Well, well, well…horse sizes.

  • That's a weirdly interesting subject. 

    Wargames Atlantic posted an interview a couple months ago with the sculptor for their upcoming Chinese Warring States Cavalry, which included an equally fascinating discussion on what the Chinese war horses of the period would have been like.

    The way that working and war horses have changed through history and from one part of the world to another is something I'd never given a second thought to, but it turns out it's full of fascinating investigation with lots of surprising plot twists!

  • Very interesting.

    I would be interested in the further results of the study as they look at/measure preserved horse armor.  

    I wonder if you could do living history archeology or whatever they call it?  What's the smallest horse that can semi-capably move horse armor, a fighting man, plate armor, and weapons?  

    It would be baffling if with all that effort going into breeding the best warhorses they could they didn't breed big horses.  

    In the Napoleonic wars it's recorded that heavy cavalry was far more effective in close combat than light cavalry partially due to bigger men, weapons, and armor, but mostly due to f*** big horses.  Big horses intimidate and barrel over smaller horses and men.  I can only guess that this benefit of bigger horses was true and known in medieval times as well.

    I'm well aware there are huge trade offs for big horses.  But really when your main battle winning method is shock armored heavy cavalry charge accept no substitute.

    Perhaps it's just a matter of ratios.  For every prime big knightly warhorse in medieval times there's going to be literally 100s (1,000s?) of scout, run about, transport, farm, etc. horses.  If an archaeologist was trying to discern something about vehicles in 2020 two thousand years from now just based off the wrecks in the ground he might conclude there were no tanks in 2020.  There are millions of cars and trucks on the road and thousands of tanks right now.  What would the hypothetical archaeologist find in the ground?

  • That is interesting, still I think for modelling purposes we can take some artistic freedom.

    But a Wargames Atlantic Warpony/realistic-Horse  Sprue could be fun :D

  • Artistic freedom and practicality all the way:  seems to me the best way to get the most bang-per-buck out of expensive sculpting and tooling and manufacture and so on would be to focus on some one-size-fits-good-enough horses that can work with a variety of different projects, at the expense of a little accuracy that only the sharpest-eyed gamers would appreciate!


    For the horse breeding, I'm not an expert, take it with a grain of salt, but I take it it's interestingly complicated.  I just got done researching Irish cavalry for the question on Dark Ages Irish Cavalry and it seems that there are lots of little plot twists that go into this sort of thing.

    For example, Vikings didn't do much raiding with their own horses:  it's difficult to transport proper war horses, they eat a lot of food, require a lot of maintenance and exercise.  They don't fare very well in the wild.  Viking horses were smaller horses that handled themselves relatively well in the wild, able to live off of wild vegetation in the scandanavian landscapes.  You could turn these horses loose in, say, Dark Ages iceland to roam free, and count on having a good population of wild horses to eat if things get tough.  These were great horses for what they were, but they were not a good match for proper war horses, and proper war horses were difficult to keep in Scandinavia, and even more difficult to transport on viking ships for raids.  So, viking raids would leave the horses, but bring skilled horsemen who would steal good horses locally and use the local horses for raiding.

    It seems that these hardy Scandinavian horses made their way across the Americas, where they thrived reasonably well in the wild and in rough countryside with low maintenance, later mixing with more recently imported Arabian stock to become the familiar American mustangs and an important part of Native American and wild western culture.  Larger horses used by American soldiers might have been bigger, stronger, and tougher, but required a lot of infrastructure to support for US military usage!

    The large, powerful Spanish war horses were not very commonly used in Spain's early conquests in the Americas, because it was fabulously difficult and expensive to transport those horses from Europe to the Americas... the Spanish had to move a handful to cuba, and raise them locally, before moving them elsewhere in America for widespread use in any significant numbers.  Smaller, more self-sufficient horses might have been much more practical and affordable for the conquest of the Americas!

    Much the same thing for Mongol horses:  small, light, compact, low-maintenance horses which could be left roaming free to use as wild food when times were lean, and those Mongol horses could do a lot of traveling on a little food.  Not much use against larger war horses, maybe, but the Mongols fought entirely different sorts of wars than European knights!

    The famous Arabian horses weren't very popular in Arabia, where warfare was more traditionally on foot or on camel, until Mohammed ordered his men to keep horses for war, the Arabs took Iran, which had a culture of producing some fantastic, large, strong, and fast horses.  These Arabian horses would support the spread of Islam across the world, but in fact, the Arabians were fairly high-maintenance horses, with a significant expense involved in feeding the horses.  The Arabs might well have found their lives and conquests a little easier had they adopted the Mongols' horses instead, which seemed to be rather well suited for life in Arabian deserts....

    As for the Irish cavalry, it seems that Ireland's local population of horses were rather small horses, and the horses that were imported to Ireland during the Roman era were small, light, fast sporting horses.  These horses would become the Irish hobby horse, which was poorly suited for combat on continental European soil against European knights, but, being lighter, faster, more agile animals, were excellently well-suited for combat in boggy Irish and Scottish woodlands, where Irish and scottish light cavalry would ride these lightly-armored horses in quick raids and skirmishes against each other.  Knights on warhorses would it difficult to effectively and safely ride those horses inthe rugged Irish and Scottish countryside, and there wasn't a lot of food to support those warhorses cheaply, so the hobby horse would hold an advantage in Ireland against warhorses, supporting a light infantry at first, which would adopted by the English when they realized the advantages, and eventually evolve into mounted longbowmen who really enjoyed an advantage over heavy knights in English warfare!

    So, being even more clueless than the experts, I can only guess that many European military horses in the Dark Ages probably descended from the small and compact Mongol horse stock, being relatively easy for poorer knights to feed and care for.  Those Mongol horses were a sort of "it ain't broke, don't fix it" kind of thing:  if you could afford to feed the really big war horses, maybe you did so, but that was likely a rich man's game, much like big, heavy suits of armor!

    Incidentally, it seems that mounted knights had an interesting story as well:  conventional wisdom always held that mounted knights on warhorses replaced infantry because it was a superior technology whose time had come through advancements in breeding and tactics and so on, driving infantry into decline.  But, in reality, it seems that might not have been the case:  the Romans trained some of the world's finest infantry, who held their own quite well against cavalry, but when Rome fell, feudal Europe learned to distrust armed and trained serf infantry, and so weapons were confiscated, and training withheld, and skilled infantry became a historical relic, as heavily-armored and well-trained mounted cavalry took over the heavy lifting, leaving peasant conscript infantry to the job of absorbing horse charges.  England, Wales, Scotland, and ireland, however, had a very different culture from contienent:  after the fall of the Roman empire, the English in particular continued training infantry to something like the high standards of the Roman military, and English infantry would continue to be a rather powerful fighting force, which might ride their horses to war, but preferred to dismount to fight on foot, rather than in European-style cavalry warfare.

    That may well have been the case for much more of Europe than originally realized:  those smaller horses might not have been well-suited for the tasks of fighting like European mounted knights, but wherever European armies still fielded well-trained infantry, those smaller horses may have been more than enough to get the soldiers where they needed to go, so that they could dismount and fight like proper Romans in a post-Roman world.  That those smaller, more self-sufficient horses also didn't cost a king's ransom to feed, exercise, train, and house could only have been a benefit on top of all that!  From there, it was just a matter of whether a solid, well-trained, well-disciplined "middle-class" infantry force could stand up to a smaller and more expensive but powerful and elite heavy cavalry force backed up by a demoralized and poorly-armed peasant rabble.... 

    That seems to have been a tough call, until the English yeoman infantry demonstrated the deadly effectiveness of well-trained archers against European knights, and the adoption of infantry armed with guns drove the final nails into the coffin of the European heavy knights.

    Which isn't to say that heavy cavalry went obsolete with the knights, but it is to say that the story of heavy cavalry would take some interesting twists and turns through history, and not all of them an obvious win for those big horses!

  • Didnt expect to read about horsebreeding today, but now I did and glad about it.

    I find the bit about the socio economic reasons for the demise of well trained infantry on the continent particularly interesting. Too add a little more recent historical info: Horsebreeding was very important militarily well into the 20th century. In ww2 the Germans not only had a detailed System of 8 different categories/breeds for everything from artillery to paradehorses. They also suffered heavily in their logistics because they didnt have the hardy russian breeds that could feed off the land and withstand the harsh climate   

  • @Yronimos Whateley "It seems that these hardy Scandinavian horses made their way across the Americas, where they thrived reasonably well in the wild and in rough countryside with low maintenance,"

    If you read this somewhere, you read someone's revisionist history page. Because there is no archeological or paleontological evidence for horses in the Americas before the Spanish colonization. (With the last native NA species vanishing at the end of the ice age)

    The Vinland settlements were Greenlanders, and Greenland had little to no horses present. We know from the sagas that some cows and goats got brought over (for their milk) but no mention is made of horses, and the archeological sites of the Norse settlements in NA show no signs of horses either.

    Sadly there are a number of psuedo-historians who confuse the paleontological evidence for equine evolution occuring largely in NA before the ice age, with the idea that the native Americans had horses before the Spanish arrival. Pretty much every claim they have made has been shown to be either misidentified (pictoglyphs of deer for example being claimed to show horses) or attributed the wrong age, or outright fabrications.

  • @Mithril2098 Oh, it gets better, from what I recall some paleontologist think the "paleontological evidence for equine evolution in pre Ice Age NA" is actually just a misbuild of giant rodent skeletons. 

  • @Brian Van De Walker which is pretty much rejected by anyone who actually looks at the evidence given the rather extensive sampling and the fairly complete evolutionary history we have, able to identify distinctive equine features in the NA species and how they developed.

  • And sometimes what we think of as horse weren't




  • Larger horse breeds are generally more recent. An easy way to look at early horse breeds isn't by looking at armour (relatively few horses were armoured) but look at horseshoes. Large horses generally have bigger feet. There is little difference in size for horseshoes from Roman to medieval finds, and many early horses would probably be considered now as ponies. Henry VIII issued a statute calling for stallions under 14hands to not be used for breeding. Check out Mike Loades for details about early horses.

  • @JTam Oddly enough, when I started wargaming, Minifigs produced 2 sizes of horse for Napoleonics, for light cavalry or heavy cavalry, the heavies were noticeably bigger and the lights tended to be a bit more animated.

  • TL: DR – Nothing really changed in my eyes…

    So I read the scientific article and haven't read any of the news articles on the subject. The paper studied 1964 horses from the Late Roman period up to the Post-Medieval period, the horses were found on 171 sites. The article does say warhorses were smaller than in “popular perception”. Not 17 and 18hh but maximumly 15 to 16hh, which would have been tall for a Medieval person. But it does not explicitly state that the warhorses of the Medieval period were ponies.

    A large part of the discussion goes on about the difficulties of the research on (Medieval) warhorses. How it is difficult to determine the activity of a horse from a full skeleton and more research is necessary to determine the activity of horses through measuring of bones. It also notes that most specimens that have been used for this paper were single bones (depending on the bone, a bone can say a lot. If you have a bunch of front legs (metacarpus) of B.tauros, you can determine for example which are bulls, cows and oxen).

    It also discusses the context. When you find a horse in a military context, like a castle, it does not necessarily mean that the horse in question is a warhorse. There is only one mass grave with horses associated with a battlefield in England. It contained dismembered horses, which is not odd for the Medieval period as horses, even warhorses, were post-mortem processed for valuable goods. (I am familiar with horse burials of the Merovingian period, but these were normal cemeteries).

    The article also mentions how warhorses would only form a small selection of horses in the Medieval period.

    (Ameen et al. 2021, p.1250, fig.2)

    Ameen, Carly, et al. "In search of the ‘great horse’: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300–1650)." International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 31.6 (2021): 1247-1257.


    So with that out of the way, what is my interpretation. For starters, what is the big deal? In my eyes, it is more a confirmation of expectation. Medieval warhorses were smaller than modern-day horses.

    Because the research mostly looked at induvial bones, rather than individual animals, I wonder about the estimated individuals overall. To me, it seems the actual number of individuals could be lower than the 1964 specimen but that’s the challenge with zooarchaeology. Thoughts there are some methods to give a suggestion it was not discussed here. It did discuss however the possibility of some misidentifying with donkeys, mules and hinnies.

    It should also be noted that the sites came all from the UK, mostly from South and central England. Thus it does not have to reflect the regions on the continent. Consider cultural and biological influences.

    It could also be interesting to measure surviving horse armour, as by definition it would tell us something about warhorses.


    Regardless I recommend everyone to read the scientific article for themselves and draw up their own conclusions. The article should be freely accessible through Google Scholar.

  • @Yronimos Whateley 

    @Yronimos Whateley  

    Regarding mounted knights and trained infantry. The knight arose from the ritter, which was German cavalrymen that were the response against nomadic raids from a people in Hungary. It had nothing to do with distrusting infantry or serfs but with economics. Kings in the early Medieval period could not finance well-trained infantry as the Romans did, rather they gave land in loan to individuals who would be retained as warriors. The land, with accompanying serfs, would provide the warrior with food and income so they could devote their time to training. In return, the warrior would provide military service to their king or lord. Eventually, these warriors became hereditary warriors and their children or eldest (male) child would inherit fief(s). And regarding nomadic incursions, it is said that Eastern Europe kept a cavalry centred doctrine while Western Europe began to rely more on infantry, this was because of their proximity to nomadic societies that would often launch raids. It was simply quicker to assemble a group of horsemen to counter the nomads.


    The only real disarmament of peasantry I know was the sword hunt from Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the late 16th century of Japan. I know from some instances that people were required to have arms, and even that people would be fined if they didn’t have arms or if those arms didn’t follow the requirements. Thoughts laws would certainly be different in time and place.


    The suggestion that European warhorses would descendant from Mongol horses is new to me. Thoughts in regards to aDNA on horses I am more familiar with the potential origin of the domestic horse.


    I cannot exactly cite sources as this is more passively gathered information or learned during lectures but probably can conjure something up. On the topic of horses, I have only really studied the origin of the horse and Japanese horses.


  • I've only been casually scanning the info I've run into, and thought maybe I was remembering bits wrong, but I do recall one of the sources I looked at referring to claims by natives that the horses "had always been here".

    Meanwhile, older historians talking about the Irish horses seemed to be pretty solidly running on the understanding that they weren't "proper" cavalry and inferior to serious war horses, only for the English army to end up adopting irish-style light cavalry in the form of mounted archers anyway.

    Meanwhile, it seems that more modern understandings of the European heavy cavalry are beginning to change based on evidence suggesting that larger horses might not have been as common at the time as once thought....

    Part of the fun of the whole thing to me is seeing all the different ways that historians reach different conclusions based on their own expectations and notions, kind of like that parable of the blind men and the elephant.

    If I seem to be implying I'm a historian, geneticist, or expert, I'd better correct that misunderstanding right away: I'm just a guy who got curious about a subject that's totally new to me, one I've never given a second thought to.

    Based on what I'm seeing, with that in mind, the advantages to expensive, heavy, high-maintenance war horses needed to be weighed against the disadvantages, and it doesn't make sense to me that Dark Ages European climate, economy, breeding, and military history favored the use of that sort of horse, over smaller, more self-sufficient, more affordable horses.

    That reasonably seems more like a rich army's game, with a specific niche, comparable to, say, heavy tanks, battle ships, aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, and stealth aircraft:  those who can afford them, are going to field them, and make use of them under the most favorable conditions they can, but they're not necessarily a guarantee that they're as simple a miltary advantage as they might seem over, say, a few farmers backed by a third-world economy, a 40-year-old pickup truck or a coule mules, and some fairly simple, cheap, and easily-maintained RPGs and AK-47s.....

    All other things being different, I think armchair historians 500 years from now might think of typical warfare of our time as duels between space-age main battle tanks on open fields of battle supported by stealth fighters, smart bombs, satellite technology, night vision, and robots and artificial intelligence, where the subtler truth of 20th-21st century combat is that most of our age's fighting is being done without those technological and economic advantages:  in many cases, 21st-Century warfare looks like tribes of people beating or hacking each other to death with clubs and machetes, in between shooting each other with "obsolete" mid-20th Century Cold War leftovers....

    And that, I suspect, is surely the truth of the battlefields of Medieval Europe, too:  a French or Italian king here and there fielding heavy cavalry where they can, while most everyone else was reliant on technology that had mostely been working well enough since the ages of the Mongols or Romans, and their competitors under very different circumstances were just starting to discover or appreciate the advantages of seemingly unconventional technologies like the longbow or gunpowder.

    Much like the age of battleships, the age of heavily-armored knights on horseback would surely have been one confined to those who could afford that specific arms race, and one carrying a self-imposed limit on how long it could be sustained before someone figured out a better way to spend their limited military budgets of time, money, and resources on building it bigger, heavier, more expensive, and more obvious a target for something smarter, more flexible, and more cost-effective, all while life for most countries that couldn't afford battleships or their knigtly equivalents went on pretty much normally with "inferior" technologies....

    But, that's my assessment, as someone who barely even qualifies as an amateur, let alone an expert!

  • @Yronimos Whateley 

    Could you provide a bit more context as to where these native horses were or time period? It comes a bit out of the blue for me.

    I am not very familiar with Irish horses but the article of Armeen et al. did mention that what constituted a warhorse would differ in time and period, similarly to their role on the battlefield itself. And of course, you can have multiple types of (war)horses with each their own purpose within a military context.

    I don’t think that is very strange as warhorses, in general, would be only a fraction of the total population of horses.

    Well, the article also goes into this: “Yet, even with the immense volume of historical scholarship and contemporary written sources, there is no clear indication of what physical qualities were preferred in the ideal ‘warhorse’.” (Armeen et al. 2021, 1248)  and “Although it is realistic to assume that the majority of horse bones recovered from archaeological excavations are not from warhorses, there remains a lack of evidence for what types of morphology and conformation to expect from a warhorse, meaning that the positive identification of warhorses has remained elusive from a zooarchaeological perspective.” (loc. cit.). It would be bad scholarship if you base your conclusions on your own expectations. It is of course best if you look at the evidence from all sides, in this case, archaeology, DNA, art and historical sources.

    No worries, I did not make that assumption and even if you were it wouldn’t really matter, if it is counter to my understanding I want to know more or then judge for myself once all cards are on the table. It’s a discussion, a debate. 

    I was mostly speaking in broad brushstrokes and am mostly in the dark regarding the early medieval period. But the article did show that horses in these periods were smaller and it can very well to do have with economics but also preference in fighting styles. I believe that mounted cavalry mostly developed in the 8th century. 

    Agreed but that’s also why hereditary warriors emerged through either a feudal-like system (European knights, samurai) or through a state-sponsored system (Egyptian charioteers). But these were often augmented with either peasantry, mercenaries or trained troops. 

    I do disagree with these thoughts. Although it is possible, like how the popular expectation of the German army during ww2 was that it was superior over the British and French at the start of the war or that it was largely mechanized. WW2 historians themselves have a much more nuanced picture as they sometimes still have access to military manuals, accounts of soldiers, photos and film footage. Speaking of WW2 in a horse discussion, some three million horses were involved in the war. Historians in the future will have similar resources for them to use to make their analysis. I fear that in the future, the problem will be largely about how to deal with an overflow of information about this period. 

    Hmm, I think most European kingdoms could field heavily armoured knights, assuming they had a preference for that type of warfare. The number would fluctuate. I also believe that a feudal lord like a count could field heavily armoured knights in more regional conflicts but of course in fewer numbers. Technically the Mongols, as we know them, are from the 12th century. Although most step nomads lived pretty similar. The Huns and Mongols shared even their unit sizes based around the decimal system. Roman tactics and formations only really came in the late 16th century and early 17th century when people like prince Maurits of Orange and King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden were inspired by Roman sources. Medieval European warfare is more likely derived from Germanic peoples after the migration period. The Germanic people had, what modern historians call, herr und gevolgshaft. Basically, someone with wealth and power could draw to himself men by giving them a portion of that wealth (land, weapons, food and gold). In return, this gevolgshaft could help expand the power of the herr. This became eventually formalised in the feudal system. The herr became king, and the gevolgshaft feudal lords, feudal lords who in turn got their own gevolgshaft. 

    I do agree with the evolution of military technology, I don’t think the battleship analogy is a fair one. A nation-state purchased battleships. Well, the feudal kingdoms didn’t exactly purchase knights but rather depended on feudal obligation as knights could be called for military service for a number of months in a year. Of course, this meant that knights had to equip themselves, but that’s why they had been given land in the first place. It does mean that some knights, with more or better land, could afford better horses and equipment. I recall that Bertrand du Guesclin was an improvised nobleman of the lower nobility who could not afford to become a knight. Thoughts due to his efforts in the succession war of the Brittany and the greater hundred years war, he was knighted and employed by France. Rewarded with land and eventually rose to become the constable of France itself. (And after the Castilian civil war, he was to inherit a county of the new king of Castile and receive the kingdom of Granada where it recovered, mostly an empty gesture).

    Interesting read. I am no expert either, just someone with a very wide interest. Thoughts I am an archaeology student (focussed on North-western Europe and bioarchaeology (particularly botany and entomology) and raised by a family of horse/pony breeders but well, it doesn’t make my assessment any more true than yours is. Your guess is as good as mine!

  • The evolution of feudalism is alot more complex than the spread of traditional Germanic lord-follower relations; almost all of the big tent poles of what we would consider feudalism were already in place in the late Roman empire as people began ot leave the larger cities to life in the countryside and slavery an an industrial scale became less feasible. Likewise the entire late Roman period in the west is marked by the decline of strong central government in the absence of a strong ruler, with local strong men - sometimes Romans, sometimes not- dominating regions, using the force at thier command to generate the wealth needed to maintain the force that generates that wealth.

    It's no surprise that the Germanic kingdom that merged most successfully with the local Roman aristocracy, the Franks,  go on to be the most powerful western kingdom of early medieval period- the successfully adopted the proto feudal system that had begun to evolve in the late empire and made it thier own.

    Warfare however is a different question, and I think it has far less to do with any kind of inhereited traditions of warfare as much as an evolving response to what was needed in the battlefied, combined with the need for social prestige both at home and abroad. Certainly it's not like the Franks had any great tradition of cavalry, and yet the French Knight is now rather iconic.

  • @H M 

    True, I should have mentioned that. It could perhaps even be argued that the “seeds” of feudalism is older than the Late Roman period. With the patronus and cliens relationships of ancient Rome.

    Not only the Roman aristocracy. While the centralization of worldly power waned, the Church still remained in Gaul and the Franks made also use of their network and influence.  

  • Having read the original study (and not just the online articles that were just "warhorses smaller than ponies!!!"), it really does come down to a relatively small sample size of uncategorized horses. 

    The earlier periods covered mainly had horses used as a means of transport,  dismounting to fight, rather than truly impact cavalry - plus all the sizing issues need to be put in perspective of how the average human height has changed.

    I used to live in a 16th farmhouse and some doorways/ceilings were blo**dy small!

  • I snapped a picture at the local Renn Faire yesterday.  Here's photographic evidence to put the small horse argument to bed.

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