The most identifiable symbol of warfare in the European Middle Ages (c.500-c.1500 CE) is that of the mounted knight, and the foundation of that medieval heavy cavalry was the warhorse itself. The horse had to be a warrior in its own right, capable of entering the chaos of battle at a charge without panicking at the sounds and smells of warfare.  It needed to be strong enough to carry a fully armored man into the fray and fierce enough to take an aggressive part in the battle. Such horses were difficult to find, and they did not occur naturally, but from a process of selective breeding and training that developed over hundreds of years and was informed by many cultures in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, eventually resulting in the famous and relatively rare destrier or magnus equus (“great horse”) ridden by heavily armored knights at tournament and in war. 

During the Classical Period (c.1000 BCE-c.500 CE), Greek and Roman horse breeders specially bred horses for entertainment and warfare.  Horse riding was introduced into the Greek Olympic games as early as 648 BCE, and Greek friezes indicate the existence of large and lighter breeds characteristic of Eurasian stock. In fact, Alexander the Great's (r.336-323 BCE) own horse, Bucephalus, which died in India at the age of thirty, was almost certainly of Bactrian descent from a unified region in what is today Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The popular Roman spectacle of chariot racing required a special breed from the North African province of Numidia, while Roman cavalry mounts were usually acquired from within the Empire itself, with auxiliary units riding their own indigenous horses from provinces like Gaul, Germania, Moesia, North Africa, Judea, and Syria, or traded for from regions as far away as lower Central Asia. But because a variety of horse breeds had reached the Mediterranean basin in the Classical era, it should not be thought that the supply of quality horses was assured. Generations of careful breeding for size, speed and controllability could be quickly lost if any stallion that was not specially selected covered a good mare. And if quality mares mated at will, the result could be disastrous.  In the late Roman and early medieval periods, the introduction of uncontrolled breeding in the newly barbarian-controlled regions and subsequent Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe destroyed hundreds of years of selected genetics, resulting in new breeds of horses.  A notable example was the introduction of the Hunnic mount, made famous by the “Scourge of God” himself Attila (r.434-453 CE), but present in Europe decades before his slash and burn expeditions across Central and Western Europe.  The fourth century Roman commentator Vegetius Publius Renatus made special mention of these ugly but serviceable mounts, comparing them to what he considered to be superior European breeds like the Thuringian, Burgundian, and Frisian horses procured by Roman cavalry in late antiquity (regions still famous for horse breeding, although these mounts were much different than their modern descendants). These smaller but sturdy Central Asian breeds were preferred by the invading waves of mounted barbarians (Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, and Mongols) coming from the Eurasian steppes because of their intelligence, even temperament, and willingness to endure wounds, cold, and hunger.

In the Early Medieval Western Europe (c.500-c.1000), most riding horses north of the Iberian Peninsula were what would now be considered "cold blooded" mounts, relatively heavy-boned, slow, and unresponsive to commands. Mounts of this period were of medium size (between fourteen and fifteen hands and 800 and 1000 lbs.) with no particularly distinguishing features. But horse breeding evolved throughout the entire medieval period, with stables in Catholic Europe interbreeding "hot blooded" breeds from the Spain and Islamic lands with western mounts.  This process was accelerated south of the Pyrenees Mountains due to a horse breeding tradition dating back to the Carthaginians and Romans that produced the remarkable Andalucian horse, and the influx of new breeds by way of Islam. The Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) caliphate’s expansion across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula in the seventh and eighth centuries brought the North African Barb and Arabian breeds into Moorish Spain, often purposely mixed to create a superior mount.  Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (c.1043-1099), known as El Cid (“the Lord”) in the Muslim world, and El Campeador (“Great Warrior”) to the Spanish, rode a white Andalusian stallion named Babieca (Spanish for “stupid”), one of the most famous warhorses in history.  Eventually, as Christian knights wore more armor, heavier horses supplanted the Andalusian mount, but would make a return with the introduction of firearms to cavalry.  Iberian breeds would make an impact beyond the peninsula. From the eleventh century onwards, Norman contacts with Spanish breeders (both Christian and Muslim) led to an influx of superior warhorses north of the Pyrenees. Even the Norman commander and future king of England, William the Conqueror (r.1066-1087) was known to have ridden at least one excellent Spanish horse in his victory over the Anglo-Saxons at the famous battle of Hastings in 1066. Norman contacts with Muslim breeders in Sicily and southern Italy also augmented their selection of warhorses.  

Farther east in the Byzantine Empire (330-1453), a strong cavalry tradition continued throughout the medieval era, one inherited from imperial Rome. For centuries, Rome contended with both the Parthian (247 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanid (224-651 CE) empires on its eastern frontier, with both Persian civilizations favoring armored heavy cavalry in the form of kataphraktoi (cataphracti) and even heavier klibanophoroi (clibanarii) that required Roman emulation through the adoption of their own mail-and-barding-clad horses and riders.  It was during this time that the Persians disseminated two important horse breeds into Anatolia, the heavy Nisaean breed from the Iranian plateau and the lighter and swifter Turkmene horses of Central Asia. Both of these horses would help Byzantium build an impressive cavalry tradition in their own wars against the Sassanid Persians and later Islamic empires, both Arabic and Turkish in origin. In fact, the Byzantine loss at Manzikert in 1071 to the Seljuk Turks meant the loss of important horse breeding lands, prompting Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r.1081-1118) to ask the Catholic West for military assistance. This resulted in Pope Urban II’s (p.1088-1099) “call to arms” that resulted in the First Crusade (1096-1099).


Top photo: Knights on caparisoned destriers charging in formation. From the Codex Manesse, c.1305-1315. Heidelberg University Library.

Middle photo: An illustration from Jean Fouquet of Tours’ Grandes Chroniques de France depicting the violence of late fifteenth century cavalry warfare using destriers.

Bottom photo: A photograph of early sixteenth century armored knights in jousting plate armor and plate horse barding in formation. Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York City.


The Age of the Levantine Crusades (1096-1291) required the transport of many different kinds of horses from Catholic Europe to the Holy Land, as well as the procurement of new horses to replace horses who died on the journey or who were killed on campaign.  This was especially true during the First Crusade when missionary warriors and their dependents made the arduous journey from the security of Byzantine territories across hostile Seljuk lands in Anatolia. The anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum describes the reaction of an eyewitness to these hardships, who remarked “many of our knights had to go as foot-soldiers, and for lack of horses we had to use oxen as mounts.”  In fact, few of the crusader knights’ original mounts made the entire journey from Europe to the Levant. At the famous siege of Antioch (October 1097-June 1098) during the First Crusade, horse stocks fell beneath a hundred for the whole army, and it was only after taking the city and replenishing their cavalry that the expedition could continue south. Once the crusaders had established themselves in their newly won territories of Tripoli, Antioch, Acre, and Jerusalem, they began to replenish their horses with new stock breeding, often preferring the Arabian, Persian and Turkish breeds to European horses. Acquiring these horses was a priority, whether through taxation, purchase, theft, or war booty.  Interestingly, we have some understanding of how horse intensive campaigning was in the Holy Land by the number of horses allocated for the monastic military orders.  In the case of the Knight Templars, senior officers, including the Grand Master, the Seneschal, Marshal, Drapier, Grand Turcopolier, and regional Commanders were allowed four warhorses and a mount for ordinary riding, while noble knight-brothers were allowed three mounts and their non-noble sergeants and the essential farrier one permanent horse. Additional horses were allocated for the turcopoles ("sons of Turks"), indigenous mercenaries who served the crusaders as mounted archers and whose services usually required lighter and swifter mounts to counter Islamic light cavalry. These numbers do not include the riding mules and packhorses utilized by the Templars on campaign. 

12421908877?profile=RESIZE_584xDuring and after the Levantine Crusades, Islamic horses continued to be introduced to Western Europe, with some mating with indigenous breeds, resulting in a variety of equines used in all aspects of medieval life, including agriculture, pleasure riding, hunting, and warfare. The most common breed was the packhorse (summarius) and plow horses (stottus), which over time became the large draft horse associated with this hard labor, but too often erroneously associated as mounts for heavily armored knights. A palfrey (palfridus) was the preferred pleasure riding horse because of its smooth gait, while a courser (cursarius) made for excellent hunting horses because of their speed and agility. The finest coursers came from the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy, where breeders acquired horses from Islamic lands (Turkish, Arabian, or Barb) and bred them to European stock to produce fast horses ideal for courier work and later, hunting for the rich. The most common warhorse in this period was the haubini or hobby horse, usually used by scouts (hobelars) for reconnaissance, raiding, and on patrol and also ridden by mounted archers and crossbowmen to the battlefield before dismounting to fight on foot. A famous type of hobby horse was the Connemara Pony, bred in Ireland from the now extinct Irish hobby horse and Spanish and Libyan stock. These horses were used to great effect during the Anglo-Scottish Wars (1296-1346) by William Wallace (1270-1305) and Robert the Bruce (r.1306-1329) in their conflict against the English king Edward I (“Longshanks,” r.1272-1307), who in turn requisitioned his own Irish hobelars and forbid the export of hobby horses from Ireland to Scotland. The second most common cavalry horse was the rouncy (runcinus) used by knights of lower station, squires, and non-noble men-at-arms. While the rarest of these steeds was the destrier (dextrarius), the horse most strongly associated with the heavily armored knight. Destriers were not any one specific breed of horse, although the smaller medieval versions of modern Friesians and Percherons are often cited, but instead a mount bred specifically for its role as a heavy cavalry charger. In fact, the destrier was in such high demand by the late thirteenth century in England and France that high quality breeding stock was imported from Spain, Lombardy, and the Low Countries into these kingdoms, and their offspring sold in special horse fairs in Smithfield or Champagne or gifted to powerful royals or nobles seeking the special mounts for warfare, tournaments, and perhaps most of all, prestige. Within decades, lines of destriers were established through selective breeding, with some fetching exorbitant prices. King Edward III of England (r.1327-1377) purchased a destrier in 1337 for the remarkable sum of £168, the equivalent of over eighty years income for a prosperous peasant family.

The destrier was usually a stallion, and the size of the warhorse increased throughout the High and Late Middle Ages (c.1000-c.1500) reaching its largest proportions by the early fifteenth century. This was a reaction to the increased vulnerability of knights to more powerful missile weapons, specifically the longbow and the crossbow, requiring the development of heavier armor. The chainmail hauberks worn by Normans in the eleventh century was supplemented by the addition of metal plates, resulting in plate mail by the thirteenth century, and a full suit of armor by the beginning of the fifteenth century. This heavier armor required heavier horses, and horse breeders obliged, creating the magnus equus or "great horse," a sturdy steed of fourteen to fifteen hands (as opposed to the twelve or thirteen hands of average horses) and a weight of 1,200 to 1,300 lbs. (compared to the Arabian horse of 700-800 lbs. and considerably shorter in stature). The modern notion that these “great horses” stood seventeen or eighteen hands in height is not supported by primary source or archaeological evidence. Still, the destrier’s increased size and musculature was necessary not only to carry the armored knight, but also the accompanying tack (saddle, stirrups, halter, bridle, bit, and reins) which was strengthened to meet the needs of these larger warhorses and their heavier riders. Finally, the destrier often wore some form of protection in the form of barding, cloth (caparisons), hardened leather, or mail or plate armor, which added more weight to the ensemble. Even fully outfitted for war a destrier could perform amazing acts of dexterity. Because of his training, he had strong hind legs, letting him shift his weight and make rapid movements easily. Additionally, he was often encouraged to stomp and kick in combat, using his size against man or fellow beast. 

Stallions were preferred by both the Catholic kingdoms and Byzantium because of their aggressive nature, a characteristic purposefully not trained out of these male mounts. Meanwhile, nomadic steppe cultures preferred mares and geldings, while in settled Islamic lands all were used, with stallions frequently utilized in the frontline heavy cavalry. European warhorses were often only ridden in training and combat, and otherwise led to the battlefield unmounted by a squire, preserving his aggression for battle. Once part of a cavalry charge, the stallions proclivity for violence was married to a herd instinct, as stallions competed with other stallions in the physical charge against the enemy, or excitingly challenged enemy cavalry stallions in the heat of battle. The destrier was the ideal mount for the cavalry charge en masse as horses and lancers riding stirrup to stir up became rolling bulldozers on usually flat European battlefields. But the added encumbrance took its toll. Because of the size and the weight of the knight and accoutrement, destriers suffered from increased fatigue and dehydration in battle when compared to their smaller rouncy companions, forcing commanders and individual riders to pace their mounts lest rapidly changing battlefield conditions place their beloved warhorses in danger. Battles during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) illustrate these vulnerabilities. At Crecy in 1346, the English took a defensive position at the top of a slope partially to mitigate the shock impact of multiple waves of French heavy cavalry charging uphill.  At Agincourt in 1415, muddy conditions on the battlefield slowed the French cavalry’s charge, tiring the horses in the face of withering longbow fire. To make matters worse, the practice of targeting warhorses, earlier considered “bad war,” was becoming commonplace on battlefields where knights were increasingly encased in a metal carapace and less vulnerable to missile fire. Consequently, due to this attrition, medieval knights and men-at-arms required more mounts when they went on campaign.  

12421908895?profile=RESIZE_584xDestriers were also popular mounts at the tournament, where their size and strength were showcased in both the joust and the more specialized and theatrical tilt where a barrier bisected the jousting ground preventing the passing knights and their mounts from crashing into one another in what became known as “tilting.” The popularity of these events led to more specialized armor for both horse and rider for better protection and for show. In fact, the name destrier comes from a Latin word meaning “right-handed” or “right sided” which probably refers to how these stallions were trained to lead with their right foot while charging in war and at tournament, an especially important act for warhorses charging in unison and for a single mount preparing his footing for a jousting pass.

The destrier as the preeminent warhorse on the battlefields of Europe would quickly decline in the sixteenth century, replaced by smaller swifter mounts better suited for a new age of Early Modern warfare. As this "Age of Gunpowder" unfolded, knights began to transform themselves from masters of lance and sword to masters of pistols and carbines, with both horse and rider gradually wearing less and less armor.  However, the systematic breeding that produced the magnus equus would continue into this new era and create many of the horse lines that still exist into the twenty-first century.


Suggested Readings:

Ayton, Andrew. “Arms, Armour and Horses” in Medieval Warfare: A History, ed. Maurice Keen. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades. Grange Books, 1994.

Hyland, Ann. The Warhorse, 1250-1600. Sutton Publishing, 1998.


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