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Friday, September 4, 2009

Medieval Horses and Horse Breeds....




What breed of horses did the knights of yore, the grand ladies, and the poor common peasant ride during the middle ages? In fact, did a particular breed of horse even exist during this time period? As a horse lover and a former horse woman, I’ve always found the subject of horses interesting.

In Medieval Europe, horses weren't really characterized by "breed" but by common traits. Nearly all breeds we see today were 'started' for a specific purpose. Morgans, Quarter Horses and Paints are some of the most well known of the 'modern' breeds. Some of those that are more closely resemble their fore bearers would be most draft horses, thoroughbreds (originally meant any horse of pure breeding that could trace it's genealogy through a Stud Book), and several types of pony. Medieval horses were defined by their confirmation and the role they were intended to be used for. There were highly refined and trained Destriers, smooth gaited Palfreys, long winded and strong Coursers, and general purpose Rouncies. In addition, ponies, mules and donkeys also played a vital role in society of the period.
In the above picture, the Friesian horse reportedly dates back 3000 years though the horse we know today was developed in the twelfth century in northern Europe. Friesians were ridden by the Teutonic Knights and used as war horses for the crusades. They could carry large loads, exist on meager rations, and were agile enough to be effective in battle.

Destrier – In the middle ages this referred to well, bred, highly trained stallion was used as a war or tournament horse. this animal was a specialist mount, they were rare and very expensive even in the middle ages.

Stallions were often used as war horses in Europe due to their natural aggression and hot-blooded tendencies. A thirteenth century work describes destriers “biting and kicking’ on the battle field and “in the heat of battle, war horses were often seen fighting each other.” (A.D.700 through the 15th century)

Palfrey – This was a well bred horse that was used for general purposes such as riding, war and travel. In the Middle Ages the Palfrey were often gaited horses, but this was not an absolute requirement. If you were a person of substance in the middle ages, this was the horse you’d most likely own. Very finely bred mules were often bred for ladies or clergy and called Palfreys. These horses were also called Jennets or Jenet (Fr.)

Courser – This is a catch-all description of a good cavalry horse during the Middle Ages. According to at least one recent book on the subject on medieval war horses, this was the most common type horse used in warfare. Coursers were steady, long winded horses. They wouldn’t be as refined or well trained as a Destrier, but then the Courser didn’t cost as much either. In today’s modern era, we’d refer to the Courser as an endurance horse, hunters or working ranch horses.

Rouncy – This term usually described the general purpose combined work/riding horses. rouncies were common grade horses of no particular breeding or training except that they were indispensable in getting from point A to point B and did the bulk of muscle work people called upon horses to perform another name they are referred to is as Hackneys or Hack Horses.

As the usefulness of the knight began to decline due to the proficiency of the English long bowman and the development of gunpowder, the usefulness of breeding powerful war horses also declined. With the ushering in of a new era, the medieval war horse disappeared forever.

16 comments:

Hywela Lyn said...

As a horse lover and owner I really enjoyed this post Loretta. I'm a UK author and lucky enough to live near the Wychwood stud which provides horses and vehicles for films including mediaeval.

It's amazing how many different breeds and types of horses there are, and how they've evolved from prehistoric times!

Donna Hatch said...

I love horses and their role in history. I knew about the Destriers but not the others. That's fascinating. I have a hero in The Stranger She Married who's mad about horses and his is a Lipizzaner which would have been difficult and expensive during the Regency Era. I love the Friesians, too. They're so gorgeous. Thanks for the great post!

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Hywela, I'd love to visit Wychwood. It's interesting to know this farm provides horses for films. I live near Ocala farms in Florida and love to ride through the countryside, especially during foaling season. Thanks for sharing this interesting tidbit.

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Donna, I've had several opportunities to visit the Lipizzaner horse shows when they come to Florida. Magnificent animals. Thanks for dropping by.

Mary Ricksen said...

Yes, great post Loretta, I am a horse lover too.
But I have always had a liking for the large working horse. I had a friend who owned a Clydesdale, it was so affable that it let eight or better kids to ride him at the same time. He liked to jump. It was funny to see this huge, weighty, palomino, fly over small fences and lose four riders at a time. What fun.

Skhye said...

Wonderful post! In art history, the PhD from Rice University said she and other academics thought Roman emperors awfully tall because their feet dragged on the ground when they were mounted in statuary. Well in archaeological circles, the pony was the initial horse bred into draft "breeds" to transport the armored knight and then into those breeds we all love today. Okay, give or take here/there. But, the Art History PhD dubbed that the short horse theory! I thought you'd get a kick out of it. ;)

Joyce Moore said...

Loretta: Great post.I knew the destrier and palfrey from writing medieval history, but as you know, I always get you to check my horse scenes so I won't have them doing something stupid like leaving the saddle on when they're stabled(grin).

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Mary, love the Clydesdales. They are magnificent giants. We have a friend who owns a percheron named Fred. Fred is so tall they use a step-ladder to get on him. Thanks for posting.

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Your art PhD would have loved the story about the painting of Napleon who is shown astride a magnificent white stallion, when in fact, he was really riding a donkey. Thanks for sharing,Skhye

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Joyce, I was actually thinking of you when I chose this particular topic.

susan said...

Your article was quite interesting. We raised Welsh and Morgans. I never really thought about horses in the past eras. It was very educational. thanks for sharing. susan L.

Kathye Quick said...

Hi Loretta -

You just saved me some research. My knight is about to joust and now I know what kind of horse he should be riding.

TY

Lorelei Confer said...

Horse lover that I am Itruly enjoyed your post and especially all the information and research that went into it. It's a great post!!! Thanks so much!!

Journee* said...

Anyway you could cite where you found this information? Im curious to where you found all this.

nessa said...

Thank you so much for your article. Beeing a German, trying to read a medieval setting novel in English, I got completely lost with the different kinds of horses. Dictionaries were no big help with this. But you were!

Shawn Gaston said...

I’ve read that horses today have been bred from Clydesdales and Quarter horses to reproduce a type similar to that used by the Knight on Horse.