Because of huge war horses

The characteristics of the bones of historical horses were analyzed for the study. (Image: Professor Oliver Creighton)

Apparently, knights did not travel as “on horseback” as one might think: Medieval war horses were rather small by today’s standards, according to a comprehensive analysis of horse bones from England. In the early Middle Ages, they were probably hardly larger than today’s ponies, and even in the High Middle Ages, warriors still rode very small horses. The study shows that it was only in the early modern period that their stick dimensions approached those of mounts that are considered large today. According to the researchers, the findings show that the medieval warhorses were bred for characteristics other than size.

War machines of the animal kind: Depictions of medieval war horses in films and media often show particularly tall horses with a withers height of more than 1.70 meters. It also seems obvious that the animals should be particularly large for military use. But to what extent this was actually the case is not known exactly – there is hardly any solid evidence. Now, for more clues, a British team of researchers have analyzed horse remains from 171 archaeological sites across England. The finds date from the period from the 4th to the 17th century AD. During their investigations, the scientists recorded the characteristics of the bones and derived the sizes of the historical animals from them.

Medieval horse bones analyzed

As they explain, it is not known how many specimens were actually horses with a military function. Because finds from the area of ​​castles could also have been migratory or pack animals used for other purposes. Historical battlefields could provide clearer clues – but horse bones are rarely discovered there, as the bodies of the animals killed in battle were usually recycled. Most of the time, the remains of the battle horses ended up in the rubbish of tanneries and tilers, along with other farm horses and riding horses. But at least some of the bones examined also include horses used for military purposes, according to the study.

As the researchers report, the evaluations of the height at the withers showed that the horses from the Saxon and Norman times (5th to 12th centuries) would on average be considered ponies by modern standards: the transition from neck to back was mostly included less than 1.48 meters in height. In the Norman period (1066-1200 AD) there are at least slightly larger outliers: the largest horse of this era from Trowbridge Castle had an estimated height at the withers of just over 1.50 metres. It corresponded to the size of modern light riding horses.

Other aspects more important

It was not until the High Middle Ages (1200 to 1350 AD) that horses with a height of over 1.60 meters at the withers first appeared, the remains of which were recovered from Heron Tower in London. “High medieval warhorses may have been relatively large for the time, but they were clearly much smaller than we would expect given their capabilities today,” says Alan Outram of the University of Exeter. It was only after 1500 that there was a significant increase in the average horse size and a greater range of variation: the scientists report that it then also reaches almost 1.70 metres.

As the team explains, the results show that in the Middle Ages, size was apparently not necessarily the focus of breeding horses for military use. This seems entirely plausible, because this trait can in turn affect other abilities of the mounts. “It is likely that throughout the Middle Ages, different forms of horses were desired at different times to accommodate changing battlefield tactics and cultural preferences,” says co-author Helene Benkert of the University of Exeter. Her colleague Outram adds: “The selection and breeding practices in the royal stud farms may have focused as much on temperament and the right physical characteristics for waging war as on sheer size,” said the scientist.

Source: University of Exeter, professional article: International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, doi: 10.1002/oa.3038

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