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Myth of the Great Horse

Researchers at Exeter University, UK, radically resize medieval warhorse.

Think medieval warhorses and fully armoured knights riding into battle and you conjure up images of massive steeds like carthorses lumbering into battle. But a new study creates a different reality. It transpires that most warhorses were the size of modern-day ponies, usually below 14.2 hands (1.47m high). So much for the myth of the Great Horse!

A team of researchers at Exeter University in England has analysed a database of English horse bones, dating between AD 300 and 1650, and found at no fewer than 171 different archaeological sites. Though many pictures of medieval warhorses portray them like modern-day Shires, up to 18 hands (1.82m) high, the study reveals that horses of that size were very rare, even in the records from 13th and 14th century stud farms. No specification for warhorses has survived, but it is clear that different conformations went in and out of fashion, depending on changing battlefield tactics and other needs.

The tallest known Norman horse, found at Trowbridge Castle, was about the size of a modern riding horse. It is also apparent that average sizes rose during the High Middle Ages (AD 1200-1350) but were still below those of modern breeds. Most likely, Royal Studs would have focused on temperament and ideal physical characteristics for warfare more than size. It was not until after medieval times that the average height of horses rose, approaching that of modern breeds. Warhorses were prized not only as status symbols, but as mobile weapons ideal to administer brutal shocks on the enemy on the battlefield.

Want more archaeology? To enjoy in-depth features on archaeology, read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: A manuscript dated to c.AD 1300, of unknown authorship, showing the medieval warhorse. Note the knights’ legs extending well below the horses’ barrels.

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