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.
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.