Mediaeval horses were small by today’s standards

Mediaeval horses were small by today’s standards partly because people were considerably smaller. They were no bigger than modern-day ponies. Researchers from a number of British universities analysed the bones of 1,964 horses dating from A.D. 300 to A.D. 1650. They found that the average height of a warhorse, known as a destrier, was 14.2 hands. This is about 4’9″ from the front hoof to the top of the withers as shown in the photograph below.

Medieval horses were small by today's standards
Medieval horses were small by today’s standards. Image: MikeB based on an image in the public domain.

In Roman Britain the average man stood at 5’5″. By Norman times he wasn’t much bigger at 5’7″. The soldiers in the Bayeux Tapestry would have been 5’7″ tall. Tudor men would have stood at 5’8″ which is less than the average height of men today.

Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry. Photo: Wikipedia (creative commons).

The tallest horse from the period of the Norman conquest was only 15 hands tall which is 5 feet to the withers. There was an explosion in the size of horses after the reign of Henry VIII. The King was upset by the quality of horses and in 1535 and 1540 he decreed that horses below a certain height should not be bred. Some smaller horses were destroyed. Stallions had to be 15 hands tall and mares had to be 13 hands tall (4’4″).

Through selective breeding thereafter we ended up with the massive Shire horses of today. Gunpowder actually prevented the use of horses in battle therefore they were used in agriculture pulling tremendous weights. This is where the large horse came into its own.

The image that we have of large horses in battle as portrayed in many films is probably misleading. The English cavalryman of the era were on horses there were little bigger than modern-day ponies.

Professor Alan Outram, of the University of Exeter, said: “High mediaeval destriers may have been relatively large for the time. But were clearly still much smaller than we might expect for equivalent functions today.”

Horses that we consider to be average in size today were exceedingly rare even in Royal stables in mediaeval times.

Source: The Times – thanks.

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Post Category: Horses