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Horses in the Middle Ages

Horses in the Middle Ages differed greatly in size, build, and breed when compared to their modern counterparts. These magnificent animals played an integral role in society, often carrying out multiple tasks. They were essential in almost every facet of society, including war, agriculture, and transport. As a result, humans domesticated and bred different types of horse for their utilitarian value. Some breeds existed to carry out their role on the battlefield, while others remained on the farm pulling excessive weight. Regardless of their purpose, people valued their horses as if they were gold.

The quality of horse breeding declined with the fall of the Roman Empire, mainly because horses were used solely for riding and pursuit by the British and Scandinavians. The Merovingian kingdom retained a Roman horse breeding center, but not enough to contend with the previous horse breeding that existed at the height of Roman civilization. The Spanish continued to breed quality horses up until the start of the Middle Ages. The origins of the medieval horse remain a mystery; however, some researchers believe they have blood ties to the Spanish Jennet. In fact, “Spanish” horses were regarded as the most expensive breed of horse during this time. France also produced quality war horses. As western society grew aware of the importance that quality horses played on the battlefield, it began to increase breeding. This also helped to increase the effectiveness of warfare during the Middle Ages. Many changes took place in breeding due to the direct influence of Islamic culture during the Crusades.

Horses were rarely defined by their breed during the Middle Ages. People classified different types of horse based on their overall purpose and physical attributes. Many of these definitions lacked precision, and were often interchangeable. In fact, few pedigrees were recorded prior to the 13th century. This means that terms for horses during the Middle Ages did not refer to the modern connotation of breeds as we know them today.

One of the most commonly known medieval horses was the destrier. The destrier became renowned and admired for its value on the battlefield. The destrier was well-trained, strong, fast, and agile. This made it the perfect breed for warfare but they were not very common. In fact, it earned its reputation as the “great horse” because of its size and ability to maneuver during times of war. Knights and men-at-arms prized destiers. Destiers were mostly suited for the joust. Coursers occupied the battlefield more than the costly destier. Coursers were light, fast, and strong. Another general-purpose horse trained for riding or war was the rouncey. Squires, men-at-arms, and poorer knights rode rounceys. A wealthy knight would ride his retinue over a rouncey. The type of horse was not always freely chosen. When royalty sent a summons of war, they may have requested a specific type of horse for their physical attributes.

The palfrey was a costly horse used by nobles and wealthy knights for riding, hunting, and ceremonial use. Palfreys possessed a smooth gait, also known as ambling, that allowed riders to cover long distances quickly. The Jennet was another popular horse type. It was bred first in Spain from Barb and Arabian bloodstock. Jennets have a quiet nature that makes them dependable for their size. They were perfect for ladies; however, the Spanish did use them as cavalry horses. Another popular horse during the Middle Ages was the hobby. The hobby was a lightweight horse bred from Spanish or Libyan bloodstock. This quick and agile horse was perfect for skirmishing or riding in the light cavalry. Hobbies were used on both sides of the Wars of Scottish Independence. Robert Bruce used the hobby to mount raids and launch guerrilla warfare during this time.

By Alan Bernau Jr

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