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We are currently working on a project which purpose is to depict the Vikings through a digital card video game and we are in the process of researching which cards to put into the game. We have some difficulty with horses in the Viking period as are archeologists have shown us evidence that horses were found in some graves from that time, but that doesn't prove whether or not they were used in battle. So my question is, do we have any sources, archeological or written ones, that places horses on the battlefield in the Viking period?

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    Remember that "Viking" is basically a job description, for those among the Norse who went out raiding. The Norse probably used horses at home, but transporting them on ships presents a significant logistical problem.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 11 at 17:21
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    Distinguishing "Eastern Vikings" from "Western Vikings", the former from Sweden rather than Norway and Denmark, is important here. One could present an argument that the Swedes only stopped viking with the death of Charles XII; and the Swedes used cavalry to great effect from at least the Thirty Years War. Mar 11 at 18:33
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    Also remember that horses in graves would most likely be something resembeling Icelandic horses and not arab horses. Mar 12 at 11:12
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    @jamesqf Horses arrived in Iceland in the ~late 9th century, so horses on ships definitely happened, and pretty much had to be the Vikings. Even modern Icelandic horses can travel by boat: youtube.com/watch?v=zNQbWAA6FO0 (Although--enough horses, and the right types of horses, to be useful in battle? Probably not so much in the types of ships the Vikings used, even the cargo-type ships which were different from the warship-type ships.) Mar 12 at 13:50
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    @user3067860: I didn't say that horses couldn't be carried on ships, even perhaps by the longships used for raiding (which is what Viking means). But it would obviously have been difficult. The Norse who settled in Iceland wouldn't have been Vikings (unless they were really lost), since there were no people in Iceland to raid. They would have carried their horses and other goods in cargo ships. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viking_ships
    – jamesqf
    Mar 12 at 18:00
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Most probably not. Tactics of Viking warfare didn't really lend itself to cavalry combat.

Before the end of the 11th century the Vikings fought mainly on foot. Their horses were small and they had no real cavalry. Documentary sources do report horses occasionally being used by Viking leaders in battle, but more usually they served as a rapid means of transport to the battlefield, where their riders dismounted to fight. BBC.CO.UK

A description of a major Viking battle (the Battle of Maldon in 991 is accompanied by an old English poem.

The Vikings sailed up the Blackwater (then called the Panta), and Byrhtnoth called out his levy. The poem begins with him ordering his men to stand and to hold weapons. His troops, except for personal household guards, were local farmers and villagers of the Essex Fyrd militia. He ordered them to "send steed away and stride forwards": they arrived on horses but fought on foot. The Vikings sailed up to a small island in the river.

Vikings typically arrived by boat and then walked into battle. There are instances where they've used (and been buried with) horses, but the implication is that they're for transport/scouting/prestige rather than being used (and potentially wasted) in battle.

Rational thought indicates that using horses in battle, while effective with the right tactics, is extremely fatal in terms of horses being lost. Vikings didn't have a lot of horses and wouldn't have been able to transport them to overseas conquests in the numbers that would support cavalry actions.

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    This is roughly what I found when I dug into it as well. Other than the Normans, who adopted French Calvary tactics, Norse armies appear to have been almost entirely infantry.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 11 at 18:44
  • Their training and their weaponry do not lend to cavalry. I don't know if you guys have ever rode a horse but carrying a large shield and a blunt weapon cannot both be done while steering a horse. The other problem you get to is that whatever a "town" does to fortify, you can see/evade this much easier on foot than on horseback.
    – blankip
    Mar 12 at 20:40
  • So pretty much every depiction of Vikings in fiction up until now hasn't been wrong.
    – John Dee
    Mar 14 at 1:45
  • Isn't that poem describing the tactics of the Saxons rather than the Vikings though?
    – DrMcCleod
    Mar 14 at 11:55
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Short Answer

Generally, there is no evidence in medieval sources for the widespread use of cavalry or horsemen in battle by the Vikings. The Vikings in Western Europe (from the late 8th century to the late 11th century) generally fought on foot. However, there are a small number of recorded cases on the continent (Francia, northern Germany) and in Ireland where cavalry or horsemen were either possibly or probably used in battle.

The use of horsemen and cavalry in battle by the Vikings over the centuries can probably be best described as sporadic at most. Also, aside from in or near Denmark, it was mostly unsuccessful.

Horses did, though, become important in raiding and probably minor skirmishes; they were obtained, sometimes in large numbers, either by trading or as part of a peace settlement or by the aforementioned raids. There is also evidence of the Vikings shipping horses to England.


Details

If we adopt the more common (and broader) definition of 'Vikings' to mean

those people from the area covered by the modern Nordic countries of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden in the historical period c. 800–c. 1100

Source: K. Holman, ‘Historical Dictionary of the Vikings’ (2003)

then we have one possible example in an area of northern Germany originally inhabited by Saxons:

The final conquest of Saxony in 804 [by Charlemagne] inevitably attracted Danish interest. The Saxon population of an area beyond the Elbe was removed into Frankia, and the vacated lands given to the Abrodrites. 'At this point', say the Royal Annals, 'Godfred king of the Danes came with a fleet and with all the cavalry of his kingdom to Schleswig on the Danish-Saxon border.’ ….Godfred's Danes then attacked the Abodrites and forced them to pay tribute.

Source: J. Nelson, ‘The Frankish Empire’. In P. Sawyer (ed), ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings’ (1997)

However, our problem here lies in the interpretation of the manuscript. Eric Petersen, in 'Norsemen in the Viking Age', has a different view: he interprets the phrase 'and the whole equitatus of his kingdom' to mean "'chiefs with horses' rather than 'horse brigade', or cavalry'.

Where the Danes got their horses from is uncertain, but cavalry may have been used again by Harold Bluetooth (died 985 or 986) when fighting the Germans:

To what extent taller horses for mounted combat were introduced in Scandinavia from the Continent is yet uncertain. Importation is however most likely especially in the second half of the tenth century, when King Harald (certainly with cavalry) fights back against German troops in southern Jutland. An earlier importation of taller horses already in the ninth century cannot be ruled out completely.

Source: Stefan Brink, Neil Price, 'The Viking World' (2008)

Medieval sources in Francia also suggest the use of horsemen in battle on at least two occasions in the 880s. In both these battles (Saucourt in 881 and Montfaucon in 888), Viking losses were reportedly heavy, though the numbers are no doubt exaggerated by the author, Abbo Cernuus. On Saucourt, Petersen (citing Abbo) notes that the loss of 9,000 mounted men did not deter the Vikings from quickly acquiring more horses. Later,

On 24 June 888, Odo [king of West Frankia] engaged the Northmen at Montfaucon with a small army and Abbo relates that he killed 10,000 horsemen and 9,000 footsoldiers.

Source: L. A. Morden, 'How Much Material Damage did the Northmen actually do to 9th Century Europe?' (PhD thesis, 2007)

Despite these apparently heavy defeats, horses were still seen as highly desirable for swift raiding, though there do not appear to be any further mentions of the use of horses in battle. Perhaps the Vikings had learnt their lesson, that it was 'rash' for

recently mounted sailors to take on Franks trained from boyhood in combat on horseback

Source: Petersen

Another (rare) example of Vikings fighting on horseback (an elite force) comes from Ireland:

Despite the fact that they fought mostly on foot, the Vikings also occasionally fielded cavalry, as at the Battle of Sulcoit in Ireland in 968.

Source: René Chartrand, Keith Durham, Mark Harrison, Ian Heath, 'The Vikings Voyagers Of Discovery And Plunder'

The ships used in early sea voyages made transporting horses impossible in practice, and raids were carried out on foot. Later, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Vikings brought horses across to England on several occasions. They also obtained locally large numbers of horses for raiding. In 866

The Chronicle’s account of the East Angles making peace with these unwanted arrivals says that the Vikings took up winter quarters there, adding significantly that, ‘they were supplied with horses’. Asser, basing his account on West Saxon sources, adds: ‘almost the whole army was supplied with horses’.

Source: M. Whittock, H. Whittock, 'Viking Blitzkreig 789-1098'

In summary, there is no doubt that horses became an important part of the Vikings' military capability but, for them, horses were primarily a means of swift transport and sudden raiding rather than to be used as an effective cavalry force.

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Maybe, depending on your definition of "Viking".

There was a group of Norsemen who traveled south into Europe and eventually came into the employ of the Byzantine Empire as elite mercenaries, eventually coming to become the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor, the Varangian Guard. The Byzantine Empire was also known for its employment of cataphracts, heavy cavalry who rode armored horses.

Whether any of the Varangian Guard fought as cataphracts is something I'm unsure of, however. At the very least, if you're including different factions of Vikings as different deck types (similar to L5R's Clans or MtG's colors), you could potentially include the Varangian Guard and Byzantines as one possible faction that would include heavy cavalry.

Additionally, the Normans under the leadership of William the Conquerer used knights during the Battle of Hastings; you can see them depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry. Whether or not you'd count them as "vikings" when they'd settled down in France and assimilated into the local culture could be debatable, however.

Norman Knights at Battle of Hastings

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