What Were the Best Medieval War Horse Breeds?
If you’ve ever ridden a horse, the idea of fighting for your life while in the saddle may seem like something out of a fairy tale. And while many fairy tales do include a knight and a horse of some sort, the reality is even more amazing. Before the invention of drones and tanks, wars were fought in combat, and that combat was often on the back of a noble steed.
What breeds of horses were ridden in medieval wars? In no particular order, ten of the most commonly used war horse breeds in medieval times were:
- Mongolian Horse
War horses needed to be fearless, large enough to carry a knight, and agile. They needed to have plenty of endurance and also be intelligent enough to react appropriately when a rider was unable to give directions. The following horses had all of these traits, and then some. Read on for more information on these beasts of war!
Medieval War Horse #1: The Friesian
Known for its solid black coat and its long, luxurious mane and tail, the Friesian is what often comes to mind when picturing the quintessential war horse. On average, these horses measure 15.3 – 16 hh and have a heavier build than a normal light horse. Many horses that are large enough to carry a knight in full armor were too slow and docile to make an effective combat horse. Yet horses known for their agility and speed were often too light and skittish for the needs of a soldier. The Friesian is a beautiful combination of strength, speed, courage, and agility. They are strong enough to carry a knight on their backs, they’re athletic enough to follow through quick maneuvers, and they are just spirited enough to face down the enemy without fear.
Friesians originated from the Netherlands, and their direct ancestors were famously used as mounts for knights in battle. Images of these horses appear as far back as the 11th century, and it is believed that William the Conquerer’s mount was a Friesian. The Friesian horse dwindled in numbers as war strategies evolved until it had nearly gone extinct in the 1800s. The breed began to regain popularity in the early 1900s and is a popular breed to find today both under saddle and in the harness. Because of their strength and graceful movements, Friesians are especially popular in the sport of dressage.
To learn more about the Friesian horse breed, visit my article Friesian Horse Breed Guide: Facts, History, & Colors.
Medieval War Horse #2: The Andalusian
The Andalusian is another strong, yet graceful horse known for its abilities in war. These horses mature to an average height of 15.1-15.2 hh, have a thick mane and tail, and a powerful build. They are known to be generally good-natured and intelligent, making them easy to train. Andalusians can be found in many colors, but 80% of the Andalusians in the United States will be found with a gray coat.
Andalusians are direct descendants of the Iberian horses of Spain and Portugal. They were prized by nobility and breeding records date back to the 13th century by the Carthusian monks. Their intelligence and their ability to bear weight allowed them to quickly gain popularity as cavalry horses, and in 1667, the Duke of Newcastle William Cavendish called them both “the princes of the horse world” and “unnervingly intelligent”. They continue to use their brains and their agility today in a variety of sports and events.
Medieval War Horse #3: Mongolian Horse
The Mongolian Horse is native to Mongolia and has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. Unlike the others on this list, Mongolian Horses are actually ponies, reaching an average of 12 to 14 hh and only 500-600 pounds. Though their stature is small, they are stocky and able to carry a heavy load. They are stout and hardy, able to survive cold winters on scarce resources.
These horses are well-known for their role in the 13th Century Mongolian conquests, used by Genghis Khan. Each soldier possessed a small herd of Mongolian horses to use as transportation, hauling of supplies, and even as a food source – soldiers often preferred to ride lactating mares so that they could survive on the horse’s milk.
Medieval War Horse #4: Shire
Shires are large, powerful, and docile draft horses. They average 17.2 hh and weigh around 2,000 pounds. They are most often found in black, bay, brown, or gray, and mares may be found in roan. They are immensely strong, and there are records stating that a pair of Shires once pulled 50 tons!
Also known as the English Great Horse, Shires were favored by Henry VIII, who increased the size of the horse over time as he outlawed the breeding of any Shire under 15hh. They were commonly used in cavalry until the increasing role of gunpowder called for a decrease in the use of heavy war horses.
Medieval War Horse #5: Arabian
With its high-set tail and concave (or “dished”) profile, the Arabian is one of the most easily-recognized horse breeds in the world. These horses are smaller and lighter than some of the other horses in this list, standing between 14.1 and 15.1 hh on average. Though petite in appearance, Arabians have greater density in their bones than other horses, allowing them to carry relatively heavy loads.
Arabians are known to be friendly and trainable, yet spirited and alert. This combination led to their popularity as “fiery war horses” in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. They gained popularity as athletic light cavalry horses as the use of heavy war horses began to see a decline. Their strength, agility, and fiery personalities allowed them to be used throughout the Middle Ages in the Middle Eastern countries, Europe, and the Ottoman Empire.
Medieval War Horse #6: Marwari
Originating in the Marwar region of India, the Marwari is easy to recognize with its ears that curve inward, almost touching one another. Marwaris are slighter in build and shorter than the larger war horses seen in this list – they average between 13.3 and 14.3 hh.
Marwaris were used as early as the 12th century in the cavalry of the Rathores. In fact, the Marwaris were crucial to the survival of the Rathores after they were forced from their kingdom in 1193. These horses were bred very carefully and were only used by members of the royal family and those in the military – in fact, Marwari horses were considered to be divine beings in the region. After India fell under Great Britain’s rule, the Marwari fell in popularity, replaced by thoroughbreds and polo ponies. The Marwari continues to be a rare horse worldwide, with most stock living in India.
Medieval War Horse #7: Percheron
Originating from France, the Percheron is a large draft horse that stands between 16.2 and 17.3 hh and weighs an average of 1,900 pounds. Percherons are generally considered to be both intelligent and strong. They are most commonly found in either black or gray coloring.
Little is known of the Percheron’s history, but there are drawings from the Middle Ages showing French knights atop gray horses. These ancestors of the modern Percheron were smaller, at 15-16 hh, and more agile. This would have given them the athleticism required to carry through quick maneuvers in war, and the strength required to carry a knight in full armor.
To learn more about Percherons, check out my article What is a Percheron Horse? Pictures & Fun Facts.
Medieval War Horse #8: Holsteiner
Holsteiners hail from a region of Northern Germany. They stand between 16 and 17 hh and have an impressive and athletic build. Holsteiners are known for their heavy, high-set necks and their powerful hindquarters.
As cavalry horses came into higher demand in the later Middle Ages, the Uetersen monks worked on developing a horse that was powerful enough to carry their soldiers but also possessed increased endurance and agility. These traits led to the Holsteiner becoming an effective war horse, and these same traits make the modern Holsteiner a powerful competitor in show jumping and dressage worldwide.
Medieval War Horse #9: Hanoverian
The Hanoverian is another warmblood originating from Germany, and like the Holsteiner, is known today for excelling in the most competitive of show rings. These horses stand 15.3-17.1 hh and have powerful and athletic builds.
The ancestors of the modern Hanoverian reach back to the early Middle Ages, in which they were used as mounts for knights and other soldiers. In the later Middle Ages, they were bred with heavier horses so that they could be considered for dual-purpose use – for agriculture as well as for cavalry.
Medieval War Horse #10: Oldenburg
The Oldenburg stands between 16 and 17.2 hh and, like the previous two horses, is now most often found in advanced equestrian sports, particularly in jumping and dressage. This horse dates back to the late Middle Ages, with the largest of the stallions being used as accomplished and strong war horses. The smaller of the stock was used for agriculture.
War Horses Of Old Are Still Using Their Strength Today
With most of the horses on this list, the traits that made these animals successful as medieval war mounts have also led to great success in modern equestrian sports – the strength of the hindquarters allows for success in show jumping, the high endurance allows for success in eventing, and the trainability allows for success in dressage. As the roles of ancient war horses have evolved, so too have their unique characteristics with the help of much selective breeding.
Have you ever wondered where horses originated from? To learn. more, check out my article Where Did Horses Originate From? What the Evidence Says.