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A cavalry is a military force mounted on horseback. Historically, cavalries played an important role in many conflicts and in the establishment of colonies. In the modern era, the word is used to describe a light and extremely mobile military force, which serves many of the same functions. Many militaries also retain small numbers of trained horses and soldiers for ceremonial functions.
The word comes from the Latin caballus, for “horse.” In France, it evolved into cavaliere, a skilled horseman and fighter, and when the word was adopted into English, it became “cavalry.” There were three basic classes: light, heavy, and archer. Light cavalry rode with minimal armor, and had a focus on mobility and speed. Heavy used heavier armor, designed for effectiveness in battle, while archers used bows and arrows. Some armies also had a lance division, a mounted force that rode with lances.
The origins of cavalry are ancient, and warriors on horseback have been documented for centuries. In the Middle East, the development of saddles and stirrups to control horses led to the widespread adoption of these animals for military use, and the trend spread to Europe. Both Ancient Greece and Rome had cavalry forces, which could be devastating against an unmounted enemy. The horses used have varied through the centuries, depending on region and trends in armor, but they tend to be strong, agile, and rugged.
In addition to riding on the battlefield, cavalry troops also engaged in intelligence gathering and in exploiting weaknesses along enemy lines. Using the horses to create a solid wedge, members could break up lines and demoralize soldiers on foot. They could also take the form of dragoons, troops who rode to the battle but fought on foot. Dragoons were highly mobile strike forces, organized like infantry but with rapid strike capabilities.
As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th, it began to become apparent that the cavalry might be obsolete. By the First World War, this was made clear, as mounted troops were not effective against automatic weapons, mines, and other weapons that were widely used in the war. To continue to use these troops would have been tantamount to suicide, and as a result, their use in active battle was discontinued.
Although the cavalry no longer exists as a horse mounted military unit, the tradition has been retained for parades and reviews. Police forces also continue to use horses in much the same way that cavalries did. Many of the light and efficient military units called cavalries today once had horse mounted soldiers, transitioning to modern equipment such as helicopters as the face of war changed.