If Wishes Were Horses — Part 5a: Scalplock & Sabre

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The men were a strange picturesque band – tall and lean, most of them, as men become who spend their lives in the saddle. Indeed, they seemed not entirely at home on the water. They were burnt dark by the sun; beardless, their moustaches drooped below their chins; their heads were shaven except for a long scalp-lock on the ridge of the skull … there was something of the eagle about them all – something wild and untamable, from the fundamental tie-ribs of life.

Robert E. Howard, “The Road of the Eagles”

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If there’s a person who does not find the word stirring and evocative, he (or she) is unlikely to be a Howard fan. Outlaw horsemen of a fierce, independent nature, with their own rules and communities, they thumbed their noses at Tsar and Sultan alike. Their notable leaders included the dashing Lithuanian princeling Dimitri Vishnevetsky, the roaring rebel Bogdan Khmelnitsky, and the explorer and conqueror of Siberia, Yermak Timofeyevich. Harold Lamb treated Cossacks in fiction to good effect. His stories influenced Robert E. Howard.

The mighty Conan, at one stage in his career, led Cossacks in the prehistoric Hyborian world. They were called kozaki by the Turanians there, (a word almost identical to the Polish kazaki.) These wild outlaws sprang from the same sources and situations as the Cossacks of our known history.

On the broad steppes between the Sea of Vilayet and the borders of the easternmost Hyborian kingdoms, a new race had sprung up in the past half-century, formed originally of fleeing criminals, broken men, escaped slaves, and deserting soldiers. They were men of many crimes and countries, some born on the steppes, some fleeing from the kingdoms in the West. They were called kozak, which means wastrel.

Robert E. Howard, “The Devil in Iron”

In our world it meant something like “free men”. These Hyborian kozaki are a thorn in the side of the Turanian monarch, as the sixteenth-century Cossacks were a plague to the Ottomans. They are, in the words of the harassed Turanian satrap in “The Devil in Iron”, robbers of the steppes, with their main territory around the “Zaporoska” River. REH took the name from the sixteenth-century Cossacks of the Zaporizhian Sech, on the lower Dneiper in the Ukraine, a no-man’s land between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The other main Cossack community of the time was that of the Don Cossacks. They also roamed in disputed, lawless territory, in their case between the Russian state and the Tartar tribes. Many were part Tartar themselves.

They first emerged in the fourteenth to fifteenth century, a melding of runaway serfs, disgruntled soldiers, fugitive criminals and other riff-raff. They formed an organized, disciplined community, as unlikely as that sounds from the raw material. As REH describes it in “The Road of the Eagles”:

It was the only real democracy that ever existed on earth; a democracy where there was no class distinction save that of personal prowess and courage. To the Saporoska Sjetsch came men of all lands and races, leaving their pasts behind, to merge into the new race that was there being evolved. They took new names, entered into new lives.

They lived by fishing, hunting and herding when they were not raiding, but they eschewed farming. Too many of them had been serfs originally, bound to the land. Sowing and tending crops, then reaping them, forced folk to stay in one place and made them vulnerable to the exactions of tyrants. The Cossacks had been there and done that.

Their horsemanship was astounding. They regarded their horses as companions in battle, not mere animals, and they trained themselves as exactingly as their steeds. They practiced an art called jighitova, or stunt riding, which was a fighting technique as well as equestrian art. Leaning far out of the saddle and shooting – accurately – under his horse’s belly at full gallop was a simple performance to a Cossack. Vaulting into the saddle, riding full-out while standing on the horse’s back, or vaulting over the horse and snatching objects from the ground before vaulting back, were also considered basic. They required great strength, which Cossack boys developed by holding heavy stones between their knees for hours.

A favorite Cossack trick to play on the enemy was lurching backwards as though shot, with the “dead” man’s feet apparently stuck in his stirrups. When enemies pursued the “dead” man on his “runaway” horse, they would unexpectedly find themselves shot by the “corpse” or having their heads cut from their shoulders. A trick that even Cossacks viewed as somewhat difficult and dangerous was diving under a racing horses’ belly and coming up into the saddle on the other side. However, they performed that one as well – and no doubt broke their necks sometimes.

The stamina of men and horses alike was amazing. They could cover seventy or eighty miles in a day with ease, more at need. On campaign they raided swiftly, hitting and disappearing like Mongols or Comanches. Don Cossacks were not the least of the troubles faced by Napoleon’s army as it invaded Russia. He supposedly said that if he had Cossacks in his Grand Army he could conquer China as well as Europe.

Don and Zaporizhian Cossacks were the earliest Cossack communities. Others developed later, in other regions – Volga Cossacks, Terek Cossacks, Siberians and Kubans. (But that’s for next post.) The Zaporizhians were associated with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – at the time an immense state which rivaled Russia. The notion of recruiting Cossack bands for border service was first officially promoted at the State Council of Lithuania (then a Grand Duchy) in 1524. The idea was shelved due to lack of funds for carrying it out. At a later council (1533) it was raised again by the Major of Cherkasy, who argued forcibly that forts along the Dneiper in the Ukraine, with two thousand soldiers and several hundred cavalrymen at least, were necessary to check Tartar raids. Again, nothing came of it, though the proposal was sound and the measure necessary.

The subject of the Ukraine and Tartar raids, in an REH-oriented post, leads naturally to REH’s character, Red Sonya. Here I’m talking about the warrior girl of our own history, alleged to be the sister of the Sultan Suleiman’s favorite, Roxelana or Khurrem. Roxelana was born in 1506, in the town of Rohatyn (REH calls it Rogatino) in the western Ukraine. At that time it was ruled by the Voivode of Ruthenia, a vassal of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. Roxelana, daughter of an Orthodox priest, was captured in one of the constant raids by Tartars from the Khanate of Crimea, and sold as a slave. This occurred in the early 1520s. Her sister Sonya – who I’m assuming was two years older – escaped, with a score against the Tartars.

Given Sonya’s nature, it seems likely that she rode with the Zaporizhian Cossacks after that, perhaps as the adopted daughter of a hetman. Cossacks fought ferociously against the Crimean Tartars, and returned their devastating raids in kind. Sonja would have been avid for such an opportunity, riding and fighting as hard as any of the men. Many Cossacks would have muttered and shaken their heads at the presence of a female warrior. Perhaps her adoptive father was killed in battle and she had to reject – with her sword – the advances of a Cossack who wouldn’t take no for an answer, after which she was an outcast among them. It would explain how she came to ride west and battle the Turks at the Siege of Vienna in 1529.

Despite the famed Cossack horsemanship, and the REH epigraph at the head of this post, the Cossacks were in fact pretty adroit on the water. Their main early territories lay just north of the Black Sea, which the Ottoman Empire saw as its personal lake. The Cossacks disagreed. They developed a particular kind of boat, long and narrow, riding very low in the water and therefore hard to see until it was almost upon the objects of their raids. They also possessed the advantage of being easy to construct in a hurry. They were called chaiki (seagulls). Early chaiki were about forty-five feet (fourteen meters) long, made of willow or linden wood. They had bundles of reeds lashed along the sides to increase buoyancy and give some protection from musket fire. Later chaiki (from the 18th century) were built of oak, up to sixty feet long, and could carry small cannon or “falconets.” Some seaborne Cossack operations involved fifty boats carrying two and a half to three thousand men. chaiki were also much faster than the Turkish Black Sea vessels of the day; perfect for the sudden surprise attacks in which the Cossacks specialized.

Cossacks did possess some galleys as well – captured as a rule from Turks, like the galley in REH’s “The Road of the Eagle.” Since they were difficult to take into the shallow waters of the Dneiper they were not as favored as the chaiki. In one major sea battle in 1616 they defeated the Turks and captured twelve galleys, then went on to sack the city of Kafa in the Crimea. (The Crimean Khanate was among the Cossacks’ particular enemies.) In the same year, 2000 Cossacks raided the city of Trebizond with success, and freed about two hundred Christian slaves, along with taking rich plunder. Their naval activities against the Ottomans were greatly appreciated by other Christian rulers, no matter how they deplored the Cossacks’ swaggering defiance of their own authority.

But I digress. Returning to the main subject — Cossack horses can be assumed to have originated from Tartar stock. Tartars living along the Kuban River bred the Nogai type of horse, a small, lean riding animal, in great numbers. The nomad lifestyle was ancient in the region, and suited Cossack needs.

The Cossacks paid great attention to upgrading the breed. Their freedom and very survival depended on their mounts. The old Don Horse was produced by natural selection more than anything else – semi-wild and probably with a touch of the original Asian wild horse, the tarpan, in its heritage. It was used to racing for its life against wolves across the vast expanses where there was nowhere to hide, and fighting them if necessary. We needn’t wonder that its courage and endurance became legendary.

The Cossacks added genes from Turkoman and Persian horses to their herds. (The Turkoman is a slender, fine-looking breed, with a glossy coat and delicate skin. However, it is immensely tougher than its appearance, and proves it by the way it performs. One of the three great progenitors of English thoroughbreds, the Byerly Turk, may have been a Turkoman horse.) Even Arab steeds were introduced to Cossacks’ breeding stock, as war plunder from their Moslem enemies. The result of this was the Cossack mount par excellence, the New Don Horse. It met the Cossacks’ need for reliable steeds in combat – horses that combined agility and responsiveness with almost incredible stamina. While not large, the Don horse is robust, with strong bones and muscles. It’s well adapted to rigors of climate, hot and windy summers contrasting with snowy winters. On the Don steppe the autumn rains usually caused a thick growth of grass before winter set in, which would then stay green under the thick refrigerating layer of snow. Thus it could support the Cossack horses through a good part of the cold months.

The Don horse has a wide body, long breast cage and small to medium-sized head with a wide brow. The hooves have clean, excellent structure and the legs show well defined joints and tendons. They can cover astounding distances — although their short shoulders tend to limit the length of their stride. The colour is generally a golden chestnut, sometimes bay or brown.

Cossack survival also depended on loyalty and unity. They looked for this quality of “heart” in their horses. There is a story about two prisoners who found themselves in the same Siberian prison camp after the Russian Civil War – a Jewish rabbi, Mendel Futerfass, and an old Cossack who had remained loyal to the Tsar. Cossacks in general loathed Jews, but now they were in the same situation, and in the barracks one Siberian winter the Cossack reminisced to the rabbi about the magnificent Don Horses. This tough old cavalryman was absolutely croaking with emotion. He said there was nothing in creation like a Cossack horse; they were “incomparably different.”

Not only would it do anything for its master; jump into fire, over trees, even houses … it had a different heart.

He explained that some Cossacks were specialists at catching horses in the wild. Travelling long distances at their trade, they would eventually find a large herd, one or two thousand horses, and stampede them towards river. They would have to swim through to the other side, where a second group of Cossacks would be waiting, and this group would watch the horses closely to see what they did.

The usual sort of horse would just give all its effort to swimming the torrent to get across and away. Sauve qui peut. The older, weaker horses would flounder and drown. Some of the younger ones had the stamina to make it across but not the strength to get out on the far side. The last and rarest type was the horse who could reach the far side and get out – but would then actually turn back to save the ones in trouble. These were the ones the Cossacks really valued beyond words. They would throw paint on their sides and trail them for days to catch them, after which they would spend months training them. These were Cossack horses.

The rabbi exclaimed that he understood; the Cossack was talking about a “chassid,” a Yiddish term for a man whose spirit is such that he cannot leave his fellows in trouble even though he risks his life. The true Cossack horse was a chassid.

That was the Cossack attitude to their comrades – but where the rest of the world was concerned, they saw no reason not to plunder it — Jews and Moslems especially. But Russians who were not Cossacks, seemed almost as completely fair subjects to rob. Monarchs of all nations within their reach had reason to complain of them. None could make them submit. Grand Prince Vasily III of Russia, beset by their depredations, complained to the Ottoman Sultan in 1539 and asked him to check their raiding. The Sultan answered, “The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves please.” Just ten years later the Ottoman Sultan made a similar request of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and he got a similar answer: “The Cossacks of the Don are not my subjects, and they go to war or live in peace without my knowledge.” Both rulers, no doubt, told the truth.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part 4a, Part 4b, Part 4c, Part 5b

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If Wishes Were Horses — Part 5a: Scalplock & Sabre. (2017, Jul 15). Retrieved from


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