Knights and Armored Steeds: Was Horse Armor Effective in Battle?

Nothing recalls the medieval era in Europe better than the image of a gallant knight in shining armor mounted on a fully barded—or armored—steed. But how effective was such mail horse armor in protecting the horses in battle? What was the thickness of such armor? In what circumstances did heavy cavalry regiments—as cavalry regiments mounted on armored horses were known—play important combat roles? A new study published in Exarc Journal has set out to answer some of these pragmatic questions away from the romantic tales of medieval chivalry .

Horse wearing medieval horse armor. (Wirestock / Adobe Stock)

Horse wearing medieval horse armor. ( Wirestock / Adobe Stock)

What Was Horse Armor and Why Was It Used?

In a historical, pre-motorization context, mounted armies have had the advantage of speed, mobility and greater height over foot soldiers. They could be light cavalry used for reconnaissance, screening and harassing or heavy—armored—cavalry used for shock attacks.

During the late Middle Ages as armor for knights became more effective, their horses were targeted by arrows shot from longbows. The dismounted knights were then picked out and dispatched by armored infantrymen. Horse armor developed in response.

Medieval armor consisted of thick quilted fabric, typically linen, covered with metal rings that were linked together to form a mesh called chain mail. Eventually, steel plates were added on top of the mail. Such armor was heavy and European horses were bred for increased size and strength just so that they could carry the burden of their own armor and of their armored knight into battle. But, was a horse carrying such a heavy burden effective in long-drawn combat? A study by David Jones and Emma Herbert-Davies provides the answer, according to Horsetalk.

They didn’t really have many surviving examples of such armor to study. Medieval European horse armor is mostly known through historical illustrations and documents although complete sets are on display at Philadelphia Museum of Art , the Wallace Collection in London, the Royal Armouries in Leeds, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York .

Heavily used in 13th century Europe, specimens that can reliably be dated to that period are almost non-existent. Younger survivors from the 14th century, also very rare, served as the models for the researchers given the absence of the classical examples.

Reproduction chain mail horse armor used in the experiments. (Jones et. al. / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Reproduction chain mail horse armor used in the experiments. (Jones et. al. / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

Of Thickness, Weight, Burden and Efficacy

Since, it was basically the thickness of the cloth padding that accorded armor protection, in their study of horse armor the researchers experimented with padding of unbleached woven upholstery linen of different amounts of layers. They first determined the maximum thickness that a horse could carry into battle. Simple reproduction bodkin points, square spiked metal arrowheads, were then shot at the various thicknesses to determine relative effectiveness. A longbow made of yew was used to shoot the arrows.

The results showed that thickness mattered. Penetration of individual shots under identical conditions was controlled by the numbers of layers. However, a wax coating applied to the arrowhead increased penetration in all cases. Even with 24 layers, the wax coated arrowhead broke through to the last layer in 8 out of 10 shots.

Was it possible then for padded chain mail horse armor to provide complete protection against arrows without overburdening the horse beyond capacity? Apparently not. Twenty-four layers of linen together with chain mail itself would constitute a weight of 54 kilograms or 119 pounds. Add to this a weight of 122 kilograms (268 lbs) from a rider weighing 70 kilograms (154 lbs), his armor, saddle and weapons, and the horse would have a staggering weight of 178 kilograms (392 lbs) on his back, exceeding his carrying capacity by far!

Reproduction bodkin arrowhead used in the experiments to test the efficacy of medieval horse armor. (Jones et. al. / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Reproduction bodkin arrowhead used in the experiments to test the efficacy of medieval horse armor. (Jones et. al. / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

Understanding the Reality of Horse Armor

The sensible or pragmatic weight for horse armor for a typical warhorse of the era would be 28 kilograms (61 lbs), according to Jones and Herbert-Davies. “In addition to the weight, the 19 mm thickness of linen would add greatly to the thermal load on the horse, with a consequent risk of heat stress,” they are quoted in Horsetalk as saying.

To use the horse in an all-day battle operation going beyond a three-eight-layer padding under the mail was impractical. These thicknesses would have led to arrow wounds varying in depth from 20 millimeters (0.7 in) to 60 millimeters (2.36 in). Allow for a thin coating of wax and penetration would have increased by another 20 millimeters (0.7 in).

This seems to really question the efficacy of such chain mail horse armor. However, what it protected against was broad-bladed sharp-edged arrowheads that would otherwise have inflicted deep and likely fatal wounds, making the difference between a dead horse and a wounded horse, according to the authors.

On the whole, “the fully-armored medieval warhorse would probably have had a very limited role. The combined effect of weight and thermal loading meant that it could only perform effectively for relatively short periods,” they are cited in Horsetalk as saying.

They would have served the knights well in jousting for the hand of a fair maiden, or in rescuing a damsel in distress from the clutches of a fire-breathing dragon. They would could even come in helpful if a dastardly knight had locked her up in the topmost tower of his moated castle, or even in tournaments whereby knights tested their skills against each other. But in battle and “chevauchee-type” raiding operations of medieval warfare that required long periods of speed and endurance, mail horse armor would have given poor results.

Top image: Reproduction horse armor and linen pierced by an arrow point. Source: Jones et. al. / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

By Sahir Pandey

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