Crusaders and their little horses

New evidence suggests that crusaders rode horses that were the size of modern ponies. Forget that mental image of a knight on a mighty steed. It seems that even the Knights Templar may have ridden warhorses that were less than impressive.

This devastating new perspective on the Middle Ages comes from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. I’ll freely confess I’m not a fully paid-up subscriber. But this article certainly had me reading. Because if we review the equine remains from archaeological sites, then we’re looking at horses that were about 14.2 hands in height. Ponies today range from 14 to 14.3 hands. So you get the picture.

Our large horses today reach 17 to 18 hands. But it’s a mistake to transpose a crusader on to these animals because more than likely, that doesn’t reflect the historical reality. Rather a crusader was at risk of his feet dragging on the ground. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.

DISCOVER: Templar armour explained

Our image of crusaders and horses

Horses were central to medieval warfare and were trained for military combat purposes. About two hundred horses appear in the Bayeux Tapestry. But what we don’t get from these images are the physical attributes of horses at that time. And where they were larger than average – the destrier for example – then their use may have been more in tournaments and for display than in military campaigns. The more robust rouncies and trotters would have featured in the armies of the crusaders.

It’s actually been harder to get an accurate picture of medieval horses than for the earlier Iron Age – where they might feature in a grave. A dead medieval horse was normally destined for the tannery and the knacker’s yard. However, a better idea on size is emerging.

Saxon horses were titchy

Essentially in the late Roman, Saxon and Norman periods – horses are pony-sized. In fact, they get smaller in England in the period leading up to the Norman conquest in 1066. For some reason, horse breeding went through a dismal spell under Aethelered II (978-1016 AD) and the Viking rulers of England in the 11th century didn’t prioritise stud farms.

Horses got a big bigger from 1200 to 1350 AD but it really takes until the post-medieval period – 1500 to 1650 AD – for horse size to begin increasing significantly. Until we get to the size of animal we’re used to seeing today. This research is by no means conclusive and the search for a great horse ridden by crusaders continues. The remains most likely to be found in a medieval tannery and not a battlefield.

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