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War Horses: Discovering the Unique Breeds Used in Battle

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I recently watched the movie “Warhorse” with my grandchildren for the tenth time, and it made me wonder about horse breeds that participated in warfare. So I decided to research some great warriors and the horse breeds they used.

Warfare tactics evolved over the centuries, and so did horses. The breeds used to build empires range from lightweight horses like the ArabianBarb, and Akhal-Teke to heavy horses such as the Percheron and Friesian.

Most of us don’t think of horses as warriors, but they are. Horses’ influence in wars helped shape the world as we know it today. The breeds used in battle had characteristics that made them uniquely apt at warfare.

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Picture of a female knight riding a war horse,

Horses used in battle served many purposes

Many different horse breeds were used through the ages in creating empires, some were tasks with pulling chariots, and others carried knights in armor, but all were indispensable in their times. Let’s examine some of the most exceptional warrior horses in history.

Alexander the Great rode the same horse in every battle

Picture of Bucephalus, Alexander the Greats warhorse,

Alexander the Great rode one horse into all his battles, a massive stallion with a dark coat. Alexander’s legendary horse was named Bucephalus and thought to be of the Thessalian or Turkoman horse breeds.

The mystic surrounding Alexander and Bucephalus started when Alexander was a 12-year-old boy. The story is that a breeder brought a group of horses to King Phillip II, Alexander’s father.

Bucephalus stood out among the horses, causing Phillip II to inquire about the horse; the horse dealer quoted an enormous price for the horse. Phillip directed his men to mount the horse.

Each attendant failed; Bucephalus would spin, buck, and dodge when anyone attempted to mount him. Phillip ordered the horse removed and began to walk away when his son Alexander requested the horse. He told his father he could ride Bucephalus.

King Phillips attendants were experienced horsemen and knew how to handle them. King Phillip believed his young son was foolish to suggest that he could ride Bucephalus when his men failed.

Alexander persisted and even offered to pay for the horse if he failed to tame him. He reluctantly agreed to allow Alexander a chance to ride the horse.

Alexander understood horses were prey animals and some feared shadows, so he walked around the horse and gently placed his hands on the horse, whispering calmly and letting the horse see his shadow.

Once he felt the horse was comfortable, he turned him to the sun so he didn’t see his shadow and then gently eased into the saddle. Bucephalus stood erect and waited for instructions from his confident rider.

Alexander worked the horse from a walk to a trot, then moved into a gallop and full run. Alexander rode the horse for nearly twenty years until Bucephalus’s death from wounds he suffered in Alexander’s last battle in 326 BC.

During Alexander’s reign, he captured and renamed more than 60 cities, all after himself except one; he named after his horse Bucephalus.

Phillip II established the first calvary

Horses in Greece were rarely used in battle until Alexander the Great’s military campaigns. Phillip II initially fostered the concept of cavalry. He started a breeding program crossing prime Greek horse stock with Scythian, Persian, and Fergahana horses.

Persian Arabian stock influenced the greek cavalry horses used in battle. The average size of the greeks’ military horse averaged 13.2-14.2; however, some horses were crossed with Iberian horses to create larger horses. The result of the cross-breeding developed a battle horse with stamina, endurance, and longevity.

Greek war-horses included Arabian, Iberian, and Persians bloodlines

Alexander called his best cavalry unit the companion force. The companion force became the first-ever shock cavalry used in Europe. The companion force would penetrate enemy defenses and attack into the enemy’s vulnerable rear areas.

The shock cavalry wreaked havoc on their enemies. Alexander used them time and again to scare the enemy and break their formation, making the enemy easier to defeat.

The Greek cavalry didn’t use saddles or stirrups

Through the use of his cavalry, Alexander successfully spread his empire from Greece to India and Egypt. Some interesting facts about the Greek riders:

  • The horses were ridden without saddles;
  • Stirrups weren’t used;
  • If a rider missed his target during a strike he likely fell from his horse;
  • In 280 BC, Greeks used elephants at the Battle of Heraclea, to fight the Romans.
Painting of a knight riding a destrier horse
By Paul Mercuri –,

Charlemagne rode a destrier to conquer much of Europe

Charlemagne most likely rode a destrier, which technically is not a breed but a type of horse. It was known as the best and most durable warhorse of its time. The destrier is likely the ancestor of the Percheron, Friesian, and other large breeds.

Charles I, better known as Charlemagne, was a great warrior king. During his reign as the King of the Franks, which began in 768 BC, he took control over northern Spain, northern and eastern Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Italy, and the northern Balkans.

He was named king of the Lombards in 774 and emperor of the Romans in 800. He accomplished this feat with great mounted warriors known as caballarius.

Within the caballarius was an elite group called the scara. This elite force was always ready to fight the enemy when called upon. The scara were versatile, and they could fight from horseback, using shock tactics or dismount to fight on foot.

Medieval knights rode a variety of horse breeds

Horses in medieval times were used for specific tasks; knights used destriers, palfreys, coursers, and rouncys. The horse, the knights, rode into battle, and during tournaments were the destriers.

Horses played a prominent role in medieval armies. Horses allowed troops to advance quicker, further, and arrive fresher for battle. Once at the scene of the action, soldiers often dismounted and fought on foot rather than attempt a charge.

Heavy warhorses associated with knightly combat developed relatively late. During their attack on Britain, the Norman knights rode horses similar in size to Arabian, less than 1,000 pounds. It was later the truly massive horses would emerge.

Destriers were fearless horses used in battle

Destriers were the classic heavy warhorses the knights rode into battle. They were large, strong, built to carry the weight of the knight and his heavy battle armor.

All destriers were stallions and were big, stout, and agile. They were not slow-moving draft horses. The horses typically began their training before they were two years old by their rider. The training produced a fearless horse, prepared to fight, and kill humans and other horses alike.

Some accounts suggest they were effective in battle because of their eagerness to fight the horse opposite of them as the riders fought each other. The bond between rider and horse is legendary.

Destriers were prized and very expensive-only; the elite could afford one. Some of the best destriers were used to purchase large swathes of land. The majority of knights rode lower-ranked horses.

Palfreys were used for transporting knights

Knights also rode palfreys, and these horses were used for their everyday riding and travels. Palfrey’s were smaller than the destrier and traveled smoothly over long distances. They were also highly valued and could cost as much as a destrier.

Coursers were horses also used in battle by medieval knights. Coursers were smaller and quicker than destriers, and they were instrumental for quick strikes of the enemy. Coursers were highly valued but not as expensive as either the destrier or the palfreys.

Coursers were quick-strike horses

Kings rode Coursers when they needed a quick escape, and messengers rode them to deliver important news in a hurry. Coursers’ were the fastest horses in medieval times.

Rouncys were all-purpose horses

Rouncy horses were used for a variety of purposes and referred to as general use horses. Some carried heavy loads of the knights, either on their backs or pulling a wagon.

Knights with fewer funds, squires, and man-at-arms used rouncey horses for their mounts in battle, and wealthy knights provided rouncy horses to his supporting staff. Mounted archers preferred rouncey horses because of the horses’ small size.

Did peasants have horses?

During the medieval period, some peasants owned horses for farming but not for riding.

Ghengis Khan rode Mongol horses

Picture of Ghengis Khan riding a horse.

Ghengis Khan and his soldiers rode Mongol horses and conquered lands from Budapest in the west to Korea in the east.

The Mongolian empire is the largest contiguous land empire ever and spanned two centuries, the 13th and 14th. Ghengis could not have established the realm without the small, durable Mongol horse.

Ghengis Khan’s warriors had multiple horses

Ghengis Khan’s success is directly related to great battle tactics, including knowing how to best use horses in battle. Each warrior had multiple horses, typically four to six horses; however, some kept as many as twenty.

By having fresh horses to ride, the Mongol warriors were able to travel further faster. The troops would travel 80 miles daily, and no other force could match this mobility.

Mongolians were great horsemen

Mongolian people lived a nomadic lifestyle and grew up riding horses daily. They not only knew how to ride horses but how a deep connection to their mount.

Once the Mongol army formed, it was easy to transition the population into horseback warriors. The Mongols army trained daily in horsemanship, archery, hand-to-hand combat, and drills. They transformed into the best fighting force in the world.

Ghengis Khan used horses strategically

Ghengis Khan used various tactics in battle, but his two most impactful tactics relied on horses. Genghis would charge his enemy with a small pack of warriors on horseback.

After a brief engagement, the warriors would turn and run, luring the enemy into an ambush. A variation of the trap was to retreat while feigning defeat.

Still, actually leading the enemy for days to a battlefield location they desired, once in the desired location, the Mongols would stop, encircle their foe, and rain down arrows.

The different ways the Mongols used horses as weapons are still appreciated today.

The Mongol horse is an ancient breed

The Mongol horse breed has been around for thousands of years without influence from humans. They were domesticated in Central Asia over 10,000 years ago.

Some claim it is the first true modern horse breed with bloodlines tracing to ancient times. They have influenced countless other horse breeds. The Mongolian people began recording them around 2000 BC.

Mongol horses still populate Mongolia today

The Mongol breed still strives today. In Mongolia, there are approximately three million horses. Horses are used to provide transportation, milk, meat, manure, and hair.

The manure is dried and used for fuel. Mongolia is a vast region without vast resources. The horsehair is used to make rope, ornaments, and strings for musical instruments. Mares are typically milked twice a day.

Mongol horses have great stamina

Mongol horses are stocky built, with short thick-boned legs and have a large head and short neck. Their average height is 12 to 14 hands. They are hardy horses with great stamina.

They are extremely easy to keep, sustaining by pawing through snow to consume hidden grass. Mongol horses have healthy hooves and don’t require hoof care. The breed has long manes and tails and an exceptionally thick winter coat to protect them from the harsh weather of the steppe.

Painting of Napolean riding his famous horse.
By Alfred d’Orsay –,

Napoleon rode an Arabian named Marengo

Napoleon rode an Arabian named Marengo. Marengo famously carried Napolean through many battles; he was captured in the battle of Waterloo and sent to Great Britain. His skeletal remains are displayed at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London.

Napoleon became the ruler of France in 1804; by 1812, his French Empire ruled over 70 million subjects in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Duchy of Warsaw. Horses were integral to Napoleon’s success.

Napolean strengthed France’s cavalry

Napoleon understood the importance of having a strong cavalry, so he designed cavalry regiments for specific purposes. At the beginning of Napoleon’s reign in France, the cavalry was in poor condition.

Napoleon strengthened the quality of horses and insisted on proper horsemanship training for the troops. The cavalrymen’s intensive training paid off, and the French cavalry was undefeated until 1812.

In the Napoleonic Wars, eight horses breeds were used

  • Officers and generals rode Arabians. They are sturdy but elegant horses with high endurance.
  • Andalusians were called “the royal horse of Europe.” These Spanish horses and were ridden by war-leaders. They are friendly, docile, powerfully built, and brave with catlike agility.
  • The Comtois of Burgundy was mainly used as a draft horse by the army of King Louis XIV and by Napoleon. They are a hardy breed with good nature, high endurance, and are easy to train.
  • The French horse Ardennais was trendy in the French cavalry, and it is one of the oldest draft breeds.
  • The French horse Percheron was a famous horse during this age of warfare; the horse is a powerful mount used by heavy cavalry.
  • The French horse Boulonnais of Flanders was used primarily as a draft horse. They are ordinarily grey and enjoyed great popularity in every European heavy cavalry. Napoleon purchased thousands of these horses.
  • The Hannoverian horse is a German warmblood. It is a versatile breed used in light artillery, heavy, and line cavalry. Today it is successful in dressage and other equestrian events.
  • The Holsteiner horse is believed to be the oldest warmblood horse breed. It was developed in northern Germany. This horse has a good character and is fast and robust, and the Saxon heavy cavalry rode them. The modern Holsteiner is a favored breed for jumping competitions.

What is a War Horse called?

A warhorse is often called a battle steed. They are typically large, strong horses with good stamina. The first War Horses were bred in England during the Middle Ages. The primary use of these horses was as cavalry mounts for heavily armored knights.

Old warhorse meaning

You may be surprised to know that the word “warhorse” has nothing to do with war or horses. It actually means a person who is experienced and knowledgeable about something.

What breed of horse was a destrier?

A destrier is a type of horse that was ridden and used in battle during the Middle Ages, not a specific breed. Destriers were strong and tall, with wide chests to carry knights into battle. The word “destrier” derives from the Old French “destrer,” which means charger or warhorse.