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Medieval warhorses were the size of modern ponies

The significance of the horse to English social, cultural, and economic life in the Middle Ages cannot be overstated. Medieval warhorses–often depicted as massive and powerful beasts–were, in reality, pony-sized by modern standards.

The study “In search of the ‘great horse’: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300–1650),” shows that horses during that period were often below 14.2 hands high, but size was not everything.

Dr. Katherine Kanne from the University of Exeter measuring horse bones found in Goltho, Lincolnshire using calipers and an osteometric board. The bones are a metacarpal, the end of the humerus and a tooth row from a mandible. Photo courtesy of Professor Oliver Creighton.

Historical records indicate that 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.

Biological, behavioral, cultural factors examined

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

Published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, the study shows that the breeding and training of warhorses was influenced by a combination of biological and cultural factors, as well as behavioral 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.

“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,” said researcher Helene Benkert, from the University of Exeter.

Measuring bones helped researchers determine the size of historical horses. Photo courtesy of Professor Oliver Creighton.

The tallest Norman horse recorded was found at Trowbridge Castle, Wiltshire, estimated to be about 15 hands high, 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 16 hands high, 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.

“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,” said professor Alan Outram, University of Exeter.

Warhorses are icons of medieval England

The researchers used the dataset alongside a modern comparative sample of known equids to examine trends in size and shape to explore how the skeletal conformation of horses changed through time and reflected their domestic, elite, and military roles. 

“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,” said professor Oliver Creighton, the principal investigator for the project.

The research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was carried out by Carly Ameen, Benkert, Malene Lauritsen, Karina Rapp, Tess Townend, Laura May Jones, Camille Mai Lan Vo Van Qui, Robert Webley, Naomi Sykes, Creighton, and 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, and Gary Paul Baker and Robert Liddiard from the University of East Anglia.

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