Medieval horses were no bigger than contemporary ponies, study suggests

But it seems that the horses from that era were actually pony sizes – much smaller than their modern descendants, according to largest study of horse bones to date.

“War Horse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture as both a symbol of status closely linked to the development of aristocratic identity and as a weapon of war famous for its mobility and shock value that changes the face of the struggle,” said Oliver Creighton, a archeology professor at the University of Exeter and lead investigator for the project, in a press release.

The study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, examined the size and shape of 1,964 English horse bones from between 300 AD and 1650 AD. found at 171 separate archeological sites. Researchers compared these bones with the bones of modern horses to understand how the animals changed over time.

On average, horses from the Saxon and Norman periods (from the 5th to the 12th century) were under 1.48 meters (4.9 feet) or 14 hands tall – ponies of modern size standards. A hand is 4 inches (10.2 centimeters) and the main unit for measuring the height of horses and ponies.

The analysis also revealed that horses shrank in size during the Norman period from Saxon times – although this was a time when the horse played a significant role in warfare: Nearly 200 horses was depicted throughout the Bayeux wallpaper, which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
The study examined nearly 2,000 horse bones.

The study suggested that horses with 16 and even 15 hands, common today, would have been seen as very large by medieval people.

Alan Outram, an archeology professor at the University of Exeter and a co-author of the study, said that medieval warhorses, such as destriers storming into battle, could have been relatively large for the time period. But they were clearly much smaller than we would expect for such tasks today.

“Selection and breeding practices in Royal studs may have focused as much on temperament and the correct physical characteristics of warfare as they did on raw size,” he said in the statement.

In the Middle Ages, horses had different combat purposes and may have been bred with these tasks in mind, the study said. Destriere, which may also have been intended for exhibition or tournaments as well as charging, were higher, with lesser horses known as rouncies and trotters needed to travel long distances during prepared military campaigns.

Horses have been used in war for thousands of years and are still used today. US special forces forces used horses in Afghanistan as late as 2001.

The study also noted that medieval archeological sites often have fewer horse bones compared to earlier Roman and Iron Age sites. This is probably due to the fact that medieval horse bodies were often treated differently from other animals in tanneries, where skins are refined into leather, and knacker’s courtyards – where old animals are sold for meat.

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