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Samurai: Way of the Horse and Bow

ca 1185 -1870

Article by L Raff

Fearsome mounted warriors of feudal Japan rode from the 1100s till they were exterminated in 1870.  During that time, they inspired awe from civilians-- and terror on the battlefield.  

Here is the incredible--and surprising--tale of the Samurai and the horses they rode.



Way of the Horse and Bow


article by Lyne Raff


There is a famous tale in the epic Heike Monogatari telling of the Samurai Nakatsuna and his horse: 


In the story, Nakatsuna owned a horse known by all to be an incomparably beautiful and good-natured animal, a glowing red stallion named Konoshita (“Under the Trees”).


Lord Munemori, the ill-tempered, corrupt, ill-appointed head of the Taira clan, heard about him and ordered the horse over so that he could see it. Nakatsuna, suspicious that his horse wouldn't be returned, replied that Konoshita had been sent away to rest. But others told Munemori they had seen the horse being trained that very morning—this made the commander furious. He sent couriers eight times that hour to Nakatsuna, demanding to see the horse. Nakatsuna responded only once, saying that the animal was too precious to leave his sight; couldn't Munemori, therefore, come to the horse?


The haughty and vain Munemori was incensed and publicly pronounced Nakatsuna selfish. He ordered his men to seize the horse, and, as his owner was so fond of him, to brand the animal across his side with the name 'Nakatsuna' in large letters. The horse was then put in Munemori's own stable, and he ordered the horse to be saddled and abused in the courtyard for all, including the horse's owner, to see. “Saddle Nakatsuna and lead him out,” Munemori shouted; “Whip Nakatsuna, give him a wallop!”


Avarice and pettiness such as this was a dishonorable abuse of power. But in this way Nakatsuna's honor and loyalty as a Samurai had also been ridiculed; a plot of revenge was hatched. Nakatsuna, along with his father and brothers, set their own houses on fire, and left en masse to ally with Munemori's nemesis Prince Mochihito in a neighboring city. Meanwhile, Nakatsuna's friend, the Samurai Kiō, remained behind, pretending to be loyal to Munemori and offering to assassinate Nakatsuna.


Munemori made a great spectacle of thanking Kiō, and immediately gave him a saddle and his own favorite horse—a spirited, long-maned dapple gray named Nanryo (“Silver”)-- to speed him on his way.  Kiō, however, had already burned down his own house, and had taken his family to safety.  He put on his red ancestral armor, and, aboard the finely appointed gray horse, rode straight to Nakatsuna, and the final pieces of the honor-revenge were put into place.


Nakatsuna now had Munemori's favorite horse.  He shaved off  the stallion Nanryo's luxurious long mane and tail, and branded him, in large letters across his back with the following phrase: “Formerly Nanryo, now Munemori”. With a smack on his hindquarters, the gray horse was let loose on the road to gallop home.


Back at Munemori's stable, everyone was surprised to see the gray horse had returned. But their smiles faded, for as soon as Munemori saw how the horse had been disfigured, his rage was overwhelming. “I will have Kiō's head sawn off,” he vowed, and though the horse remained in good health in his stables, the brand remained conspicuous to all, and the stallion's mane and tail never grew long again.




For more than seven hundred years, Japan was in a feudal state, similar to feudal Britain. The Japanese version of a Knight, as in England, was also a landowner, his title passed down through inheritance. These men, too, were mounted warriors, but they directly served powerful Lords rather than the Emperor—Lords to whom they provided military might and unwavering loyalty.


They were called Samurai-meaning 'one who serves'--and such a warrior was devoted to protecting the honor of his lord's house—and was even willing to die or commit suicide in order to do so. It was the time of the local chieftain Lords, especially in the north and east, where they had become powerful enough to threaten even the Imperial armies.


In 774 AD, the Imperial court began sending envoys to these 'barbaric' regions, in an attempt to keep the chieftains there from gaining too much power. But these mounted, armored Samurai warriors proved formidable, and used their riding and archery skills to full advantage. They were eventually conquered by the Emperor, though it took nearly all of his resources to do so. But from that point, peasants from the northeast were no longer conscripted when the army needed men; these highly skilled warriors were hired instead as professionals and experts.


They became a new caste—the Bushidan, or military nobles. While aristocrats and lords held court with the Emperor in the capitol at Kyoto, it was the bushi and their military governors, the shugo, who provided order to the lands of Japan. Life at court was both cultured and comfortable; not many aristocrats were willing to forego living in the palace to reside in their own estates amide the 'barbarians' of the countryside. These homes they left in charge of stewards, who managed their lands and served as the figureheads of the landowner lords. With the pledged loyalty of the best fighters in the country, the Lords could lounge at leisure in the court of Kyoto.


Life at the imperial court in Japan was cultured but full of political intrigue; families vied constantly for power and position. Clan wars were common and they were large; eventually, one family, the Minamoto, dominated the entire main island of Honshu, and threatened to overthrow the Emperor himself. But instead of a coup, the head of the clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo, confiscated some of the aristocrat's lands, and had the Emperor grant him the title of Shogun—the supreme military commander of all of Japan-- in 1185. The Emperor remained as a figurehead leader, but the Shogun was the true ruler, able to assess tax on citizens independently and to raise his own armies. This marked the beginning of the supremacy of Japan's warrior class.




Samurai lived by a strict code of rules, known as bushidō . A Samurai must be an extraordinary man, both a warrior and a spiritual person, for the origins of the code are found in the works of the Chinese scholar Confucius (the honor of treating others as you would be treated), and in the religious teachings of Buddhism (enlightenment and belief in the afterlife) and traditional Shinto (ritual and spirituality for the time one spends on Earth). He must constantly educate himself, have high honor, and complete loyalty.


Surprisingly, the wife of the Samurai had similar requirements. These women were expected to forcibly defend their homes or their husband's lord while the men were off to war, and so too they trained in martial arts and the use of weapons. They were also highly literate, and unlike men, were taught mathematics, so they could keep their house's books—for to be a Samurai was not a life of wealth.


It is interesting to note that occasionally, some women took this type of role and training even further, becoming, for all intents and purposes, a female Samurai. Excavations of medieval battlegrounds in Japan have shown a surprising number of female warriors among the skeletons there—for example, on the DNA of 105 bodies excavated at the battle site of Senbon Matsubaru (1580), 35 of the dead were female, and further investigations at two other battlefields had similar results (Turnbull, 2012).  Known as Onna-bugeisha, these female Samurai were usually the wives or daughters of warriors, but they could also be widows left without home or income, or women who simply sought this way of life purposely. It is thought that the tradition began in the northeastern provinces—the original home of Japan's earliest mounted warrior clans.


Samurai were few in number, but made one of the most effective and fiercest fighting forces known in the ancient world. In 1274, when an army of 40,000 Mongols via China invaded the bay at Kyūshū,  only 10,000 Samurai were required to oust them. Defeated, the Mongols went back to China and spent the next four years trying to coax out a diplomatic treaty in lieu of invasion. In response, the Japanese built a huge stone wall to protect the bay; they also executed every diplomat the Mongols sent over.


In 1281 the Mongols returned, this time they brought 140,000 men and 5,000 ships. The Japanese army was still a force of only about 40,000 (10,000 being Samurai), but luck was on their side. Even before the Mongols had disembarked for shore, a hurricane hit. It was called kami-no-kaze, or 'god of the wind', for it truly did seem as though divine protection had been sent from the gods. Once more, the Mongols left in defeat.


Though they had driven out the invaders, the next two centuries saw Japan in internal chaos. It was the time of the 'warring states', in which clan wars and regional disagreements reached their height. This time period saw advances made in weapon technology and armor, which became lighter and stronger. Muskets were introduced through trade with the Portuguese, and cavalry was at its zenith because of newer, more effective tactics and training.


And a humble blacksmith and sword-maker made a chance discovery: two types of steel, hard and soft, could be folded over one another and melded together. A sword made from this process was sharper and more durable than anything yet made, and could be made light and slender. Thus began the legend of the Samurai's most famous weapon, his katana sword—the most lethal weapon of the time.


The army of Japan grew in numbers and in power. By the late 1590s, the Samurai lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded China and Korea, with an army of more than 150,000 soldiers and Samurai. Hideyoshi was a military genius, his forces were so feared that he was nicknamed the Ogre. This became one of the most important periods in Samurai history, for it represented not only the re-unification of the Japanese regions, but it marked one of the most powerful political times for the Samurai. Hideyoshi, though he was never named Shogun, nonetheless took direct control of most of Japan's provinces.


During this time, the Samurai lifestyle was one entirely of training—either for war or for education. He was a figure of superiority in terms of intellect, training, and morality. Samurai studied horsemanship, fencing, martial arts, history, calligraphy, art, poetry, writing, and the Noh theater. Likewise, all aspects of physical training took on a spiritual context, not only a preparation for the battlefield but as a metaphor for the life path of the warrior. Archery, therefore, became kyudo, 'the way of the bow'; sword fighting was kendo, 'the way of the sword'.



Above: Detail from 'Kyudenmae no arasoi' ('Horse Show in front of the Palace').  It isn't a battle scene--instead it depicts a display of fiery war horses shown off by their grooms to an audience of warriors.  Ferocity was considered a most desirable trait: note the stallion in the center attacking his handler.  



Wild horses had for eons been present in Japan, but riding was an imported skill. It was introduced in about 400 AD, when Japanese forces aided the Korean province of Paekche during regional kingdom wars. This new technology had a profound effect, and within less than a century the skill of riding had spread throughout Japan.


Japanese tactics for mounted warriors, and also the very horses on which they rode, were assimilations of what they had found in other Asian armies. The concept of mounted archery was taken straight from what Japanese saw of steppes and Korean riders, and the skill was continually advanced with new techniques and in improving the quality and speed of their horses. To this end, the Japanese native horses, which were very small, were improved as often as was possible. Larger, faster horses began to be imported to Japan from both Korea and China.


Nowhere in Japan was the skill of mounted archery mastered better than in the regions of the Northeast. Citizens there became experts at both riding and mounted archery known as yabusame, in which the rider steers the horse with his knees. They were so proficient that in 553, only fifty years after riding had fully taken hold in Japan, the Korean province of Paekche needed Japan as an ally once more—but this time they specifically requested horses, bows, and archers—for the new prowess of the Japanese horsemen of the Northeast was well-known even in Korea.


At the time, the Imperial army held the capitol at Kyoto, but warriors on horseback had control of the Kant plains and the Mutsu region of the Northeast. For the rest of Japan, only the most wealthy and powerful men were permitted to ride horseback (much less fight from the back of a horse), and so these lands were considered 'barbaric' and outlaw—yet these men were soon employed as experts to teach martial arts at court (Perkins, p. 14).


While Knights in Europe were taking to battle in heavy armor on large, powerful horses, in Japan their elite warrior counterparts took their direction from the ancient technology of the steppes. The techniques of the mounted nomads, like the Scythians and the Mongols, served as a distinct advantage against much of the Asian continent, which knew only armies of foot-soldiers. Feudal Japan already had successful armies skilled at using sophisticated weapons such as large, fixed crossbows and mixed-force tactics, so the embrace of the mounted warrior was a significant example of a strategic leap forward.


The first ridden Japanese horses were descendants of Chinese and Korean imported animals, which were bred with local wild Japanese stock. But these animals were probably not the horses of the Samurai of later history—they are small and rangy, and only about 12-13hh and about 600lbs, too small to carry a large, physically fit warrior, his saddle, and his armor. An experiment in Japan in 1990 tested this by loading 13hh horses with a 110lb rider and 90lbs of simulated equipment. The horses were not capable of galloping for any longer than a moment or two without becoming completely exhausted (Friday, p. 97).


Native Japanese ponies bear little resemblance to the horses depicted in paintings of Japan's Samurai, which are show as larger with upright builds. It may be that these ancient artists were simply taking license in their portrayals of horses, yet schools of court painters prided themselves on their realism.  It was jokingly said the paintings of one artist's horses left their panels each night to graze in the meadow (Sorenson, p. 51). From descriptions of these animals in both writings and art, it is probable that the horses of the Samurai had lineage that included horses of the Tang Dynasty in China (ca 600-900AD). For it is known that at the height of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Japanese envoys were sent on several occasions to meet with officials there.


Japan opened formal state relations with China in 630. The Japanese, ever on the lookout for better technology and better animals, took great notice of the fast, powerful Tang horses, then the finest example of the horse in far Asia. Japan sent at least 15 official delegations to the Tang court between 630 and 894, and the Chinese also visited Japan, bringing with them many fine items and horses. These carefully bred animals were purchased in trade relations, but they were also given as diplomatic gifts. In that way, the horse became a sort of currency in the upper echelons of Japanese diplomacy.


The earliest Imperial breeding program to produce horses for court and for the military was begun at Kanto, a grassy plain on Japan's main island of Honshu. After trade began with the Tang, the Imperial court's horse-breeding program expanded to include four additional regions designated to provided horses specifically for the military, for Samurai, and for nobles. These provinces were Shinano, Kai, Musashi, and Kozuke. There were two types of ranches—those for military horses, and those for use at court. These regions were responsible for sending a total of 240 horses to the capitol at Kyoto each year. In particular, the Shinano district (now called Nagano), just west of the Kano plains, came to be the region where the most beautiful horses were destined for noble stables were raised. Most of ancient Japan's ordinary horses (those used for transport or for draught work) came from Japan's easternmost regions.


Every fall, an official from the Office of Horses traveled to each of the four districts and made a list of the best four-year-olds to be found. The following summer on August 23rd, when the horses were five years old, they were driven in herds along roads specially built for this purpose that led directly to the palace in Kyoto. The occasion drew spectators—both rich and poor—as it went by. Each province was required to provide feed for the horses and banquets for the escorts in stations along the way.


Tack used in Japan showed many different influences from around the continent of Asia, reflecting the reach of Japan's contact with these regions Different aspects and technologies of tack soon became completely adapted for Japanese use, finally resulting in the traditional saddle by the Heian period (AD 794 to 1185). Even stirrups, which had been in use as early as the fifth century, had evolved into something uniquely Japanese; a long, narrow, slipper-shaped stirrup without sides, designed to provide a stable platform for standing to aim a bow, while at the same time eliminating the risk of hanging a rider's foot if he fell. Bridles were also items based originally on the designs in use throughout Asia, but with touches that were uniquely Japanese. Though headstalls were similar to others used in Asia, a Japanese bridle's reins were nearly always thick cords of braided silk.


Saddles of the Samurai were made of wood and were usually highly decorated, and included a girth strap, breast collar, rows of thick decorative tassels, and a crupper strap which encircled the hindquarters. Saddles were either Chinese style, karagura, or Japanese style, yamatogura. They were designed with one main purpose: to provide the rider with a secure, stable position from which to aim a bow while running at full speed. Saddles soon became objects of status and adornment and by the Kamakura period (AD 1192-1333), saddlemaking had moved out of the repertoire of the carpenter and into that of a specialized saddler, a skill which continued to evolve for the next two centuries as trade enriched the entire Japanese economy. The saddler became an artisan, and the market was strong enough to require saddlers in every village and castle town, in addition to those making tack for armies. During the later Edo period (1603-1867), it was common to decorate them with expensive trappings like gold leaf or mother-of-pearl. Poetry was also inscribed on various parts of the saddle using elaborate calligraphy.


The armor of the Samurai represented the pinnacle of technology of the day. It was made from iron and leather scales that were tied together and coated with lacquer. The resulting armor was light and mobile, and allowed for free movement of the left arm and legs but still protected the body. The right arm wore no armor, so that it could quickly draw and aim a bow.


The bow was a longbow of laminated wood. Accuracy was ensured by long periods of time spent practicing, especially shooting off the back of a galloping horse. The skill is called yabusame, and is still in practice at traditional festivals in various places in Japan.


Body armor was constructed of small plates, worn in sections: the chest piece, two shoulder plates, thigh and shin guards, gauntlets, and a fauld (skirt) to protect the abdomen. The warrior's hair was usually worn in a long braid, which was positioned to protrude out of the top of the helmet, where the plates forming the helmet's crown lined up. The right arm was less armored or not at all, so the Samurai could draw his bow without any interference. Shields were not often used.


The archery tactics of the mounted Samurai were quite different from the mounted archers of other cultures. Techniques of the steppes warriors were primarily based on herding on a wide, flat plain, thus groups of enemy were handled like a herd. Steppes bows were short and able to deliver an arrow with accuracy at 300 meters. The techniques of a Samurai, on the other hand, were entirely different: they favored a more straightforward, intimidating attack, and their bows were only accurate to about 10 meters, meant to quickly send an arrow into gaps in an opponent's armor. A battlefield of Scythians looked like flocks of birds moving in wide sweeps, while a battlefield of Samurai was more like a field of individual duels, or groups of warriors circling one another like fighter planes in a dogfight (Friday, p. 107). 


A battle proceeded like this: first the archer nocked his arrow, which was fitted with deadly forked points, then spurred his horse into a hard gallop at the enemy. As soon as they were within range, the arrow was released, and another was immediately nocked, aimed and let loose right after, just as the archer galloped past his enemy. The horse was turned on his haunches as quickly as possible, then raced back to turn in front of the enemy again, when another arrow could be loosed (Turnbull, 2008, p. 20).  The Japanese archers were so expert in their riding skills, and the horses so agile, that very little time was wasted in turning the horses around.


Accuracy with a bow while steering a high-strung horse was extremely difficult. And because of logistics (namely the length of the longbow and the head and neck of the horse), there were only a few positions a rider could turn his upper body in order to shoot. Basically his bow's usability range was from straight out from his left shoulder to just in front of it; for to twist any farther to the left put him off balance in the saddle, while shooting too close to the horse's head risked frightening the animal (or worse, injuring it). Because of the length of the bow, shooting was only possible from the left side (Friday, p. 109).  Battlefield maneuvering, therefore, was all about aligning yourself so that you approached your opponent on his right side—so that he could not shoot at you. Samurai were taught to aim directly at their opponent's face, but barring that, bringing down his horse was the next best thing.


For the horse, little was worn in the way of protective gear, though later eras did show horses occasionally using light coverings on their necks and shoulders. A stallion with several battles behind him had many long scars upon his body from the slashes of enemy swords. Sword cuts, in fact, were among the most common recorded horse injuries in the medieval period (Ferejohn, p. 137).  For this reason, horses were changed often in battle; usually each Samurai had a groom near who held his mounts for him, so that a fresh horse was available.


By the medieval era, riding schools were put in place in Japan in order to consistently teach the equestrian skills needed by the Samurai. For the Samurai maintained a strong tradition of using only the most perfect horses available, and of those the animals with the hottest temperament were the most desirable. Samurai believed that a fiery disposition meant a horse could work longer with a higher energy level. Stallions, who made a more imposing presence on the battlefield, were the norm; this meant that the Samurai horse was almost always highly-strung and hard to control. Samurai, therefore, had to be expert riders.




By the late 17th century, the nation of Japan had been at peace for almost one hundred years. During successive Shogunates the Samurai, now fewer in number, became less and less like warriors and more like bureaucrats. The Samurai was now much more a figure of culture; he was elite, connected, and educated. Their military purpose had begun to fade, and many Samurai found themselves unaffiliated and became ronin (masterless).


During the 18th and 19th centuries, Japanese contact with the outside was minimal. The Emperors wanted little to do with the outside world, but ports in Japan were under control of a Shogunate, who permitted small amounts of trade with the west. In 1853, United States warships, commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, arrived on the horizon, intent on expanding trade between the two countries. A resulting conflict on the question nearly tore the country apart, but the Shogunate were successful in the end, and by the next year, a trade treaty was crafted and signed. After this point, the Shogunate focused away from specialized cavalry (the Samurai), and instead on forming a modern Navy fleet.


Modernization of the Japanese culture brought about the end of the old structures and of the Samurai. Their official military position was abolished, and they were forbidden to carry their katana swords in public. The Samurai faced this forced extinction with rebellion; their final battle as a military force was during the Meiji Rebellion at Satsuma in 1877, when they were betrayed in the process of restoring Imperial rule. The bow and sword-bearing warriors stood no chance against a national army aiming new rifles.


The Samurai faded away, most making their way into the regular army, where their exceptional focus, skill, and training allowed them to quickly become officers. Just like that, the fearsome warriors of ancient Japan disappeared, swallowed into the modern era.


They live now only in literature and in art, their spirit now part of the rich history of Japanese culture.


...  ...  ...  ...





Adolphson, M.S., et al. Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries. Univ of Hawaii Press, 2007.


Deal, Wm E., Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan. New York, Facts on File Inc. Publishing, 2006, p. 156.


DeBenneville, James S. (ed.), Tales of the Samurai: Oguri Hangwan Ichidaiki. Philadelphia, Peter Reilly, 1916, p. 167-172.


Ferejohn, J. and Rosenbluth, F. War and State Building in Medieval Japan. Stanford Univ. Press, 2010.


Friday, Karl F. Samurai, Warfare, and the State in Early Medieval Japan. Oxon, Routledge Publishing, 2004.


Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (images/ see below)


McCullough, H.C. (translator). Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike). Stanford Univ Press, 1988.


Nitobe Inazō. Bushido: the Soul of Japan; an Exposition of Japanese Thought. Philadelphia, Leeds & Biddle Publishing, 1900.


Perkins, D. Samurai of Japan: A Chronology from Their Origin in the Heian Era (785-1185) to the Modern Era. Upland, PA, Diane Publishing, 1998.


Sorenson, Joseph T. Optical Allusions: Screens, Paintings, and Poetry in Classical Japan. Leiden, Brill, 2012, p. 51.


Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sword. Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2010.


Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War. Tuttle Publishing, Vermont, 2008.


Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Women 1184-1877. Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2012.


Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. Univ of Hawaii Press, 2000, p. 119.


Visser, M.W. And Coleman, L. The Dragon in China and Japan. New York, Cosimo, 2008, p. 148.


Wang, Zhenping. Ambassadors from the Island of Immortals: China-Japan Relataions in the Han-Tang Period. Univ of Hawaii Press, 2005.

Images via Library of Congress: frontspiece: Tomoe Gozen (1159-1250), famous female Samurai; "Kumagai Nnaozane and Taira no Atsumori" warriors on seashore; Sasaki no Takatsuna by Shigemasa; Samurai on Horseback (1875). Saddles and riding accoutrements ca 1870; Kyudenmae no arasoi ("horse show in front of the Palace", 1875 copy of a 12th c scroll)


Samurai on horseback, ink drawing ca 1875.  Horses were bred from stock crossed with imports from the Tang in China, which had Iberian, Persian, Turkoman, Nisean, Greek, and Slavik influences.  This produced an upright, rounded, and agile horse.

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