The idea of a soldier climbing up on a horse and riding into battle may seem like a scene out of the Old West, but the Marines have recently begun to reconsider how horses are used in the military. According to USA Today, a program is being run in the Sierra dessert that will train Marines and Special Forces to ride and care for their new mounts.

Tony Parkhurst is the director of the horsemanship and mule packing course. A retired Marine himself, Parkhurst has spent his life after service continuing to help his fellow soldiers. He created the program based on old training manuals from the time of the U.S. Cavalry and has been studying the fighting tactics of the Native Americans.

"The Indians were actually better than our cavalry," Parkhurst told USA Today. "They were phenomenal guerrilla fighters."

The use of horses in warfare is an age-old tradition that died out when tanks and other technology became available in the first half of the 20th century. 

Horses in modern warfare
In today's combat zones, such as Afghanistan, horses can be an invaluable resource that soldiers taking the horsemanship course will be able to utilize. With its mountainous and rocky terrain, a tank or military vehicle can only go so far. Instead of having to travel ahead on foot, the horses give the soldiers better mobility. They also are able to cover much greater distances than a soldier on foot, cutting down on travel time. Horses provide a quieter and more covert method of transportation compared to vehicles, allowing troops to travel undetected. The unconventional battle situations that the Marines face in such areas requires unconventional methods.

The program is being operated through the Mountain Warfare Training Center in California, according to a release issued by the Marine Corps. On top of learning to ride horses and mules, the Marines here learn how to utilize pack animals, which help greatly when it comes to transporting gear over large distances.

"We teach Marines how to use pack animals and riding animals as a means to transport people and supplies when ground vehicles or air support isn't possible," Parkhurst was quoted saying in the release. The Marine Corps stopped using pack animals in 1953, but the Department of Defense began to re-explore their usefulness in 1983.

Benefits of animal knowledge

The Marines are also taught the basic veterinary skills needed to maintain their horses in the field and how to manage a herd. This knowledge comes in handy when they are interacting with the nomadic tribes of areas such as the Middle East, providing a basic connection. The soldiers are able to help locals with their herds if necessary, which can help build trust between the two groups.

Mark Rossignol, former business manager for Smith Lake Stables, helped run a now-closed program similar to the MWTC that was run out of Fort Bragg. He explained the importance of this to Horse Channel.

"We teach them about anatomy and basic vet care," he said. "That's because many times these troops are working with the local people."