Medieval War Horses 'As Small As Modern Ponies' Scientists Find

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University of Exeter/Cover Images

Thanks to art and film, we think of medieval warhorses as huge impressive beasts, but new research shows they were really the size of modern ponies.

Horses during the period were often below 14.2 hands (144 cm) high, but size was clearly not everything, as historical records indicate huge sums were spent on breeding and readying them for combat.

A team of archaeologists and historians from the University of Exeter 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.

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

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

Researcher Helene Benkert, from the University of Exeter, said: "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."

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

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