Medieval War Horses

Medieval people relied on horses very much, and it was impossible to even think about going to war without them. Cavalry had a central role in every army, and the most famous medieval warriors – armored knights – were cavalrymen.

There were several horse breeds in the middle ages, and not all of them were used for war. Some breeds only served for riding (palfreys) or hard work (cart horses). Those that were taken to war were often called chargers, and there were three types of them.

15th-century battle

The types of war horses

  • The destrier was the most renowned medieval war horse. It was up to 152 cm tall – which was quite a lot, as medieval horses were, in general, much smaller than today’s breeds – strong and agile. It was known as the great horse, and the people who had them were very proud of them. Knights were happy to be carried by destriers in battles, jousts, and tournaments. However, the destrier was not the most common war horse in the middle ages.
  • The courser was the most common medieval war horse. It was strong and swift, and it was much smaller and less expensive than the destrier. Since most medieval knights and other mounted soldiers rode coursers, the words ‘courser’ and ‘charger’ were used as synonyms for most of the Middle Ages.
  • The rouncey was an all-purpose horse, and in war, it was suitable for swift pursuit.
  • The hobby was a popular breed in medieval Ireland, England, and Scotland. This horse was lightweight and suitable for guerilla warfare.

Horses in war

The biggest development in medieval warfare was the rise of mounted armies. When the stirrup was invented in the 8th century, the knights and other warriors became able to fight using swords and spears without leaving horseback. Before that, they could only arrive on the battlefield by horse.

Two types of cavalry existed in the middle ages. Light cavalry – consisting of less equipped mounted troops on fast horses – had existed for centuries before the Middle Ages.

Heavy cavalry – which means heavily armed warriors, such as knights, on strong horses – was developed during the middle ages, first in the Byzantine Empire, and then in the west as well, and it became widespread in the 12th century.

Even though most armies now had some mounted shock troops, the heavy cavalry charge didn’t happen so often. Everyone tried to avoid pitched battles.

The most common types of attack were sieges and so-called chevauchées, which were swift surprise attacks of lightly armed warriors on fast horses.

It was not always possible to avoid a pitched battle. Heavy cavalry was always these in such cases, at least to make an initial attack. But most often the land was not suitable for heavy cavalry, so the knights had to get off of their horses to fight. The animals were kept on a safe place, ready for a chase.

Weapons, tactics, and war itself changed through time. By the late middle ages, war horses had a different role than in the previous centuries. They were now rarely heavily armed. Scouts with light horses, called prickers, usually went to investigate the situation on the terrain.

Archers were mounted too, but they also had light horses. Other animals, including strong, cart horses, were needed to pull wagons with supplies, as well as the heavy early cannon.

War games with horses

The joust was a martial war game that was invented in the 11th century, and only the best horses (destriers) were in the game. It was a sport that also served as training for battle. But it was only for the elite because it was very expensive to bread a specialized destrier.

A later print of a 15th-century joust


What were the two most common types of war horses in the Middle Ages?

Those were the destrier and the courser.

What’s the difference between the light and heavy cavalry?

The light cavalry were lightly armed men on smaller, fast horses. The heavy cavalry consisted of heavily armed knights on strong horses, such as destriers.

Were the horses actually involved in battles?

They were prepared for it, and the knights could fight on horseback, but they rarely did so. Most often, the knights had to leave them in a safe place.

Which elite war game that involved horses was invented in the 11th century?

It was the joust.