The Medieval Horse

Another guest blog post for your pleasure!

Horses were one of the most valued and convenient of commodities in the medieval period.

 The real value of a horse in Medieval Times.

The Medieval Horse filled many roles in life during the Middle Ages.

Look Harold! 16 Leagues to the stook, grinds his own grain, strong enough to carry everything I make and just the right height for me,”

We take horses for granted in our modern age but to the people of the Middle Ages they were as important as a car is to us today.  Of course like cars today, not everyone owned a horse in the Middle Ages.

Most of the common folk got about on foot and it was only the prestigious that owned a horse, important members of society such as but not limited to nobles, merchants, clergy, and servants of the wealthy and well established tradesmen or professionals.

Horses were animals of great importance not just for the use of transporting a rider but also for war, hunting, transporting goods, services and information. This could be done either by a rider on horseback, a man on foot leading a horse (or perhaps a mule) or by cart, wagon and for the very rich, by coach.

 So what kind of horses did they have?

Breeds as we know them today were non existent in the Middle Ages.

Horses were not classified by breed but function.

It was a very simple process of classification.

If you were to

  •  need a riding horse, you buy a riding horse,
  • you need a war horse, buy a war horse.
  • Need a cart horse? You guessed it, buy a cart horse.

There were of course specialised traders and breeders who would deal in a specific kind of horse but not so much specific breeds.

 Horse breeds of  1000 years ago.

Historians and horse enthusiasts are still debating today what breeds of horses were around in the medieval period.

What is almost certain is that none of the breeds that we have today were likely around 500-1000 years ago.

So what’s on the agenda today? The little battle down the road, or are we moving the caravan again?

Selective breeding has more or less made it impossible for us to ascertain, with the exception of some pony breeds such as the Icelandic pony and the Dartmoor pony, exactly what these horses would have been. Instead we see modern “reproductions” or likely suspects. Of all types of horses, the one which has perhaps received the most attention in academic and Living History circles is the war horse.

So important to a knight was his war horse that he could not be considered for knighthood without one and without showing adequate cavalry skills. In fact the word that was used to describe a knight in the languages of the day, were words which described a cavalryman. Chevalier, ritter, caballero; all were words that meant mounted warrior. A man without a horse or the skills needed to ride in battle was not a knight at all.

 

War Horses of the Middle Ages

There were two types of war horse in the Middle Ages, the prized and highly valued destrier and the less expensive, more expendable charger.

And ten more points in the War Games If I can get your Chin Too.

The destrier was the most expensive horse on the market. Vastly specialised and trained in war it was as much a weapon to the knight who rode it as was his lance and sword. These horses were always stallions and their natural aggression was harnessed and encouraged in acts of war. They were also used in tournaments and often knights jousted for the purpose of knocking an adversary from his saddle and claiming the horse for himself as rules oft times allowed. A destrier could cost in the realm of £20-30 which was the equivalent of a common mans earnings of 10 years or more!

Chargers were war horses that were not as highly prized and more commonly found on a battlefield than a destrier. Less costly at around less than half the price of the destrier, they were still very much trained for battle but were less prestigious than their great cousins. They too were stallions for the same reasons.

My great-grandfather said it, and my great-granchildren will say it in the 21st Century… ‘Hurry Up and Wait;

Many people automatically picture a heavy draft when they picture a medieval war horse but this is not the case at all. Most draft breeds did not come about until the renaissance and some not until the time of the industrial revolution and they were bred for pulling heavy loads not for swift and agile manoeuvres in war and combat. Instead the medieval war horse has much in common to it’s descendants of Iberian stock. Andalusian, Lipizzaner, Barb, Lusitano, Knapstrupper and Frederiksborger are all horses which are highly likely to be a good facsimile of a medieval war horse. Clydesdales were never medieval war horses the breed being first recorded in the 19th century and shires originated only a hundred years earlier during the 18thC. It is still debated wether or not the Percheron was around and used as a war horse and if it was it was certainly different to the breed today. Friesians are also subject to an identical debate.

Other types of horses were

  1. courser: a horse used specifically for hunting or for endurance and speed,
  2. rouncey: riding horse,
  3. ambler: another riding horse that could move more swiftly,
  4. sumpter: a pack animal and
  5. hobilar: a rugged and hardy pony which later descended into a “hobby” horse.

All of these horses especially the war horse breeds would have been very fit and strong horses because of the fact that they were in constant use. Today we exercise horses for our events and then transport them to the event whereas in the Middle Ages they were the transport and their exercise was more often than not all of their everyday  practical activities.

This is the way we go to work, go to work, tra lah…..

Modern jousting horses are similar to the medieval horse in that breed is not important (except for those with large bank accounts and a determined approach to authenticity) but the ability and willingness of the horse to take on the task, excel and enjoy it most certainly is of great importance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blogger: Sir Justyn
{ Sir Justyn is a professional medieval educator, performer and fight instructor who attends events, schools and clubs, Australia-wide and internationally, bringing history to life wherever he goes.   You can see Sir Justyn’s Birds of Prey from the Full Flight Conservation Centre in the encampment of Eslite d’ Corps, the 14thC Living History group and household of Sir Justyn at the Abbey Medieval Festival.  Sir Justyn, Eslite d’ Corps (EdC) and Full Flight Conservation Centre can also be found on Facebook.  For more information on falconry and hawking visit EdC Medieval Falconry.}

 

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