Horses and men were kept fit both physically and mentally by hunting. The men learned military tactics and stalking techniques which were useful when they were sent on scouting patrols, and at the same time enjoyed a day’s exciting sport, although in the context of the Strategikon hunting was a means of teaching manoeuvres and supplying meat to the camps. The Byzantine military hunt was a major undertaking, with 800-1000 men per mile spread in a line across the country to be driven for game. Using the whole army, drawn up in similar fashion to a battle line with centre, right and left, and according to total numbers from one to four horsemen deep, game was trapped in a gradually closing circle, the right and left divisions eventually meeting, passing each other and tightening the circle till the centre was filled with animals ready for slaughter.
If infantry were present they came into the circle stationing themselves in front of the inner circle of horsemen, using ‘their shields to prevent small animals escaping through the horses’ legs. If no infantry were available the rear line of horsemen dismounted and lined up before the front line. Only then was permission given to designated officers to dispatch quarry, the circle being large enough for safe shooting and the trajectory from mounted archers directed downwards.
Apart from exercise and food shot, soldiers learned to negotiate any type of country while maintaining position in ranks. Powers of observation and physical responses were also honed. The horses had their tendons, bones and muscles toughened and their minds and responses sharpened at the same time, getting enjoyment from the chase with minimal chance of being injured.
Hunting animals was the absolute passion of the medieval upper class, and the only activity recognized as a real recreation. It served several social functions. It confirmed power, wealth, status, and prestige as the king or aristocrat went out with his retainers, horses, dogs, and, sometimes, trained falcons. It brought men of similar social background together and was good training for medieval warfare, keeping men and horses fit. It developed strategic thinking as the men hunted elusive and often dangerous quarries, such as wild boar, bears, wolves, and red deer. Late summer and, especially, autumn were the usual times for hunting, which was often dangerous. Accidents were common, especially among immature, testosterone-driven, risk-taking young men. The Annals of Saint-Bertin reports that in 864 [C.E.] the sixteen-year-old Charles of Aquitaine, the son of King (later Emperor) Charles the Bald
whom his father had recently received from Aquitaine and taken with him to Compiegne, was returning one night from hunting in the forest of Guise [nowadays Cuise-la-Motte near Compiegne]. While he meant only to enjoy some horseplay with some other young men of his own age, by the devil’s action he was struck in the head with a sword by a youth called Albuin. The blow penetrated almost as far as the brain, reaching from his left temple to his right cheekbone and jaw…. He suffered from epileptic fits for a long time, and then on 29 September  he died.
Hunting accidents were also convenient ways of eliminating rivals and were sometimes used as plausible covers for assassinations.
As anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) observes, “[W]e find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.” In The Golden Bough, James George Frazer identifies two basic principles, or techniques, underlying the practice of magic. The first is the law of similarity, which assumes that like produces like, and that the effect resembles its cause. The second is the law of contact or contagion, which assumes that things that once were in contact with each other continue to influence each other at a distance after the contact is over. Frazer calls magic that is based on the law of similarity “imitative,” or “mimetic,” magic.
In mimetic magic, the created image is thought to somehow capture the essence of the object it represents, so that what is done to the image is thought to be done to the object (immediately or in the future).
When an act of symbolizing, whether through drawing or mimetic enactment, “represents” what is absent, it gives the object a sort of life and reality. The more realistic the image or enactment, the more vivid and powerful the impression that the object has been summoned and is thus under control. Again, it is not the actual thing itself that is invoked through mimesis but the essence or spirit of the thing that it made to appear before us “through the metaphors and symbols that ‘give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.'”
Hunting peoples have long used imitative magic to “summon” and “control” the animals they hunt. Typically, an image of the prey animal is drawn so that it can be pierced by spears or arrows in the belief that this mimetic enactment will influence future events. Ojibwa hunters, for example, chant the following words over a drawn depiction of the prey animal, “I shoot you in the heart, I shoot you in the heart, O beast! I hit your heart.”
— Deadly Powers, pp. 123-24
I have previously posted on Hunting as War Training. Both this and that excerpt reference the medieval European experience, but the concept is not exclusive to that period.
Hunting in all its forms was strongly recommended by chivalric writers as the perfect preparation for military life. The typical argument was put forward in the first half of the fourteenth century [C.E.] by [King] Alfonso XI, who found time between ruling his kingdom of Castile and fighting the Moors to write a book about the sport.
For a knight should always engage in anything to do with arms and chivalry, and if he cannot do so in war, he should do so in activities which resemble war. And the chase is most similar to war, for these reasons: war demands expense, met without complaint; one must be well horsed and well armed; one must be vigorous, and do without sleep, suffer lack of good food and drink, rise early, sometimes have a poor bed, undergo cold and heat, and conceal one’s fear.
Different types of hunting required different skills, all relevant to warfare, including knowledge of the quarry’s habits, handling a pack of hounds, complete control of an often-frightened horse and the use of various weapons, including spears and swords to perform the kill.
War has been intertwined with hunting for millennia. The word venison, originally “hunted meat,” comes from the same Indo-European root as the Russian votna, meaning war. Certain French armored units still dignify themselves as chasseurs, huntsmen, while several elite German and Austrian formations are styled jaeger, or hunters, a reminder that they were first recruited from the gamekeepers of central European forests. A guest of the more established officers’ messes in Italy or Spain is likely to dine beneath stag or boar heads glaring from the walls, the high-toned British regiments preferring paintings…celebrating the fox hunt. In the United States, which finds its romance on the frontier, the comparable designation for light, fast-moving outfits is Rangers, harking back to the days when woodsmen passed almost overnight from hunters into warriors who contested mastery of the forests with Mohawks and Hurons on the edge of an unknown world.
In the context of the hunt, Native American youths were taught to view themselves as subordinate to their game: as suppliants requesting a favor from a powerful being. The hunter’s strength was necessary to inspire the animal to sacrifice its life on his behalf. He had to prove himself worthy to appeal to the animal like a medieval knight performing brave deeds before begging a boon from his king.
The relationship between the warrior and his human enemies was viewed very differently. The warrior’s intention was always to dominate his opponent completely, on both the material and the spiritual plane. Most of the Plains tribes believed that the spirit of an animal that willingly gave up its life to a hunter would either travel to a peaceful spirit world or else be reborn in this world. Either way, that animal’s spirit would bear no grudge against the man who killed it. By contrast, they thought that if you destroyed a man’s physical self without fully conquering his spirit as well, his spirit would continue to represent a serious threat to your own physical and spiritual well-being. The angry spirit of a fallen enemy could bring a warrior bad luck, disease, or even death.
The warriors of the plains felt that the only way for a man truly to defeat an enemy without risking postmortem supernatural harassment was to demonstrate clearly the superiority of his spirit over that of his opponent. Even after death, an inferior spirit would always fear to attack a stronger one. Therefore a great deal of their warrior training was directed toward encouraging their young men to have confidence in their own superiority of spirit.