Monday Minstrel: The Warhorse of Medieval times was a pony!

Back in the pre-pandemic days, when we were still travelling my husband and I did a tour of arms and armories in England. There were several horses in armour to be seen and it was clear the horses were not huge. So when I recently saw an article in Heels Down online magazine I thought I would share it with you.

Tower of London The White Tower.

Medieval warhorses are often depicted as massive and powerful beasts, but in reality many were no more than pony-sized by modern standards, a new study shows.

Horses during the period were often below 14.2 hands high, but size was clearly not everything, as historical records indicate huge sums were spent on developing and maintaining networks for the breeding, training and keeping of horses used in combat.

A team of archaeologists and historians searching for the truth about the Great Horse have found they were not always bred for size, but for success in a wide range of different functions – including tournaments and long-distance raiding campaigns.

Researchers analyzed the largest dataset of English horse bones dating between AD 300 and 1650, found at 171 separate archaeological sites.

The study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, shows that breeding and training of warhorses was influenced by a combination of biological and cultural factors, as well as behavioural characteristics of the horses themselves such as temperament.

Depictions of medieval warhorses in films and popular media frequently portray massive mounts on the scale of Shire horses, some 17 to 18 hands high. However, the evidence suggests that horses of 16 and even 15 hands were very rare indeed, even at the height of the royal stud network during the 13th and 14th centuries, and that animals of this size would have been seen as very large by medieval people.

Researcher Helene Benkert, from the University of Exeter, said: “Neither size, nor limb bone robusticity alone, are enough to confidently identify warhorses in the archaeological record. Historic records don’t give the specific criteria which defined a warhorse; it is much more likely that throughout the medieval period, at different times, different conformations of horses were desirable in response to changing battlefield tactics and cultural preferences.”

The tallest Norman horse recorded was found at Trowbridge Castle, Wiltshire, estimated to be about 15hh, similar to the size of small modern light riding horses. The high medieval period (1200-1350 AD) sees the first emergence of horses of around 16hh, although it is not until the post-medieval period (1500-1650 AD) that the average height of horses becomes significantly larger, finally approaching the sizes of modern warmblood and draft horses.

Professor Alan Outram, from the University of Exeter, said: “High medieval destriers may have been relatively large for the time period, but were clearly still much smaller than we might expect for equivalent functions today. Selection and breeding practices in the Royal studs may have focused as much on temperament and the correct physical characteristics for warfare as they did on raw size.”

Wallace House,London

Professor Oliver Creighton, the Principal Investigator for the project, commented: “The warhorse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture as both a symbol of status closely associated with the development of aristocratic identity and as a weapon of war famed for its mobility and shock value, changing the face of battle.“

The research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. was carried out by Carly Ameen, Helene Benkert, Malene Lauritsen, Karina Rapp, Tess Townend, Laura May Jones, Camille Mai Lan Vo Van Qui, Robert Webley, Naomi Sykes, Oliver H. Creighton and Alan Outram from the University of Exeter, Tamsyn Fraser from the University of Sheffield, Rebecca Gordon, Matilda Holmes and Will Johnson from the University of Leicester, Mark Maltby from Bournemouth University, Gary Paul Baker and Robert Liddiard from the University of East Anglia.

Wallace House London

On the tour we took we were told that the horse armor was not as heavy as it might look and also was padded so as to be more comfortable. It seems that the horses were smaller and a fast horse was what was desirable.

Tower of London Wooden horse.

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Haha, yeah the Metatron on YouTube recently made a great ranting video on this topic. I’m happy whenever someone finds an excuse to get excited about the Middle Ages.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Emma Cownie says:

    Yes, I saw this headline too. I remember seeing a drama yeara ago set in Medieval Wales and my brother saying the horses they were riding about on were much too large. He said smaller ponies would have been better suited to the rough landscape. Seems he was on to something.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Rupali says:

    Interesting. Even I read something similar a couple of days ago, it stated “most English medieval horses should have been a maximum of 1.5 meters up to the mane”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      When I saw the armour in the museums in London I could see the horses it was on were not big. Thanks for reading and commenting Rupali.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Diana says:

    I love reading the history that you’ve shared and even better the great photos of your visit to the museums in England. So beautiful and I can’t imagine wearing all that armor and riding a horse!!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I remember some of this history from my school days, and then can never find my phone 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      I instantly remember the names of people I met 30 years ago but met them yesterday….blank. 😃

      Like

  6. Marsha says:

    The horse armor certainly was decorative. This is an interesting article about the size of the fighting horses. It makes sense because people were so much smaller on average than they are now. almost any place you tour show beds that look like they are built for dwarfs. Great topic!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      Thank you Diana.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Marsha says:

        WP did it again. It sent your response to Diana to me. but I’m sure you’re welcome either way. 🙂 LOL

        Liked by 1 person

        1. anne leueen says:

          I don’t know why that happens. In better take a look ans reply to Diana. Thanks for letting me know.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Marsha says:

            No worries. It happens all the time, I’m sure. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

    2. anne leueen says:

      Yes people were much shorter.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. David says:

    It would make sense to ride smaller horses. Cavalrymen of the era were shorter also, averaging 5-5 to 5-6 in height themselves. They would certainly need a mounting block if they rode a taller horse, and they likely needed one if they were wearing full armor. My Deborah is 5-8 and can mount her tallest from the ground without a block, which is Captain Andrew at 18 hh. Elizabeth is 5-5 and can mount Lillith, who is 18-1, from the ground too. But, of course, they’re not mounting with a full suit of armor.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      I now mount from a huge mounting block. My right hip, which was replaced 17 years ago, does not like to swing over the back of the saddle. So I have to fold up my knee and put it up and over. Easier to donthat when getting on from taller block and better for Biasini’s back as well to not have my weight pulling on his left side.

      Like

  8. J.W.S. says:

    Interesting history. It is sad that such beautiful animals are forced into such fighting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      I think the demise of the cavalry

      Liked by 1 person

    2. anne leueen says:

      Oops ..the demise of the cavalry during and after WW1 was a blessing for horses

      Liked by 1 person

      1. J.W.S. says:

        Yes indeed. Understood.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting. I remember reading in school, that the knights rode horses smaller than Percherons or Belgians, but it sounds like their mounts were smaller still. It’s always interesting when someone digs up the actual evidence to challenge our assumptions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. anne leueen says:

      I admit I was surprised when I saw the wooden horses wearing the Armour in England. I could see they were all pretty small. Smaller than Biasini for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It also makes descriptions of medieval battles make sense, where the men-at-arms or even archers were pulling knights out of the saddle and holding them for ransom.

        Liked by 2 people

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