Recently, a large number of articles appeared claiming that medieval war horses were no larger than ponies. Smithsonian Magazine claims that “The Horses of Medieval Times Weren’t Much Bigger Than Modern-Day Ponies“, and that “these powerful equines were likely a much slighter, daintier animal, according to new research published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology”. Guardian claims that “Contrary to mythical depictions of the iconic steeds as towering beasts, most in England were less than 14.2 hands high“. CNN also compares horses to ponies, and IFL science states that “Medieval War Horses Were Smaller Than Modern-Day Ponies“. CBC likely claims that “Medieval knights rode pony-sized war-horses into battle“. Medievalists.Net claim that “Warhorses in medieval England are about the size of a modern-day pony, study finds“, and BBC states that “Medieval warhorses were surprisingly small“. Problem?
All of these claims are bullshit.
Looking at the study itself, it does open up talking about the knightly war horses. But apparently nobody had read beyond this paragraph, as in the very next paragraph it states that “it is important to remember that the term ‘warhorse’ covers animals with a whole range of conformations. By the broadest definition, the term encapsulates horses used for a variety of different martial purposes, from the destriers and coursers of the nobility to the rouncies of the mounted archer”. And this is true. “War horse” can cover a wide range of uses: from heavy and large chargers of the heavy cavalry all the way to light horses and ponies used by mounted archers and couriers. Even knights used different sizes of war horses: destriers were used for charge in battle, but rouncies were preferred when moving for longer distances such as on raids.
And the very next sentence shoots down the entire “destriers were in fact ponies” line of thought: “Although it is realistic to assume that the majority of horse bones recovered from archaeological excavations are not from warhorses, there remains a lack of evidence for what types of morphology and conformation to expect from a warhorse, meaning that the positive identification of warhorses has remained elusive from a zooarchaeological perspective.”. That, right there, states that not only majority of bones were likely not from war horses, but that war horses themselves had different body builds.
Further, the remains themselves were taken from a wide range of samples: “spanning the Late Roman through post-medieval periods (AD300–1650), and consisting of 1964 archaeological bones, alongside 490 modern fully adult equids”. This again shows that majority of horses will not be knightly destriers. Roman cavalry used mobility rather than shock of charge, and even cataphracts preferred to trot up to the opponent before pummeling them with maces. As a result, Roman war horses were much smaller than chargers used by medieval knights. Meanwhile, while heavy cavalry was definitely still in use in 17th century, it was a far cry from medieval lancers.
Geographical distribution is also an issue: all samples come from England, which was never known for having a particularly good cavalry, let alone heavy cavalry. Using this data sample to draw conclusions about state of affairs in Europe in general – where one had France, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and other states that fielded extremely cavalry-heavy armies – is stupid.
Study also notes that “given the known morphological similarly between horses and donkeys (Equus asinus) or horse-donkey hybrids (mules and hinnies), the possibility exists that some have been misidentified”. And this is a massive issue, seeing how mules and hinnies were the primary component of any army’s baggage train, and may have been used for transport by mounted infantry – but were never used as knightly war horses.
Next part is important for the discussion: “Examination of withers height (Figure 2) indicates that on average, horses from the Saxon and Norman periods (5th–12th centuries) were ponies by modern standards (i.e. less than 1.48 m, Fédération Equestre Internationale, 2014). The Saxon period horses are, on average, a similar height to their Late Roman counterparts, but there is an observable decrease in variability during these periods, which is not attained again until the late medieval period (1350–1500 AD). Although the average heights were relatively small, larger outliers appear from the Norman period (1066–1200 AD) onwards. For the Norman phase, the maximum height recorded was a horse from Trowbridge Castle, Wiltshire (Holmes, 2018), estimated to be over 1.5 m tall, similar to the size of modern light riding horses (Figure 2). The high medieval period (1200–1350 AD) sees the first emergence of horses over 1.6 m, recovered from Heron Tower, London (Sorapure, 2016), though it is not until the post-medieval period (1500–1650 AD) that the average height of horses becomes significantly larger than those of the preceding periods. It is also in the post-medieval period that the variability in height appears to increase, ranging between less than 1.2 m to almost 1.7 m, and finally approaching the sizes of modern warmblood and draft horses (Figure 2, Table 2).”
In other words, horses from the Saxon and Norman periods were ponies by modern standards on average. However, Saxons did not have anything that could be defined as knights: their nobility and huscarls did come to the battlefield on horseback, but they fought on foot. As a result, they had no knights, and no need to breed chargers. Instead, the next section is important: “Although the average heights were relatively small, larger outliers appear from the Norman period (1066–1200 AD) onwards.“. In other words, once Normans arrived, horses began to be bred for battle, which led to their increased size. But this will not have had much impact: the First Crusade had 5 000 cavalry and 30 000 infantry. If we assume that around 1 000 of those were knights (which is likely, given average retinue sizes), then only about 3% to 5% of men were knights. Using typical situation in Middle Ages, it can be assumed that each knight had a charger, a riding horse, and a follower on his own horse, as well as a pack animal (a horse or a mule). A light cavalryman will have had a horse and a pack animal. Each unit of ten infantrymen will also have had a pack animal on average (again, usually a mule). What this means is that an army of 5 000 cavalry and 30 000 infantry will have had a total of 15 000 horses and mules, of which 5 000 would have been actual war horses, and only 1 000 or 7% will have been knightly chargers. And these estimates are, in fact, fairly conservative. Even in 14th century, English army muster rolls indicated that less than 5% of all horses will have been destriers, and proportion of cavalry in a 14th century army was much higher than was the case during the First Crusade in 11th century.
The section also notes that size of horses increased with time: “For the Norman phase, the maximum height recorded was a horse from Trowbridge Castle, Wiltshire (Holmes, 2018), estimated to be over 1.5 m tall, similar to the size of modern light riding horses (Figure 2). The high medieval period (1200–1350 AD) sees the first emergence of horses over 1.6 m, recovered from Heron Tower, London (Sorapure, 2016), though it is not until the post-medieval period (1500–1650 AD) that the average height of horses becomes significantly larger than those of the preceding periods. It is also in the post-medieval period that the variability in height appears to increase, ranging between less than 1.2 m to almost 1.7 m, and finally approaching the sizes of modern warmblood and draft horses (Figure 2, Table 2).”. This again supports the above: as importance of heavy cavalry increased, horses for the heavy cavalry were bred to be larger and larger: but majority of horses will have stayed on the smaller size, as horses and mules were also used by mounted infantry, light cavalry and the baggage train, all of which took up many more mounts than what heavy cavalry required for their chargers yet all of these were on the smaller side. A larger horse may be able to carry more weight in total, but proportion of weight carried to weight of the horse actually falls off, and it is also more likely that a large horse will injure itself navigating the terrain with heavy load; thus, pack horses will not have been anywhere as large as horses used by knights. Late medieval and early modern heavy cavalry used plate armor for horses (barding), which in fact can be used to estimate size of war horses relative to their rider, as well as size of horses, period:
Pictorial evidence also indicates that war horses were fairly tall:
Comparing the above images with indicator of horse size, it can be concluded that the first image shows horses around 14 – 15 hands tall. Second image shows a horse also around 15 hands tall. But the third image indicates a horse that is perhaps 16 – 17 hands tall, and last image shows horses that may be 17 – 18 hands tall. Now, these are extremely rough estimates, but it is clear that war horses – especially Late Medieval and Early Modern war horses (14th to 16th centuries) – were very definitely not ponies. In 17th century, John Cruso in “Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie” (1632) for the lancer and the cuirassier proposes horses of at least 15 hands: “His horse was to be of 15 hand high at the least, strong, swift, and well managed.”. Same goes for harquebusiers and carabinieri, which while ranged units also wore armor: “His horse (according to the said edict of the States) should not be under 15 hand high, being swift and well managed.”. Therefore, it can be concluded that 15 hands would have been a minimum size for a medieval knightly charger. Pony, by comparison, is no more than 13 hands tall.
Above image shows a rider tall 170 cm (which is a likely height of a medieval knight) on a horse 164 cm or 16,05 hands tall.
Study itself notes that “Identifying the physical remains of horses used in combat is challenging for a variety of reasons” and “Even when articulated elements are available, separating horses used in combat from general riding horses remains inconclusive”. This means that pictoral evidence and personal accounts are, in fact, superior to archeological evidence when determining how large medieval destriers were. Even mass graves and battlefields are not a good indicator, as there too majority of remains will have been of pack horses and mules, rather than of war horses – and even among war horses, destriers will not have been a majority. As noted in the study, “the zooarchaeological evidence presented here—overwhelmingly representing horses which never went anywhere near a battlefield” is not directly useful for estimating size of the war horses. To conclude with citation from the text: “As the historical record indicates by remaining notably silent on 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.”. Indeed, a knight, a mounted archer and a light cavalryman will not have used same types of horses.
In the end, while many medieval horses were indeed ponies or pony-sized, they were not ridden by knights or any other type of heavy cavalry. Heavy cavalry used large, strong horses – in other words, horse-size horses.
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