Napoleon the Horseman

Although the most famous painting of Napoleon Bonaparte shows him on a horse, Napoleon was not a skilled horseman. In fact, the scene depicted by Jacques-Louis David never actually happened. Napoleon crossed the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass on a mule, not a white stallion. He nonetheless told David that he wanted to be portrayed “calm on a fiery horse.” (1) Napoleon wanted people to think he was a better horse rider than he was.

Napoleon as a horseman

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David

A bold, bad rider

Napoleon learned how to ride in Corsica, the rocky Mediterranean island where he was born. Donkeys, mules, and a very small breed of horse were the most practical forms of personal transport. Bridles were often fitted without an iron bit, so Napoleon became used to holding the reins loosely and controlling the animal by shifting his body weight.

When Napoleon went to military school in France, he studied to become an artillery officer, rather than a cavalryman. Although he had to take riding lessons as part of his training, he continued throughout his life to have poor form as a horseman. He slouched forward, pointed his toes lower than his heels in the stirrups, and slid around in the saddle. Saxon cavalry colonel Ernst von Odeleben referred to Napoleon as riding “like a butcher.” (2) According to von Odeleben:

Napoleon himself remarked at one time…that he had learned a great many things, but had never been able to make himself a complete horseman. His make was not indeed calculated for equitation. When he galloped, he sat carelessly in the saddle, generally holding the reins in his right hand, while the upper part of his body was jumbled, as the horse went on, forward, or on one side, and his left hand hung negligently down. If the horse made a false step, he immediately lost his balance. (3)

As he was not a good horseman, all those who approached him mounted upon a mare were obliged to be cautious that they were not thrown out of the saddle by the capers of his horse. (4)

Despite his bad form, Napoleon was a determined horseman. One of his secretaries, Baron Fain, wrote that he “rode horseback very boldly and recklessly.” (5) Napoleon could ride for days on end, traversing long distances at a fast pace. In Spain in 1808, he rode from Valladolid to Burgos – a distance of approximately 140 km – in five and a half hours.

Napoleon was not easily deterred by poor terrain or other difficulties. Von Odeleben observed that “he frequently risked his person in narrow swampy ways, in dreadful and dangerous roads, and in crossing rivers.” (6)

Napoleon was passionately fond of going across the fields, without letting any person know whither he bent his course. The chasseurs of the guard were so accustomed to this habit, that by the first direction which he took, they became perfectly well acquainted with the place towards which he was going. He was so fond of bye-ways and paths, that finding himself, on several occasions, in craggy places, or impracticable roads, he was obliged to alight: it was always a disagreeable thing to him to hear of difficulties or impossibilities…and he seldom abandoned his intention til he was himself convinced of the impossibility of proceeding. (7)

Preference for small, gentle horses

Napoleon and his staff on horseback

Emperor Napoleon I and His Staff on Horseback, by Horace Vernet

Napoleon preferred riding stallions, but he wanted them easy to handle. He usually rode Arabian horses, “small in size, greyish-white coat, obedient, gentle gallopers, and trotting at an amble.” (8) Von Odeleben described Napoleon’s horses as “generally small and poor in appearance.” (9)

Napoleon was not mounted as an emperor should have been; he had some eight or nine horses for his own use, of which the best and handsomest was a bay of Arabian breed, with a black mane and tail. Many officers would have been ashamed to mount the others, which were small, without external appearance, but convenient and sure-footed; almost all stallions with long tails. Besides the bay horse he had often with him two sorrel and two white. (10)

Because of Napoleon’s limited ability to handle his mounts, they had to be exceptionally well trained. According to his valet Constant:

The Emperor mounted his horse most ungracefully, and I think would not have always been very safe when there, if so much care had not been taken to give him only those which were perfectly trained; but every precaution was taken, and horses destined for the special service of the Emperor passed through a rude novitiate before arriving at the honor of carrying him. They were habituated to endure, without making the least movement, torments of all kinds; blows with a whip over the head and ears; the drum was beaten; pistols were fired; fireworks exploded in their ears; flags were shaken before their eyes; heavy weights were thrown against their legs, sometimes even sheep and hogs. It was required that in the midst of the most rapid gallop (the Emperor liked no other pace), he should be able to stop his horse suddenly; and in short, it was absolutely necessary to have only the most perfectly trained animals. (11)

When offered an unfamiliar horse during his exile on St. Helena, he ordered one of his valets to try riding the animal first, to know “whether he could use it without danger.” It was only after the valet assured him that the horse was “easy and gentle” that Napoleon mounted. (12) You will not find him riding a mustang in Napoleon in America.

Napoleon’s mishaps with horses

Napoleon on Horseback

Napoleon on Horseback, by Piotr Michalowski

There are numerous accounts of unfortunate incidents involving Napoleon and horses. At least ten horses were killed underneath him in battle. He also had several bad falls from horses, including one in which he hit a tree and was knocked unconscious. Napoleon took care to make sure such accidents were not reported.

There were other, less serious, mishaps. Napoleon’s secretary Baron de Méneval recounted how in early 1803, Napoleon wanted to drive a carriage with four young horses. His wife Josephine and her daughter Hortense were in the carriage.

Napoleon mounted the box, in front of the St. Cloud parterre. On arriving at the railings which separate this parterre from the private park, he lost control over the horses, which were young and fiery. They dashed up against the railings with such violence that Napoleon was thrown from his seat and hurled ten paces away, on to the gravel. … Napoleon came off with a sprain and few scratches, and was obliged to carry his right arm in a sling, which prevented him from signing any papers for a few days afterwards. (13)

Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, wrote that “at Posen, I saw [Napoleon], when he was angry, mount his horse in such a rage that he vaulted right over it, and give his groom a cut with his whip.” (14)

Von Odeleben recounted that in 1813, “[a] short period before he quitted Dresden for the last time, a very odd accident happened to [Napoleon]: he had set out on horseback to take an airing, or make a reconnaissance, when his horse fell in the street of Pirna, although it was going at a walk, in such a manner that it remained prostrate for some minutes on the ground, till Caulaincourt, and others, came up and assisted it to rise. The Emperor remained calm and undisturbed, on foot, until one of his led horses, which were in rear of the escort, was brought to him.” (15)

As a horseman, Napoleon usually accepted his mishaps with good grace, concealed any injury from onlookers, and remounted as soon as possible.

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  1. Jean-Etienne Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps: souvenirs (Paris, 1855), p. 233.
  2. Ernst von Odeleben, A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Saxony, in the Year 1813, Vol. I, translated by Alfred John Kempe (London, 1820), p. 285.
  3. Ibid., pp. 64-65.
  4. Ibid., pp. 202-203.
  5. Agathon-Jean-François Fain, Mémoires du Baron Fain (Paris, 1908), p. 244.
  6. von Odeleben, A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Saxony, Vol. I, p. 64.
  7. Ibid., pp. 203-204.
  8. Fain, Mémoires du Baron Fain, 238.
  9. von Odeleben, A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Saxony, Vol. I, p. 64.
  10. Ibid., p. 202.
  11. Louis Constant Wairy, Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon, Vol. I, translated by Walter Clark (New York and Boston, 1895), p. 279.
  12. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 166.
  13. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs to Serve for the History of Napoleon I From 1802 to 1815, Vol. I, translated by Robert H. Sherard (London, 1895), pp. 213-214.
  14. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue (New York, 1929), p. 136.
  15. von Odeleben, A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Saxony, Vol. I, p. 203.

11 commments on “Napoleon the Horseman”

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    Napoleon was often hard on himself, on others, on his horses. It is often said that he either disliked or was even afraid of cats. Whether he liked or disliked dogs is not quite clear, although he appreciated the doggish sense of loyalty. Despite long years of reading about Napoleon, I have not been able to ascertain with certitude what his attitude was towards animals in general.
    Have you any definite opinion or knowledge on that? For me, as an animal lover, this point is very important and indicative of a person’s character.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    That’s a really good question, Irene. I’m not sure of the answer. As so often with Napoleon, it’s hard to wade through the many anecdotes (some of which are more revealing of his impatience, rather than anything else) and get a sense of how he truly felt about animals.

  • François-Marie Patorni says:

    Great artice! I read somewhere that Napoleon crossed the Alps on a mule, not a donkey. How to find out the truth? A mule seems more plausible, but Napoleon for sure loved donkeys. I remember them everywhere running all over Corsica when I was a kid there.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, François-Marie! You make an excellent point. The sources I initially checked said he crossed on a donkey, but thanks to you I’ve looked into this more closely and found other credible sources that say Napoleon was on a mule. I agree, that’s more plausible, and have amended the first paragraph accordingly.

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    He did cross on a mule. A Swiss peasant guide led the mule and its even said that he prevented all three of them from falling into an abyss! Anyway, after the battle of Marengo, this man was astonished to get a larger sum of money presented to him, as a thank you for having provided a safe journey for Napoleon. The man had not known that he was guiding the commander in chief and French head of state over the St.Bernard pass, he thought it was merely some higher commanding officer. But Napoleon had asked him if there was something that he would like to have before saying goodbye to him and the man had said that he would love to have a better dwelling for himself, his family and his animals. And he got it!!
    Napoleon had quite a few faults but he was usually very generous. Of course, anecdotes are not always true but this one is in keeping with lots of other stories about Napoleon.
    By the way,there is a painting in the Louvre that shows Napoleon crossing the St.Bernard Pass on a mule!!


    Yes, Napoleon was quite often very impatient with things, people and presumably also animals. That was seen in the wrong light by some people, and misinterpreted very often. He was overworked, nervous and highly-strung and also hyper-sensitive in some ways. So impatience fits in perfectly with that.

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    Great blog!
    Irene talked about Napoleon’s dislike of the cats but are there historical sources?
    I never read anything about this (very important :-)) question in serious historical sources, only on the net…
    In fact, I never read anything about Napoleon and the animals, except about his horses.
    In the Civil Code, the animals were considered as movable properties and not as sensitive living beings. But I don’t think we can conclude from it something about Napoleon’s feeling towards animals since this part of the Civil Code was changed only in 2015…

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Marie-Noëlle. I have come across historical references to Napoleon disliking cats, but they are of dubious authenticity. For example, British captain Edmund Spencer, in Sketches of Germany and the Germans (Vol. 2, 1836), relates an anecdote told to him by a French officer, as follows (written in the voice of the officer): “After the battle of Wagram…Napoleon established his headquarters at Schonbrun. It so happened that I was on duty in the palace about midnight, and while passing the apartment of the emperor, I heard a noise, appearing as if he was in the act of repelling an attack, which caused me to fly to his assistance. In doing so, I was accompanied by another officer and the Mameluke, when a most ridiculous scene presented itself. The greatest warrior of Europe was engaged, sword in hand, in mortal combat, charging not an assassin, but…a cat! Upon seeing how contemptible an enemy we had to subdue, we could not forbear smiling; and the emperor, after a hearty laugh, good-naturedly related to us the origin of his dislike to the little tyrant of rats and mice. ‘When I was very young,’ said he, ‘I took great pleasure in hunting cats and dogs; and when I saw them flying from my doughty strokes, I fancied myself already a Caesar. One of my sisters had a pet Angola cat, to whom I had become an object of great dislike, from the incessant war I waged against it. Having one day found it alone in a room, I commenced my attack as usual, whip in hand: the little tiger…flew at my head, tore and bit me in such a manner, that the marks remain to this day. My cries soon brought assistance, but so deep was the impression stamped upon my young mind, that I verily believe, at this moment, I should prefer attacking a lion to a cat.’”

  • J Wladis says:

    During the Grande Armee’s crossing of the Neiman River in 1812, Napoleon, while observing the crossing, fell off his horse.

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Napoleon himself remarked...that he had learned a great many things, but had never been able to make himself a complete horseman.

Baron Ernst von Odeleben