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 Bodyguard of the Sheikh of Bornu, early 1820s

Africa’s Forgotten Cavalry Kingdoms


CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I have ridden on four continents, studied equestrian matters for more than thirty years, own a vast equestrian library and have published more than a hundred books on the subject of horses.

Given my equestrian experience, I believe there is only one way to describe my first encounter with the academic research done by Professor Robin Law.

It was akin to discovering a new planet in the equestrian solar system!

I thought long and hard before I wrote that sentence.

Moreover, I have discussed Professor Law’s research with Long Rider authors and African exploration experts, who joined me in admitting that the English academic had uncovered equestrian evidence whose impact and influence could radically re-shape the way a major portion of equestrian history is taught and perceived.

Case in point was the conversations I held with Jeremy James and Richard Barnes. Both of these English Long Rider authors were born in Africa. Furthermore, their knowledge of equestrian history is immense.

Yet when I asked them to give me a short history of equestrian history on the African continent, both of these experts brought up the Moors, the Boers, Sudan and Ethiopia. When asked if they had heard of a major cavalry culture in West Africa, both admitted they had no knowledge of such equestrian history.

Like me, Richard and Jeremy expressed astonishment when they learned about the extent of Professor Law’s historical discoveries.

The results of his research are to say the least of tremendous importance to the horse world and this abbreviated study of Professor Law’s book are designed to present the most important points. 

Horses in Africa

The first allusion to the use of cavalry in Africa relates to Numidian allies of Carthage fighting in Sicily in 262 B.C.

Horses were probably introduced into West Africa across the Sahara from northern Africa.

The date at which horses first reached West Africa is for the present extremely uncertain. It might, on the evidence at present available, have been anywhere between the seventeenth century B.C. and the tenth century A.D.

What can be said with certainty is that horses were already established in West Africa at the time when contemporary Arabic sources from North Africa, Spain, and Sicily begin to tell us something about conditions there, from the ninth or tenth century A.D. onwards.

In the mid-twelfth century, al-Idrisi records horses in Ghana, noting that the king went on daily tours of his capital on horseback.

Traditions recorded by a seventeenth century scholar of Timbuktu claim that the Kayamagha, the  royal dynasty of ancient Ghana, kept no less than 1,000 horses in their  palace, where the animals slept upon mats, were tethered with silk cords, and had copper vessels to urinate into, and each had three grooms to  attend it.

In the Kanuri kingdom of Kanem, a nineteenth-century chronicle credits a twelfth-century ruler, Mai Dunama ibn Hummay (c. 1086-1140) with owning either 100,000 or 1,100 horses.

Horses were virtually never used in West Africa for draught work, since in the absence of the plough and of wheeled transport there was nothing for them to draw.

Equine Kingdoms

Horses were closely linked with the dominance of a warrior aristocracy and with an economy based upon warfare and slavery.

When the Portuguese reached the coast of sub-Saharan Africa by sea in the second half of the fifteenth century, they found horses already established there.

The Portuguese quickly set themselves up as alternative suppliers of horses to the Jolof kingdom; this led to a rapid build-up of the number of horses in the area, and by the first decade of the sixteenth century, the King of Jolof reportedly controlled a force of no less than 10,000 cavalry.

In the central area of West Africa, in the Songhai kingdom of Kawkaw, a Songhai army which took the field in 1591 to face an invading Moroccan army at the battle of Tondibi is said to have included 18,000 mounted troops.

The original Mossi kingdom, Tenkodogo, from which the other kingdoms in the north (Wagadugu, Yatenga, and Fada n'Gurma) are said to derive, is supposed to have been founded by a prince of Mamprusi called Widiraogo, or 'Stallion', who established his control in the area with the assistance of a band of horsemen supplied to him by the king of Mamprusi.

In the kingdom of Gonja, to the west of Dagomba, tradition suggests a similar pattern of state formation by conquering horsemen. The Gonja kingdom is said to have been founded by a party of warriors from the old kingdom of Mali, who arrived in the area probably during the sixteenth century. The legendary leader of these invaders, Jakpa, is said to have brought a band of horsemen with him.

The movement of horses into West Africa.

Further south, in the northern Akan area, the kingdom of Bono, which flourished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is remembered to have used horses. The existence of horses in Borno is attested by the fifteenth century, since Mai Dunama ibn 'Umar (c. 1422-4) is said by tradition to have been killed by his horse in a riding accident.

The earliest contemporary record of horses in Borno is that of Leo Africanus in the early sixteenth century, who records that the king in his time—to be identified with Mai Idris Katagarmabe (c. 1497-1519)—had imported large numbers of horses from North Africa and built up a force of 3,000 cavalry.

In the plateau country to the south-east of Hausaland and to the south-west of Borno, one observer of the early colonial period described the Plateau peoples as 'essentially horsemen' who relied in war upon 'the charges of their mounted spearmen'.

In the coastal area to the south of Oyo, between the River Volta and Niger, contemporary European sources throw some light on conditions from the late fifteenth century onwards. In the case of Benin, there is no explicit evidence of the existence of horses before the early seventeenth century, but the fact that the King of Portugal sent a gift of a horse to the King of Benin in 1552 suggests that horses were already established in Benin when the Europeans first arrived there.

The horse did not penetrate much further to the south.  The severe incidence of horse diseases, especially of trypanosomiases inflicted by the tsetse fly, meant that the life expectancy of horses in the southern areas tended to be very short. European observers on the Gold Coast, while knowing by hearsay of the existence of horses in the interior, note that there were none on the coast itself.

Cavalry Warfare

The horse in pre-colonial West Africa served above all a military function.

Mansa Musa of Mali in the 1320s introduced from Egypt not only the use of saddles and stirrups and of larger breeds of horses, but probably also cavalry armour and new tactics of cavalry warfare involving combat at close quarters.

Cavalry could now employ their thrusting-spears in a direct assault upon the enemy infantry, and were no longer restricted to the subsidiary role of harrying the enemy from long range with javelins. Consequently, whereas earlier observers had regarded archers as forming the most important element in West African armies, cavalry now emerged as clearly the crucial wing.

Over most of West Africa, horses were valued primarily for their use in warfare. In consequence, the securing of supplies of horses was a matter of paramount strategic importance and a major concern of national policy in many West African cavalry states.

Confirmation of the military use of horses in this area is provided by the account given to Leo Africanus in the early sixteenth century.

Oyo, a kingdom in south-western Nigeria prior to the nineteenth century made substantial use of cavalry in its armed forces

The employment of cavalry forces had profound effects on the political structures of West African societies in the pre-colonial period.

Despite their tactical advantages, horses were often expensive to acquire and maintain, and suffered from the disease-carrying tsetse fly.

It is noteworthy that the traditions of the Idoma, who live south of the Benue to the south-west of the Jukun country, recall that their original homeland along the Benue was devastated during the sixteenth century in a major 'Horse War', in which they were attacked by mounted invaders: these raiding horsemen are nowadays anachronistically identified as the Fulani.

Tsoede, who is said to have created the unified Nupe kingdom during the sixteenth century (and who was himself in origin an immigrant prince from the Igala kingdom, down the River Niger from Nupe), is alleged to have owned no less than 5,555 horses.

Armament and Training

Before the introduction of firearms, cavalry normally fought with spears and swords.

It is very probable that in West Africa the development of cavalry fighting at close quarters, with thrusting-spears and swords, was associated with the introduction of saddles and stirrups around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,

The principal cavalry weapon was the spear. This was used both for thrusting and for throwing. In Hausaland, it is recorded that horsemen using the thrusting-spear often wore on their right arms two or three stone bracelets weighing about a pound each, in order to increase the force on the downward thrust of the spear when used against an enemy on foot.

A horseman's choice between lance and javelin related to the particular tactical situation in which he was operating: when fighting against other cavalry a horseman used javelins, throwing them as he came within range and then closing with the sword, while enemy infantry were ridden down and attacked individually with the lance or the sword.

The sword was also regularly carried by horsemen and was crucial for use in hand-to-hand combat.

Other weapons sometimes used by West African cavalry for fighting at close quarters included cudgels, battle-axes, and metal hooks for unhorsing mounted adversaries.

Sarki Kanajeji (c. 1390-1410), following heavy casualties in a campaign against Umbatu, is said to have introduced into Kano the use of quilted cloth armour (lifidi), iron helmets, and chain mail.

Body armour worn by rider, The chanfron was designed to protect the horse's face. Hooks, swords and battle-axes were carried into battle.

It seems probable that cavalry armour was introduced into West Africa at the same time as saddles and stirrups, as part of a comprehensive imitation of Islamic techniques of horsemanship.

Cavalry armour in the eastern area of West Africa was normally either of quilted cloth, stuffed with kapok, or of chain mail. Metal plate armour was much rarer, though not unknown. Its effective disappearance there may have been due to the widespread adoption of the use of firearms in warfare during the eighteenth century, which rendered quilted cloth and chain-mail armour obsolete.

Equestrian historian Hamilton-Smith preserved an eyewitness account of an armoured African knight.

"Mr. Bruce estimated the weight carried by the charger of the Prince, when he and his horse were accoutred in full armour, at no less three hundred pounds."

Borno warrior and his horse both wearing protective armour.

Helmets were also regularly used.

Cavalry also frequently carried large shields of hide into battle.

The horse itself could be protected with a coat of lifidi, which covered the whole body and the neck, hanging down over the hindquarters and the chest.

Cavalry had value in attacks on villages and towns. In assaults on unfortified villages, the swiftness of attack of mounted troops was of both practical and psychological importance.

The supremacy of cavalry in the warfare of the savanna areas of West Africa was threatened, and in some areas eventually destroyed, by the introduction of imported firearms, from about the sixteenth century onwards.

Service as cavalry was necessarily the preserve of a small group of specialists, since it required training in horsemanship.

Service as cavalry was also necessarily restricted to the wealthy and to clients of the wealthy, since access to horses, equipment, and armour involved considerable expenditure. There was therefore a tendency for cavalry to form the elite of the army in a social as well as in a military sense.

The northern areas of West Africa where horses had been longer established naturally enjoyed a reputation for superior horsemanship, and the services of horsemen from these areas were often sought by military leaders elsewhere in West Africa.

Horses and Slavery

The political aspect of the horse was reinforced by its close connection with the trade in slaves.

The connection between the horse and slave trades lay in their relation to war. Horses were valued primarily for their use in warfare, and were perhaps especially useful in the pursuit and capture of fleeing enemies, that is in securing slaves. Thus slaves were most readily obtained through capture in warfare. The exchange of horses for slaves therefore tended to become, it is often suggested, a 'circular process': horses were purchased with slaves, and could then be used in military operations which yielded further slaves, and financed further purchases of horses. Trade and war fed upon each other in a self-sustaining process which reinforced the domination of the warrior aristocracies

The earliest account to provide any detailed information on the trans-Saharan horse trade is that of Leo Africanus, who visited West Africa in c. 1512. In the western Sahara, Leo observes that Arabs of the Beni Gumi tribe of the northern desert were in the habit of purchasing horses at Fez in Morocco for re-sale to merchants who took them to 'the Land of the Blacks' in the south.

He relates an interesting story of the land of 'Gaoga' in the east: the grandfather of the ruler of Leo's town had won power, some one hundred years earlier, by purchasing some horses from 'white  merchants' and using these horses to mount military expeditions, which  yielded slaves which in turn were exchanged for further horses from  Egypt.

Leo also records that the ruler of Borno in his own day, faced by attacks from some neighbouring people, had built up a cavalry force of 3,000 by importing horses from 'Barbary', paying between fifteen and twenty slaves for each horse.

The Portuguese, on their arrival in this area in the mid-fifteenth century, were quick to set themselves up as suppliers of horses in rivalry to the trans-Saharan trade, and horses became their principal import into the area for about a century, until the later sixteenth century. Cadamosto in 1456, knowing that horses were in great demand in the country of the Blacks, brought some Spanish horses which he sold, together with their harness, to the ruler of Cayor, one of the provinces of the Jolof kingdom, obtaining apparently a price of between nine and fourteen slaves per horse.

Portuguese ships were also penetrating up the River Senegal to trade horses to the kingdom of the Tukolor people, obtaining here also six or seven slaves for a horse 'of little value.'

In the 1810s Lyon heard of the exchange of horses from the Fezzan for slaves from Borno, conducted by middlemen of the Tubu people of the Kawar area: a fine horse would sell in Borno for ten, fifteen or even twenty Negresses.

When the Portuguese reached the River Senegal by sea during the fifteenth century, they found the local people importing horses from the north. Cadamosto, in the 1450s, observes that the Jolof kingdom was importing horses from the north in exchange for slaves, at a rate of between ten and fifteen slaves per horse.

The well-known triangular trade was a pattern of colonial commerce in which slaves were bought on the African Gold Coast with New England rum and then traded in the West Indies for sugar, which was brought back to New England to be manufactured into rum.  A lesser-known commercial enterprise involved the selling of slaves for horses.

It was the substantial price differentials between north and south which made the internal horse trade in West Africa so profitable. Thus, as Binger observed in the 1880s, a horse valued at two or three slaves among the Moors of the Sahara could be sold for between six and seven slaves in Kaarta or Beledugu, for between ten and fifteen slaves at Wolosebugu, south of Bamako, and for no less than fifteen to twenty slaves in Wasulu, the heart of Samori's empire, further south again.

In the Igala kingdom in the 1840s, a 'fine charger' was likewise valued at between two and three times the price of a young adult male slave. These prices, from areas heavily involved in the supply of slaves to the coast for the Atlantic trade, probably reflect the dearness of slaves as much as the cheapness of horses.

Even in areas of the south where horses might seem of only marginal military value, the idea of the horse-slave cycle has some application. Samori for example, sold slaves on a large scale in order to obtain horses.

As a result of raids by mounted slavers, the Gwoza tribe developed a lethal four-bladed throwing knife which they would launch with great accuracy to slash the tendons of their attackers’ horses.

As a result of raids by mounted slavers, the Gwoza tribe developed a lethal four-bladed throwing knife which they would launch with great accuracy to slash the tendons of their attackers’ horses.

West African Horse Breeds

There are within West Africa a number of distinct breeds of horses, with distinct historical origins.

Studies distinguish four basic horse breeds in West Africa: the 'Aryan', or Arab horse; the 'Barb', or Barbary horse, identical with and presumably derived from the dominant breed in north-west Africa; the Dongola breed, so-called after its primary breeding-centre in the Upper Nile valley; and the 'pony'.

The most important distinction is between the larger breeds of horses found in the northerly areas of West Africa and the 'ponies' or small horses of the south.

Most of the horses of West Africa are of the Barb and Dongola breeds, the Barb being predominant in the area to the west of the River Niger while the Dongola is found mainly east of the Niger, being associated especially with Borno. In northern Nigeria, it may be noted, the 'Roman nose' characteristic of the Dongola breed is sometimes referred to as the 'Bomo head'.

Noted 19th century equestrian historian Charles Hamilton-Smith praised the beauty of the Dongola breed. “They are often black, are remarkably handsome, tall, powerful and active.”

Hamilton-Smith believed the Dongola horses "might be use to great advantage in forming a superior breed of (European) cavalry horses."

Royal palace horse, Oyo, Nigeria 1960

In the extreme east of West Africa, the area of Mania and Mandara to the south of Lake Chad is noted for breeding very large horses, of between 15 and 17 hands, presumably a variant of the Dongola horse deliberately bred for size.

When the Portuguese reached the River Senegal by sea in the 1450s, they found the local people already importing 'Berber' horses through the desert peoples to the north, the Portuguese proceeded to establish themselves as rival suppliers, importing Spanish horses into the Senegambia area by sea.

Eventually, these larger breeds of horses began to be raised locally, rather than imported from outside West Africa. It is difficult to determine how early the larger breeds became established within West Africa, but there is evidence which suggests that this occurred during the sixteenth century.

In the eastern area, the principal horse-breeding area by the early nineteenth century was Borno. The horses bred in Borno, which are more or less pure Dongolawi horses of between 15 and 16 hands’ height, were valued especially for their size, being significantly larger than those of neighbouring Hausaland.

In the nineteenth century, Borno was certainly the principal exporter of horses to the other countries of the Nigerian area. As Richard Lander observed in the 1820s: “The finest horses are imported from Bornou, which country supplies every other in the interior with that useful animal”. Another observer in the 1820s estimated that Borno exported between two and three thousand horses annually to 'Soudan.'

The importance of Borno as a supplier of horses to the Hausa area is indicated by the fact that in Hausaland the proverbial equivalent of sending 'coals to Newcastle' is to take horses to Borno.

Feeding and Care of Horses

Horses in West Africa are generally kept under close control in stables in the owner's compound.

Mares kept in the rural areas for breeding purposes are usually allowed to roam free and graze during the day-time, returning to the owner's compound only in the evening. But mares are little used for riding and rarely seen in the towns.

The stallions normally used for riding are invariably kept, when not in use, in stables, where they are regularly tethered, and very often hobbled; their food has to be brought in for them from the rural areas.

A man who owns only one or a few horses will not normally assign them a separate stable, but merely keeps them in one of the open courtyards of his compound, whose use the horse has to share with the human members of the establishment.

This sort of arrangement was described by European explorers of the nineteenth century, for example by the British traveller John Duncan writing about the area to the north of Dahomey in the 1840s – 'Horses here invariably make part of the family, being fastened to a peg driven into the ground or floor, by the hind foot, having only about a foot of rope. The children are often seen playing between the legs of the animal with which it seems much pleased, often nibbling at their heads with its  lips, or licking their faces, as a spaniel would.'

Hamilton-Smith recorded that the Dongola stallions were known to be emotionally attached to their riders. The author notes that in 1816 an exceptionally fine Dongola stallion sold in Cairo for 1,000 pounds, the equivalent of a $250,000 today.

No use seems to have been made of straw for bedding. Where it is available, sand is regularly used as bedding for the horses. Tradition claims that Kanta Kuta, the king who founded the military power of Kebbi in north-western Hausaland in the early sixteenth century, imported sand from Air for his horses, and likewise that the tribute levied from Air after the seventeenth century by the Mai of Borno consisted of 100 camels, each carrying a load of sand for the royal stables.

The food given to horses in West Africa normally consists mainly of grass and cereals, especially guinea-corn, supplemented by the leaves and stalks of other plants, such as beans and groundnuts.

The practice of keeping stallions stabled, however, means that their fodder has to be brought to them, often from very far away. European observers of the pre-colonial period often report seeing people bringing bundles of grass into the towns to feed the horses, an early instance occurring in a Dutch description of the royal palace at Benin in the early seventeenth century. The keeping of horses therefore involves a substantial commitment of labour to the task of collecting and transporting fodder.

More commonly, both in pre-colonial and in modern times, it has been  normal for the owners of horses, including kings and important chiefs, to  find the labour required for feeding their horses from within their own  households — from among their wives, children, and junior relatives,  supplemented in modern times by hired labourers and in pre-colonial  times by slaves.

The number of people in the household involved in the care of horses in pre-colonial times was often very large. In the ancient kingdom of Ghana, according to traditions recorded in the seventeenth century, each of the king's 1,000 horses had three attendants, one to provide its food, one to supply its drink, and one to keep its stable clean of dung.

It was common for each horse to have three attendants.

In the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, the slave official in charge of the royal stables was entitled the Olokun Esin, literally 'The Holder of the Horse's Bridle', since he fulfilled this service for the king during ceremonial processions.

There were separate groups of slave officials who had charge of the saddles, the stirrups and the horse armour, as well as a group of specialist horse trainers.

The care of horses required specialist skills, and the slaves in charge of royal and chiefly stables were selected with these in mind. In the southern areas, slaves of northern origin were sometimes preferred for this work, as being more familiar with horses than the local people.

The 'master of horse' of the Emir of Nupe in the 1830s, presumably a slave, was a native of Borno.

Riding and Training

Horses were employed on a substantial scale in pre-colonial West Africa, most obviously in warfare but also very widely as a token of great wealth and high social and political status.

The horses selected for riding in West Africa are almost invariably stallions. Mares were rarely ridden. However mares were favoured for use in night-time raids, since they were less likely than stallions to betray the approach of the raiders by neighing as they came near to other horses.

The use of geldings was even more uncommon than that of mares. The absence of gelding in West Africa may be due in part to the influence of Islam, since the gelding of horses is forbidden in Islamic law.

Horses in West Africa were broken for riding at a very early age. Colts were ridden by children without a saddle from the age of about one year, but mounted with a saddle only from the age of about two years.

In addition to the natural gaits of the walk and the gallop, West African horses are sometimes trained to perform certain artificial gaits. Nachtigal noted that in Borno in the 1870s, although trotting was rarely practised, horses were trained to perform a fast 'ambling' gait. This seems to refer to the pacing gait, in which the horse moves the two legs on each side of its body together in alternation: this gait, especially favoured for the rider's comfort, was formerly common in Europe, but has virtually died out there in recent times. The pacing gait is also reported in the nineteenth century from Hausaland, where it is known as takama.

Musku (horse trainer) on a pacer.

West African horses were occasionally also trained to perform some of the specialized movements generally known as 'airs'. Nachtigal in the 1870s describes horses in Borno as performing the 'capriole', a vertical leap into the air combined with a backward kick of the hind legs.

The training of horses in West Africa is normally undertaken by specialists. The existence of such specialist horse trainers is reported, for example, in Borno, where they are called musku.

In the savannah areas, where horses are more numerous and standards of horsemanship higher than in the south, equestrian ceremonies were of greater elaboration and complexity.

In Borno horsemen gathered from time to time purely for the purpose of exhibiting, in informal competition with one another, their skills in horsemanship. Such competitive displays are called garlap.

These equestrian ceremonies were not, of course, purely for purposes of diversion or display. They had a utilitarian aspect also since they afforded an opportunity for training in equestrian skills.

There were in West Africa in fact two distinct traditions of horse­manship: a pre-Islamic tradition, characterized by the use of a small breed of horses and by riding without saddles and with a bitless form of bridle, and a tradition derived from the Islamic world to the north of the Sahara, introduced into West Africa from about the thirteenth century onwards, associated with larger horses and with the use of the bit, the saddle and stirrups."

It is suggestive that the horses of the Plateau belong to a distinctive breed, smaller than the horses of the surrounding lowlands and also that the Plateau peoples practise a distinctive technique of horse-riding, using no saddle and a bridle without a bit. Evidently, the Plateau peoples did not derive their horses or their equestrian techniques from Hausaland or Bornu in recent times.

In certain areas of West Africa, horses were ridden without saddle or stirrups and with a bitless bridle. The non-Islamic tradition of horse-riding is associated especially with the pagan peoples of the Jos Plateau region of northern Nigeria. These bareback riders wore leather skull caps and penis sheaths of plaited straw.

Moreover, the keeping of horses, in an environment highly uncongenial to them, involved considerable logistical problems and imposed heavy expenditures upon the societies and individuals concerned.

Within the area of West Africa following the Islamic tradition of horsemanship, there was by the end of the nineteenth century a clear distinction between the west and the east: in the west (i.e. roughly modem Senegal, Guinea and Mali) cavalry forces had largely adopted the use of firearms, and perhaps in consequence had abandoned the use of elaborate protective armour, and horsemen employed the modem technique of riding involving short stirrup leathers and the flexed leg; whereas in the east (including Upper Volta, Ghana and Nigeria) cavalry still fought principally with the spear and employed protective armour, and continued the older technique of riding with long stirrups and the leg extended.


The date of the introduction of the saddle into West Africa is uncertain, but it seems likely to have occurred during the Islamic era.

The saddle consists of a wooden tree, padded with cushions stuffed with kapok and covered with leather. The usual form of saddle in West Africa, as in the Islamic world generally, has very high peaks in front and behind.

The saddle is secured by a girth, and often though not invariably also by a breast-strap; a crupper is rarely used. The saddle is normally used in combination with a complicated series of saddle-cloths. Directly upon the horse's back is placed a padded cloth.

The most common form of stirrup consists of a flat piece of metal with raised sides. The stirrups are secured to the saddle by leather straps or thongs.

From the late fifteenth century, the Portuguese began importing stirrups, saddles, and bridles into the Senegambia area by sea; these imports, supplementing those across the Sahara, no doubt helped to diffuse the new equipment more widely.

Al-'Umari observes that the people of Mali, 'in contrast to the whole world', mounted their horses with the right foot.

Greek and Roman writers report explicitly that the ancient Numidians of  north-western Africa in the second and first centuries B.C. rode their horses without bridles. Instead, the horses were directed by the use of a stick.

The date of the introduction of the bit into West Africa is wholly uncertain, but it may well have been unknown there until Islamic times. The usual form of bit was of the curb type.

The reins are often adorned with triangular fragments of calabash encased in dyed leather. The headstall is normally of dyed leather, and often highly decorated, sometimes with metal ornaments.

West African horsemen also commonly made use of spurs. The spurs were not of the rowel type but were simple prick spurs.

Riding boots of leather were also frequently used.

The use of horse-shoes seems to have been almost unknown in West Africa. Horse-shoes were rarely found south of the desert. Several European observers explicitly note the absence of the horse-shoe in sub-Saharan West Africa.

The Nigerians normally ride with a loose rein, the reins being held high in the left hand. The reins are held high partly to clear the high pommel of the West African saddle, but also because this is the position most appropriate for the West African curb bit, which is used only to restrain the horse and for which upward leverage is crucial.

Reverence for Horses

The History of the First Twelve years of the Reign of Mai Idris Alooma of Bornu states, 'His horses were to him as mothers.'

Horses in African Religion

African religious practices are highly diverse. They generally include oral rather than scriptural traditions which include belief in a supreme creator, veneration of the dead and the need for humanity to live in harmony with nature.

Shango is the mounted god of thunder, lightning and fire who is worshipped in Yorubaland in Nigeria.

After his death, Shango, the third king of the Oyo Kingdom, became a deity who is noted for his anger. Believed to be the most powerful in the pantheon of gods, Shango casts “thunderstones” at those mortals who offend him. He is worshipped on the fifth day of the week, which is named Ojo Jakuta and certain ritual foods, such as bitter cola and gbegiri soup, are consumed in his honour. Shango is invoked during coronation ceremonies in Nigeria to the present day.

African Women, Politics and Horses

Some might argue that the “Me Too” movement has an affinity with Africa, when you consider that an interesting characteristic feature of Somali folktales is that most of the principal characters in them are females, rather than males.

There is no male personage in these popular tales as famous as the female heroine Arraweelo, who was by far the greatest ruler in Somali history.

Arraweelo's mother was said to have been called Haramaanyo; but no mention is made in the tales about who her father was. She was the first born of three daughters and natural heir to the dynasty.

Like many female rulers, Arraweelo fought for female empowerment; she believed society should be based on a matriarchy.

She is one of the earliest female rulers in the world who was also a figure of female empowerment, and was known to castrate male prisoners.

Somali Queen Arraweelo on horseback with a male captive.

The queen was well known for defying gender roles. Before she was queen, during the Buraan droughts, she and a team of women fetched water and hunted to prevent her town from migrating and to relieve starvation. During her reign, Arraweelo's husband objected to her self-ascribed role as the breadwinner to all of society, as he thought women should be restrict themselves to merely domestic duties about the house and leave everything else to men. In response, Arraweelo demanded that all women across the land abandon their womanly role in society, and started hanging men by their testicles. The strike was successful, forcing men to assume more child-rearing and creating a role reversal in society.

Arraweelo was well-known throughout Africa, and the Queen of Sheba was said to send gifts to her in the form of gold coins as a congratulatory gesture.

America and Africa

Slaves arrive in the USA in 1830.


It was the book that electrified the world. Entitled Roots: The Saga of an African Family, author Alex Haley’s 1976 novel purported to tell how he was a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, an African kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery in the United States in the late 18th century.


Haley’s book was eventually published in 37 languages, won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to become a popular television series which reached 130 million viewers world-wide.


That’s when the trouble started.


The same year Haley won the Pulitzer Prize, he was successfully sued in US court for plagiarism. Then professional genealogists proved he had coaxed witnesses in Africa into falsely testifying and fabricated his primary research.


A Federal judge summed up Haley’s fall from fame when he said, “Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public.”


What the judge should have added was that Haley had also helped bring about the ethnic equestrian cleansing of one of the world’s greatest mounted people, the legendary black armoured knights of West Africa.


In order to perpetrate the myth of his ancestor being a victim, Haley cast the hero of Roots as an impressionable young teenager who had wandered away from home in search of a missing drum. More importantly the protagonist, Kunta Kinte, was a casualty, a future slave, and most importantly, a pedestrian.


While Haley, now deceased, has been brought to the bar by the genealogical and literary communities, the horse world has never recognized the fact that Haley inadvertently helped eradicate popular knowledge of an ancient equestrian culture that once reached across the African continent.


So what happened?


How did this massive equestrian culture, which encouraged African women to ride proudly astride while English women were restricted to the confines of a side-saddle, and fostered war-like men whose glory was to gallop into battle with lance and shield, disappear from the global conscious?


The answer is that Europeans adapted the same “divide and conquer” tactics they used so successfully to conquer the Native Americans on the African horsemen. Not only did the Europeans politically undermine the cavalry kingdoms from within, the ultimate goal was to de-horse the native people so that they could be controlled.


Ironically, it was thanks to Alex Haley’s populist book that the image of the enslaved African pedestrian became a staple of popular culture and though Haley’s work has been denied a place in the official canon of African-American literature, and was recently denounced by Dr. Henry Gates, a noted African-American scholar from Harvard University, the equestrian damage done by the author’s slip-shod research has never been addressed or corrected.


It is thanks to a handful of scholars that this amazing saddle-borne story is being shared at last.

Lt. Colonel Charles Hamilton-Smith, a "naturalist" like his English counterpart of the same era, Long Rider Charles Darwin, had the presence of mind to document the existence of the African knights.

Professor Law spent years in the field, documenting how horses had been introduced into West Africa as early as 1000 A.D.


Renowned explorer John Hare began his remarkable career as a traveller in Nigeria. In 1956 he witnessed the durbar held to celebrate the independence of the former British colony. John was among the 300 riders who rode to Jos to mark the historical event.


Though he was born in a nomadic Somali family, and did not learn to read until the age of sixteen, Professor Said Samatar realized the immense importance of recording the equestrian history and poetry of his people.


It is thanks to the foresight of these great scholars that posterity can begin to understand the historical value of Africa’s equestrian history.


Equus – Comprising the Natural History of the Horse

Lt. Col. Charles Hamilton-Smith



The Horse in West African History – The Role of the Horse in the Societies of pre-colonial West Africa

Professor Robin Law



Somalia's Horse That Feeds His Master

Professor Said Samatar



Last Man In – The End of Empire in Northern Nigeria

John Hare



Horses and Religion - The Equine Connection

CuChullaine O’Reilly



Images appear courtesy of Robin Law, John Hare and the LRG-AF.