In the 1790s, the threat of invasion of the Kingdom of Great Britain was high, after the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. To improve the country's defences, volunteer regiments were raised in many counties from yeomen. While the word "yeoman" in normal use meant a small farmer who owned his land, Yeomanry officers were drawn from the nobility or the landed gentry, and many of the men were the officers' tenants or had other forms of obligation to the officers. At its formation the force was referred to as the Yeomanry Cavalry. Members of the yeomanry were not obliged to serve overseas without their individual consent.
During the first half of the nineteenth century Yeomanry Regiments were used extensively in support of the civil authority to quell riots and civil disturbances, including the Peterloo Massacre; as police forces were created and took over this role, the Yeomanry concentrated on local defence. In 1827 it was decided for financial reasons to reduce the number of yeomanry regiments, disbanding those which had not been required to assist the civil power over the previous decade. A number of independent troops were also dissolved. Following these reductions the yeomanry establishment was fixed at 22 corps (regiments) receiving allowances and a further 16 serving without pay.
During the 1830s the number of yeomanry units fluctuated, reflecting the level of civil unrest in any particular region at any particular time. The Irish Yeomanry, which had played a major role in suppressing the rebellion of 1798, was completely disbanded in 1838.
For the next thirty years the Yeomanry Force was retained as a second line of support for the regular cavalry within Britain. Recruiting difficulties led to serious consideration being given to the disbandment of the entire force in 1870, but instead measures were taken the following year to improve its effectiveness. These included requirements that individual yeomanry troopers attend a minimum number of drills per year in return for a "permanent duty" allowance, and that units be maintained at a specific strength. Yeomanry officers and permanent drill instructors were required to undergo training at a newly established School of Instruction and the Secretary of State for War took over responsibility for the force, from individual Lords Lieutenant of counties. While these reforms improved the professionalism of the Yeomanry Force, numbers remained low (only 10,617 in 1881).
In 1876 the role of the Yeomanry Force was fixed as that of light cavalry. During the previous decades horse artillery troops had been raised to be attached to a number of yeomanry regiments and dismounted detachments appeared where horses were not available in sufficient numbers. These supernumerary units were now abolished.