; saddling; and finally being mounted. The first time for mounting was chosen at a moment when the horse was tired from being ponied followed by being longed wearing a saddle. Finally, he there was training to bear the sabre, with its scabbard and weight flapping against the horse’s side while on the longe line.

“The work, it is understood, is interspersed with halts, caresses, and frequent rests.”1

During the second period the horse began extensive mounted work, both inside the riding hall and outdoors, with the latter preferred. “The mingling of old horses with the remounts has a very good influence at the beginning…" – how familiar this concept is to anyone who has ever brought young horses along! “In general, the instructor should plan to work from one-half to three-quarters of an hour in a riding hall or other inclosure (sic) daily; followed by work outside from one to two hours. The basis of all training is freedom in the forward movement. From the first the horse must be taught to respond to the legs. This is best obtained out of doors. If horses are worked too much in a riding hall they lose impulsion and get behind the bit.”2 Again - nothing has changed in the nature of horses or in wise training in the last hundred years!

The second period continued with first lessons in obedience to the aids – that is, learning the meaning of the leg aids to move forward and sideways, and the rein aids to slow down or turn. Reversing, serpentines, figures of eight, circles of various sizes, half turns, and many changes of gait were used to teach the horse the meaning of the aids and make him alert to the rider. Backing up was introduced, but only from the ground.

Conditioning during the second period began to directly address the job the horses would have as cavalry mounts: “By long, slow walks out of doors, short periods at the trot, and still shorter and very quiet periods at the gallop, the young horses may easily be brought in a short time to gallop 1 mile in 5 minutes, and to march, by a reasonable alternation of the gaits, 10 miles in 2 hours.”3

One day a week in the second period was devoted to preparing the young horse to take his place in the ranks of the cavalry troop. People nearby handling guns and sabres; the packed saddle, with its blanket roll, scabbard, and saddle bags; guns firing, flags flapping, marching in a column and side by side in a line; leaving the ranks and riding off alone, working quietly apart from the rest of the horses and returning quietly to them – all these skills were needed by a well-trained cavalry horse.

In the third period, again still in the first year of training, the horse increased work out of doors, with longer rides and more work up and down hills for conditioning. More precise obedience to the aids was taught, with the riders asking for more frequent changes of gait and direction, and more of the school figures such as figure eights, half turns, lightness on the bit, straightness, and handiness – the latter obtained as the horse learned to shift his weight to his hindquarters to allow sudden and balanced changes of direction and gait.

All these skills would be important to a field hunter, a general riding horse, or a cow pony as well – these are skills that horses of any era should know. Skills that not all horses might learn were also taught – for instance, to understand rein commands with the reins being carried in only one hand by the rider.

Jumping was also started in the third period, first in a chute and on the longe, gradually increasing the height to 3 feet. When the horse was “thoroughly obedient and willing he should be led in the open over varied obstacles, such as ditches, little brooks, up and down steep slopes, etc.”4 This leading was done from the back of another horse, a skill which both riders and horses were expected to be thoroughly proficient in.

The jumping training continued with small obstacles outdoors during the mounted exercises, “always of such dimensions as to present no real difficulty or danger of injury to their legs and so arranged as to seem to have been encountered in route. It is by frequent jumping and not in the height of the jumps that the horses become skillful and bold.”5

Conditioning continued and by the end of the third period the horses were expected to be able to gallop 2 miles in eight minutes without fatigue, and to march with full field equipment with reasonable alternation of gaits 15 miles in three hours. They were also taught to carry double, to swim if there was a body of water available, and to be accustomed to the use of the pistol while passing targets and to running “at heads” with the sabre, at the walk, slow trot, and canter.

This completed the basic training of cavalry horses during wartime, though commanders were advised to seek every opportunity to improve the conditioning and training of their horses even more during war than in peacetime.

The Horse's Second Year In The Cavalry - Advanced Training

The fourth period, the entire second year of training, brought the horse from a well broken, serviceable mount to a place of considerable sophistication. Most average riders would not be able to provide this level of training and might not even understand what made such a horse a pleasure to ride – but they might well know that something was very different from the average horse they were accustomed to.

The fourth period focused on refining the skills already taught, making the horse more responsive, finely tuning the gaits, maneuverability, suppleness, and agility of the animal. The curb bit is much more powerful against the horse’s jaw than the snaffle, allowing great subtlety of signaling but also the danger of pain and evasion by the horse if the rider has a heavy hand and this was noted in the Drill Regulations: “the instructor himself should adjust the bits to each horse with the most solicitous care, and should not hesitate afterwards to return to the snaffle in individual cases, due to the delicacy of the horse’s mouth or, as often happens, to the poor seat and heavy hand of the rider.”6

Mobility of the shoulders and lightness of the forehand, suppleness of the jaw, poll, and spinal column, and engagement of the hindquarters were all stressed. Jumping obstacles 3 feet high or 8 feet wide was a standard expected to be easily reached by all troop horses. As well, galloping 3 miles in 11 minutes and marching 25 miles with full field equipment in 4 hours were expected. Considerable attention was given to teaching the horse to back, and the rider was cautioned not to back the horse as a regular exercise.7 Clearly, there was a well-understood risk of the horse evading the rider by falling behind the bit (that is, sucking back the head and neck to the point that the rider has little place to use the reins with subtlety) and, even worse, getting behind the leg – the reluctance to go forward freely and to stretch into the reins with a soft neck, poll, and jaw. Too much emphasis on backing might easily bring on one or both of these evasions.

Much care was given to selecting riders for the remounts. The Drill Regulations state clearly that the troopers chosen to train young cavalry horses “should be chosen for the love of horses and their patience and gentleness. All concerned in the training should be well-instructed and skillful riders or there is no hope of success.”8 Each trooper was assigned three horses at a time.

The listing of precepts for the instructor will be recognized by horsemen the world over:

  • Never begin work without being absolutely sure of what is to be done.
  • Proceed in the horse’s education from the known to the unknown; from the simple to the difficult.
  • Always use exactly the same effects to obtain the same results.
  • Remember that in the execution of every movement position should precede action.
  • Never ask anything of the horse while he is still under the impression of the preceding movement.
  • Never combat two resistances at the same time.
  • Never attribute to ignorance or bad temper of the horse the consequences of ignorance of lack of skill on the part of the rider.
  • Introduce the new features near the end of a lesson; then caress the horse and dismount.
  • And in bold type: “It is pertinent to these rules to remember that during the whole course of the young horse’s education a little progress every day should satisfy; demand that, but no more.”9


Officer's Chargers and Gun Horses

In sharp contrast to the explicit and detailed description of a progressive training cycle for cavalry horses was the complete lack of any cohesive program at the Remount Depots run by the Quartermaster Corps. Yet, riding horses were issued from these depots to officers who were entitled to a mount, and many draft horses were also ridden as a part of their draft duties – vehicles often did not have drivers but rather one horse in each pair was ridden and the team controlled in that manner.

artillery horses and mules at Camp Jackson SCThe Quartermaster Corps regulations contained no real details as to how training was to be accomplished for either animals or soldiers. The Manual for the Quartermaster Corps, 1916, summarizes the condition of horses at the remount depots, in a paragraph tucked in between one addressing the issuance of boat flags and the next addressing the number of bicycles to be issued to military posts. Paragraph 2673 on remounts reads (in its entirety):

“As the young horses furnished from the remount depots will generally have been handled only with a view of making them gentle and accustoming them to weight carrying and preparing them to receive their military training, they should, upon receipt by posts or by organizations to which they are assigned, receive a careful course of training under the supervision of a graduate of the Mounted Service School [i.e., a cavalry officer or trooper) whenever it is possible to obtain one, otherwise under a carefully selected and competent officer, before being placed in the ranks for regular military duties as troop and battery horses. Such training will continue as long as is necessary to qualify the horses thoroughly for the ranks, generally not less than one year. If the horses thus turned in are less than 5 years old, they should have only moderate field service; 6 years old, full field service. In this training the fundamental principles laid down in the service manuals or taught at the Mounted Service School will be followed.”10

It is small wonder, then, that many officers chose to bring their own mounts to the army with them. Private mounts were fed and housed at government expense, and if the officer wanted to bring more than one horse, he could purchase feed, bedding, and medicines from the post for the second horse. Apparently the labor of caring for these horses was not something that was accounted as a cost, and there was a long tradition of officers, both active duty and retired, keeping their own horses at the army stables.

Draft Horse Training

For driving animals, the Army offered no specific guidance on training. There were, however, significant regulations on the practical aspects of driving teams, how often to take rest breaks, and things not to do – for instance, not to start one pair of animals of a four-horse team to pulling before the slack had been taken up in the traces by all four horses, this taking up of slack being known as being “in draft.” Per the Manual For The Quartermaster Corps, draft animals were never to be driven out of a walk, except those used on buckboards, spring wagons, and other light vehicles, and which were usually specially chosen for the purpose, might be driven at a trot when necessary.11

Pack Animal Training

Perhaps training draft animals was such a common skill in the farming community that it was not felt necessary to commit all the details to paper. But such was not the case with regard to pack animals. An entire manual devoted to their training and management was first published in 1901 and went through various editions with the final one published in 1917.

fig 13 securing the loadHenry Daly demonstrates how to secure the load.Written by Henry W. Daly, chief packer for the Quartermaster Corps, it remains a definitive resource to this day. Little that was worth knowing about packing and mules escaped Mr. Daly, who worked for the Corps as a civilian for most of his career, including the period when he instructed at the Military Academy at West Point before the Great War started. In 1917 he was appointed a captain in the Quartermaster Corps, and was honorably discharged in 1920, having reached the rank of major.

Daly had a great fondness for mules, averring that they liked to be petted and responded best to gentle treatment. His pack mule manual is filled with detailed descriptions of exactly how to tie various knots, build pack saddles, and treat mules.

Much of the pack mule training relied on the instinct of mules to follow each other and the bell horse, to which they always deferred. The bell animal was usually a mare, even more likely to be deferred to, and often was an army mare that could no longer do heavy work but could still walk fairly long distances. For more on mule behavior and training, click here.

One behavior that was highly valued in a mule train was having the mules trained to line up to be loaded. Daly describes the process of teaching this:

“Pack animals should be early taught to “come to the rigging.” The first and necessary requisite is to teach them to come in from the herd-ground properly. That is, they should string out behind the “bell” animal, and should not bunch together like a flock of sheep. A thoroughly organized train, if brought up in a bunch, may take their places at the rigging without trouble; but a “shavetail,” or unorganized train, never will.

“As the animals approach the rigging from the rear, in single file, packers should take station on either side of the column.

“One packer holds the bell animal, facing the third rigging from the head rigging. By the time all the animals are in place the “bell” will have been crowded down, opposite the first or head rigging. The mules are then guided, so as to form a line, facing the rigging, on the flank of the “bell” animal…. To more readily teach them to come to rigging, the animals may be fed there, the feed covers being spread on rigging for that purpose. This practice should be discontinued as soon as possible.”12

Later he elaborates on the same sort of training, this time in a corral, describing setting up a guard rail to which to tie the animals as they are learning the process. During the training they may be fed, but the packers must prevent them wasting grain or kicking each other. “A small switch or aparejos stick in the hands of each packer will cause the animals to give attention – this should be used for correction, not for abuse, which must not be permitted under any circumstances, remembering the more abuse the animal is given the more unruly or ugly it becomes, until it is classed as an outlaw; the animal is dumb – the packer is presumed to be intelligent and human.” The mules are then turned loose starting with the bell horse and working down the line successively, leading the bell horse toward the opposite end of the corral, and causing each animal to follow in a line. “Packers should now go among them and approach as many as will permit, stroke the animals on the neck and back and call them by given name; animals like to be petted.”13

Mules, when trained to carry a loaded pack, adopted an ambling gait if asked to move faster than an ordinary walk. They did this without any special training, because the pack moved less than if they quickened their walking strides. But some mules did not have this instinctive skill, and Daly describes how to encourage them to develop it. “To acquire this ambling gait a young pack train should be taught to travel 5 miles an hour and under no circumstances should mules be allowed to straggle out, i.e., keep them in close order, one mule following the trail or step of the other. After a few practice marches they readily acquire this ambling gait. Occasionally, one or two mules in a train seem to have difficulty in acquiring this ambling gait. Do not overload such an animal in the endeavor to teach him; instead, place the cincha sufficiently forward on the aparejos so that the elbow will rub against the cincha during travel; as soon as the elbow becomes sore the mule, to escape the cincha, will take short and quick steps in order to keep his place in line and thus readily learns this ambling gait.”14


  1. Cavalry Drill Regulations, United States Army, 1916. Government Printing Office, Washington, p. 357.
  2. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs, p. 357.
  3. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs, p. 358.
  4. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs, p. 359.
  5. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs, p. 360.
  6. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs, p. 361.
  7. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs. P. 364.
  8. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs, p. 352.
  9. Ibid, Cavalry Drill Regs, p. 353.
  10. Manual of the Quartermaster Corps, 1916. Government Printing Office, Washington. p. 421.
  11. Ibid, Quartermaster Corps Manual, p. 500.
  12. Daly, H. W. Pack Transportation. Quartermaster Corps, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1908, p. 122-123.
  13. Ibid, Daly, p. 142-143.
  14. Ibid, Daly, p. 135.