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War Horses: Discovering the Unique Breeds Used in Battle

Last updated: August 7, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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 Arabian, Barb, and Akhal-Teke to heavy horses like 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 for warfare.

Picture of a female knight riding a war horse,

Early History of War Horses

The story of horses in battle goes back to ancient times when these animals played a pivotal role in warfare. Chariot warfare marked the beginning of using horses in battle. Dating back to around 2500 BCE, chariots were two-wheeled vehicles drawn by a team of horses and driven by a charioteer.

These fast and agile machines allowed soldiers to cover long distances quickly, attack enemies with deadly force, and retreat to safety. Chariots were a game-changer in the military tactics of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Hittite Empire. They allowed armies to engage in rapid attacks and outmaneuver opponents on the battlefield.

As time went on, soldiers began to realize that riding on horseback provided even greater advantages than using chariots. Cavalry units emerged as an essential component of ancient armies, offering increased mobility, speed, and adaptability.

The Persians, Greeks, and Romans all utilized cavalry forces, with the latter even incorporating specialized units like the Roman Equites. Cavalry warfare evolved throughout the centuries, eventually leading to the creation of heavily armored knights during the medieval period.

Egyptian Chariot Horse

In ancient Egypt and the Middle East, the most common warhorse was a small yet sturdy breed known as the Egyptian Chariot Horse. These horses were likely ancestors of modern Arabian and Barb horses, which are both known for their agility, endurance, and ability to withstand harsh desert climates.

Egyptian Chariot Horses were selectively bred for their traits suitable for chariot warfare, making them an essential component of ancient Egyptian military tactics. They were prized for their agility, endurance, and ability to withstand the harsh desert climate.

The Nisean Horse

The Assyrians, on the other hand, preferred a larger and more powerful breed called the Nisean horse. The Nisean horse is an ancient horse breed that was primarily associated with the region around Nisa, an area in the ancient Persian Empire that is now part of modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan.

These horses were highly sought after for their strength, courage, and versatility, making them excellent mounts for both chariot and cavalry warfare. The Nisean horse played a crucial role in the military successes of the Assyrians, Persians, and other ancient Middle Eastern empires.

While the exact ancestry of the Nisean horse is not entirely clear, it is believed to have been a predecessor of modern breeds like the Caspian horse and the Turkoman (or Akhal-Teke) horse. The Nisean horse’s impressive size and strength could have been a result of selective breeding and crossbreeding with other regional horse breeds, ultimately leading to the development of these modern descendants.

Ferghana Horse

China’s long history of horse breeding and warfare can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). They initially used a native breed called the Ferghana horse, known for its speed, stamina, and ability to navigate mountainous terrain.

Mongolian Horse

However, it was the steppe nomads, such as the Scythians and Huns, who truly excelled in horse warfare. They relied on the Mongolian horse, a small but incredibly hardy breed capable of surviving harsh conditions and traveling long distances. The nomadic lifestyle of these tribes meant they were almost constantly on horseback, making them formidable adversaries in battle.

Arabian, Iberian, and Persian Horse Breeds

Arabian, Iberian, and Persian warhorses were among the most prized in the ancient world. Their bloodlines were highly sought after by Greek generals, who used them to great effect in battle. Iberian warhorses were known for their speed and endurance, while Arabians were prized for their agility and stamina.

Persian warhorses were considered the best of the best, and their bloodlines were highly prized by Alexander the Great and other military leaders. These warhorses played a vital role in the success of the Greek armies, and their legacy continues to this day.

Picture of Bucephalus, Alexander the Greats warhorse,

Alexander the Great and Bucephalus

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 mysticism surrounding Alexander and Bucephalus started when Alexander was a 12-year-old boy.

The story goes 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 Phillip’s 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 him 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; which 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.

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 the enemy’s vulnerable rear areas.

The shock cavalry wreaked havoc on their enemies. Alexander used them repeatedly 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 –,

Medieval War Horses

As we venture into the medieval era, horses continued to play a crucial role in warfare, shaping the tactics and strategies of armies across Europe. The use of horses in battle evolved as new breeds were developed to meet the demands of the changing landscape of war.

During the medieval period, horses were invaluable assets on the battlefield. Knights and soldiers relied on their equine companions for mobility, speed, and power, which were essential for both offense and defense.

The mounted knight, clad in heavy armor and wielding a lance or sword, became an iconic symbol of this era, striking fear into the hearts of their enemies. Horses were also indispensable for logistical purposes, as they transported soldiers, equipment, and supplies, ensuring armies remained well-equipped for battle.

The Destrier

The destrier was the most prized and revered warhorse of the medieval era. This powerful and agile breed was specifically bred for battle, capable of carrying a fully armored knight into the heart of the fray. Destriers were known for their size, strength, and courage, making them the ideal mount for knights engaging in hand-to-hand combat. These noble steeds were often reserved for the highest-ranking warriors and were a symbol of wealth, power, and prestige.

Some accounts suggest they were effective in battle because of their eagerness to fight the horse opposite 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.

Below is an informative YouTube video about medieval warhorses.

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 could fight on horseback, using shock tactics or dismounting to fight on foot.


The Courser was another popular breed during the medieval period, prized for its speed, agility, and endurance. Coursers were lighter and faster than destriers, making them an excellent choice for scouting, skirmishing, or chasing down fleeing enemies.

Although not as strong as the destrier, coursers were still capable of carrying an armored rider, making them a versatile and valuable addition to any medieval army. When a king required a swift escape or a messenger needed to deliver crucial news with haste, they often relied on a courser. Renowned as the fastest horses in medieval times, coursers were indispensable for their exceptional speed and agility.


Rouncey horses served a range of purposes and were known as versatile, general-use horses. They were capable of carrying heavy loads, either on their backs or by pulling wagons, making them valuable workhorses for medieval armies. Knights with limited resources, squires, and men-at-arms often relied on rouncey horses as their mounts in battle, while wealthier knights provided them to their support staff.

Due to their smaller size, rounceys were the preferred choice for mounted archers, as they allowed for greater maneuverability and ease of handling during combat. While not as impressive as the destrier or as fast as the courser, the rouncey was a reliable and essential part of medieval warfare.


Palfreys were another important horse breed during the medieval period, primarily known for their smooth and comfortable gait, making them a popular choice for riding over long distances. Palfreys were not bred for battles like destriers, coursers, or rounceys, but they played a crucial role in the daily lives of nobility and high-ranking officials.

As the preferred mount for travel, palfreys were often used by nobles, high-ranking clergy, and even ladies for their elegance and ease of riding. The smooth, ambling gait of the palfrey allowed riders to cover long distances with minimal fatigue, making them a valuable asset for communication, transportation, and diplomacy during the medieval era.

Although not specifically bred for warfare, the palfrey’s role in the medieval world should not be underestimated. As a symbol of social status and wealth, these horses contributed to the complex social dynamics of the time and played an essential part in the daily lives of the upper class.

The Influence of Arabian Horses

As we explore the history of warhorses, we cannot overlook the significant impact of the Arabian breed. Known for their unparalleled beauty, endurance, and agility, Arabian horses have left an indelible mark on European warhorse breeding and the equestrian world at large.

Originating from the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian horse is one of the oldest and most revered horse breeds in the world. These horses have distinct features, including a refined, wedge-shaped head, large eyes, and a high-tail carriage.

They are renowned for their intelligence, spirit, and stamina, making them ideal for long desert journeys and battles. Over time, the Arabian breed has become synonymous with elegance, grace, and an indomitable spirit, capturing the hearts of horse enthusiasts worldwide.

The spread of Arabian horses in Europe can be traced back to the Islamic conquests and the Crusades when these horses were introduced to European knights and nobility. As trade networks expanded and diplomatic relations flourished, Arabian horses were gifted to European monarchs and leaders, further cementing their status as a symbol of prestige and power.

During the Renaissance, European breeders and monarchs began to appreciate the unique qualities of Arabian horses, and their influence started to permeate through European horse breeding programs. As a result, the Arabian horse’s traits were integrated into the development of many modern European breeds, transforming the landscape of warhorse breeding across the continent.

Impact on European warhorse breeding

The introduction of Arabian horses to Europe had a profound impact on warhorse breeding, leading to the development of new breeds that combined the strength and size of European horses with the agility, endurance, and grace of the Arabian breed.

This fusion of desirable characteristics resulted in powerful and versatile warhorses that could excel in various roles on the battlefield, from heavy cavalry charges to swift and agile skirmishes. Some notable breeds influenced by the Arabian horse include the Andalusian, Lusitano, Thoroughbred, and Hanoverian.

These breeds and their descendants have gone on to dominate various equestrian disciplines, from racing to dressage, demonstrating the lasting legacy of the Arabian horse in the world of equine sports and warfare.

Picture of Ghengis Khan riding a horse.

Eastern European and Asian War Horses

As we continue our exploration of warhorses, it’s essential to recognize the contributions and influence of Eastern European and Asian breeds. These magnificent equines played a crucial role in shaping the history of warfare and the development of military tactics across their respective regions.

The Akhal-Teke and its role in battle.

The Akhal-Teke is a striking horse breed native to Turkmenistan, characterized by its slender build, long neck, and a distinctive metallic sheen. Known for their incredible speed, endurance, and adaptability to harsh environments, these horses were highly valued by ancient warriors and nomadic tribes.

Their ability to cover vast distances with minimal water and food made them invaluable assets in desert warfare, enabling swift and efficient communication, scouting, and raids. The Akhal-Teke’s influence extended to the armies of the Persian Empire, where they were recognized for their exceptional abilities and prized as elite warhorses.

The Mongolian Horse and Genghis Khan.

The Mongolian horse played a pivotal role in the conquests of Genghis Khan and the establishment of the Mongol Empire. Small but incredibly hardy, these horses were perfectly suited to the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols, who were almost constantly on horseback. Their exceptional stamina and ability to survive harsh conditions made them indispensable during long military campaigns across diverse terrain.

Mongolian horses were essential to the Mongol’s lightning-fast cavalry tactics, which relied on rapid movement, feigned retreats, and coordinated attacks to overwhelm and confuse their enemies. The success of the Mongol Empire can be largely attributed to their exceptional horsemanship and their unique bond with the resilient Mongolian horse.

Cossack Horses and their use in warfare.

The term “Cossack horse” refers to the versatile equines used by the Cossack warriors, a group of semi-nomadic fighters from Eastern Europe rather than a distinct breed. These horses played an integral role in the military successes of the Cossacks, who were renowned for their exceptional horsemanship and equestrian skills.

The Cossack warriors relied on local steppe horses and breeds obtained through trade or conquest. These horses were typically hardy, adaptable, and well-suited to the local environment, allowing them to navigate the diverse terrain of Eastern Europe and Asia. The Cossack horse was known for its speed, agility, and stamina.

They were used in various roles on the battlefield, from reconnaissance and raiding to engaging in direct combat. Their ability to traverse different types of terrain, from open plains to dense forests, enabled Cossack warriors to launch surprise attacks, outmaneuver their opponents, and evade capture. The Cossacks’ deep connection with their horses and their exceptional equestrian skills made them a formidable force in Eastern European warfare.

The legacy of the Cossack horse lives on in the modern-day descendants of the breeds used by these skilled warriors. The Don, Budyonny, and Tersk are among the breeds that can trace their lineage back to the horses used by the Cossacks. These breeds are now utilized in various equestrian disciplines, showcasing the enduring influence and versatility of the Cossack horse in the world of equine sports and warfare.

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

Napoleon and His Esteemed Warhorses

Napoleon, who became the ruler of France in 1804, expanded his empire to include 70 million subjects in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Duchy of Warsaw by 1812. The essential role horses played in Napoleon’s military campaigns, and sweeping conquests cannot be overstated, as they were crucial to his triumphs.

Napoleon’s trusted steed, an Arabian named Marengo, famously carried him through numerous battles. Marengo was captured during the Battle of Waterloo and subsequently transported to Great Britain. Today, his skeletal remains are on display at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London.

Napolean strengthened 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.” War leaders rode these Spanish horses. They are friendly, docile, powerfully built, and brave with catlike agility.
  • King Louis XIV and Napoleon’s army mainly used the Comtois of Burgundy as a draft horse. They are a hardy breed with good nature and high endurance and are easy to train.
  • The French horse Ardennais was trendy in the French cavalry and is one of the oldest draft breeds.
  • The French horse Percheron was a famous horse during this age of warfare; the horse was 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 Hanoverian 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 warm-blood 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.


The history of warhorses is both fascinating and diverse, encompassing a wide array of breeds and roles in various eras and cultures. From the ancient chariots of Egypt to the swift Mongolian horses that helped forge an empire, these majestic animals have shaped the course of warfare and the development of human civilization. Even in modern times, horses continue to serve in military capacities, showcasing their enduring importance and adaptability.

The unique qualities of each breed, from the agility of the Arabian to the strength of the destrier, have contributed to their respective legacies on the battlefield. As we reflect on the remarkable partnership between humans and horses in times of war, it is essential to appreciate the immense impact these noble animals have had on our history, culture, and military prowess.


Large war horse breeds

Destriers, the “Great Horse,” Andalusians, Percherons, and Friesians are all large horse breeds used during wars in the Middle Ages. Belgians, Shires, and Clydesdales transported artillery and goods.

What horses did knights ride?

Knights typically rode horses called destriers. The destrier was specifically bred and trained for use in medieval warfare and was highly valued. These horses were often larger and heavier than other breeds and considered the finest warhorses of their time.

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.

Miles Henry