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Medieval Horses: Breeds, Uses, and Characteristics

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One of the most iconic symbols of medieval Europe is the horse. These noble animals were used for warfare, transportation, and sport, and they played a vital role in the medieval economy. However, not all medieval horses were alike. In fact, many different types of horses were used to meet the needs of medieval life.

• The destrier was a large, strong horse used for war. It was rare and expensive.
• Coursers were lighter and faster horses used for battle or hunting. They were more common than destriers.
• Rounceys were versatile horses that could be used for riding, war, or packing purposes.
• Palfreys were smooth-gaited horses prized by nobles for comfort on long rides.
• The jennet was a small Spanish horse popular with ladies as a riding horse but also used by Spanish cavalrymen

Medieval horses were a vital part of feudal society. They were integral to agriculture, transportation, and battle strategies. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at horses in medieval times and explore some of the ways they were used.

Picture of a medieval horse and knight.

Destriers

The most prized medieval horses were destriers, which were larger and stronger than other types of horses. Destriers were also more expensive, and only the richest knights could afford to buy them.

However, the expense was worth it, as destriers gave their owners a significant advantage in battle. These horses were carefully bred and trained to be the perfect war machines. They had to be large enough to carry a fully-armored knight but also agile enough to maneuver around the battlefield.

A good suit of armor was known to weigh almost 70-80 lb. Therefore the Destrier breed easily typically carried loads of over 200 to 300 lb. No wonder the breed was deemed the ‘Great Horse.’

The word Destriers comes from the Old French word destrer or perhaps the Latin equus dextrarius meaning the right-handed horse. This is probably due to the fact that the squire on the right-hand side led the horse with his right hand.

The Destrier horse was allowed to run freely before battle while the knight rode another horse (Palfrey – discussed below) before jumping on the Destrier just before the battle commenced. This prevented the Destrier from getting fatigued.

Though no specific records exist, most historians believe that destrier horses had Iberian bloodlines, like the Andalusian horse breed. Andalusians are known for their athletic build, intelligence, and proud demeanor, all qualities that would have been desirable in a medieval war horse. While the destrier is now extinct, the Andalusian breed continues to thrive, carrying on the legacy of these iconic medieval horses.

Uses

  • Destrier was mainly used for warfare, chivalry, tournaments, and jousts.
  • Best known war horse of the Middle Ages

Characteristics

  • Destriers were considered the finest and strongest warhorses. A 14th Century writer describes them as tall and majestic with great strength.
  • They weighed twice as much as conventional horses. However, research shows they might have only measured 14-15 hh./56 to 60 inches. This is not too tall – especially when we consider some of the giant horse breeds of modern times.
  • Destriers lacked the maneuverability of lighter horses. However, they were especially known for their strong hindquarters that could easily coil and spin to a stop. The strong legs also helped them turn quickly.
  • Destriers also had strong backs, well-muscled bodies – especially loins, and convex profiles, with strong jaws.
  • Destriers were often black or dark brown in color, which helped them blend in with the darkness of night and strike fear into their enemies.
  • Since Destriers were expensive, not all knights could afford them.
  • The most important traits in Destriers were loyalty and bravery- which were needed for wars and tournaments.

The modern Percheron breed is believed to have descended from the Destriers

Training

Destriers were mainly trained to maneuver in battle while carrying heavy weight. They were incapable of physical work but could be taught to rear and fight soldiers on foot. In fact, they were often shod with sharp nails protruding so they could trample foot soldiers in their path.

One line of thought is that the Destriers were a type of horse rather than a breed. They may have been Friesians, Andalusians, Irish draught horses, or a combination of these that were bred and specially trained as warhorses.  

Picture of medieval horses.

Palfrey or Palefridus horse

Palfrey is a type of medieval horse used for transport and riding; these horses were sturdy and sure-footed, making them ideal for traveling long distances. The Destrier horse was the horse for battle but was not comfortable for the off-duty knight.

Instead, knights used Palfreys, known for their gentler gaits. Old and wounded knights could also easily mount the Palfrey (whereas they faced trouble while mounting taller horses like Destriers).

Palfreys were one of the most popular horses in the Middle Ages, and they were equivalent in price to the Destriers. They were also known as saddle horses since knights sometimes rode them to prevent the heavier Destrier horses from fatigue.

The Scottish King James gifted three Plafreys to King Henry – out of gratitude for releasing him from the Tower. King Edward III also rode a white Palfrey in the Battle of Crecy in 1346.

Uses

  • Palfrey was considered the ‘Lady’s riding horse’ although high-ranking nobles and knights also used them. In fact, they were used by old, wounded, and off-duty knights. 
  • Palfreys were the horses of choice for riding, hunting, and especially for ceremonial use in Medieval times.

Characteristics

  • Light-weight
  • Smooth gait and gentle amble
  • Suitable for riding over large distances
  • Very expensive horses

Training

Ambling was a desired trait in Palfreys. While most Palfrey horses had the inherent or genetic capability to amble, trainers could even use tactics like slightly restraining the horse at trot or pace to enhance ambling.

Picture of a courser horse, often used in medieval jousting.

Courser or Charger Horses

Coursers were medieval horses used for transportation and warfare. These horses were bred for speed and stamina, and they were often fitted with armor to protect them in battle. Coursers were primarily used as jousting and war horses.

Coursers were also used for hunting, as their speed and agility made them ideal for chasing down game. In addition to being excellent equestrians, medieval knights often had a deep bond with their coursers, and these horses were often given names and treated like family members.

Another word to describe Courser was Charger. Charger and Courser were generic terms for many medieval war horses.

Uses

  • Courses were mainly used as Medieval war-horses.
  • Sometimes, they were also used for pulling heavy canons

Characteristics

  • Most Chargers measured 14 to 16 hh. It was important that the horse was easy to get on – if an injured knight could not get back on the horse without assistance, he was left rather vulnerable.
  • They were known for being aggressive.
  • Chargers also had impressive speed, endurance, and strength

Training

Medieval horses like chargers were trained extensively before they could be used as war horses. They had to learn to respond to cues from their riders’ shouts rather than reins alone (because their rider’s hands were often not holding the reins but were left free for holding weapons and shields).

In medieval times, horse trainers were known as marshals. Marshals trained  Chargers and Coursers to bite and kick their enemies. Some horses were even trained to kill or attack enemy horses and unseat their riders.

Often, Europeans used stallions as chargers and warhorses because of their naturally aggressive tendencies. Of course, the same aggressive tendencies became rather dangerous to the trainers and riders.

Another important training skill that Coursers received was to joust. Chargers or courser horses used in Jousting Tournaments had to get used to the loud sounds and disturbing sights that were typical in wars and jousts.

In both cases, charging straight and responding to their rider’s cues were the two main skills that chargers had to learn from their marshals. Chargers were also trained for increased endurance and speed, although physician strength wasn’t very necessary for these horses.

In any case, most Chargers were built to carry 30% of their body weight and could easily carry armored knights weighing 300 lb. This exceeds the recommended weight most horse breeds can safely carry.

Picture of a palfrey horse, one of the medieval horse breeds.

Jennet Horses

Breeders created this gaited Medieval horse breed by infusing the blood of horses from Northern climates (North Africa, East Asia, etc.) with the proto warmbloods of Iberian or Barb origins.

The result was horses with a smooth gait, friendly personalities, beautifully patterned coats, and great pride. The word Jennet may be derived from the French word genet or the Spanish word jinete. It could refer to the ‘light horseman who rides with the legs tucked up.’ This is due to the style of horseriding with shorter stirrups.

They came to be known as Jennet horses – not to be confused with the modern Spanish Jennet Horse breed (which does resemble the original Jennet). Paleolithic paintings found in caves as early as 18,000 BC have also depicted Jennet-type horses.

Spain intensified the breeding of the Jennet horse, retaining the horses’ great presence but with docile natures and ambling gait. Due to these traits, Jennet horses remained a favorite of European and English horsemen all throughout the 15th and 18th centuries.

Uses

  • Jennet was a light-riding horse used throughout Europe and as a light cavalry horse in Spain.
  • This was an excellent horse for ladies and pilgrims since it could travel long distances without needing much food.
  • Later, Jennet horses provided foundation bloodstock for several horse breeds in North America.

Characteristics

  • Jennets were well-known for their muscled build
  • They were also known for their smooth gait
  • Most importantly, they have a very good disposition

Training

The training of Jennets was done more or less the same way as the Palfrey horse – with a focus on honing what the horses already had genetically. Their ambling gait was also enhanced with restraining.

Below is an excellent YouTube video about Medieval horses.

Rouncey Horses

Rouncey (also spelled as Rounsey or Runcarius/Runcinus) horses were medieval workhorses that were known for their strength and endurance. They were often used for plowing fields and transporting goods, and they were also used in warfare. It could be trained for war and was used by squires, men-at-arms, and poorer knights. 

Rounceys came in various sizes, from 14-hand riding horses to 16-hand large workhorses, But all were typically strong with muscular bodies and were black, brown, or chestnut in color. Rounceys were hardy horses that could withstand cold weather and rough terrain.

They were also known for their calm dispositions, which made them easy to handle. Historians are split on rouncey horses; some speak disparagingly of them while others praise their versatility, swiftness, and strength.

Uses

  • Rouncey was used as a low-ranking war horse for small riders like squires
  • They are standard riding horses and were often used for menial work as pack horses or draft horse
  • Rouncey were also used as all-purpose horses for riding, harrowing, plowing, and cart-pulling.
  • Smaller Rounceys were preferred for archers.

Characteristics

  • Rounceys were the cheapest horses on the continent. By 1272, they were sold for an equivalent of 520 crowns.
  • They had enhanced jumping and hearing abilities.
  • They were even smaller in size than Destriers, Palfreys, Coursers, and Chargers. However, they were considered fast and agile despite their small size.

Care and Training

Wealthy knights kept Rounceys for their retinue. Mostly they were trained for pack work, but when the need arose, they were trained for war.

Picture of a jennet horse.

Hobby Horse

One of the most unique medieval horses was the Irish Hobby Horse. This horse was a small, compact breed that was known for its agility and speed. The Irish Hobby Horse was often used in jousting competitions, as its size and maneuverability made it an ideal mount for Knights.

In addition to being an excellent war horse, the Irish Hobby Horse was also used for racing and hunting. Due to its versatile nature, the Irish Hobby Horse became one of the most popular breeds of medieval horses.

Hobyn, or Hobby horses, originated in Ireland in the 13th Century. The word Hobyn comes from French Hobin or Gaelic Obann, meaning fast or swift. However, the breed eventually fell out of favor and is now considered to be extinct.

The breed is the inspiration for the hobby horse and the children’s toy hobby horses, which consisted of a stick with a horse head for kids to play with. Note that Palfrey horses were known as Haubini in France and might have eventually found their way to Ireland to develop the Irish Hobby Horse.

Uses 

  • These lightweight horses were ridden by cavalry or light infantry known as Hobelars, used in Medieval Europe for skirmishing. Both sides used them in the War of Scottish Independence.
  • Robert the Bruce used Hobyn horses for guerilla warfare, and his Hobyns covered 60+ miles a day.
  • The Irish Hobby horse provided the foundation for many modern breeds like the Connemara pony and Irish Draught.
  • Irish Hobbies were imported to England and France and made to participate in racing and other activities.

Characteristics

  • Though small, they were not of poor quality. Most Hobyns measured 13-14 hh
  • They were quick and agile.
  • Their price was significantly lesser than other war horses.

Conclusion – Medieval Horse Breeds

Medieval horses used in battle were capable of instilling fear in the enemy. They might have been smaller than the modern horse breeds but, nevertheless, were capable of speed, endurance, and strength.

The primary medieval horses were Destriers, Palfreys, Jennets, Coursers, and Rounceys. They were used as war horses and in tournaments and jousting competitions. Some were multi-purpose horses that did everything. Many of these Medieval horse breeds are the foundation for several modern horse breeds.

The medieval horses we’ve listed were some of the most popular and well-known during that time period. While many other breeds of horses were undoubtedly used during the Middle Ages, these five seem to have been the most common.

FAQs – Medieval Horse Breeds

Which breed of horses were used in Medieval Times?

It is hard to pinpoint which breed of horses were used in the Middle Ages or Medieval times since people categorized horses not by breed but by the type of work they did. So, you could have war horses, pack horses, etc. As such, the breeds used in those times could be stallions, Percherons, Andalusians, and Friesians.

What are the knight’s horses called?

Knight horses were termed Destriers or Great horses. Destriers carried knights into battles, tournaments, and jousts.

How big were knight’s horses?

Knights horses ranged in size; the large Destriers were over 16 hands. However, according to Smithsonian Mag, most Medieval horses were not much bigger than modern-day ponies and stood between 14 and 15 hh.