The Horses of Medieval Times Weren’t Much Bigger Than Modern-Day Ponies

A study of the remains of 2,000 specimens reveals the steeds were around 4 feet 10 inches tall

a white pony standing in a field with grey skies
In the largest-ever study of horse bones to date, researchers examined equine remains from 171 unique archaeological sites including castles and medieval horse cemeteries. Nick Brundle Photography via Getty Images

In the Lord of the Rings movies, Aragorn and his fellow riders mount massive steeds that tower over their bretheren, and in the more based-on-truth epics, knights' horses inspire awe or fear in their enemies. But these powerful equines were likely a much slighter, daintier animal, according to new research published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. By modern standards, medieval warhorses were likely no larger than a pony.

In the largest-ever study of horse bones to date, research by five English universities study examined the bones of nearly 2,000 horses. The specimens, which date from the 4th to 17th centuries, were recovered from 171 unique archaeological sites including castles and medieval horse cemeteries. The team then compared the dataset to samples taken from modern horses to get a clearer picture of the sizes and shapes of the medieval steeds.

“The warhorse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture as both a symbol of status closely associated with the development of aristocratic identity and as a weapon of war famed for its mobility and shock value, changing the face of battle,” says Oliver Creighton, an archeologist at the University of Exeter and the principal investigator for the project, said in a press release

Their work revealed that the majority of medieval horses, including those used in war, were less than 14.2 hands (4 feet 10 inches) tall from the ground to their shoulder blades—the maximum height of a pony today, according to Matthew Hart for Nerdist. One of the largest horses discovered on the grounds of Trowbridge castle in Wiltshire was just 15 hands (5 feet) tall, which would be considered a small riding horse today.

By comparison, some of the largest modern horse breeds can reach heights of 17 to 19 hands (over 6 feet).

“It turns out that things are not quite as they have usually been portrayed,” says Alan Outram, study co-author and archeologist at the University of Exeter, to Steven Morris for the Guardian. “In popular culture, warhorses are often depicted as the size of a shire horse. It really wasn’t like that. Most medieval horses are surprisingly small. There are very few that are the sort of size portrayed in film or even in exhibitions.”

The group of researchers notes that, despite the horses’ small size, historical records suggest a large amount of time and money was spent on the breeding and training of medieval horses, Katie Hunt reports for CNN.

“Selection and breeding practices in the Royal studs may have focused as much on temperament and the correct physical characteristics for warfare as they did on raw size,” Outram says in a press release.

The archaeologists note a few limitations to their study, including the challenge of ensuring they’re really looking at warhorses, and not equines used for agriculture or other labor. But because all the horse remains the team examined were small, it’s likely that warhorses were pony-sized, too. Next, the archeologists plan to study medieval horse armor and DNA from bone samples to better understand the iconic animals.

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