The Writer’s Guide to Types of Medieval Horses

People during the Middle Ages thought of horses differently than we do. Today horses are defined mainly by their breed, which indicates the common size, conformation, and types of work or sport they are best suited to. For example, if I am told a horse is a Thoroughbred, I expect it to be tall, leggy, athletic, and fast.

However, during the Middle Ages horses were usually characterized by their use and if a medieval equestrian were to look at our modern horses, they would probably start putting them into these categories.

Rouncey or Rounsey

An all-round general-purpose horse used for transport and war. Since they were not expensive, they were used by squires, men-at-arms, and poorer knights. At times they were used as pack horses but never as cart horses. [1] They were considered fast and agile. In 1327 in England, when a summons to war was sent out rounceys were specifically requested for swift pursuit. [2]

Hobby

Yes, they are not just a children’s toy. Hobby horses were lightweight mounts that were popular for skirmishing and often ridden by light cavalry known as Hobelars. They were developed in Ireland from Spanish or Barb stock and were used by both sides during the Wars of Scottish Independence. During the war, Edward I of England tried to prevent exports of the horses from Ireland to Scotland. Robert the Bruce used them for his guerilla warfare and mounted raids, covering up to 60-70 miles (97-113 km) in a day! [3]

Palfrey

A palfrey was a better-quality mount than a rouncey or a hobby horse, usually taller and finer-boned. A well-bred one could cost as much as a destrier. They were fashionable for riding and hunting with wealthier knights and nobles, especially since their ambling gait allowed them to smoothly cover long distances in relative comfort. [4] Palfreys were a popular choice for ladies because of their calm and dependable temperaments. [5]

A lady riding a palfrey and using an early side saddle.
Mai, Breviarium Grimani by Gerard Horenbout. Photo source.

Jennet

Another type of riding horse commonly used by ladies, but usually not as nice as a palfrey. They were bred in Spain from Arabian and Barb stock. [6]

Charger

Chargers, also known as coursers, were strong, fast, and light. [7] They were preferred for hunting and battle. [8] They were an economy option, quality but not top of the line.

Destrier

The destrier was the most valued medieval horse type and were renowned for their capabilities in warfare and the joust. They were well trained, tall, majestic, and strong and were always stallions because of their extra musculature and aggressiveness. They are referred to as “great horses” in contemporary sources. They were highly desired and prized by wealthy knights and the nobility although they were not common due to their cost. [9] The modern breeds that come the closest to the medieval destrier are Friesians and Andalusians. They were usually trained in special combat maneuvers such as the capriole, in which the horse leaps off the ground and kicks out with its back legs. Here is video of the horses and riders of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna performing some of these advanced maneuvers.

Writer’s Tip: I would love to read a book with a destrier using his combat training in a battle scene.

A 15th century painting showing several powerfully built war horses.
La batalla de San Romano by Paolo Uccello. Photo source.

Draft Horses

Draft horses, also known as affers and stotts in medieval English records, were used for plowing and pulling heavy loads because of their size and strength. Basically, they were the tractors and semi-trucks of their day. They were faster and more efficient than oxen, especially with the advent of the horse collar and horseshoes. Their common use in agriculture and heavy transport continued until the tractor and automobile began to replace them. [10]

Work Horses

A variety of working horses existed during the Middle Ages including cart horses, pack horses (also known as sumpters), and common riding horses such as hackneys, which could be used as pack horses. Generally, these horses were smaller than drafts, about 13-14 hands (52-56 in, 132-142 cms) but could pull weights up to 600 pounds (270 kg). [11]

This is a good video to show you the modern equivalent to these medieval types of horses.


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Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] Hyland (1998), p. 222. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-22
 [2] Prestwich, p. 318. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-21
 [3] Hyland (1998), pp. 32, 14, 37. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-24
 [4] Bennett (1998). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-Bennett_(1998)_4-1
 [5] Oakeshott (1998), p. 14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-Oakeshott14_23-1
 [6] Bennett, Deb (2004) "The Spanish Mustang: The Origin and Relationships of the Mustang, Barb, and Arabian Horse" Archived 6 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine. Frank Hopkins. Retrieved 2008-08-14.
 [7] Oakeshott (1998), p. 11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-Oakeshott11_17-2
 [8] Hyland (1998), p. 221. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-19
 [9] Prestwich, p. 30. Gravett, p. 59. Eustach Deschamps, 1360, quoted by Oakeshott (1998), p. 11. Oakeshott (1998), p. 11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horses_in_the_Middle_Ages#cite_ref-Oakeshott11_17-1
 [10] Claridge, Jordan (June 2017). "The role of demesnes in the trade of agricultural horses in late medieval England" (PDF). Agricultural History Review. 65 (1): 5. Dyer Making a Living p. 129.
 [11] Clark, pp. 27-28 

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