Authored By Staff Writer (Updated: 4/8/2013): The Cataphract was an ancient evolution of the war horse that consisted of extending the armor protection, provided to the rider, to the horse as well. Various civilizations and empires made use of the cataphract in a variety of ways, fielding them in strategic groupings that offered shock troop value on the battlefield. In fact, the word cataphract in the Greek translates to "covered over" and Romans called them clibanarii (or "oven men").
The cataphract evolved on the then-modern battlefield by trying to find better ways to arm the rider. Maces offered up good hitting ability, able to crush a mans skull with ease, but required that the rider be in very close proximity to his target - which in all likely hood was always lower than the mounted attacker. As such, the lance or "kontos" in the Greek, was developed as the primary weapon of the cataphract rider. This thrusting spear was of considerable length and provided the rider the ability to aim down at his target, possibly impaling several men in a full charge.
Drawbacks to the cataphract unit were apparent. One might already assume the sheer weight of the cataphract limited mobility and endurance especially in the heat of the summer season. Additionally, horse riding at this time was being done without the stirrup - even Roman riders were sitting atop a very early form of a saddle without stirrups and Parthian riders still rode bareback - as such, the rider could be dismounted from an infantry charge from his right or left with some ease. Large groups of swordsmen could make short work of a cataphract unit my surrounding him and his steed and stabbing/hacking it to pieces.
Parthian cataphract forces specially bred Persian stud horse types known as Nesaean studs. These horses were of particularly large imposing size with very developed attributes suitable for warfare. Nesaean breeds offered up a classic combination of speed, power and psychologically imposing size. Byzantine forces around 1100 AD fielded a similar form of cataphract with armor draped over their horses and the rider's torso that consisted of scale armor. Chainmail could be used to cover the rider's face and hardened leather or additional metal could be used to protect the arms and legs from injury. A metal helmet offered further protection as did a small rounded shield, the latter adding to the individual mobility of the rider to swing a weapon.
The cataphract remained a potent weapon of warfare for quite sometime, being completely nullified by the advent of the rifle. Even so, the power of a cataphract charge was quite tremendous and the armor protection afforded to steed and rider alike provided mentality of closing in on one's enemy without too much fear of the repercussions.