They instilled fear and were decisive in medieval battles, cavalry knights. But the horses they ride were no bigger than a modern pony.
Well armored, spear poised and high on horseback: medieval knights were depicted countless times so terrifying. In fact, their horses were rather small, British historians and archaeologists wrote in International Journal of Archeology Based on research on the bones of English horses: The shoulder or shoulder height of war horses was about five feet high, so, according to research, English riders, less impressive than was often thought, sat on animals the size of today’s ponies.
Experts already knew medieval horses were smaller than ours, says historian Mario Damen of the University of Amsterdam, who was not involved in the study. Based on written sources, a conservative estimate was that it was between 1.50 and 1.60 meters in height. Damen: “This research straightens that down and that’s interesting.”
William the Conqueror
The height of horses fluctuated during the Middle Ages and around 1100 the animals were at their youngest. In addition, their bones were at their weakest, researchers found when researchers compared the thickness of their leg bones to their width. This is a commonly used method for determining how strong the skeleton is. The result was remarkable, because during that time the Normans William the Conqueror conquered England and became king. For example, England received an upper class of Normans, who were known for their interest in raising horses. It was obvious if that would have produced large and powerful horses, with superior numbers on the battlefield. But it turns out that the opposite is true.
Researchers suggest that the horses’ small size and weakness may have been related to political and economic problems prior to the Normandy invasion. Or with the ensuing turmoil. But they are not sure of their case. “In this respect, this study leaves a lot to be asked, it only provides some explanations for the developments,” Damen says.
Despite their modest build, horses were of great importance for war. Since the early Middle Ages, knights have fought since the 10th century and taken on a leadership role, as Damen explains: “In large parts of Europe, much power rested on the local lords, who hired men who were on hand with horses and could fight for them. With them. At first they were the children of ordinary farmers, but in the 10th-11th centuries they gained more and more prestige. This is why nobles also began to dress like these men on horseback and eventually the two groups mixed. Thus a new class arose: the cavalry class.
On the battlefields of the High Middle Ages, horse-riding knights were terrifying, despite the limited size of their animals: “With a spear held under their arm, they formed a kind of beating ram with their horse,” says Damen. “They were essential to the battles of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.”
Because of their military importance, and because of their high price, they gave horses a prestigious position, as the Italian Jordanus Rufus wrote in 1252: “By using horses, princes, high-ranking men, and knights distinguish themselves from the common people.” That is why rulers liked to immortalize themselves on horseback on coins, seals or plaques. In some of these photos, the horses look impressively large; larger than it was, according to the researchers.
Is this perhaps because medieval people were young and thus horses were more prominent than their riders? Probably not, or only in part, because medieval people were not that small. Then the average Englishman’s height fluctuated about six feet, about five centimeters lower than now. Perhaps the big horses have a bigger role in the purpose of the images: the effect. A man on a large horse is amazing, and therefore his proportions may be exaggerated.
Or perhaps the horses with big pictures came from the continent and the animals there had higher wilt than the English horses studied? It is possible, says Damen, but English horse breeding was not an isolated matter. In the Middle Ages, animals were transported over long distances. As early as the eighth century, horses of Arab origin ended up with horse breeders in England across North Africa and southern Europe.
In addition, one of the researchers, Professor of Archeology Alan Outram from the University of Exeter, says the team is also currently looking at horse bones from the mainland. Their results are not yet complete, but the dimensions found are comparable so far. “There is some variation by region, but the overall picture is similar.”
The size of a Przewalski’s horse
The researchers studied nearly 2,000 horse bones that died between 300 and 1650. They included jockey horses, but also farm horses. All of these animals were included in the study, because the bones couldn’t tell the researchers what kind of horse they were.
They have seen that the average height at the shoulders changes over time, from about 1.35 meters at the beginning of the study period to less than 1.30 meters in the eleventh century. This is the same height as today’s Przewalski’s horse, known for its small size. Later, the height at the withers increased again, reaching an average of 1.40 meters in the centuries following the Middle Ages. Compared to today, this is still small, because the average traction nowadays is nearly one meter and 70, for example, the size of the successful Anke van Grunsven’s horse wither horse Bonfire was 1.72.
War horses were now probably slightly larger than their farmland counterparts, as medieval sources indicated. But, emailed archaeologist Alan Outram, who was involved in the study: The dimensions of all the bones examined were very close to each other, and very large horses were not among the finds. Hence the conclusion that the war horses of the Middle Ages were about one meter 40. With a transverse exit of 1.50.