Friday, November 5, 2010

Does Size Matter?: Medieval Warhorses

There seems to be a great dilemma over ascertaining the average size of these medieval horses, both in class discussion and in the readings. The scholarship dismisses the large end of the spectrum: horses standing at approximately 18 hands. The height of a horse is measured at the withers, where the neck meets the body directly over the shoulder and also where the mane ends). Each hand constitutes 4 inches and the left over height is tallied in increments of inches, from one to three. Therefore, an 18 hand horse is 6 feet tall along its front arm; picture a Budweiser horse. If you can find the tack to fit a horse of this size or are bold enough to ride bareback, it is fine to ride at the slow gaits and experience the thrill of how high you are from the ground. Riding such a large horse at faster gaits is truly uncomfortable and you’re just trying to stay on, as you know it’s quite a long way down. On the shorter side of things, ponies stand at 14.2 hands and smaller. Though I am not an expert, I would imagine anything under 13 hands to be a bit absurd for an adult male to ride. Unless medieval horsemen had abnormally short, stubby, child legs, an adult’s feet would surpass the heart girth (the rib cage of the horse behind the elbow and shoulder) of a 13 hand horse. In this situation, the rider using leg commands would probably kick his own spurs or directly under the horse’s belly, which is sensitive and would probably upset the horse (the typical response to this is a horse ‘crow hopping,’ or jumping straight up on all fours). We viewed many examples in medieval imagery of horses in with their riders’ legs exceeding the heart girth but this is probably due to the style of depicting humans as long, slender figures.

Hence, the average size of the medieval horse matches the current average size of horses, which is generally within the ranges of both 15 and 16 hands. This may seem like a generous range but we are only examining the height factor, which one may not even notice unless there are several horses standing in a line. The build of a horse adds quite a bit to the picture. The generally consensus of the build of these horses are stocky and think legged. This cultivates an image of a hearty horse that could withstand harsh “medieval conditions.” This is mainly due to the contrast of European horses to the Arabian horses (this is an actual breed), which traditionally have a slimmer build. Archeological evidence on European horses would prove helpful here yet that would beg the inevitable question of the function of each individual horse studied.

Most of the authors of the readings offer several modern breeds to give us an ideal to visualize the medieval horses. This is a bit suspect. My first horse was 15.1 hands and very stocky and my last horse is 17 hands and built like a greyhound. These horses are the same breed. This breed has been very well established and follows strict breeding guidelines. Even within a breed, variation exists and it’s difficult to form then maintain an ideal. Furthermore, medieval breeding did not involve breeds. Many modern horses are similarly bred for function, such as jumping abilities, rather than a breed, yet such a horse may be labeled with two or three breeds. This blurs the lines among pureblood breeds. However, the Arabian horse is presented in the articles as an actual breed and may hold the right to be titled as a breed. This breed boasts the longevity of its heritage and may be fairly accurate. Arabian horses has very distinct features, such as the dish-shaped face plus the lack of a set of ribs and a lumbar vertebrae, that can be backed by archeological evidence and matches descriptions in primary sources and artist portrayals.

The fluctuations in the quality of horses are not common today due to the well researched selection of the broodmare and stud followed by artificial insemination and sometimes embryo transplants (actual breeding through intercourse can be a bit violent; mares get bitten and studs get kicked). Nevertheless, breeding is always a gamble. For example, I purchased my aforementioned 17 hand horse at the age of 10 months. I knew two of his full brothers and details on both of his parents. With that evidence, he should have grown to 16.2 at the tallest so we were shocked when he had major growth spurts at the ages of 4 and 5 years. Medieval breeding aimed at function rather than a pure breed so there were probably more variables at play.

Are we preoccupying ourselves with constructing a mental image of the medieval horse? How sturdy are our available sources to construct such an image? Because we cannot unpack the archeological evidence properly, we are left with the literary sources and artistic renderings. The medieval images of horses fail to aid us as the style in portraying humans and animals distort scale. Any visual image we attach to the medieval horse will be a shaky assumption and it would not be the true ideal of a medieval warhorse that we seek. Perhaps we should settle on the discovery of the medieval horses’ as tournament horses and leave picturing the horses to our imagination, even though this is an unsatisfactory outcome.

And a personal qualm: I was surprised by the lack of geldings, or castrated male horses. With a clear concern over maintaining that certain stallions be used for breeding, it seems odd that they would keep the non-breeding horses as stallions. Although the readings mentioned that stallions were ridden in warfare for their mean streak, the chances of a horse being exposed war were dismal. Geldings tend to be easier to manage and train (mares can get crotchety and difficult when they go into heat while stallions can be temperamental and now they are only kept intact if they have a future at being a profitable stud horse). I would imagine this would be welcomed for tournament horses but I may be projecting my personal favoring of geldings. Additionally, geldings would remove the threat of unwelcome breeding within the horse farm. Of course, this does not eliminate the problem of feral horses interfering with controlled breeding.



  1. Both JT and I have been wondering about geldings and why they have not been mentioned in the articles we have read. There is a (probably apocryphal) story about the Crusading army running into trouble because they were using stallions in battle and the Saracens were using mares. Supposedly they switched to using geldings after that.

    I suspect that the reason we (by which I mean scholars) don't really know anything about the use of geldings is that nobody in the Middle Ages bothered to write that information down, at least not prominently or in a way that ratios of geldings v. stallions can be determined. This is of course becoming a tired refrain, but what can we do?

  2. I think you are right that it is impossible for us to know exactly what medieval horses looked like, especially given the variations in modern horses even when we know their exact lineage. But at least now it is generally agreed that warhorses were neither "tanks" nor draft horses. Some myths have been surprisingly durable, even with such experiments as you suggest! It is interesting to me, thinking back to our conversation, that we can carry conflicting images of medieval knights as both smaller than us (all that "tiny" armor) and as capable of riding horses that even modern people have difficulty sitting on.

    Re: geldings. Albertus talks about the use of stallions as warhorses. He also notes that palfreys "should not be castrated lest they become effeminate." Which means that there were more than just warhorses out there confusing things!


  3. I just want to mention that geldings vs. stallions can also be a cultural thing... in modern day Spain, very few horses are gelded. The horses are bred for good temperaments, among other things, and the stallions are accustomed to being treated like regular horses, not locked away from all others and handled like they may suddenly become vicious beasts, as stallions in the U.S. are sometimes treated.