Medieval war horses looked more like ponies, study finds

The image of the great and majestic medieval battle horse has prevailed throughout history and legend, as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. But a new study drips into the image of the dashing steed many imagine when picturing a knight in shining armor on the battlefield – instead suggesting that horses were often the size of a pony by modern standards.

The study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology by a team of researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK, found that horses during the medieval period were not always bred for size but for various functions such as tournaments and long distance raiding campaigns.

The study’s principal investigator, Oliver Creighton, said in a statement that “the workhorse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture both as a status symbol closely associated with the development of aristocratic identity and as a weapon of war famous for its mobility and shock value, changing the face of battle.

Analyzing the largest data set of English horse bones dated between 300 AD to 1650, found at 171 separate archaeological sites, the study determined that unlike the popular image of war horses measuring 17 to 18 hands tall, horses in this 15-16 hand period would have been scarce.

The “hands” are the standard of measurement for horses from the highest point of their shoulders, called the withers, where the neck meets the back to the ground, with one hand equal to approximately 10.16 centimeters or four inches.

Researchers found that during this period, horses often measured less than 14.2 hands, and that at the height of the royal stud network in the 13th and 14th centuries, anything between 15 and 16 hands would have been considered very large by medieval peoples. , according to the press release.

“Neither the size nor the strength of the limb bones alone is sufficient to confidently identify warhorses in archaeological records. Historical archives do not give the specific criteria that define a warhorse, ”researcher Helene Benkert said in the statement. “It is much more likely that throughout the medieval period, at different eras, different conformations of horses were desirable in response to changing battlefield tactics and cultural preferences.”

The largest horse recorded during the Norman period was found at Trowbridge Castle in the UK, estimated to be around 15 hands tall, similar to the size of modern small light riding horses according to the study.

The high medieval period, marked from 1200 to 1350 AD, sees the first emergence of horses about 16 hands tall, although this was not until the post-medieval period, marked from 1500 to 1650 AD. JC, that the average size of horses becomes significant. taller, finally approaching the size of modern horses.

“The medieval tall steeds may have been relatively bulky for the period, but were clearly still much smaller than one would expect for equivalent functions today,” researcher Alan Outram said in the statement. . “Breeding and breeding practices at royal studs may have focused as much on temperament and physical characteristics correct for warfare as on raw size.”

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