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Britain’s medieval warhorses were smaller than you think

A woodcut of James the Great, also known as James, son of Zebedee, patron saint of Spain, riding a horse.
A woodcut of James the Great, also known as James, son of Zebedee, patron saint of Spain, riding a horse. (Photo12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
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They’re the stuff of sagas: Warhorses that towered above men in battle, playing a vital role in Britain’s medieval history.

But a new study suggests that popular depictions of medieval warhorses are a tiny bit off.

Okay, a lot. Instead of towering steeds, the horses may have looked a lot more like ponies.

Published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, the study investigated over 1,900 horse bones from 171 archaeological sites in England dated between A.D. 300 and 1650. The researchers say it’s the largest data set of its kind — a benefit that makes up for the relative lack of horse bones in archaeological sites. (People of the past usually processed horse carcasses so they could use their skins and other parts.)

The battle over horses

The size of the database offered a glimpse at how horses changed over a long period of time. Analyzing the size of the bones, the researchers found that horses “were ponies by modern standards” between the fifth and 12th centuries. From the top of the shoulders to their hoofs, the early horses averaged less than 4 feet 10.

Larger horses were found in the mix from the Norman period of 1066 on, but horse heights grew only after the medieval age. Horses as big as 5 feet 4 would have been considered large outliers at the time, the researchers write.

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When the team analyzed the horse bones’ robusticity — their strength relative to their size — they found that over time, horses’ metatarsal bones became markedly more robust between about 1200 and 1350. This could reflect breeding programs that aimed to develop sturdy horses that could stop abruptly and change direction easily.

The researchers saw the robustness of the bones decline in the early 16th century, which would coincide with a decline in the British horse trade.

Ultimately, the researchers failed to find a certain marker of warhorses in archaeological contexts. They suggest that warhorses’ archaeological remains are much more likely to be found in former domestic settings than castles, and that different warhorses were bred for different purposes.

The hunt for the warhorse — or war pony — continues.

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