The Warhorse Project at Tewkesbury

After three years away, the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival was finally back, running across the weekend of the 9th-10th July. We were back too! With a boot full of (horse) skulls, posters and horsey bits and bobs we headed up to Tewkesbury on the Saturday morning to present our research to the re-enactors and visitors of Europe’s largest medieval re-enactment event.

Sarcophagus of Sir Guy Brian

Tewkesbury is a beautiful place, and well worth a visit, especially the abbey which is a stone’s throw away from the field where the Battle of Tewkesbury took place. The space is serene now, but was not so in the aftermath of the battle in 1471 in which so much blood was spilt within the abbey’s walls that it required reconsecrating. Today, it contains the tombs of many notable medieval people including George, Duke of Clarence (brother of Edward IV), Eleanor de Clare, Hugh Despenser the Younger, and many other earls and knights (though sadly with no images of their warhorses that we could find)!

As usual, it was sweltering the entire weekend, but that did not seem to stop anyone from attending the festivities and market. Luckily, we had a stall in one of the marquees and could escape the sun, if not the heat. Many people stopped by to learn about medieval horses and their use in warfare, and some even remembered us from our very first and much smaller appearance pre-pandemic! 

Our two mares – one in a fitting shaffron, the other in a slightly too large bit, demonstrating where in a horse’s mouth it sits and how it works.

Outside the marquee we unveiled our new poster which invited people to guess the height of a medieval warhorse. The craft corner was a favourite with the younger ones, who replicated harness pendants with great enthusiasm, and many a visitor was fascinated to hear about the research our project has undertaken, from both a material and historical perspective. Our two lovely mares turned many heads and patiently helped visitors discover their species’ secrets. Seeing their live counterparts fully caparisoned during the re-enactment of the battle was a wondrous sight to behold. 

If you are curious to find out what sort of things were fed to warhorses in the Middle Ages, have a look at our flyer from the event and see how many you can get right (the answers are at the bottom – we won’t tell anyone if you sneak a glance)!

We chatted with many lovely people over the weekend, from interested members of the public to keen equestrians and (former) professional jousters. We also had the chance to meet Zac Evans, modern jouster and YouTuber, and filmed a short reel with him discussing our project and popular misconceptions about medieval warhorses. You can see the video here.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend outing and a delight to see so much interest in our work. We plan on a few more of these events in the future so watch out for news on our Twitter feed and website.


Some impressions of the weekend:

The Size of a (War)Horse

Did you know that medieval horses, on average, were no larger than modern ponies? 

When thinking about ponies many people seem to imagine the smallest of their kind, something akin to a Shetland pony. But ponies are much more varied than that. The term ‘pony’ is an early modern invention and first appears in the mid 17th century, probably derived from the French poulenet meaning ‘small foal’. Nowadays, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) defines a pony simply as a horse that does not reach more than 1.48m (c. 14.2hh) at the withers.

Outline of a horse showing how the withers heights are measured at the top of the shoulder.

Withers heights are measured from the ground to the withers, the highest point at the shoulder. Technically, we are not measuring shoulder height but rather the top of the processes of the spine between the shoulder blades. HH stands for ‘hands high’ and is the common measurement for horse height in the UK.

That still sounds pretty small? Well, we recommend getting up close with a pony and see for yourself: they can be big, powerful animals! A modern Riding Pony for example, reaching 1.44 m (c. 14.1 hh) on average, weighs somewhere in the region of 390 kg (c. 860 lbs). Now imagine even just a few of them in full armour and with equally armoured and armed riders on their backs, charging at you. That must have been quite a sight.

silhouettes of a human, a horse and a pony next to a scale to show relative sizes.

The sizes of an average modern sports horse and a pony compared to an average modern man.

Although medieval documents are notably silent on the matter of size, we know from the zooarchaeological record that horses in the Middle Ages mostly stood at 13 – 14 hh at the shoulder (see here for our study). Only very few animals reached withers heights beyond the pony threshold. It is only in the post-medieval times that larger horses appear more frequently and much later still when we first see horses of the size of modern sports horses and heavy drafts. 

a box and jitter plot showing horse size variation and change from the Roman to post-medieval times and in comparison to modern specimens of different breeds plus donkeys and mules.

The change of withers heights in horses through time compared to modern animals (in grey). Each dot represents an individual within its population or time period, the thicker black line in the box shows their mean. Even the post-medieval mean is still within pony range but the overall range of the horses has increased and we see, for the first time, horses being regularly taller than 14.2 hh.

An extract from the Bayeux tapestry showing several riders with their legs hanging low, indicating smaller horses.

The famous Bayeux tapestry shows, like other medieval depictions, riders with their legs hanging below their mounts’ bellies. It confirms our archaeological findings that medieval warhorses were not the huge heavy beasts that people tend to imagine them as.

There are advantages to a smaller mount, especially in a warfare scenario. One of the more obvious ones is “mountability”. If you are unseated on the battlefield a smaller horse will make remounting, in armour, much easier. Big horses can often be a bit uncoordinated with their long limbs and may be more difficult to ride in good posture. 

As with many species, it is the small ones that can be the most ferocious. Perhaps this made the medieval ponies especially suited to warfare. Historic documents instruct the medieval horse trainer to encourage aggressiveness in warhorses and there are even illustrated manuals that detail kicking and biting manoeuvres.

In the end, the size of a warhorse did not really matter all that much in the Middle Ages. Medieval writers didn’t even find it noteworthy, preferring instead to detail financial values, age, colour, origin – those were of more importance to the people dealing with horses. And their abilities, of course! Those that went on to become warhorses were carefully chosen, not based on size but their conformation and personality (check out our work on the royal stud at Odiham here), the life of people and success in battle depended on their skill and suitability. 

An Archaeological Black Hole? Medieval Stables and Tattershall Castle

For all the importance of horses during the Middle Ages, their dedicated buildings are often elusive. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the subject of stables. Even at major medieval residences it often requires considerable effort simply to locate where these buildings were on the ground. Such is the absence of physical evidence that the medieval stable has, not unreasonably, been described by Giles Worsley as ‘an archaeological black hole’.

Tatterhsall Castle, Lincolnshire. Ralph Lord Cromwell’s Great Tower. The potential stable can be seen in the background.

The lack of evidence is a result of several factors. Historically stables tended to be constructed in the outer baileys and enclosures of castles and palaces, areas that have not tended to form the subject of historical enquiry or prioritised for direct archaeological intervention. At the same time, many stables would have been timber-framed buildings and, like so many others, failed to come down to us as a result of fire, dilapidation, or demolition. The small number of physical examples that do exist survive in a heavily altered state and are frequently labelled simply as ‘ancillary buildings’ that have rarely been the focus of close study.

The castle’s ‘Great Stable’. Or is it?

But as the research from ‘Warhorse’ is showing, an additional reason why the medieval stable is somewhat shadowy is because of misidentification. Stables are sometimes hiding in plain sight, erroneously labelled as halls or barns, while repurposing in the post-medieval period has meant that others have in fact survived but with their original function unnoticed. As buildings, medieval stables often have more complex histories than might otherwise be thought and unravelling these complexities in specific cases is key part of our research.

With this issue in mind, ‘Warhorse’ commissioned Dr James Wright from Triskele Heritage to undertake a building survey at Tattershall castle in Lincolnshire. The castle is well-known as the home of Ralph 3rd Lord Cromwell and Lord Treasurer of England who transformed the site from the 1430s via an enormous programme of building works. Even allowing for early twentieth-century restoration, how the castle’s Great Tower would have dominated the skyline of this part of medieval Lincolnshire can still be gauged today.

James at work.

The reason for the project’s specific interest in Tattershall is that the castle’s partially surviving building accounts refer to the construction of a ‘great stable’. This building evidently attracted considerable investment as the accounts describe foundations, the use of several hundred thousand bricks, the existence of a paved floor and possible reference to some kind of upper storey. Previous scholars have identified this documented building with a large, ruined structure in the castle’s outer ward. Here archaeological excavation has found evidence for an interior drain running the length of the building and tethering rings still survive on one of the exterior walls. The existence of the footings of a smaller building to the northeast also seem to tie in with a detail given in the historical accounts that the great stable lay to the west of a woolhouse. Even though it exists in a fragmentary state, any opportunity to learn more about the physical nature of a medieval stable, especially one at a castle and in turn one that is documented is welcome. Cue James, some photogrammetry, and a long hard look at the surviving remains.

Without anticipating the results of the survey and as we rather suspected, the Tattershall ‘stable’ may not be all it seems. There are certainly some oddities that require explanation, not least that the spinal drain runs directly into the base of a fireplace in the end wall. There are also the remains of a wall that formed an internal partition, but this is of stone construction and as the rest of the building was built in brick it is suggestive of a later alteration. The tethering rings were clearly inserted into the main walls and so not part of the original build. Finally, at only 1.44 metres wide, the original entrance to the building seems rather too narrow for use by horses. Certainly we are looking at a building that was used as a stable for part of its occupational history, but it may not actually be the ‘great stable’ mentioned in the castle’s building accounts. Did the archaeological black hole just get a little darker?

Tethering ring on exterior wall. And don’t climb on the walls remember.

Well, if this building turns out not to be what scholars have hitherto believed it to be, then we can on the one hand perhaps forgive ourselves a little disappointment. But on the other, it would actually be rather illuminating. Later in the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth, the history of the castle is one of reduced occupancy following the death of Lord Ralph. The need for stabling would have consequently diminished and so we should be alive to the possibility that we might be looking at a building that was converted for use as a stable, perhaps from a range of lodgings. Adaptation from lodgings to stables (and indeed visa-versa) is something that we suspect happened at other sites and so Tattershall might end up standing as a well-documented example of a phenomenon that finds analogy elsewhere. And, after all, we might still have a medieval stable, albeit one of slightly different date than previously thought.

If, in the final analysis, our building turns out not to be the ‘great stable’ of Cromwell’s accounts, then where was it exactly? Somewhere in the inner or middle wards of the castle would seem most likely (it was described as ‘within the castle’ in the 1430s), although the precise location remains unknown. For now at least, the black hole will have to retain some of its mystery.

Huge thanks to The National Trust staff at Tattershall and Rosalind Buck for granting permission for the work to take place and to James not only for all his efforts but sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge of the castle with the project team. All information correct at the time of blogging!


Post by R. Liddiard

What were medieval stables like?

In this post, Dr Kate Kanne details the Warhorse team trip to medieval stables.

In an effort to further understand how medieval and Tudor horses were husbanded and utilised, and as a good excuse to enjoy the glorious spring weather, the Warhorse team recently visited some of the earliest stables built in England that are still standing. Though largely post-medieval in date, the stables at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, and Dunster Castle, Somerset, can provide details to flesh out what the archaeological and historical records cannot. 

Prof Alan Outram and Prof Oliver (Ollie) Creighton were accompanied by myself, Helene Benkert (PhD student), and Tess Townend (MSc student). Alan and Ollie’s deep knowledge of medieval castles, horses, and their archaeology was augmented by our practical experience working with horses in a variety of equestrian disciplines in many kinds of stables. My professional equestrian background is primarily in polo, where large numbers of horses have to be fed, tacked, exercised and competed in sensible ways from a labour standpoint that respects the needs of equine athletes. I have co-authored educational materials for new horse owners on how to house and manage horses (Brady, Kanne, and Russell 2002a, 2002b). The organisation of medieval stables is familiar to modern equestrians that deal with how to best manage working horses used on a daily basis.

Kenilworth Castle was built as a Norman stronghold and modified over many centuries to form a spectacular residence (Fig. 1). The stables now standing (Fig. 2) were originally built by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and Master of the Horse of Edward VI, in 1553, at a cost of £4110, likely on the site of earlier stables. After John Dudley’s execution, his son Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, made additional improvements to the stables, also called Lord Leicester’s Stables. Like his father before him, Robert was the Master of Horse for the monarch, in this case Elizabeth I, with whom he had a special relationship. 

Kenilworth Castle and Tiltyard for jousting.

Fig. 1. Kenilworth Castle with the tiltyard for jousting in the foreground. Photo by Helene Benkert.

Kenilworth Stables

Fig. 2. Kenilworth Stables. Photo by Oliver Creighton.

Dunster Castle was constructed shortly after the Norman conquest by William de Mohun, initially as a fortress of earth and timber. The Luttrell family purchased the castle in 1376 and created the standing mansion in the early 17th century (Fig. 3). Stables are known from the 16th century, although the impressive example that can be seen at Dunster today was built in the 1660s, as confirmed by dendrochronological (tree-ring) analysis of oak beams that replaced those destroyed in the Civil War (Howard et al. 2003). Situated within a two-storey barn, the stalls date from the late 18th and early 19th century. In 1925, the Maharaja of Jodhpur visited Dunster Castle to play polo (Fig. 4), with a string of 62 ponies that were stabled there, with a groom for each pony. A video was made of the event (link here).

Dunster Castle

Fig. 3. Dunster Castle. Photo by Oliver Creighton.

Polo at Dunster Castle

Fig 4. Polo at Dunster Castle, Rao Rajah Manut Singh centre.

Tie, or standing, stalls were the norm until very recently for working horses around the world, including royal stables such as the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace (Figs. 5 and 6). They require less space than box stalls, with the typical rule-of-thumb being 4-5 ft wide x 9-10 ft long for average sized modern horses (15-15.2 hh) (Fehr et al. 1993), and require less labour to muck out each day. Bedding would have likely been straw, like at the 1920s Royal Mews below (Fig. 5). Tie stalls make much sense to house the riding horses on the castle grounds, both for residents and visitors. They still are used in polo and military stables as they are useful to ensure each horse receives the correct ration of feed for its workload and body condition, and are handy for horses that may be used every day, repeatedly throughout the day, or at a moment’s notice, quickly available for grooming and tacking up. 

Tie stalls at the Royal Mews, c. 1920s

Fig. 5. Tie stalls at the Royal Mews, c. 1920. Photo by The Royal Collections Trust.

Tie stalls at the Royal Mews today

Fig. 6. Tie stalls at Royal Mews Today. Photo by The Royal Collections Trust.

Horses generally can lie down in them despite that they are often termed ‘standing’ stalls. They can either stand facing the wall with a hay rack or manger along the wall, like at Dunster (Fig. 6), tied to the wall usually with a rope and weight pulley system, and/or be cross-tied after feeding at the front of the stall facing the aisle as shown in Figs. 5 and 6 above. Though horses can fight when stabled next to one and other, especially stallions, solid partitions, or half-solid/half-barred partitions, can be erected between them, as at the Royal Mews. Jordanus Rufus (13th century author of a horse treatise) describes that colts in training were stabled, hobbled, and tied to the manger on straw bedding. Another agricultural treatise by Pietro de Crescenzi (13th-14th century author) says there should be wooden partitions between horses to decrease fighting when stalled. Some of the incisors (front teeth) of horses from several of the castles covered by the Warhorse project’s zooarchaeological work show damage from regularly eating from a hard manger, cribbing (crib-biting), fighting between bars on adjacent stalls, or maybe even from repeatedly rubbing bars out of boredom (Fig. 7).

Hay rack and manger at Dunster Castle with gnawing damage

Fig. 7. Hay rack and feed manger at Dunster Castle, with some gnawing damage visible along the manger’s edge. Photo by Oliver Creighton.

Damaged lower incisors from Elverton, Westminster. Enamel is worn smooth on the front of the teeth

Fig. 8. Damaged lower incisors from Elverton, Westminster. Enamel is worn smooth on the front of the teeth. Photo by Kate Kanne.

Box stalls, or loose boxes, on the other hand, take double or more of the width of standing stalls, and are less efficient to muck and more costly in terms of bedding. The norm for many horses now, they allow more room for each horse to move and rest, including escape from difficult neighbours. They are better for foaling mares and mare-foal pairs, individualised veterinary care, and for horses that have limited turnout (time loose out of doors), though daily turnout is always best. Tie stalls are used now for horses that are brought in to feed and work each day, with ample turnout otherwise. Medieval horses were used daily for everything from transport to war, and had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, especially those of the nobility. No one likes having to catch horses in a hurry in a field, as they may not feel the same pressure to comply with your demands!

The earliest historical record describes Kenilworth’s stables as 180 ft long by 21 ft wide in 1563, with 30 ‘rooms’ for great horses, and 20 rooms for geldings (Chirk Survey 1563). Given the size of the building as it stands today, about 49 m long by 10 m wide, these numbers can be accommodated in a number of configurations, but likely with mostly tie stalls, on both long walls, a few box stalls, and a wide aisle between (6 ft minimum is the modern standard, 10 ft is common – the one at Kenilworth could have been up to 12 ft wide). A hayloft and quarters on a second storey were also likely, with the team spotting what could have been used to drop down hay from the hay loft (Fig. 9). 

Possible hay drop at Kenilworth Stables

Fig. 9. Possible hay drop at Kenilworth Stables, Photo by Oliver Creighton.

A smaller, earlier 14/15th-century stable building was found under Kenilworth stables during excavations in 1970-84 (Howard et al. 2006). Robert Dudley shortened his father’s original stable, probably by one bay on the north end. During later excavations for the visitors’ centre at Kenilworth, evidence of the earlier building in the same area was also found, with the later medieval building similar in ground plan to the current standing structure, including a paved floor with drainage (Ellis 1995: 114). Based on this, Ellis concluded that the horses were kept in stalls facing the curtain wall and suggested that they would have potentially been 2 m wide to accommodate 25 stalls within the stable.  

At Dunster, much of the original configuration is still standing, with the portion that is occupied by the gift shop added later. It has a single row of tie stalls facing the wall with hay racks and mangers in place and a good visible drain (Fig. 10). There are different configurations of stone from where the horses stood to the aisle to increase drainage, and horse comfort. The floor at Kenilworth is currently stone, but a line of demarcation around the base of the interior may indicate that plank wood flooring was used there, which is known for other stables for royal horses.

Tie stalls with drain and cobblestones at Dunster Castle

Fig. 10. Tie stalls with drain and cobblestones at Dunster Castle. Photo by Oliver Creighton.

Historical accounts from the 14th-century list the number of horses that medieval castles could house, from six to 779(!) during battles (Colvin et al. 1963; Roberts 2002). Temporary stabling, or simply tying horses to quickly erected hitching posts, would be necessary for castles in the active throws of battle or siege. Kenilworth is the largest known stables, but comparable to those at other high-status sites of the 16th century, like those at New Hall, Essex, and at Reading, Berkshire (Colvin et al. 1982: 173, 221). 

Barnard Castle, Durham, with Saxon-17th century occupation, has had 6 different stables identified by archaeological and historical records, including 2 buildings in the Inner Ward and four in the Outer Ward (Little, Long, Palfrey, and Great). This corresponds well to the large number of horse bones reported at Barnard, especially in the later period (Austin 2007:590). Barnard Castle was also home to the royal herd of the Beauchamp stud. In 1325-1326, according to the records of the keepers of horse, and not including riding animals of the castle residents, the herd comprised two stallions, 35 mares and 50 colts and fillies under the age of two (Austin 2007:105-6). The multiple stables could suggest that the value, type, or utility of said horses would dictate where, or if, they were stabled, as breeding and youngstock were generally kept in the parks (on pasture). Potentially, there were different stables for the castle residents, visitors, breeding stallions, and/or foaling mares of the royal herd, or it may be that additional stables were added through the life of the castle as horse breeding increased at Barnard through time.  

What have we learned about medieval stables?

Medieval stables were well and purposefully built, matching and exceeding modern requirements of stall space per horse and aisle width. They appear to be designed for the working horses of the castles, and for those owned by visiting guests. Though generally built for the convenience of people, medieval stables also account for the comfort of horses. The builders of the stables at Kenilworth and Dunster were experienced horsemen; they kept in mind that the equine inhabitants were very valuable and necessary for daily life of medieval castles, and designed the stables as such.


Austin, D. 2007. Acts of Perception: A Study of Barnard Castle in Teesdale, Volume 1 and 2. Durham: The Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.

Brady, C. A., K. S. Kanne, and M. A. Russell. 2002a. Introduction to Housing for Horses. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.

—–. 2002b. Introduction to Horse Management. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.

Chirk Survey. 1563. Chirk Castle Ms F13310. National Library of Wales.

Colvin, H. M., Allen Brown, R., and A. J. Taylor. 1963. The History of the King’s Works, Volume 1 and 2: The Middle Ages. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

Ellis, P. 1995. The Elizabethan Gardens and Leicester’s Stables at Kenilworth Castle, Transactions of the Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society 99:81-116.

Fehr, R. L., Walker, J. N., Duncan, G. A., and W.E. Wise. 1993. Housing for Pleasure Horses. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Services.

Howard, R. E., C. D. Litton, and A. J. Arnold. 2006. Tree-Ring Analysis of Timbers from Lord Leicester’s Stable, Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire. Research Department Report Series 21. London: English Heritage.

No hoof, no horse: The study of medieval horseshoes in relation to hoof size and stature of modern horses

I’m Tess Townend, a recent graduate of archaeology, and now a zooarchaeology master’s student at the University of Exeter. As a horse owner myself, the history and archaeology of horses is an area which I am particularly interested in. For my undergraduate dissertation I focused on medieval horseshoes, aiming to understand how much they can inform us about the size, stature and types of horses that wore them. This was accomplished through the metrical analysis of medieval horseshoes, in comparison to modern horses’ shoes, height and breed type.

In total, 103 medieval horseshoes dating from AD c. 900 – 1600 were sourced from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). The majority of measurements had already been taken by the PAS, these included the width, length and web (fig 1). The horseshoes had also been assigned to one of Clark’s (2004) four typologies, or in some instances as Guildhall or Dove type horseshoes.


Type Period of use Identifying features
Type 1

(formally pre – Conquest)

c. 900-1100 ●        Round and broad

●        Wide web but thin metal

●        Round Nail holes of usually 3 to a branch 7 – 8mm in diameter

●        Large rectangular countersinking.

●        T-shape nails

●        Double clenching

Type 2

(formally Norman)

·       ‘Lobate’ wavy outer edge caused by deep countersunk slots

·       3 nails to each branch

·       Double clenching

·       Fiddle key nails

·       Calkins

c. 1050 – 1150 Type 2a: Round nail holes
c. 1150 – 1250 Type 2b: Rectangular nail holes
Type 3

(formerly transitional)


1250 – 1350 ·       Generally heavier with broad web and smooth profiles

·       Rectangular nail holes with narrow countersunk slots

·       Fiddle key nails or ‘eared’ nails 3-4 on each branch

·       Double clenching with some examples of spiralling

Type 4

(formally Later Medieval)

c. 1350 – 1600 ·       Broad web, sometimes tapering at the heel

·       Square or rectangular nail holes with no counter sinking’s

·       Modern clenching

Dove: Angular inner profile
Guildhall: Heavier to Dove horseshoes, with broader webs with 4 nail holes on one or each branch

A total of 80 modern horses were recorded (2 stallions, 32 mares and 46 geldings), which amounted to 28 different horse breeds in total. These breeds were then categorised into four different types of horse: light riding horse, pony, warmblood and draught. Overall, wither heights ranged from a 10hh Shetland pony to an 18.1hh Dutch warmblood. Recording live horses tends to be slightly tricky as they can sometimes be prone to fidgeting. A different way of measuring was therefore utilised (fig 2), and the same measurements as the medieval horseshoes were taken.

Fig 1. Measurements recorded (photo: T. Townend)

Fig 2. Recording board (photo: T. Townend)










So how do medieval horseshoe metrics compare to modern horseshoes? Preliminary analysis shows the majority of medieval horseshoes were the same size as those of the modern-day ponies. Therefore, these horseshoes were likely worn by horses that were 14.2hh and under, but their overall size increased throughout the medieval period, particularly from 1300 onwards. These results nicely align with the current zooarchaeological narrative.

Although it is difficult to identify the exact function of horses from their horseshoes, there are some horseshoes that do give some possible indication. For example, orthopaedic shoes may indicate the presence of elite horses. Figure 3 shows a Type 2 horseshoe with an attached metal plate that was possibly utilised to avoid lameness from stones or hard ground, similar to the padding used in modern farriery work. These finds are rare, but obviously show a degree of care for the horse. These horseshoes were perhaps used on elite riding horses, or warhorses, where a large investment for a good horse had been made.

Fig 3. PAS Find ID: SUSS-973667, Type 2 Horseshoe with calkins and orthopaedic plate dated to the 11th – 13th century AD (courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme).

The shape of the horseshoe may also indicate what type of horse wore them, and to some extent the horse’s function. Heavier draught horses often have much ‘broader’ hooves, which are advantageous to agricultural work, whilst ponies and light riding horses generally have ‘long and narrow’ hooves. The presence of some ‘broad’ and or larger horseshoes, in addition to evidence for an increase in metatarsal robusticity, may reflect the development of stockier builds, such as draught horses, from 1300 AD onwards.

Overall, it is clear that medieval horses were generally the size of modern-day ponies, and that a variety of horse types were utilised for different functions. Though this is only a brief analysis, it clearly demonstrates that a good deal of information about medieval horses can be ascertained from an analysis of their horseshoes.


Clark, J. (2004): The medieval horse and its equipment, c. 1150-c. 1450. Boydell Press.

Ameen, C. Benkert, H. Fraser, T. Gordon, R. Holmes, M. Johnson, W. Lauritsen, M. Maltby, M. Rapp, K. Townend, T. Baker, G. P. Jones, L.M. Camille Vo Van Qui, Webley, R. Liddiard, R. Sykes, N. Creighton, O. H. Thomas, R. and Outram, A. K.  (2021): In search of the ‘great horse’: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300–1650). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology31(6): 1247-1257.

Start-of-Year Project Blog for 2022

To begin a blog with the observation that 2021 has been an ‘interesting year’ is a tiny bit of an understatement! Amidst ever-changing Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns, it was certainly a challenging twelve months for a multi-stranded research project that relies on access to resources such as collections, sites and archives, but also a time presenting fresh opportunities and in which our work made great strides on several fronts. This start-of-year blog reflects on some of these successes and signposts some of the ways our project will continue to develop through 2022.

The assemblage of horse bones from the medieval horse cemetery site from Elverton Street, London arriving in the Archaeology Department at Exeter.

The Elverton Street horse bones in the bone laboratory at the University of Exeter for sorting, measuring, sampling and analysis.

The Zooarchaeological Work Package has seen new developments alongside ongoing activity. We were delighted that Kate Kanne, from Northwestern University USA, was able to join our research team, supported by Covid contingency funding through the University of Exeter, working alongside and complementing the activity of other zooarchaeologists on the project, Carly Ameen, Alan Outram and Helene Benkert. In recent months, Kate has been leading the way in sourcing assemblages of medieval horse bones for analysis at Exeter, including remains from some ‘classic’ sites of English medieval archaeology, such as Launceston castle, Cornwall, and the rural site of Goltho in Lincolnshire. One star acquisition has been the assemblage from Elverton Street, London, a site near Westminster excavated by the Museum of London, who we have collaborated with to facilitate analyses of the materials. As well as conducting our usual array of zooarchaeological techniques on these remains (including metric work, X-ray analysis and genetic sampling), an exciting new departure is the way that we have been able to sample the teeth from this assemblage for isotopic work (see this earlier post). We eagerly await the results and what they can tell us about where these animals came from. In this and several other aspects of our project, it has been fantastic to integrate University of Exeter Undergraduate and Postgraduate students into the work, with Masters student (and keen equestrian) Tess Townend leading the way with sampling the teeth as part of a coursework project.

Recording of medieval equine material culture underway for the Warhorse project: measuring a shaffron (or head armour – note the mesh, providing eye protection in a joust).

A selection of medieval horse harness pendants in a private collection. Note the representations of coats of arms and other symbols of noble families on the artefacts.

Our Material Culture Work Package, led by University of Exeter Researcher Rob Webley and supported by student intern Laura Jones, has progressed well on three main fronts. First, spatial analysis of digital records held by the Portable Antiquities Scheme has continued apace, with the publically accessible nature of the database continuing to be a godsend through periods of Covid-related lockdown. Among the many achievements are the mapping of equestrian apparel — especially horse harness pendants — bearing the coats of arms or symbols of prominent noble dynasties, which has allowed us to map the footprint of these families in new ways. Second, the easing of Covid restrictions as 2021 progressed enabled the team to make visits to two nationally important private collections of artefacts containing a wealth of medieval horse gear. These materials provide a really instructive means of gauging the typicality or otherwise of the Portable Antiquities Scheme data and for inspecting objects at first-hand, and we are delighted to have carried out the work. Third, the re-opening of museums and archives has meant that our programme of measuring medieval horse armour has resumed, with a visit to the amazing collections of Glasgow Museums already undertaken and firm plans for visiting and recording other internationally important collections in the UK and the USA in 2022.

View towards the former Great Park at Stratfield Mortimer, Berkshire. The curving hedge-line marks the boundary of the medieval park, which contained an important horse stud.

Turning to our History and Landscapes Work Package, which is critical to our project’s interdisciplinary edge and scope, the research programme led by our team at the University of East Anglia (Rob Liddiard and Gary Baker), has continued to work through documentary material as much as pandemic has permitted. Related research on landscapes of horse breeding and training has proceeded by locating parts of parks associated with horses through field-names, historic maps and, of course engagement with arguably the most important source of all for this aspect of our project — the historic landscape itself. The image below shows one prime example of the site of a medieval horse stud that the team are interested in: Stratfield Mortimer, in Berkshire. This was a park of the Mortimers — a powerful aristocratic family based in the Welsh marches — that came under royal control for periods of the fourteenth century. The team’s analysis of financial accounts for the stud allow us to chart the numbers and types of horses bred and trained in the park in particular years, including records of numbers of foals born and the proportion of mares and stallions. At the University of Exeter, French researcher Camille Mai Lan Vo Van Qui has been making excellent progress on her work on manuscripts relating to a text on veterinary medicine and horse-training written in Latin by the Italian knight Jordanus Rufus (Giordano Ruffo) around 1250.

The year 2021 also saw our portfolio of publications growing. The first issue of the new journal Cherion: The International Journal of Equine and Equestrian History contains a paper co-written by the Warhorse project team that showcases our interdisciplinary approach and contains a case study of how our lines of evidence intersect to cast new light on the medieval stud at Odiham, Hampshire. A second significant publication is our study of medieval horse metrics in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. At the time of writing, our paper has attracted news coverage around the world, with members of the research team dealing with press and giving interviews for radio stations from Canada to Australia, and many places in between.

Alongside these academic outputs, our programme of outreach, which continued on digital platforms through Covid-lockdowns, has received new impetus, with displays at public events (see this earlier blog), and we have ambitious plans for the coming year including an appearance in the summer at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival — arguably Europe’s largest medieval battle re-enactment.

Perhaps the most exciting thing of all is the way these activities, lines of evidence and routes of enquiry interact with one another. At outreach events, our team members can always be sure that members of the public will provide snippets of information providing new insight and perspectives — often relating to their own through practical work with horses — that can feed into our academic activities. Especially stimulating is the interaction between our work packages at different levels and the ways our research directions complement one another. Cutting-edge archaeological science can reveal things the documents are silent on, while material culture analysis can sometimes tell us about the appearance of specifically high-status and military horses in a way the bones cannot. Landscapes bring our entire subject to life, and illuminate the settings for equestrian activities. Documents, where they are available, can afford amazingly precise information on horses for certain years but absences in others, while our archaeological evidence is sometimes dated less precisely but affords us a broad picture over longer periods. This is the inherent fascination of our work, and as the project moves towards the final stages of data collection and as the results of analysis come in we look forward to sharing our results and achievements.

Where were the warhorses born?

An important part of the Warhorse Project is determining where the horses were born in order to reconstruct the movement of the horses throughout their lives. Key to this is stable isotope analysis, including strontium. In this blog post, we will introduce you to how the Warhorse team samples medieval horse teeth for strontium isotope analysis.

Strontium isotopes (87Sr/86Sr) can provide the location of birth in animals, including people and horses, as well as their mobility in life. As tooth enamel is formed during childhood when animals eat or drink, it records this chemical isotope from the local bedrock. This bedrock varies throughout the UK, giving us various ranges of 87Sr/86Sr, as seen below.

Map of strontium isotopic variation across the United Kingdom from Evans et al. (2010:2, Fig. 1b).

Map of strontium isotopic variation across the United Kingdom from Evans et al. (2010:2, Fig. 1b).

We take samples from horse teeth to compare to these ranges to determine where they were born within, or even outside of, the UK. The process involves the following steps, shown here with the Elverton Street horses from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).

Step 1: Choose teeth from different individuals and different archaeological contexts throughout a particular archaeological site. The goal is to get an understanding of the place of birth and life histories of as many horses as possible.

Step 2: Take photographs and measurements to record the teeth before sampling, as it is a destructive method. Each sampled tooth is assigned an ID number. This is a lower (mandibular) 3rd molar from a horse that is approximately 9-10 years old, ID ELV2.

Horse tooth from Elverton prior to sampling.

Horse tooth from Elverton prior to sampling.

Step 2: Cut strips of enamel from the horse molars. We use the 2nd and 3rd molars for this. Dremels with thin, precision drill bits are used for this process.

Warhorse team member, Tess Townend, cutting strips of horse teeth with enamel in the isotope prep lab.

Warhorse team member, Tess Townend, cutting strips of horse teeth with enamel in the isotope prep lab.

Step 3: Photograph again to make sure we know which strips belong to which tooth (and which individual and context).

Horse tooth sample ELV2 after strip is cut.

Horse tooth sample ELV2 after strip is cut.

Step 4: Label, draw, and measure the tooth and the resultant strips.

Tess recording the measurements and making the drawings of the sampled teeth and strips.

Tess recording the measurements and making the drawings of the sampled teeth and strips.

Steps 5 & 6: Glue strips of enamel to paper in a ring shape, and draw a map of which teeth are where in the ring. The map is critical to be able to match the strontium isotope ratio to the particular horse.

Tess placing and mapping the strips of horse teeth.

Tess placing and mapping the strips of horse teeth.

Step 7: Fill the ring with the strips of teeth. The teeth have to fit inside the ring in order to fit in the mass spectrometer which measures the strontium.

Sampled strips of horse teeth in plastic ring.

Sampled strips of horse teeth in plastic ring.

Step 8: Pour a two-part epoxy resin over the strips, and leave to harden overnight.

Tess pouring a two-part epoxy resin over the strips of horse teeth.

Tess pouring a two-part epoxy resin over the strips of horse teeth.

Step 9: End up with a hardened resin disc with the strips of teeth in it. We have teeth from 17 different horses in two discs!

Resin disc with sampled strips of horse teeth.

Resin disc with sampled strips of horse teeth.

Step 10: Photograph the disc again to produce a final map.

Map of sampled teeth for strontium isotope analysis.

Map of sampled teeth for strontium isotope analysis.

After the teeth are sampled and prepared, Dr Alex Pryor, archaeologist and University of Exeter isotope specialist, will be undertaking the analysis using Laser Ablation Multi-Collector Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-MC-ICPMS) located in the Plasma Mass Spectrometer Laboratory, National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, UK. Once he has finished this analysis, Dr Pryor will help the Warhorse team interpret the results to gain an understanding of where the horses in the project were born and may have traveled during their lives.


Evans, J. A., Montgomery, J., Wildman, G. & Boulton, N. 2010. Spatial variations in biosphere 87Sr/86Sr in Britain. Journal of Geological Society, London 167:1–4.



Thoughts on the Chagford drift sale

By Camille Mai Lan Vo Van Qui

Each year in October, the free-roaming ponies on Dartmoor are rounded up by the farmers to whom they belong, and the foals born that year are sold at auction in the village of Chagford. This event is interesting from the standpoint of equestrian history. Those ponies are called ‘Dartmoor Hill’, meaning that they are born on the moor, and must not be confused with the Dartmoor breed. Dartmoor Hill ponies are a mix of many breeds of horses, introduced to Dartmoor over the centuries, including Shetlands used for mining in the 19th century.

Spotted Dartmoor Hill ponies at the Chagford drift sale (Photo: C. Vo Van Qui)

Keeping horses in semi-managed conditions is a traditional way of equine husbandry. In the Middle Ages, horses were already kept on Dartmoor in that manner.[1] References to this way of managing equids are found in Jordanus Rufus’s De medicina equorum (c. 1250), one of the foundational texts for equine medicine and husbandry in medieval Western Europe: he advises that foals should be born in the mountains and left to roam freely for the first two or three years of their life because, according to him, grass and freedom are what is best for their health.

De medicina equorum by Jordanus Ruffus (Photo: Wellcome Trust)

The colts are then rounded up to be taken back to the studs. There, they are tamed and broken in. Rufus gives some advice on how to capture the colts (describing, for instance, the material of the rope used to lasso them), but nothing is said about the handling of the horses or the number of people involved. This silence is no doubt due to the fact that the rounding-up and sorting out of the horses was so common and so well-known at the time that there was no point in mentioning it. Rufus was addressing himself to knowledgeable horsemen, so he only wrote down techniques and advice that were unusual at the time or the results of his own experimentations. The handling of wild[2] animals was not part of that.

A traditional event with possible medieval roots, such as the Chagford Drift sale, can provide interesting insights into the practicalities of rounding up and sorting out the horses. As a historian, it is easy to focus exclusively on textual sources. Yet, in the case of human/animal relationships, many aspects are experienced and lived and are not (or cannot) be put in writing. Therefore, when attempting to understand the relationship between humans and horses in history, contact with and observation of the animals can fill in some of the gaps in the written sources.

Chagford drift sale (Photo: C. Vo Van Qui)


During the sale, the herding of the horses was done through a succession of corrals, with minimal physical contact between the humans and animals. The horses’ instincts as herd animals appeared to be used as they were moved as groups. When humans intervened, body language was important. When the horses were touched, it was on specific areas such as the rump. Short, loud vocal cues were used to encourage the horses. Some of the handlers were brusquer, handing out small punches on the rumps of reluctant horses, while others hardly touched the animals.

Herding the young ponies between corals (Photo: H. Benkert)

Interestingly, the handling of the horse appeared to be mostly male dominated, perhaps due to the very traditional aspect of the sale, and even though women were in charge of the organisational aspect. Children, mostly boys, also participated in the handling, hinting at the generational transmission of those techniques, probably through a process of observation and mimesis. It echoes what is hinted at in Rufus’s method: the parts on which he is silent imply that they were already transmitted, either orally or non-verbally through the process of observation. As such, they did not need to be written down. Even today, no instruction manual on how to handle wild ponies exist; it is knowledge that is actively used and passed on to the next generation and it will disappear once this chain is broken.

[1] See, for instance, Charles Gladitz, Horse Breeding in the Medieval World (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997).

[2] Wild here refers to the horses’ experience with human interaction. Despite being mostly left to their own devices, the ponies on Dartmoor are domesticated animals and not, in fact, wild.

Pony Power!

I am Kate Kanne, a new postdoctoral research fellow for the Warhorse Project. Outside of Warhorse, my research is on early equestrianism in the European Bronze Age, and on the long-term evolution of human-horse relationships. I am thrilled to be joining this exceptional interdisciplinary team, and learning cutting-edge methods in horse archaeology to tell the story of people and horses through time. One of my first outings as a team member, was with Warhorse PhDs, Helene Benkert and Camille Mai Lan Vo Van Qui to the Dartmoor pony auction in Chagford. We were curious how these ponies were managed on these local landscapes, and how their long presence related to medieval warhorses.

Horses, and in this case proper ponies, carry in their DNA and life histories fascinating stories of human and horse history. I had never guessed when considering the Dartmoor ponies, that their story would contain everything from ancient and medieval horses, the birth of the modern polo pony, contemporary human-horse relationships, and efforts at maintaining biodiversity for the future.

A family vacation to Devon in my adolescence gave me my first wondrous experience of horses in this incredible landscape, riding at full gallop on the moors with great glee. From these memories, when going to this year’s ‘drift’ Dartmoor pony auction at Chagford, I had expected to see a sea of dark bay/brown ponies of relatively similar stature. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I confused them with Exmoor ponies who are bay, brown on dun, with black points. Welcomed by a cacophony of coat colours, and a wide variety of sizes from wee to stout, the Dartmoor ponies reflect their long history, as well as the human proclivity for valuing eye-catching coat colours, those of which also bring a higher auction premium (Figures 1, 2, & 3).

Colourful Ponies at the Chagford Auction

Colourful Ponies at the Chagford Auction

Colourful Ponies at the Chagford Auction

Figures 1. 2. & 3. Colourful Dartmoor Ponies at the Chagford Pony Auction (Figure 1 & 2 photos by Helene Benkert).

Figure 4. Wee Dartmoor Pony at the Chagford Pony Auction.

Black Dartmoor Hill Pony Stallion with Moustache!

Figure 5. Black Dartmoor Pony Stallion with Moustache!

I was also surprised to learn that the herds of free-roaming ponies are all owned, with the owners (Registered Commoners) allowed to graze their herds on the Commons (Figure 6).

Dartmoor Ponies on the Moor

Figure 6. Ponies grazing on Dartmoor Commons (Wikimedia Commons, Andrew Rendell CC-BY-2.0))

For those less familiar with British law, Common Land is privately owned with ‘Rights of Common’ for land used most often to graze livestock. Enshrined in the Charter of the Forest in 1217, in pushback against rights of access to the royal forest for free men eroded by William the Conqueror and his heirs, the Commons were designed to sustain poor rural farmers who did not own their own land with access to pasture, wood, and other resources. Now, over one-third of England’s moorland is common land, 3% of land in England, and includes famous landscapes in Dartmoor National Park, the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Shropshire Hills (Dartmoor Commoners’ Council) (Figure 7).

Common Land on Dartmoor

Figure 7. Common land on Dartmoor National Park (Dartmoor Commoners’ Council).

From the Dartmoor Hill Pony Owner’s Club, we learn that, “A Dartmoor Hill Pony is one bred on the Commons of Dartmoor by a Registered Commoner, whose sire and dam run on the said commons. This ensures that the sire has been inspected and approved by the Dartmoor Commoners Council as a suitable stallion to run on the Commons”. Current estimates suggest there are around 1100 mares producing roughly 900 foals per year. The ponies are rounded up from the multiple Commons in Dartmoor annually in October. They are then counted, checked, with some sold at the traditional pony Drift Sale in Chagford, Devon, held by the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, with volunteers of Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony charity, overseen by Moorgate Vets, and facilitated by Rendells Auctioneers (Fig. 8).

Chagford Drift Pony Auction

Figure 8. Chagford Drift Pony Auction.

The drift auction originally was a method by which illegally grazing or unowned animals would be auctioned in the Forest of Dartmoor. Now it serves to keep the ponies at a manageable number for their owners and the moors, and provides farmers with an additional form of income. The value of the Dartmoor ponies lies in their use as excellent, sure-footed, and hardy riding or driving ponies, as well as a keystone conservation management species (Figure 9).

Dartmoor Ponies Conservation Grazing

Figure 9. Dartmoor ponies conservation grazing at The Garrison, St. Mary’s. They were introduced to to restore Scilly’s maritime heathland (Bob Embleton / Conservation Grazing The Garrison, St. Mary’s / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Dartmoor ponies represent the decedents of the earliest domesticated horses in England, attested to from the Bronze Age (Bendrey 2012) (Fig. 10).

 Dartmoor Pony at Bronze Age Archaeological Site

Figure 10. Ponies on Dartmoor at a Bronze Age archaeological site (© Charlotte Faulkner in Packham 2020).

At Shaugh Prior in South Dartmoor, pony hoof prints were found in association with cattle and sheep hoof prints, dated to the Bronze Age, approximately 1500-1350 BC (Fig. 11).

Pony, cattle, and sheep hoof prints under excavation on Shaugh Prior, South Dartmoor

Figure 11. Pony, sheep, and cattle hoofprints under excavation on Shaugh Prior (© Ossiie Palmer in Packham 2020).

Many different types of horses were brought to the British Isles in subsequent periods, breeding with the initial stock that became supremely adapted to life on the moors. Horses became increasingly important for battle in the Iron Age and Roman period as mounts, and famously as chariot horses. The quality of these smaller ponies was noticed by the Romans, who took them back to Italy to improve their native stock (Trew 1953). Ponies are well known archaeologically throughout the Early Middle Ages, into the Late Anglo-Saxon / Early Tudor period of the Warhorse project and beyond. Withers height indicates that horses from the Saxon and Norman periods (5th–12th centuries) were ponies by modern standards, less than 14.2 hh or 1.48 m, generally averaging 12.3-13.2 hh (Ameen et al. 2021).

The first historical record of herds of free-roaming ponies in England is from the will of the Merican thane Wulfric, who in 1002 decreed “’…I leave to the monastery at Burton one hundred wild horses and sixteen broken stallions…” (Dent and Goodall 1968:53) (Figure 12).

Figure 12. An 18th pencil drawing of the stained glass window at Hall Hill, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, England, showing the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Wulfric Spot (died c.1004) (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

Shortly thereafter, the Saxon “Ælfwold, Bishop of Crediton, in 1012, bequeathed ‘to every man of my household his mount which I have leant him… Aelfwold also left a stud of ‘wild horses’ running on the Buckland estates near Dartmoor, besides ten individual bequests of saddle-horses, and to his lord the heriot of four horses with armour…” (ibid). In the Domesday Book from 1086, held at the Exeter cathedral, in the owned property survey of the UK conducted for William the Conqueror to calculate tax, the wild ponies are discussed, but there was some uncertainty if they should be taxed at all due to the fact that they were semi-wild, but owned herds and the right to graze them on Dartmoor was already in place. Clearly there would have been an awareness of the herds by the those producing horses for medieval cavalries, as well as the rulers themselves.

Henry VII directed the improvement of native stock for his warhorse retinue in 1535, requiring by law that mares should be bred with stallions that were 14 hands or greater, or the owner be fined 40 shillings. His disparaging remarks deemed the ponies of Dartmoor ‘little horses and nags of a small stature’ and a ‘vile and paltry breed’.” However, given the remoteness of Dartmoor, Henry’s policies were likely not enforced. By the 16th century, ponies of all colours and sizes were recorded.

The ponies were used extensively use as pack horses, and in the tin mines, as well as an “all-rounder” for riding and driving. In 1855, polo came to Britain from India significantly affecting pony breeding. By the 1860s, under the influence of the Prince of Wales, systematic efforts were undertaken to ‘improve’ ponies from the Dartmoor herds with outcrossing with Thoroughbreds Arabians, Hackneys, Welsh, and Fell horses to produce an ideal sport pony. Dartmoor ponies were foundational to the formation of the Polo Pony Stud Book in 1899 (Fig. 13). A famous polo pony named “The Leat” was purchased by Miss Calmady Hamlyn in 1925, the by an Arabian stallion, out of a Dartmoor pony x Hackney mare (Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony). “The Leat” was the first pedigree Dartmoor Pony (Hendricks 2007). In 1899, The Dartmoor Stud Book was started as a section of the Polo Pony Stud Book, becoming a separate entity in 1925 for registered Dartmoor Ponies.

Polo Pony Stud Book, made possible by Dartmoor Hill Ponies

Figure 13. The Polo Pony Stud Book, made possible by the Dartmoor Ponies.

Dartmoor ponies continued to live semi-wild on the moor at the same time, refusing efforts to conform with the fashionable breeding of the early 20th century. They remain genetically distinct from their registered counterparts, with key signatures that can be used to distinguish them, as well as signs of genetic selection potentially linked to environmental adaptation (Hegarty et al. 2017). Now preserved for their heritage value, as well as their key contribution to biodiversity, the Dartmoor ponies continue to provide enjoyment on and off the moors, through their use in riding and driving, as companions, or as conservation grazers.

The story of the Dartmoor ponies is the story of horses in England. In them we see the relationships of horses and people to the land and place, the negotiations of commoners with, and resistance to, people in power, the centuries long traditions of families working together in local practices of breeding and management, and the recognition of the vital place of the Dartmoor ponies in the past, present, and future of Dartmoor and its people.


Ameen, C., Benkert, H., Fraser, T., Gordon, R., Holmes, M., Johnson, W., Lauritsen, M., Maltby, M., Rapp, K., Townend, T., Baker, G. P., Jones, L. M., Vo Van Qui, C., Webley, R., Liddiard, R., Sykes, N., Creighton, O. H., Thomas, R., & Outram, A. K. 2021. In search of the ‘great horse’: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300–1650). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 111.

Bendrey, Robin. 2012. From wild horses to domestic horses: a European perspective. World Archaeology 44(1):135-157.

Dent, A.A., and Daphne Machin Goodall. 1968. A History of British Native Ponies: From the Bronze Age to the Present Day. London: J.A. Allen.

Green, Peter. 2016. The free-living ponies within the Exmoor National Park: their status, welfare and future. A Report to the Exmoor Moorland Landscape Partnership.

Hegarty, Matt, Nicola McElhinney, Emily Ham, Charly Morgan, Clare Winton and Rob McMahon. 2017. An evaluation of the genetic relationships between the Hill Dartmoor and the registered Dartmoor Pony Breed. Report prepared for the Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony. Aberystwyth University.

Hendricks, Bonnie. L. 2007. International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Packham, Chris. 2020. A Keystone Species: The Dartmoor Hill Pony. Springwatch. Photos from: Bronze Age Hoofprints © Ossiie Palmer; Ponies at Bronze Age settlement © Charlotte Faulkner.

Trew, Cecil G. 1953. The horse through the ages. London: Methuen.

Warhorse and Public Engagement: Pop-up Shop of Science and Culture

An empty shop opposite Princesshay in Exeter city centre might seem an unlikely place to see the AHRC Warhorse team sharing their enthusiasm for the project, but a Saturday in late September witnessed this location transformed into a ‘Pop-Up Curiosity Shop of Science and Culture’  by Agile Rabbit in which members of the public could engage for free with demonstrations, talks and activities. Styled the ‘Maketank Gallery’, the space was transformed into a veritable research bazaar on Thursday afternoon, with stalls and displays showcasing cutting-edge work, ready for Saturday’s main event.

Members of the Warhorse team with the stall prepared and visitors eagerly awaited…

Public outreach is integral to our project, and the Covid crisis has presented some major obstacles with our planned activities over the last 18 months, although we did take advantage of digital methods of delivery to organise training workshops that were covered in an earlier blog. The Pop-Up Shop provided us with a fabulous opportunity to showcase our project, its team and some of our findings and activities to members of a very diverse public. We produced a table-top exhibition from which we delivered ‘show and tell’ activities throughout the day to a great range of visitors, from shoppers opportunistically popping in, to some formidable specialists on all things horsey…

Our stall presented an array of materials covering different aspects of our work — particularly horse bones and equine material culture. The public were particularly drawn to — and sometimes mystified by — the horse bits, and really enjoyed handling our collection of horse bones, including a skull. A fragment of fused horse spine — the condition known as ‘bamboo spine’ — from the Department of Archaeology’s collections  drew some gasps as members of the public realised the damage that carrying heavy loads could wreak on an equine body.

A fused horses spine from an archaeological context. Many people commented on the pain the horse must have felt: “really gruesome but really interesting” in the words of one young visitor.

A ‘design your own horse harness pendant’ kit proved an instant hit with Exeter’s younger folk, with many producing their own heraldic designs and hearing strange words such as ‘tincture’ and ‘argent’ for the first time!

The ever-popular ‘make your own horse pendant’ kit, aimed at children.










One of the most engaging questions we posed members of the public was to guesstimate how tall a medieval warhorse would have been. With the help of a special horse measuring tape, marked out in hands, we were able to draw on the results presented in our soon-to-be-published paper in The International Journal of Osteoarchaeology to show how medieval horses were far smaller than the Shire horse-sized beasts of popular imagination. “I had no idea a medieval warhorse could be so small; it’s fascinating to hear that historical films can get it so badly wrong!” proclaimed one enlightened visitor. Another commented on how interesting it was to hear about archaeologists “hunting down the mythical beast” that is the medieval warhorse.

One of the most exciting aspects of our project’s development is the way that the research team has grown to encompass students at different stages of their journeys, and it was excellent to see current University of Exeter students who had carried out research on warhorses as part of their studies join in alongside our doctoral students, post-doctoral research staff and investigators.

Overall, the event attracted well in excess of 300 members of the public and proved a fabulous showcase for our work. We sincerely hope that we are able to seize on similar opportunities in the future.

Members of the warhorse project team talking with some engaged members of the public at the pop-up exhibition stand.