Author Archives: Helene Benkert

A good horse has no colour … or does it?

In this blog post, Dr Gary Baker shows how the documents for England’s royal warhorses can be used to show us what they looked like.

One of the most interesting facets of English medieval documents concerning royal horses is that many of them provide details of what the animals looked like in terms of their colouration and distinguishing marks. This is information that is often sorely lacking for medieval people and shows just how important horses were in the medieval world.

The colouration of horses is revealed by their names. In English medieval documents concerning royal warhorses (all of which were male), the naming practice is always the same. A horse’s “forename” was its coat colour expressed as a Latin or French noun. There were around ten to fifteen types, of which bausan (white spots on a coloured ground), bay/badius/bayard (bay), ferrandus (iron-grey), grisel (grey), morel (shiny black), lyard (very small spots of white on grey, or vice-versa, giving a silver-grey appearance), and sorel (chestnut) were the most common. The horse’s “surname” is either that of the former owner (surname or title) or the place from whence the horse came either by birth or purchase. Occasionally a further description is appended, describing some other physical characteristic. This is most often related to the coloration of the feet or head if it differed from the rest of the animal (like a white nose), but it can also refer to some other corporeal trait like a docked tail.

excerpt of a medieval manuscript

A typical list of the names of the royal horses

To provide an example of how historians can use this information, let us take a small sample size from the accounts of John Waterton, Master of the Horse (the chief officer in charge of equine matters) under Henry V. The most prevalent coat colour for the royal horses in Waterton’s account for 1414–16 was “lyard”, or silvery-grey horses. Of the 233 horses in the Master’s care over these two years, ninety-eight were silver-greys with the second most common being bays at fifty-five. If we include the silver-greys with horses described simply as “greys” (grissel) this number rises to 117, or half of all the king’s horses in the account.

pie chart of horse colours mentioned in the English royal stock accounts

Horse coat colours in the English royal stock 1414–16

Interestingly, a good proportion of equine literature produced in Western Europe during the Middle Ages had a good deal to say about the conformation and personality desired in the “ideal horse,” including warhorses, and many also remarked on desirable coat colours. One of the most influential medieval works was De medicina equorum (c.1250–56) by the Italian knight Jordanus Rufus which survives in numerous contemporary copies in several languages. In one of these French, or rather Occitan copies, Lo libre de la marescalcia des cavals, dating from the late fifteenth century, now in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Fréjus, France, “Rufus” states that there are so many different opinions about the optimal coat colours that it was not worth discussing them all. This is illustrated by divergences at this point of the text in several of the French versions of Rufus’s work, where the copyists express their own opinion as to the optimal colour for a “good” horse. For example, the Fréjus MS says that bay is the preferred colour over all others while a copy in Reims by François du Tronchoy, Livre de la cure et garde des chevaux (1390) states that bay and grey are the most advantageous. The evidence from Waterton’s account of the predominance of gifts of bays and especially greys made to, and by Henry V, constituting 109 out the 135 received by the king (80 per cent) and thirty-five of the fifty-two given away (67 per cent), suggests that ideas of equine colour preferences, or at least the prestige of animals of these colours, had taken root by the time of Agincourt. It is telling, for example, that the famous image of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell mounted on horseback in the Luttrell Psalter (c.1325–40) shows Geoffrey mounted on a dappled grey warhorse.

Sir Geoffrey Lutterell assisted by his with and daughter-in-law (British Library Add. MS 42130 f. 202v.)

Dark Horse – The Warhorse Project at the EAAs in Budapest

Our team has been busy investigating medieval (war)horses since 2019 and it was time to share our work with the research community on the international stage. So, we headed to Budapest (in person and digitally) to host the session ‘Dark Horse – Archaeologies of Horses and Horse Culture in the Middle Ages’ at this year’s European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) Annual Conference.

Oliver Creighton introducing the Warhorse Project

In a lecture room on the campus of Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, we attracted a sizeable crowd very interested in all the horse-y research presented throughout the day. Colleagues from around the world showcased their explorations into medieval equine archaeology – we heard about various aspects of equestrian material culture, such as horse armour, bits and harness pendants; how horses were treated in life and death; and several papers asked what a medieval horse (ought to have) looked like. Interdisciplinarity was clearly evident in all of the presentations; from history and traditional zooarchaeology to genetics and isotopic analysis, everyone made valuable contributions to the bigger picture (see here for the Session line-up).

We started off with an introduction to the session and the Warhorse project by our PI Oliver Creighton who highlighted how we are interrogating multiple lines of evidence – from horse remains through to artefacts, landscapes, documents and buildings – to create new understandings of the equine world in medieval England. ‘Zooming’ in from his professional-looking recording studio at the University of East Anglia, Robert Liddiard explored the historical context for horse breeding in the first half of the 14th century and revealed how place names can help identify key places within the royal stud network. Camille Vo Van Qui, staying on the historical side of things, gave an insight into the contemporary perception of the ideal (war)horse through Jordanus Rufus’ well-known manuscript De medicina equorum. Many participants reflected on how his descriptions of horses shine a different sort of light on the zooarchaeological evidence.

Kate Kanne presenting her work on (war)horse pathologies

The practicalities of certain conformations and their ability to perform when ridden were at the centre of Markku Niskanen’s talk. His findings aligned intriguingly with our own results based on the biometrical analysis of medieval horse remains, which were presented by Helene Benkert. Her PhD examines changes and developments in horse size and stature across medieval Europe and the preliminary results confirm the predominance of pony-sized horses we proposed for England. As per their occupation, medieval warhorses were prone to injuries and other pathologies. Using some stunning imagery, Kate Kanne highlighted how this line of evidence may help in identifying warhorses but also other types of horse usage in the zooarchaeological record.

Using the case of medieval Brno (CZ), Vera Klontza-Jaklova presented her full-suite analysis of the horse skeletons which had been unusually disposed of in shallow pits in backyards. Sporting a variety of shapes and similar average size, these horses fall well in line with trends observed in the rest of Europe. In Poland, Daniel Makowiecki informed us that the historical information on horses is equally scarce as it is in England, despite the animal’s great importance. Interestingly, evidence for hippophagy suggests that the Slavic population consumed horse meat on a regular basis, a clear taboo in much of Western Europe!

Roman Shiroukhov took us to the Sambian Peninsula in Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia, to explore the distinctive horse burial rite in early medieval Prussia. He supported his investigations with stable isotope analysis and C14 dating to further our understanding of those horse burials or sacrifices. Returning to medieval Poland, Danijela Popovic presented the genetic aspect of the interdisciplinary project ‘Horses in Poland in the Early Piasts and Internal Fragmentation’. In this context, medieval equestrians seem to have had a fable for chestnut horses and, as in much of Europe at the time, stallions (or geldings).

Carly Ameen remotely presenting her research on GMM

Continuing our exploration of horse conformation, Carly Ameen introduced us to her ground-breaking work on geometric morphometric analysis within the context of the Warhorse Project. She hopes to use GMM to detect in-life activity-related remodelling and usage-related conformation in metapodial and tarsal bones in horses. Alan Outram informed us how horse armour and horseshoes can contribute to the conformation debate, while discussing the problems posed by object design. Measurements taken from late medieval and early post-medieval shaffrons (head armour) as well as horseshoes largely confirm the average size estimates for the faunal remains. Our final speaker, Robert Webley, presented his work on equestrian material culture, specifically stirrups and bridle bits, highlighting its potential to connect iconographic, historical and archaeological evidence to better understand medieval equestrian culture.

Since Ludovic Orlando was, unfortunately, unable to join us and present his large set of genetic data we had some time to hear about Anna Szencsenyi-Nagy’s exciting new project for which she had prepared a poster. The project aims to explore how horses and humans interacted in Avar-period Hungary, using a variety of methods from traditional zooarchaeology to genetic analysis. We finished off this excellent session with a final round of discussions before relocating to the campus bar for some well-earned refreshments and more, friendly, debating.

It was a pleasure to hear about all this new and exciting research and to see the puzzle pieces fall into place with each new presentation. We would like to extend a massive thank you to all our presenters and the attentive audience for their interest, engagement and fantastic contributions. We greatly enjoyed the session and are excited to hear more about all the excellent work that was presented!

Part of the team and a couple of Exeter PhD students with their well-earned post-conference drinks. Cheers!

PODCAST: Future Imperfect – How big were mediaeval warhorses?

In this podcast, Oliver Creighton and Alan Outram discuss the nature and characteristics of the medieval warhorse at length with Jason Kingsley. Jason has a wealth of experience in riding horses fully armoured and training them to do so. It makes for a fascinating three-way discussion, weaving together their different areas of specialist knowledge.

To listen to the podcast click here.


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

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.