“My Kingdom for a Horse…”

Okay so that quote is about a thousand years out but it’s as good an intro as any into the subject of medieval horsery. Horses were central to lower and upper middle age society being important for transport, agriculture and (later) warfare. While we differentiate modern horses by breed, back then they were differentiated by purpose – war horse, cart horse, pack horse, riding horse. Over time those ‘purposes’ also led to breed differentiation but at the time that I set ‘Sacrifice’ a horse was just a horse (of course, of course….).

Here are TEN things you might not have known about horses in medieval times…

There were no ‘war horses’ in the Dark Ages (early middle ages). Warriors rode to battle as a matter of convenience and speed but rarely into battle and they wouldn’t have wasted healthy mounts by using them as mobile weapons the way horses were used as living-rammers in later parts of history. Warfare was conducted on foot. Dark Age horses were primarily for transport, labour, hunting or food.

There were no stirrups until (roughly) the 8th century. Prior to the 700s, riders used their knees and backs for balance while mounted and hurled themselves easily up onto the saddle (or pad) using inertia in lieu of stirrups. Necessarily, the most popular horses were those with the most comfortable riding gaits.

The first clear, written evidence of the existence of horseshoes (as we know them) was a 10th century comment about ‘crescent shaped irons and their nails’ in a list of military equipment. Pre-Christian references to the virtues of hard hoofs abound (and it seems like exactly the sort of thing the talented smiths of the Celt society would have had covered given their equal passion for iron and horses) but actual evidence is scant and horseshoes found in roman ruins etc are now believed to have been off-casts from much later in history when looters ravaged the historical sites. Scholars therefore place the creation of the contemporary(esque) horseshoe between the 6th and 10th century. So if your 4th century tapestry shows a rider with stirrups or a blacksmith changing a horseshoe it’s probably a fake.

The average horse in the Dark Ages (early middle ages) was around 12-14 hands (140-150cm), that’s roughly a kids’ pony today from hoof to shoulder. A ‘great beast’ by their standards would appear just a normal height horse to us. Necessarily, taller warriors and kings looked a little ridiculous by modern standards, apparently riding a child’s pony. On the upside they were easier to get on sans stirrups….

This image captures a truer representation of a medieval horse and rider, stirrupless, legs dangling below the pony-sized horse's belly

The Celts worshipped the horse goddess Epona particularly and they were outstanding craftsmen of metal horse ‘tackle’ (bridles, saddles, spurs, decorations) as well as chariots/carts. It is believed that the Romans picked up their use of chariots from the Celts. Celtic warrior chieftains were often buried with their horses and chariots in much the same way the Vikings were buried with their boats. It is interesting to note that ‘tack’ hasn’t really changed in the 2000+ years since the Celts first smithed them. Bridles, bits and the decorative fixings that go with them have barely changed in all that time. Only spurs have changed and they’ve become shorter.

There were no geldings in the middle ages. Mares were most common for every day riding or pack work and stallions were used as war-horses due to their natural aggression and hot-blooded tendencies. The average medieval knight was expected to ‘keep’ one super-skilled war-horse (stallion) and around five riding/pack horses (mares).

Dark Age saddles were either a pad tethered to the horse by (girth)straps or resembled the Roman four-horned saddle below. A solid ‘tree’ raised the rider above the horses back (for its comfort) and distributed the weight either side of its spine. The four horns made riding more secure for the rider without a stirrup. This also helped by giving a little extra height to long-legged warriors mounted on short-legged horses.

The four horns of a Roman-style, high treed saddle

The horse breeds that existed in the Dark Ages are all now extinct. Still, the hardy modern breeds like Welsh Cobs and Fell Ponies are somewhat close to the tough little horses that were popular in (and suited to) Dark Age Brython. The quality horse breeding that was done on the Continent in classical times was lost along with so much other culture in the post-Roman period when uncontrolled (cross)breeding diluted the bloodlines. Of the bigger war-horses of the later middle ages, the closest modern cognates are Friesian, Andalusian, Nisaen, Percheron, Suffolk Punch, or Belgian.

In the later medieval period, the type and variety of horses evolved to a sophisticated range:

  • Destriers were well-trained, strong, fast & agile. That combination of skills was uncommon, and most suited to the joust (or charging in actual battle).
  • Courser – light, fast, strong good for hard battle. Valuable but not as costly/showy as a Destrier. Also used for hunting.
  • Rouncey – riding horse for squires, men at arms, poor knights. Sometimes used as pack-horse but never as cart-horses.
  • Palfrey – could equal a Destrier in price if well bred. Popular with nobles and knights for riding, hunting and ceremonial use. Prized for their ‘ambling’ gait (smooth and could cover long distances quickly and in comfort).
  • Jennet – small horse from Spain, quiet and dependable, ladies horse, used as cavalry in Spain.
  • Hobby – lightweight, 13-14 hh from Ireland. Quick, agile, popular for skirmishing. Ridden by light cavalry known a shobelars. Endurance (100km a day)

Gaits in the middle ages were: Walk, amble, jog (trot) & gallop An ‘amble’ is faster than walk and less bouncy than a jog (trot) but slower than the modern canter. It can be sustained for a long time and was particularly good for endurance. Sitting comfortably in trot/jog (without stirrups) required well-conditioned back and abdominal muscles and so was tiring after a while. An amble was much easier on the rider. Foreign breeds selected for their natural amble were very popular. The (Spanish) Jennets were talented natural amblers and very popular (as they were with the mounted infantry of their country of origin). The video below shows the natural, smooth amble in a US ambling contest.