Medieval Horses: A Glossary of Types

Charger: A warhorse. Initially used interchangeably with courser and sometimes destrier, later became common only for mid-level animals.
Courser: Initially used interchangeably with charger and sometimes destrier, but later comes to specify a lighter, faster horse. These horses are seen most often on hunts. This differentiation is very suggestive of new breeding practices where multiple types of horses are produced for the same rider, to be used in different activities. It is also one of the terms that, by existing as a contrast, illustrates ‘larger’ warhorses later in the period.
Destrier: Initially any warhorse. Came to have first a connotation of quality and advanced training, and latter used most often for French and Spanish animals.
Great Horse: Any warhorse. Initially, specifying “great” horse only meant that the horse was rideable (i.e., trained) for military purposes, but later inferred size. This term was used most often for English-bred animals, and very late in the period also Lombard animals. Both these types are actually somewhat shorter than the French and Spanish animals of the time, but significantly heftier. They do not, however, have the height or breadth of a modern draft horse.
Hackney: A general riding horse, typically of better quality than a rouncey but not often seen in battle. Although Hackney horses and ponies are today known for their trot, for most of the medieval period they tended to be gaited.
Palfrey: From a Latin phrase for a spare riding horse, this term was used for increasingly ‘refined’ animals over time. They were expected to be very quiet, very pretty (usually defined by their head and their hair, and often an unusual coat color), and later in the period they were expected to be gaited.
Rouncey: A low ranking general riding horse also used for war. Usually small, often described as ugly, but still expected to be very hardy. Used for the lowest ranking mounted warriors, and later for mounted infantry. The rouncey is the one horse that seems to lose honor as the centuries pass, becoming almost an insulting term.
Sumpter: Initially a term for the man who managed baggage, it latter came to be used for pack-animals. This is also one of the less universal terms, suggesting that it was not as important for this animal to be symbolically recognizable. This is not surprising as a pack-horse could be used by a peasant or a King. There does, however, seem to be a clear consensus that whether they are called sumpters, beasts of burden, or simply packhorses, that they are related but inferior to other horses.

There were a number of other horse ‘types’ that were identifiable in different regions, such as England’s ‘stot’– a particularly small common riding animal that might occasionally be found doing farm work. However, I have included here only those terms that were common to several languages. It is notable that all of the more prestigious animals had fairly universal terms, while the closer to peasant labor the less universal the term.

5 thoughts on “Medieval Horses: A Glossary of Types

      • This is really interesting. What did you study? I’m researching to familiarize myself with horse behaviour and care for my novel in progress. The story is set not in the middle ages but in the 1800s. I’m looking at work horses that were used to haul fallen trees.

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      • My BA & MA were in medieval history, looking at western European literature for trends in the social symbolism of the horse. My current work is in pre-Mendelian (1866) understandings of inheritance in breeding livestock. You might want to take a look at EquineHistory.org. I’m not sure if we have anyone currently working on early modern horsepower, but there is a bibliography & blog list that might be handy. I’ve done a little horse logging, but only on very small scale. I’ve seen a couple of the big teams go and they are astounding! If you haven’t, and get the chance, I highly recommend seeing a team work in person (even if it’s just at a pull).

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