How Great were Great Horses?

The Myth That Just Won’t Die

Not what I’d want to ride to war

I was shocked, and dismayed, to hear someone at IMC Leeds 2016 make a comment about monstrously large, draft-horse-like destriers. I shouldn’t really be surprised. This myth is pervasive, heavily supported by prior histories, and catches the urban imagination, all of which makes it difficult to stamp out. The repetition of this exact myth, by a scholar whom I greatly respect, is what convinced me to go into research. That was then more than ten years after the publication of John Clark’s The Medieval Horse and its Equipment and Ann Hyland’s The Horse in the Middle Ages, which I had thought settled the “argument” (forgive me, I was a starry-eyed undergrad).  Here I will talk about how this myth developed, how it was perpetuated, and some of the evidence put forth to dismantle it. I am, in part, drawing from my first “real” research paper, but I welcome the opportunity to revisit it and update my thoughts on the topic (despite cringing at old writing and some of my own assumptions and generalizations). 

Where did this idea come from?

     Hollywood is littered with images, in movies like “A Knights Tale” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” of medieval knights on mammoth horses, thundering down lists and over battlefields. Lesser characters may ride thoroughbreds or quarter horses (they’re cheaper) but the hero inevitably appears on some sort of draft. Renaissance Faires and dinner theaters use draft horses and draft crosses almost exclusively. As a rider, this always struck me as another Hollywood fiction. These horses, as much as 18 hands high (or more),[1] have heads the size of a human torso, and feet as large as a human head. They are impressive, and they are loud. However, they lack maneuverability, and they lack enough speed to increase to force of a lance hit. And of course, a horse of that size with the aggressive attitude expected of a warhorse would have been an incredibly dangerous animal to train. A smaller, lighter, but faster horse would have been more manageable, have been able to do more damage, while still being able to take his[2] rider to safety. It seems, however, that Hollywood is not alone in this image of the medieval warhorse. Nor do they seem to be the source of it, as I once believed.

   The modern Shire Horse Society supports this myth, as do many other draft breed associations. It’s good for business, and there is likely a grain of truth to the idea that they are related to the medieval “Great Horse,” though the later was type rather than a breed and bore little resemblance to the modern draft.[3] However, when these Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 4.39.35 PMregistries were being founded in the nineteenth century (the SHS was founded in 1878), histories were created out of the Victorian imagination. Sir Walter Gilbey’s 1888 publication of “The Great Horse; Or, The War Horse: from the Time of the Roman Invasion Till Its Development Into the Shire” was not likely the origin of the idea, but it is certainly the most quoted, and likely also why the SHS is more vocal than any other draft breed about its noble origins.

The More-Modern Historiography

Earnshaw Ideal, Shire Stallion

For most of the twentieth century, the perception of many historians seemed to be of a medieval arms races resulting in ever larger and heavier horses; this remains, to some extent, supported. What exactly “larger” and “heavier” means, and how extreme (or not) the change was is the current debate. It was generally suggested that the final product was akin to the modern Shire, an animal standing as much as eighteen hands at the whither,[4] with legs a foot or more in circumference. Each of these historians point to, as evidence, mentions of “large” horses in chronicles, as well as Henry VIII’s notorious “Bill for Great Horses” and further ban on “small” horses. H.J. Hewitt (1983) supposed an average height of “sixteen or seventeen hands.”[5] Livingston & Roberts (2002) describe 

Zoe here is just shy of 16hh and weighs 1,400lbs

these horses as “neither fast nor agile” and “sixteen hands or more and weighing 1,400-plus pounds.”[6] An animal of sixteen hands at that weight would be as thick as the heaviest draft horse today. R.H.C. Davis (1989) goes further, defining the “Great Horse” as an animal of seventeen to eighteen hands. With Davis’ work having been the most recent and thorough by an academic (more on this next), it was heavily relied on. Davis, in turn, used (and appeared to agree with) Gilbey’s 1888 “The Great Horse.

“New” Views

     In the mid nineties, Ann Hyland started publishing equine history (her previous work had been primarily on modern training, especially of endurance horses). Hyland has a multitude of books, but her most referenced are The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades (1996) and The Horse in the Middle Ages (1999), precisely because they filled a gap in the scholarship. Despite their titles, they do have a good bit of overlap, though the former engages more with non-European cavalries. Because Hyland was not working as a traditional academic, her books are often discarded when they are not the only works available. While her books do sometimes suffer from disorganization, and from working primarily in translation, it does a disservice to the field to not engage with the arguments directly. One of her largest contributions was the measuring of bits, shoes, and barding, primarily those held by the Royal Armouries. She compared these to her own animals, and a variety of others, gives a maximum height of around 16 hands, with many under. These findings were corroborated by John Clark (The Medieval Horse and its Equipment, 1995/2004) based on skeletal evidence and holdings at the Museum of London.

     The idea of anyone willingly riding a modern draft-horse to war I find farfetched, to say the least. Tournaments are a somewhat different matter, as the primary disadvantage of a draft is their lack of maneuverability– something that is not as critical on the list. While there clearly was a push to breed larger horses, we must keep in mind that the definition of “large” varies with time and place. Often in dismantling the ridiculous image of a knight on a lumbering draft, we then assume that all historical horses were small. This is not the case either. Any discussion of size must be placed in local context, and must also consider the wide variation of heights within even a single breed today. History is not always linear, and neither are genetics.[7]

[1] Six feet tall. One hand is 4 inches, and each “point” is one. 15.2 hands is read fifteen point two hands, equaling fifteen and a half hands or five foot two.

[2] Medieval European warhorses were almost invariably intact males.

[3] The Old English Black (more type than breed, but with a somewhat geographically bounded gene pool) was used for the production of some Great Horses (defined by type and training, not blood). Descendants of the OEB almost certainly contributed to the creation of the modern Shire. However, there are two factors that separate the OEB and the modern Shire. The first is that the OEB was not a breed, and many other types and bloodlines went in to the creation of the Shire. The second is the type itself. While the OEB was considered a tall and heavy type for its time, it was not as tall, as heavy, or precisely the same type as the modern Shire. They are relatives, but not the same animal.

[4] Highest point above the shoulder.

[5] The Horse in Medieval England.

[6] War Horse: Mounting the Cavalry with America’s Finest Horses

[7] I am very interested to see these studies applied to historical samples; while increased feed quality and veterinary (especially dental and vaccination) care does account for the drastic increase in average lifespan, it has only a moderate effect on growth. Certainly, feed alone does not turn a quarterhorse-sized animals into a Shire-sized one; and while there has been great variety through time, our current ability to regularly reproduce horses weighing more than a ton relies in part on the preservation of these mutations.


Because New York was once New Amsterdam

My wonderful girlfriend got me my own, mine-to-keep (and not stay at the barn), copy of Jeanne Mellin’s Morgan Horse Handbook. I haven’t had access to this treasure for some seven years, and that was before I became an “official” “historian” (whatever that means). It did not lose its shine. Although I had been enthralled with her history (particularly the Dutch theory of Figure’s origins, having noted the similarities between Morgan and Friesian skulls and legs the first day I met a Morgan), I had been more focused on her exacting and uncompromising descriptions of conformation, correct movement, and proper handling.

     Her standards were precise, with detailed descriptions, invaluable illustrations, and firm ethics that are sometimes hard to see at horse shows (in any breed or discipline!), as good trainers are often quiet and the questionable ones are often the loudest. But, back to the history! The True Briton (Thoroughbred) theory of Figure’s (Justin Morgan, the Horse) parentage, I believe, gained traction because of it’s inclusion in Joseph Battell’s 1894 Morgan Horse Register. However, even Battell presents the idea as hearsay. Re-reading Mellin’s book gave me enough information to do some further digging, and I found this (see page 12) from 1879. I highly recommend Morgan history enthusiasts read the whole article (it is delightfully and entertainingly written!), but here are some key points: Justin Morgan (the owner, not the horse) did have True Briton at his farm for two seasons, and his nearby cousin for one. However, all three seasons were several years prior to Figure’s conception. The article then sets out that “Young Bulrock,” a Dutch horse (presumed from the Hudson colonies), who stood at Church’s farm the year before Figure’s birth, and being the only nearby Dutch stud advertised, must logically be the sire of the sport colt whom Justin Morgan himself referred to as a Dutch horse. I’m not ready to write Young Bulrock on that pedigree, but I find it much more plausible than True Briton.

“If the Justin Morgan’s pedigree be corrected in the third vol. of the Trotting Register*, it may be hoped that the parroting second-hand stock journals will, some time in the far future, cease to inform the everlasting enquiring correspondent that ‘Justin Morgan was sired by True Briton, dam a Wildair mare.'” Wallace’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to Domesticated Animal Nature, Volume 5 (1879), pg 14

Sadly, the far future has not yet come.

*in the days before the foundation of the Morgan Horse Club, and indeed here before Battell’s landmark Register, many horses of Morgan breeding were registered as Trotters.