Medieval battle scenes in movies or television shows usually feature heavily armed warriors mounted on huge horses, thundering across the plains to attack their cowering and quivering enemies. While it is common knowledge that film producers will distort or exaggerate reality for dramatic effect, few would have suspected just how much this particular type of portrayal has been exaggerated. A new study on the medieval horse, i.e., medieval warhorses, has now brought this misconception to light.
Interestingly, the distortions in this case don’t have anything to do with how they portray the warriors or the warfare. The exaggeration comes on the equine side, as the medieval horses used in battles were nowhere near as large and intimidating as they are made out to be in popular culture. Real medieval horses were solid, sturdy, and durable animals that were bred for dependability. In fact, they weren’t very tall or long at all. Believe it or not, the medieval horse was more or less the same size as modern ponies.
This surprising truth has now been clearly revealed, thanks to new research carried out by a team of archaeologists and historians from five British universities, who have just published the results of their study in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology .
Fierce Warriors on Smaller-Than-You-Think Medieval Horses
The actual research involved with this project was not complex and involved no additional fieldwork. Archaeological excavations at 171 sites across the United Kingdom have produced intact horse bones dating from the years 300 through 1650 AD, giving the archaeologists and historians involved in this new study a good-sized database from which to make comparisons.
In the movies and TV, the typical medieval warhorse might be as much as 17 or 18 hands high (the equivalent of 68 to 72 inches or 173 to 183 centimeters). But the evidence analyzed in the English study showed that horses in the Middle Ages were much shorter than this. Horses over 15 hands were “very rare indeed,” say the researchers, and most were one or two hands less than this.
King Offa of Mercia (8th century) in procession on a moderately sized horse. Source: (Matthew Paris / Public Domain )
Medieval horses were “clearly much smaller than we might expect for equivalent functions today,” University of Exeter archaeologist Alan Outram said, in a press release issued by his university. “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.”
The tallest horse from the Norman era (11th and 12th centuries) identified from the archaeological records was found at Trowbridge Castle in Wiltshire. This horse was only 15 hands high, which puts it on a par with small light riding horses in the present day. Only during the high medieval period (1200-1350 AD) did horses begin to reach the 16-hand mark, and that would remain the peak of horse size until they began to get bigger in the post-medieval period (after the year 1500).
In this Reconstruction of armor for knights and horses, 16th century, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, the horses can be seen to be average sized. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
It should be noted that medieval horse riders and trainers were not working exclusively with what nature provided. Knowledge of horse breeding practices was widespread, and significant investments of time and money were expended in the attempt to breed the perfect animals for warfare, tournaments, hunting, and other activities that required the use of horses. The characteristics of horses during that period emerged from sophisticated breeding practices, and if they were smaller than expected it’s because greater size wouldn’t have offered riders any advantage.
“Historic records don’t give the specific criteria which defined a warhorse,” said Helene Benkert, a University of Exeter archaeologist. “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.”
Medieval warriors thundering across the battlefield toward enemy lines may not have looked as imposing or intimidating as imagined by modern filmmakers. But those individuals would have been every bit as lethal and dangerous as such portrayals suggest, riding on horses that were carefully and precisely bred for optimal performance in real-world battlefield conditions.
A young medieval warrior reenactor in knightly armor rides across the field on what is likely an oversized horse to be historically correct. ( kozlik_mozlik / Adobe Stock)
The Medieval Warhorse in English Society and Culture
Horses deployed in warfare during the Middle Ages would have been used differently than in the past. During this time mounted cavalries were transformed into more potent and deadly forces, in the form of heavily armed and armored European knights who arrived on horseback ready to fight any type of battle.
Tactics employed by these so-called heavy cavalry generally involved quick strikes backed by manpower advantages and the use of overwhelming force. This strategy was designed to put the enemy on their heels from the outset, forcing them to flee while creating disorganization and chaos in their ranks. Once the enemy forces had reorganized and begun to fight back, knights would usually dismount and engage them in hand-to-hand combat, presumably having the advantage because of enemy losses that occurred during the initial strike.
There were variations on this theme. But for the most part, medieval warhorses were required to carry heavier weights on their back than warhorses would have been the case in the past. Consequently, they would have been bred primarily for strength and endurance, more so than great size.
Regardless of the height of the medieval horse, its importance during that time period cannot be overstated.
“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,” explained University of Exeter archaeologist Oliver Creighton, the lead investigator of the new study.
Horses were valuable and highly valued in medieval England , offering the only viable alternative to travel on foot. The horse became essential in warfare, and that reality took horse breeding in a direction that made sense for the times.
Top image: The medieval horse it turns out, based on a recent research study, was a lot smaller than we thought! Source: Snowshill / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde