Thanks to movies and shows like Kingdom of Heaven and Marco Polo most of us have a certain idea of what medieval warhorses looked like: big, brawny, and capable of smashing heads with their hooves. A new study out of England, however, says there’s evidence supporting the idea warhorses from this period were quite small. As small as modern-day ponies, in fact.
The Guardian picked up on the new study, which a team of researchers led by archaeologists at the University of Exeter recently published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. The study notes that “Popular culture presents a deep-rooted perception of medieval warhorses as massive and powerful mounts,” but that that perception is “highly debated” amongst experts.
To help clear up the debate the archaeologists looked at the largest-ever zooarchaeological dataset of English horse bones; specifically 1,964 bones from 171 unique archaeological sites dating between the fourth and 17th centuries. Using this dataset, along with samples of modern-day horses, the archaeologists studied trends in the sizes and shapes of medieval horses. Particularly in regards to how their skeletal structures changed over time in different capacities, including their roles in domestic and military roles.
“It turns out that things are not quite as they have usually been portrayed,” Alan Outram, a professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter and co-author of the study, told The Guardian. “In popular culture, warhorses…often [appear] as the size of a shire horse. It really wasn’t like that,” the professor added.
Outram went on to tell The Guardian that “Most medieval horses are surprisingly small,” relative to what we think. And that there were “very few” like the ones films and television series portray.
As for the actual sizes of many medieval warhorses? The archaeologists say they averaged just shy of five feet tall from ground to shoulder blades; growing by only a few inches by the post-medieval period (1,500 A.D. to 1,750 A.D.). For reference, Shetland ponies, like the ones in the image above, average about 3.5 feet from ground to shoulder blades. ( Ponies of the Americas are somewhat more comparable at roughly 4.5 feet tall at their shoulder blades.)
The archaeologists do note limitations to their study that make it hard to ensure they’re looking at warhorses. As opposed to say, horses people used as beasts of burden for agriculture. But seeing as how most remains from the dataset were small overall, it sounds like large steeds were rare anyway. Which means our expectations of warhorses from the middle ages should be a lot more grounded.