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Cavalry Terminology

A (hopefully) Useful List of Equine, Cavalry and Military-Related Terms for the Uninitiated 

Backstrap: Narrow metal plate along the back of a sabre's grip to form the handle.

Ball: Round lead bullet. Also a pill given to horses via a balling gun, basically a hollow tube with close fitting plunger. The ball was inserted at one end, the tube inserted into the horse's mouth and the plunger pushed upwards to force the ball as far down the horse's throat as possible so it could not be spat out 

Barrel Sash: Decorative waist belt constructed from coloured cords passed through barrel-shaped knots to produce (usually) 6 main strands with 3 three barrels on each arranged so they line up vertically. Fastened with a wooden toggle.

Bicorn: Shaped felt hat worn by heavy cavalry (all ranks) until 1812 when troopers were issued a crested helmet. Bicornes were worn by most light cavalry officers until shakos were issued in 1812, and with undress uniform afterwards.
Blanket:  Exactly what it says. Used as a pad beneath the saddle but doubles as bedding for the trooper.

Branch: One side (half) of a horseshoe

Bread Bag: Loosely woven canvas or hessian bag with a shoulder strap to carry the cavalryman's rations on the march.                        

Breastplate: Leather strap which attaches to the girth, passing upwards between the horse's front legs. At the centre of the chest it splits to run up along each shoulder before attaching to the saddle. Designed to stop the saddle sliding backwards. Note that the French light cavalry breastplate was attached to the saddle front spoon, to prevent the saddle lifting rather than slipping back.

Breeches: Close-fitting legwear for cavalrymen, usually officers, or for Full Dress parades
Breeches Slings:
 Braces (suspenders if you're American)

 Hide breeches, Deerskin was used mainly because it remained supple after a soaking

Canon (or Cannon): Short, dense leg bone between the horse's knee and fetlock. Measuring the circumference around it and the tendons just below the knee gives a guide to the animal's weight-carrying capacity.

Canteen: Circular wooden water container (British) with a leather shoulder strap. Waterproofed inside with beeswax which gave an odd taste to the two pints of water it contained.

French elite armored heavy cavalryman

Shortened musket (or occasionally rifle) for use on horseback

Carbine bucket:
 Short leather tube (usually) with closed end and strap. Carried the muzzle end of a carbine when the weapon was carried on a horse. Heavy cavalry often used carbines only just shorter than infantry muskets and these were carried butt-down in an oval section bucket.

Carbine clip:
 Sprung clip and slide fitted to cross belt to which a carbine was fixed, allowing it to be quickly dropped and retrieved without the need to replace it in the bucket

 Lead ball and pre-measured powder charge in a waxed paper cylinder

Cartridge Pouch: Leather container with a drilled wood block inside which held ready made cartridges. Buckle to a cavalryman's cross belt

Chaff: Chopped hay or straw used as a bulking agent and mixed with the horse's grain feed to make sure it was chewed properly before being swallowed (Yes, really!)

French light cavalryman

  French light horseman

Chin Scales: Hat chinstrap of (usually) overlapping brass scales on a leather backing, tied beneath the chin with a leather thong. Originally, British headgear originally lacked any sort of chinstrap which meant helmets regularly fell off in action.

Long woollen garment with high collar designed to cover a cavalryman and his equipment when on horseback. Unusually for this period, cavalry cloaks had arms.

Cloak Strap: Leather strap and buckle (a set of three was usual) to hold a rolled-up cloak on the front of the saddle and over the holsters

The hammer of a flintlock firearm. Also a Georgian period swearword

 Confusing military term. The Colonel of a regiment was its official commanding officer and could hold any rank, though in practice this was Lieutenant Colonel and above. For example, Major- General Lord Henry Paget was Colonel of the 7th Hussars

 See Fur Cap

 Lowest rank of cavalry officer, comparable to an Ensign in the infantry

Cornsack: Loosely woven canvas or hessian bag with shoulder strap to carry horse feed. The soldier also had to carry a Bread Bag.

Crested Helmet: Issued to British dragoons and dragoon guards after 1812, the brass helmet with a horsehair crest (similar to the French dragoon helmet) was a huge improvement over the earlier bicorn in that it both offered better protection and did not go out of shape or disintegrate when it got wet.

Croup: Highest point of the horse's back end ie. the top of its pelvis. Shabraques worn on the march had their long tails 'tied up over the croup'.

Cross belt: Wide leather shoulder belt fitting diagonally across the chest. Might be used to carry an ammunition pouch (see Pouch Belt) or sword frog

 Leather strap which fitted around the base of the horse's tail and buckled to the saddle. To stop the saddle sliding forward.

 French armoured heavy cavalryman

Curb: Inflammation of the small bones of the horse's hock, arthritic changes which are usually caused by strain or a blow. The bones involved will often fuse and thereafter cause little trouble but thye horse will be lame until that happens. Also the Curb Groove, between the horses chin and the end of the jaw bones.

Curb bit: One of the pair of bits in a double bridle (the normal cavalry arrangement) designed to lower the horse's head by means of leverage.

Curb chain: Flat-link chain hooked between the arms of a curb bit and running under the horse's jaw to sit in the Curb Groove. Aid's the bit's leverage action, encouraging the horse to relax its jaw.

 The smallest sub-section of an army able to operate autonomously

 Waist length cavalry jacket, often heavily decorated with braid

 Confusing military term. In the 17th century a dragoon was a mounted infantryman. In Napoleon's French army a dragoon was a heavy cavalryman. The same applied in Wellington's army, but on the ground  'dragoon' was used as a generic term for any cavalryman.

Drench: Horse medicine given in a bottle and poured down the horse's throat by lifting its head

Echelon: Attack formation with multiple groups of cavalry formed up in lines, to the side of and slightly behind the leading squadron. Often used against large infantry formations

 Late 18th century designer of light cavalry carbine, pistol and dragoon saddle.

Farrier: Before the advent of veterinary surgeons these were horse doctors. Only recently have Shoeing Smiths become known as farriers.

Fall front: Design of men's legwear which had a buttoned flap in place of where nowadays would be a zipped fly.

Fetlock: Lowest visible joint in the horse's leg, above the hoof.

Founder: Disease of the foot, usually in front, producing acute lameness, but with multiple causes. In bad cases the bone inside the hoof (pedal bone) rotates and descends through the sole of the foot, causing excruciating pain. Nowadays called Laminitis.

Frog: Leather fitting to carry a weapon, usually a sword or bayonet

Field Officer: An officer capable of (hopefully) independent command on campaign, of a squadron or larger formation. Description usually applied to Captains and Majors.

File: A pair of cavalrymen, one behind the other                                 

Firelock: Old generic name for a flintlock firearm, usually a musket

: Weapon with an ignition system which relied on a flint striking a steel frizzen, making sparks to ignite a powder charge. Used on Muskets and carbines, pistols and naval cannon.

Flounce: Holster cap, or leather wrapping for a cloak which stopped reins rubbing through the wool when it was strapped on the saddle.

Flounder: Flat circular knot decoration on cap lines and sashes

Forage: Long fibre horse food eg, grass, hay, straw etc.

Forage Cords: Single cords used to hang forage from the saddle while on the march. Later became knotted (as a haynet)

Fuller: Groove in the ground surface of a horseshoe. Aids grip on hard surfaces and allows the nail heads to sit flush with the shoe's surface so they wear down more slowly. Also a groove in a sword blade to make it easier to withdraw from an assailant, also known as a 'blood groove'.

Fur Cap: Hussar headwear of fur around a cane and buckram frame, nowadays usually known as a Busby. Fitted with a coloured 'bag' which hung down one side, usually matching the uniform's turnback colour. Too soft to be very protective, and attached to the dolman with cap lines, as they often fell off.

Gallop: The horse's fastest pace, with a four-time beat (although this wasn't known for certain until 1872 and Muybridge's groundbreaking photography). Unfortunately, in the military the slightly slower (and three-time) pace 'canter' was unknown - gallop covered everything faster than a trot. Except for a flat-out gallop, which was the 'charge'.

Gauntlet: Heavy cavalry glove with a long, thick leather cuff to protect the forearm from sabre cuts

Girths: Linen web and leather straps buckled around  the horse's chest to hold the saddle on.

Glanders: Acute and highly infectious bacterial disease producing enlarged and abscessed lymph nodes.. Sufferers were normally destroyed as quickly as possible to try to avoid its spread.

Grip: The wood part of a sabre's handle, often covered with leather or shagreen (shark or ray skin) to reduce slipping and bound with fine wire.

Guidon: A small, often swallow-tailed flag carried by a cavalry regiment in place of the huge silken colours used as rallying points by infantry regiments, which would only scare the horses!

Halter: Webbing or leather head collar worn beneath the bridle.

Hamstrung: see Tendons

Hand: Measure of horses' height. One hand is 4 inches. Still used today in the UK and US in preference to centimetres, which no-one understands (!)

Hat cords:  See Cap Lines

Headcollar: See Halter

Hessian boots: Leather boots fitting to just below the knee at front but cut so they curved down to mid-calf at the rear. Usually decorated with braid and a front tassel.

Hilt: the handle part of a sabre

Hock: Large complex joint in the middle of the horse's hind leg. Also a white wine.

Holster: Funnel-shaped container to carry a pistol on the front of the saddle. Usually fitted in pairs.

Hussar: Light cavalryman whose main distinction from others was being dressed in heavily ornamented uniform, aping the Hungarian light horsemen

Hussar Saddle: Wood-framed suspended-seat saddle with high front and rear arches fitted with 'spoons' on which to attach extra equipment.

Irons: Stirrup irons. Light cavalry had a design with a curved footplate called 'Cradle' stirrups.

Knucklebow: Narrow metal guard on sabre hilt to protect the knuckles (though not very well)

Lancer: French light cavalryman who carried a lance

Langets: Small metal prongs attached to a sword hilt and pointing along the blade. These sat outside the scabbard and were designed to stop the sword rattling back and forth against the scabbard throat. Often cut off on campaign as they made the blade more difficult to draw one-handed.

Leathers: Straps to attach the irons to the saddle

Light Dragoon: British light cavalryman. Their main duties were supposed to be scouting, acting as messengers and escorting convoys. Eventually they were used to attack enemy infantry and guns, traditionally the roles of heavy cavalry, so there was little difference between the two.

Light cavalry bridle: Designed to copy Hungarian bridles, with two straps which crossed the front of the horse's face and decorative leather rosettes.

Line: Cavalry in attack formation formed lines, two men deep                       

Longarm: Generic term for a musket, rifle or carbine 

Mange: The most common skin disease of cavalry horses. Caused by a burrowing mite (which was unknown at the time), very infectious particularly among animals in poor condition, and difficult to treat. During WW1 they used nitric acid dips (!)

Musket: Muzzle-loaded firearm longer than a pistol.

Oilskin: Waterproof bad-weather cover for fur caps and shakos.

Overalls: Loose fitting cavalry legwear, usually of wool with leather reinforcements inside the legs and on the seat.

Paget: Short carbine with 16" barrel issued to British cavalry in 1808 (or maybe later). Designed by Lord Paget

Pastern: Short leg bone (actually two bones) between the fetlock and hoof

Pelisse: Light cavalry over-jacket, often with fur collar and cuffs, and braided like a Hussar dolman. Usually worn casually slung over the shoulder, which gave some extra protection to he cavalryman's bridle arm from enemy sabre cuts.

Picket Line: Length of rope stretched between trees or buildings to which cavalry horses are tied.

Picket Pin: Wooden stake hammered into the ground to tie your horse up when you stopped on the march and there was no stabling available. Usually carried strapped to the carbine bucket and 
released before going into action.

Picquet (Picket): Small group of cavalrymen posted ahead of the main force to provide advance warning of any approaching enemy.

Pilch: Quilted leather seat pad with two loops to hook over the spoons of a hussar saddle. For extra padding under the sheepskin.

Pistol: Short barrelled smoothbore firearm. Usually very inaccurate, even at close range.

Poll: Tallest point of a horse, between its ears and just in front of where the top of the bridle sits. Actually where the atlas vertebra attaches to the skull.

Plume: Decorative accessory for headgear made from wool or feathers. Cavalry plumes were usually coloured white over red.

Pouch belt: Cross belt with ammunition pouch buckled so it sat in the small of the back.

Quillon: Extension of the knucklebow of a sword hilt to the opposite side of the blade so it offered some protection to the thumb.

Ramrod: Wood or metal rod used to ram down ball and powder when loading a firearm. Often with a brass end to avoid accidental sparks.

Ricasso: Flat section of sword blade immediately in front of the hilt. Often stamped with regimental or manufacturer's marks.

Rough Riders: The sergeants or troopers responsible for breaking horses to ride or schooling more recalcitrant animals.

Sabre: Cavalry sword, usually curved though heavy cavalry swords were often straight.

Sabre belt: Waist belt carrying the sabre hung from a pair of leather slings.

Sabre sling: Leather strap which usually fitted to a suspension ring on the sabre scabbard and one on the belt. Normally used in pairs.

Sabretache: Flat leather bag with stiffened front cover hung from the sabre belt. Used to carry papers and other small items, and hard cover allows use as a writing surface.

Scabbard: Iron or leather sleeve to cover the sword blade. Fitted with rings so it could be hung from a belt.

Shabraque: Decorative wool and leather saddle cover, often braided and embroidered with the regimental number and crest. Often kept for full dress parades
Shako: Tall stiffened-felt cavalry headwear. Became general issue for light cavalry after 1812.

Sheepskin: Fleece saddle cover which fitted over the shabraque (when worn). Made for a more comfortable seat unless it got wet, because wool fleece can absorb it's own weight in water.

Spurs: Cavalrymen usually wore a swan-necked variety with rowels which were screwed to the boot heel   

Shoeing-Smith: Responsible for shoeing horses                                                

Squadron: Smallest operational unit of a cavalry regiment, comprising two Troops.

Stirrups: Leather or chain loops, buttoned to the bottom of overall legs. They looped under the instep of the cavalryman's boots to stop his overalls riding up when in the saddle

Stock: Neckwear made of linen, silk (officers) or thin leather as opposed to the stiff leather of infantry stocks.

Subaltern: Junior officer - a Cornet or Lieutenant

Surcingle: Webbing or leather strap which encircled horse and saddle to retain the shabraque and sheepskin

Suspension Ring: Iron ring on a metal slide screwed to a carbine (on the opposite side of its stock to the lock). The carbine clip fitted to this.

Switch: A thin whip

Sword Knot: Leather strap attached to the sabre hilt which was tightened around the wrist. This meant you could drop your sabre in an emergency without losing it completely.

Tarleton: Peaked leather helmet with a thick fur crest fitted front to back. Named after Sir Banastre Tarleton and worn by light dragoons and Horse Artillery

Tang: The part of the sword blade covered by, and running through, the hilt.

Term usually ascribed to the tendons running down the lower rear of every horse's legs just below the skin. Severing the muscles and tendon just above the hock with a sword cut was a technique known as 'hamstringing', rendering the animal permanently lame and of no use to the enemy.

The Farcy: The same disease as Glanders. It usually appeared in a different area of the body first, which was why it was originally believed a different ailment.

Three: British cavalry usually marched three abreast, hence the commonly used order to turn, 'Threes About!'

Throat: Metal fitting at the opening of a scabbard through which the sabre is slid.

Troop: Smallest independent unit of a cavalry regiment. British cavalry troops usually comprised between 60-120 men

Trooper: Nowadays, a cavalryman. In the early 19th century this was apparently the name given to a troop horse (the man was called a Dragoon), though I suspect that given the cavalry's preponderance of class-conscious officers it was used interchangeably for man and horse before being settled on the men.

Trumpeter: Trumpet calls were used to relay orders in the confusion of a battlefield, as bugle calls were for light infantry. Trumpeters often wore a uniform with the jacket main and trim colours transposed which made them easier to spot, as did their mounts, usually greys or another striking colour.

Turnback: Brightly coloured contrasting cuff of cavalry dolman.

Valise: Tubular or rectangular section woollen or leather container for the cavalryman's spare clothes and accessories, carried strapped behind the saddle.

Valise Strap: Leather strap and buckle (a pair was usual) to fix the valise to the rear of the saddle.

Vedette: Usually a single cavalryman, sent ahead as a scout.

Waterdeck: Painted canvas square used to cover  the saddle and accessories when the cavalryman was dismounted in wet weather

Watering Cap: Soft woollen cap worn with undress (working) uniform rather than a helmet. Also called a Forage Cap or Undress Cap.

Withers: Part of horse between the base of the neck and the back, above the shoulders. Horses' height is measured from the floor vertically to this point.

Windgalls: Inflammation of the bursa (tendon sheath or joint capsule), appearing as spongy lumps under the skin above the fetlock joint. Usually caused by over-stressing tendon or joint. Often large and unsightly but they rarely cause serious lameness.