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warhorse-size-art – 7/12/09


"A Refutation of the Myth of the Giant Medieval Warhorse" by Mistress Siobhan ni Seaghdha, OP


NOTE: See also the files: horses-msg, saddles-msg, Horse-n-t-MA-art, horse-racing-msg, horses-bib, horse-recipes-msg, carts-msg, travel-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



A Refutation of the Myth of the Giant Medieval Warhorse

by Mistress Siobhan ni Seaghdha, OP


The education system perpetuates a number of myths about the middle ages.  Among them are that women had no rights, armor was incredibly heavy, men averaged 5'6' in height and all warhorses were huge – in excess of 17 hands.  


Research into the breeding and use of medieval horses, and the warhorse in particular, would indicate that horses in excess of 17 hands, while extent, were not common.


The most significant problem encountered when attempting to determine size is that frequently records say "a large black mare" with no other descriptors.  Large is such a tenuous term.  If I own Shetland ponies, a 15 hand Arab might seem large but if I own thoroughbreds, the Arab might seem small.  The first use of the term "great horse", according to Davis (pg 88), is in an edict from Edward I in 1252 in which he decrees that anyone with land worth a value of L30 should keep a great horse (and its armor) ready for war.  Again, 'great horse' does not tell use the actual size of this type of horse.


Often, it is assumed that earlier period warhorses were smaller, around 11 or 12 hands and that later period horses were larger, around 18 hands.  Fifth century Sarmatian burial sites yield horse skeletons of up to 15 hands in height (Equis, pg 22).  Bones of horses found in a Roman fort in Scotland (Equis, pg 25) were from horses from 11 to nearly 15 hands.  The 1st century Chinese considered any horse over 13 hands to be large and so carefully recorded the importation of the Farghana horses whose average height was 16 hands (Gladitz, pg 107-8).  Clearly horses of modern size existed in antiquity.


On the other hand, Gladitz reports that 13th Century Mongolian burial sites (pg 90) have produced bones of numerous horses averaging 12-13 hands with one bone from a horse of 15-16 hands. Bones from Germanic horses of the 9th century averaged 13 –14 hands (pg 131) and in 'medieval' Russia, 13 hands (pg 135).   Small horses were clearly common in later periods.


Horseshoe size can tell us something about the size of a horse, if not its shape or use.   Hyland (Warhorse, pg 86) examined Norman horseshoes from Hastings located in the Museum of London.  The average width was 4 1/2 inches.  She compared them to modern shoes used on a stocky 15.1 hand mare and discovered that one set fit exactly and most of the others were a close match.  Davis (pg 77-8) also examined horseshoes.  The shoes from England in the 9th century averaged 3 7/8 inches.  Ones from the late 11th century averaged 4 inches wide and those from the late 14th century averaged 4 3/8 inches wide.  It may be assumed that average horse size from the 9th to the 14th centuries (at least in these geographical areas) was perhaps 14 to 15 hands.  I personally own a shoe dated in the late 15th century from Germany which is 3 7/8 inches in width – again, there is no way to determine what the horse was used for.


Horses were called by usage and area, not by breed names. A rouncey is a riding horse, a destrier is a war horse.  A Spanish horse, in period, is a horse from Spain, regardless of its particular size or shape.  A great horse is a large (by comparison) horse, not a breed.


In the middle 1500s, King Henry VIII promoted 3 acts of Parliament to increase the number of horses available for military use (Davis, pp108-109).  The first, in 1535, decreed that every owner of an enclosed park (area for animals) should keep 2 mares, able to foal, who stood at least 13 hand high.  The second Act, in 1540, decreed that certain shires and districts were required to place stallions of no less than 15 hands in with free-roaming mares.  The term 'shire horse' for a large, heavy horse came into being with this Act.  The last Act, in 1541-2, decreed that persons of certain social statuses had to maintain at least 7 riding horses of at least 14 hands each.


In several of her books, Ann Hyland remarks on the fitting of bardings (horse armor).  She had the opportunity to try some extent examples on a variety of horses, from drafts to her 14.2 hand Arab mare.  The armor fit best on her stocky mare (The Warhorse, pgs 9-10). In addition, she notes that the Royal Armories at Leeds, England, use a 15.2 hand Lithuanian draft mare as the model for making statues for their displays of horse armor


Using the records of measurements of ships and barges used for horse transport, Ms Hyland (Warhorse, pp 145-6) estimated that the average war horse of the early 13th century would have been approximately 15 to 15.2 hands and fairly stocky.


While much research, especially in burial sites and war fields, remains to be done, it seems clear that the common existence of a huge draft-style horse for use in war during the middle ages is a myth.  Indeed, most modern draft horses average 15-16 hands.  Only the Clydesdale, Shire and Percheron tend to be  larger (17 hands or more). The Anglo Norman, Dole, Groningen, Kladruber, Frederiksborg, Ardennes, Dutch Heavy, Jutland, and many other modern drafts all average around 15 hands.


I end with a list of draft and heavy riding breeds (Horses and Ponies) extant in the middle ages and their current average heights. All of these breeds are 'stocky'.


Friesian – about 15 hands – may have been developed from horses brought with the Romans. Known to have been used as warhorses in our period.

Boulonnais – About 16.2 hands – may have been developed from horses brought by the Romans. French used in the Crusades. Prior to the 17th century, there existed a smaller type, about 15-15.2 hands, known as the 'fish cart horse' which was more prevalent.  It has since declined in popularity.

Schleswig –Also known as the Holsteiner (German) – 15.2-16 hands.  In existence since the 14th century and known to be used as a warhorse.



Davis, R.H.C., The Medieval Warhorse, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1989

Gladitz, Charles, Horsebreeding in the Medieval World, Four Courts Press, 1997

Hyland, Ann, The Warhorse: 1250-1600, Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1998

Hyland, Ann, The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades, Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1994

Hyland, Ann, Equis: the Horse in the Roman World, Yale University Press, 1990

Spector, Joanna, Horses and Ponies, Usbourne Publishing Ltd, 1979



Please feel free to copy and distribute to other SCA groups.  All I ask is that you credit me and let me know you are using it


Dianne Karp  diannekarp at rtci.net copyright 2003.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org