Author Archives: Helene Benkert

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.

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.

Visiting a Destrier of the Royal Collection

At the end of February, Prof. Alan Outram and Helene Benkert had the honour of meeting one of the formidable Destriers of the Royal Collection. Copper, a lovely chestnut mare, used to serve as a jousting horse at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and starred in many cinematic productions during her time. She is now enjoying her well-earned retirement near York, under the loving care of Matt Cooper.

Copper, Destrier of the Royal Collection

We went north to visit them to use Copper as a guinea-pig for our studies of horse morphology. She graciously endured her role and kindly accepted mints as payment.

First, Matt discussed the various aspects of conformation that a horse should sport in order to be suitable for jousting. We then armed ourselves with tape measures and began putting numbers to the features Matt had pointed out. Though Copper was a little sceptical of our tools at first, she allowed us to continue so long as she had hay to munch in the meantime.

Copper has her own full set of armour which she very patiently donned once again for us to inspect and admire. She certainly looked dashing, though perhaps a bit unhappy.

Copper in her full armour

Putting on all the different bits of armour followed a meticulous protocol and took quite a bit of time, but it helped to understand how all the parts work together and in relationship with the horse. Seeing her move with her metal shell, the impact full armour had on the horses’ movements became clear. Though she was not hindered in her mobility, she walked differently to counterbalance the weight. When working in the armour, she would have had to balance the rider’s weight and movements as well, highlighting the achievement of an excellent warhorse.

Putting on the armour

Our particular interest was on her shaffron and how its measurements would translate to her head. It turned out that it is rather complicated to find the corresponding measurements on both shaffron and head in a way that is reproduceable.

Her measurements will be used to understand the relationship between armour, horse, and skeleton. In the absence of actual horses in the archaeological record, we rely on such modern references to draw conclusions from the materials that we do have available: the bones and the armour. Copper will help us to better understand and interpret this data.

We are very grateful to Matt and Copper for their patience and willingness to help and, of course, their valuable insight into the working side of a medieval jousting horse.

The Price of Riding

The horse’s body was not meant to carry a saddle, let alone a rider encased in clanking metal.

Riding is unnatural, and although there are ways to keep the damage to a minimum, it will take a visible toll on the horse’s skeleton.

These pathologies — deviations from the normal structure of bones and teeth caused by disease, age, or stress — are a valuable tool for the zooarchaeologist as they can illuminate aspects of the animal’s life and sometimes death.

For the Warhorse Project, pathology is a true treasure trove. Injuries, possibly sustained in battle or on the tournament field, or evidence for regular riding, all hold the potential to tell us something about the lives of horses in the Middle Ages.

Bony changes in the horse’s spine are a relatively common result of riding. Fusion of several vertebrae or even entire backs can frequently be seen in the zooarchaeological record.

Abnormal bone growth caused by ‘Kissing Spine’ in a medieval horse from Latvia (Photo: H. Benkert)

The abnormal weight of a rider (or any heavy load) on their back forces the spine to bend downwards, which brings the spinous processes of the vertebrae (long bony projections protruding from the top of the vertebrae) much closer together than they should be. When they touch and grind against each other repeatedly this causes new bone growth around the affected area — a painful condition called ‘Kissing Spine’.

Fusion of vertebral bodies in a horse spine from early Anglo-Saxon Britain (Photo: H. Benkert)

To counter this, the horse will become stiff in the back in an attempt to minimise movement between the vertebrae. Similarly, the bones themselves will react to the repeated strain by growing bony bridges between vertebrae, locking them into place. Such fusion in the spine can be a normal consequence of old age and it is not uncommon to find it in two or three lumbar vertebrae. However, exceptional strain on a horse’s back may eventually lead to the complete fusion of the spine, known as a ‘bamboo spine’.



For any pathological condition to grow as severe as an immobile spine, the animal must have survived it for a considerable amount of time. That means its owners or caretakers cared for the animal, indicating a bond between humans and horses that reached beyond mere exploitation. It paints the horse as a companion and partner that did not lose its value even when it outlived its usefulness.


The standards demanded of a medieval warhorse were enormous.

A destrier needed to be strong enough not only to carry a rider in full armour but also armour of their own. They needed to be large and sturdy enough to be able to withstand the chaos of battle and to potentially charge through the ranks of the enemy without breaking stride. Yet they also needed to be fast and agile enough to be able to manoeuvre quickly. And, perhaps most crucially, they needed to have nerves of steel.

As a flight animal, i.e. one that would run away in the face of danger, most of these demands are unnatural to the horse. Charging at another being goes against all a horse’s natural instincts, with the noise of battle alone enough to trigger flight. Add to that lethal arrows dropping from the sky, sharp weapons cutting and stabbing all around them and bodies crashing into each other and you get a potent mix that would send any animal into a frenzied flight.


In light of these challenges, it seems an extraordinary feat to train efficient and deadly cavalry.

In spite of all the brutal looking bits and spurs and other riding implements of the medieval period, both horse and rider must have been exceptionally well-trained. A horse was a knight’s life-insurance (and worth huge sums of money), so they had to be reliable.

Modern jousters know this as well as any medieval knight did. Some horses are just not the right “person” for the job, some might only cope with it for a season before they refuse to ever charge again. The horse must be mentally and physically able to comply with the high demands of war and tournament.

Cold-blooded horses, for example a Percheron or Suffolk Punch, tend to be not only sturdy, strong animals but also have a much calmer disposition than a temperamental thoroughbred. That is not to say that the latter are unsuitable for war, and there is plenty of evidence of the contrary. However, they are more suited to a very different style of fighting on horseback as employed by various Near Eastern and Eastern European peoples for example.

For the classic medieval Western European style on the other hand, relying heavily on strength and force, a horse more reminiscent of a modern cob or light cold blood was needed.

The Warhorse Project’s aim is to trace these very horses across medieval Europe, from their physical development to their training and usage. Understanding where, when and how medieval warhorses emerged and evolved will shed more light on military transitions and associated social changes such as the development of chivalry.