Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Horses in the Battle of Mohács

This is my third article about how Hungarian horses and their riders were a bit different from western and eastern cavalry. My writing is a summary of the original article written by Béres Sándor (Rubicon Magazine, Budapest 2020/1).

You can find my two previous articles here:

and here:

So far we could draw two major conclusions, namely that Hungarian horses were larger and stronger than Turkish ones and faster and tougher but smaller than the western horses. As a result, the semi-heavy Hussar cavalry could be quite effective against both enemies, using a different strategy.

Hungarian horses (photo: Hága Zsuzsanna)

On the other hand, we were convinced by Béres Sándor that the Christian cavalry was very well organized even in the meleé: so it is not true that the Christian knights ran madly into the battle.

Hungarian hussars

Now, I would like to tell you the rest of the article, talk about making panic among the enemy and taking advantage of the havoc. Finally, Béres is going to tell us the secret of the Ottoman cavalry’s success in the Battle of Mohács in 1526.


Making panic

At Mohács, the action that decided the battle was the confrontation of huge cavalry units. The goal of the Hungarian heavy cavalry was to defeat the Sultan’s cavalry before their horses get tired so they could have enough strength to override the Turkish infantry right after that. So their first objective was to remove the Sipahi riders that were defending the vulnerable side of the Sultan’s infantry.

a heavily armored Sipahi like this was rare

In the case of a cavalry clash, the primary goal is always to make panic that would quickly spread like a sudden emotion. Always, the horses’ instinctive reaction would be to flee. Contemporary sources call this “megszalasztás”, meaning “making the enemy scoot”. In order to achieve it, the knights have to make a spiritual blow and crush the trusting relationship between the horses and their riders by provoking fear of death.

Christian heavy cavalry

Horses are not tools or mates of the riders, they are rather parts of each other. The horse gives its strength and speed and in exchange for this, it receives the feeling of security from its rider. Horses count on their riders to lead them to safety and get fed. On the other hand, seeing this infinite trust, the rider is spiritually relying on the horse, too. When this mutual trust suddenly collapses, we call it panic. The more surprising a cavalry assault is, the more successful it can be. Let us not forget that the assaulter has the advantage because their spiritual frame of mind is far higher than the enemy who receives the attack, even if the enemy launches a counter-attack a heart-beat later.


In a panic, the warrior and his horse can consume their energy resources very quickly and that is why some of them “get frozen down and is unable to move”. 

You can watch the Battle of Mohács here, with English subtitles:

At Mohács, the Hungarian cavalry could hardly wait to launch the assault while the enemy regarded such heavy cavalry assaults as a “charge of iron-clad monsters”.

In the Ottoman army, high tales were told about the Christian heavy cavalry to the fresh soldiers while in the Hungarian army the soldiers were boasting that all the Ottoman soldiers are just untrained riff-raff masses of peasants.

If there are too many horses who didn’t really get used to their riders and the other horses near them, panic can spread very quickly. When in panic, the fighting value of the enemy is very low, regardless of their numbers.

The Hungarian cavalrymen had another advantage: they rode stallions while the Turks mostly used gelded horses. The Hungarians used snaffles and spurs to control their stallions and this way they could carry out more complex movements. On the other hand, the Ottomans mostly used less effective horsewhips.

Hungarian cavalrymen (by Somogyi Győző)

The role of the Hussars

The Ottoman cavalry would not have waited for the assault of the Hungarian heavy cavalry, staying in one place. The target had to be set and the semi-heavy or light Hussar horsemen had been given the task of fixing the Turks to remain there.

an Ottoman rider

The Hussars were armed with lances and armed similarly to the Sipahies, except they had bigger horses. The Turks could not make an organized maneuver to evade them because the Hussars were as fast as they were and would have caught up with them. Knowing this, the Sipahies launched a counter-attack. When the Hussars could get the Sipahies involved in close combat and perhaps they could even disrupt their formation, the heavy cavalry’s assault could start. As a result of this, the heavy cavalry could isolate and overrun the Sipahi units one by one. In case the Sipahies fled, then it was the Hussars’ task to chase them.

Hungarian Hussar, 16th century

Scattering the infantry

The heavy cavalry would have stayed intact on the battlefield, on relatively fresh horses. Now, their last task was to eliminate the Ottoman infantry that had been abandoned by their cavalry. Only the best infantry could withstand the assault of armored heavy cavalry and even the Janissaries could do it all the time.

It was how the western infantry could stop the cavalry (source: Mair)

The knights, deployed in wedge formations, attacked the corners of the infantry units as that was their weakest point. If they were able to penetrate deep enough, they had a good choice of “exploding” the infantry formations.


The footmen could defend themselves by wounding or killing the horses but even an injured or dying animal could be very dangerous if it fell among them.


The Ottoman tactic

The Turks knew it all so they took good care of using the fastest and strongest horses “who were able to gallop at full speed for even a whole week, day and night” according to the chronicle of Magyarországi György.

Ottoman horsemen

So the Turks tried to jump the Hungarian cavalry into assaults and evade them, or carry out an organized retreat. They often snared the charging heavy cavalry before cannons or hidden infantry units armed with halberds and muskets. It was risky because the retreating or evading maneuvers could become easily dangerous situations if the Hungarians could engage them. There was always the chance of panic and havoc.

The problem at Mohács

Unfortunately, the Hussars of the Hungarian right wing, the ones who were successfully scattering the Rumelian Sipahies, didn’t chase the enemy far enough. As a result of this, the Sipahies were able to regroup and return just in time when General Tomori’s heavy cavalry started to attack the Ottoman infantry in an above-described manner. Soon, the horses of the heavy cavalry got too tired because they had to carry out extra maneuvers against the attacking Sipahies. 

Final thoughts

Both the Ottomans and the Hungarians used different ways of breeding and preparing their animals. Hungarians had developed agriculture and they could feed their horses with grain forage but at the same time, they brought up the foals keeping them outdoors. As a result of this, the Hungarian horse was a war animal that grew up outdoors but was fed with fodder regularly. In the West, horses were not growing up in the field, freely, while they did not forage properly in the East. All of these elements are important to understand the difference between the cavalry tactics of Eastern and Western people: and only this can make us fully understand why the Hungarian Hussars were so successful, combining the benefits of both points of the compass.  

A famous Hungarian Hussar, Berenhidai Péter

Here is more about Berenhidai:

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