Medieval Horses – A Crash Course
Over lockdown we have changed the way we do a lot of things. We will miss some changes (including the ability to wear pajama pants to important meetings), whilst others will be a welcome relief to be done with. With restrictions slowly lifting, let’s take a look much further back, at what has changed in the way we raise and ride horses since medieval times. This blog post is a little different to our usual posts, but we hope you enjoy learning something new.
Much has been lost since medieval times, and a lot of what we know has been supplemented by experimental research. Jason Kingsley OBE is an individual who, along with his beloved horses, delves into such mysteries on his YouTube channel, Modern History TV. As such, his videos are must watches for those interested in medieval horse care and training. (He also credits the horses in his videos before anyone else at the end, which is definitely a bonus.)
Types of horses
Today we differentiate horses by breed. During the medieval era they were placed into different categories based on their purpose. Medieval horses were noticeably smaller than modern horses, averaging at about 13 to 14 hands (4.3 to 4.7 feet) tall at the withers.
Larger hot-blooded horses which would have been taken into battle were split into destriers and coursers. Destriers were valued for being easily able to carry a knight in full armour into battle, along with their saddle, tack, barding, and all of their riders’ weapons. Based on surviving horse armour it is estimated that they were no more than 15 to 16 hands (around 5 feet) tall. The Royal Armouries use the model of a 15.2 hands Lithuanian Heavy Draught mare to display destrier barding – and she pulls the look off with flare. The majority of destriers were stallions due to their aggressive temperament and habits of joining in on the fighting. Coursers on the other hand were horses that were valued for their speed. Coursers were ridden unarmoured and made up a highly mobile unit that was often preferred over heavy cavalry during sieges and raids.
Riding horses were divided into rounceys, jennets, and palfreys. Palfreys, also known as “amblers” were warm-blooded and elegant looking horses. Due to their looks and comfortable gait, these horses were used by the upper class as riding horses or parade horses. Palfreys were also occasionally used in battle as they were quick and sure footed. Jennets were smaller horses or ponies that were favoured by ladies for walking, and also by pilgrims as they ate less than larger horses making them easier to care for. Similarly to palfreys, jennets were sometimes used as light cavalry horses. All-around service horses were called rounceys. This was the type of horse that your average person would ride.
Working horses such as pack or cart horses were strong yet docile horses, along with donkeys and mules. Whilst mules are a rarer sight today, they were very common in medieval times. In some cases, mules would have in fact been worth more than horses. This was as they could be stronger than comparably sized horses and could feed on rough forage, making them ideal for carrying goods on long journeys.
Medieval tack has its similarities to modern tack, with saddles, bridles and stirrups. Stirrups originated in China in the 5th Century and became widley used in Europe by the 8th century. Horseshoes as we know them, however, seem to only have become common in Europe by the 11th century. Previously the Romans used a form of easily removable horseshoe called a “hipposandal”. The earliest evidence of more recognisable horseshoes is in 910 AD, when “crescent figured iron with nails” was listed as cavalry equipment in a surviving record.
Saddles developed over medieval times to accommodate armoured knights. This required larger saddles to better spread the weight of the rider and their gear over the horses back. They also evolved to keep the rider secure on the horses back in battle. Later Medieval war saddles are broadly similar to modern English saddles, with a few evident differences. They were much deeper than modern saddles, with high pommels and cantles. These offered some protection to the mounted knight and also help them to stay on their horse. Similarly, stirrups were longer and knights rode with their legs angled forwards. This position allowed them to remain in the saddle, braced against the high cantle during cavalry charges.
The horse armour or barding that we associate with the Medieval period was not common until the 12th century. Initially horses wore quilted garments under mail armour. Caparisons were large fabric coverings for a horse, and appear to have been intended to bear heraldic colours or a coat of arms. After around 1250 plate barding began to make an appearance. This started with a head covering called a “Chanfron” or a “Shaffron”. Following 1350 additional armoured barding became more common, with armour for the sides and rear of a horse. By the 15th century a “full bard” comprised a chanfron, a closed neck defence called a “crinet”, a chest plate called a “peytral”, and rear defences called a “crupper”.
Medieval horse care
Only so much is known about medieval horse care. We know from records that a great amount was spent on their upkeep and care. A powerful horse was a status symbol. Families would take on average at least 5 horses if they were to go to war. This was due to their uses and the status they showcased. An individual training as a knight was called a squire. Even if a squire could afford a horse that cost more than their knights, they could not buy it, as the knights were of higher status and the squires could not look better than them. This meant that whilst a knight would ride a destrier or a charger, their squire would likely ride a rouncey.
Stables would be run by a marshal, who was assisted by a constable to keep order in the stable and yard. These two would arrange for fodder, hire stable workers, and arrange tournaments.
In 2013 the remains of a medieval stable were discovered in the South-East of the Czech Republic. This was an incredibly valuable insight into how a medieval stable functioned. Horseshoes, bridle bits, currycombs, buckles, and spurs were recovered from the deposits. Horse hair was also found. This was analysed to reveal what the horses who lived there had been fed. Feed included meadow grasses, woody vegetation, milled oats, and even hemp, wheat, and rye. The stable appeared to have been built in two phases and could accommodate up to 7 horses. Of the 3 rooms two had wooden floors. These were believed to be for either pregnant mares or superior horses, and a preparation room. Archaeologists suggested that the main purpose for the stable was to house the nearby castles horses, breed horses for battle, or as temporary accommodation for courier horses.
We hope that you enjoyed this brief look at horses during the medieval period. Horses have long been our companions through thick and thin as our relationship with them evolved. Yet as Jason Kingsley’s horse, Warlord, demonstrates – some things will never change.