Cavalry were a minority in the Ming military. However, they were still an essential component of Chinese armies. Yongle once said “Horses are the most important thing to a country.”, while he may have been exaggerating, it’s clear that the cavalry was highly valued.
Ming cavalry were divided into two types–lancers and mounted archers. The former were equipped with helmet, armour and sabre, as well as a long spear and round shield. The latter were also armoured and carried a sabre, but the primary weapon of a horse archer was his composite bow. Lancers typically charged after the enemy had been softened up with missile weapons, as they proved unable to face spear-armed infantry and artillery bombardment directly. Whereas horse-archers were often the first into battle, meeting the enemy with arrows before the rest of the army engaged in hand to hand combat.
Time and time again, Chinese horsemen proved their worth on the battlefield, though generally when fighting nomads they needed support from infantry. In 1365 Li Weizhong of the Ming defeated a Wu army with a cavalry charge which he led in person. Later, Zhu Di’s success against both imperial forces and Mongol nomads was due in no small part to his strong cavalry. In 1422 Zhu Di led 20,000 elite cavalry and infantry into Manchuria and won a string of victories over the eastern Mongols.
In the later stages of the dynasty. Chinese cavalry severely declined and proved unable to stand up to nomads. Qi Jiguang had to develop specific tactics to ensure success when fighting on the northern border. His armies were infantry and dragoon based, using wagon laagers mounted with light cannon to protect against cavalry charges. This proved successful–the Mongols sued for peace with the Ming soon after Qi Jiguang was put in charge of the border defence.