Smoking nostrils, large chests covered with metal blankets, hooves uplifting clods of earth … In historical films, powerful, massive war horses impress with their impressive growth. But what would William Wallace’s famous speech in Braveheartif he was sitting on a pony? Or the Rohirrim’s famous attack Lord of the Rings ? The idea is ludicrous, but according to recent archeological research, the movie has given us an idea of war horses that is not true.
In the study “In Search of the “Extraordinary Horse”: A Zooarchaeological Evaluation of the Horses of England (AD 300-1650)”, published last December in the magazineInternational Journal of Osteoarchaeology, archaeologists and historians from the University of Exeter in England have analyzed almost 2,000 horse bones found at 171 sites in England. These bones, dated from the 4th to the 17th century, have been compared to those of 490 modern horses.
The researchers’ verdict is clear: Medieval warhorses, at least in England, were often just over 1.40 meters tall at the withers… compared to 1.70 meters in their modern descendants. However, according to the standards of the International Equestrian Federation, today a pony is considered a horse up to 1.48 m tall.
War horses or draft horses?
To distinguish war horses from draft or saddle horses, researchers relied on the size of horse bones, in particular “pathology of the spine for signs of riding or weight bearing and dental morphology as evidence of snaffle wear”. But “None of the size or strength of the bones of the limbs was enough to confidently identify war horses in the archaeological record,” tempers researcher Helen Benkert, one of the authors of the study. The task was further complicated by the fact that dead horses were systematically skinned and butchered, leaving several complete skeletons for observation. “Historical records do not provide specific criteria for defining a warhorse; it is likely that different types of horses were favored at different times throughout the medieval period to suit changing battlefield strategies and cultural preferences.”
Despite these difficulties in identifying the various types of horses, they generally remain small: the largest horse identified, found at Trowbridge Castle in the west of England, measured just over 1.50 meters at the withers, about the size of a modern small horse. . Only at the end of the medieval period, from about 1200 to 1350 AD, did horses exceed 1 m 60 cm tall appear. It was only in the 16th century that horses began to reach a height at the withers of about 1 m 70 cm, which is more consistent with what we know today .
Even at the height of the royal stud farms of England, between the 13th and 14th centuries, large horses were rare, despite the intensive breeding in which huge resources were invested. “Medieval high horses could be relatively tall for their time.explains Professor Alan Outram, but they were clearly much smaller than would be expected from equivalent features today. Selection and breeding methods at the royal studs may have focused both on temperament and physical characteristics suitable for war, and on overall size.
It is clear that the breeders sought to have not so much large horses as horses that were easy to handle, that had a calm temperament in battle and had a variety of abilities: if we often imagine horses as horses that were sent to the front, they could also be used by archers or to transport equipment. Thus, smaller, lighter horses would make certain maneuvers easier to perform.
“The ideal physique would be a relatively short hindquarters with powerful hind limbs and strong bones and ligaments that allow [aux chevaux] quickly gather and stop after running at full speed”, say the researchers. Strength and endurance were preferred for tournaments, as well as for long military campaigns, during which horses had to travel long distances.
Further research is needed to complete their findings, according to the authors of the study. To do this, they are already planning to focus on the armor of war horses, which should give a good idea of the dimensions of the horses of that time, and study their DNA in order to better understand the possible impact that the introduction of European horses into English herds could have had.