What breeds of horses are used in war?

What breeds of horses are used in war?

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War horse breeds were highly regarded animals that transported mounted soldiers into combat throughout the Middle Ages. Several modern-day breeds were bred in medieval or ancient times for the sole purpose of aiding men in war.

The Friesian, Andalusian, Arabian, and Percheron were the most prevalent medieval military horse breeds. These horse breeds we’re a mixture of heavy breeds ideal for carrying armored knights, and lighter breeds for hit and run or fasting moving warfare.

A charger was a collective term for all medieval warhorses. Within this category, we can distinguish destriers and coursers.

Destriers were generally taller and resembled modern draft horses. They had to be able to transport both a fully armored knight and their own armor. Destriers were most often stallions due to their natural aggression and tendency to fight in the heat of battle. Nonetheless, national preferences differed.

Coursers were shorter, lighter, and swifter horses ridden unarmored during sieges and raids. They represented a mobility troop that was often selected over heavy cavalry.

While there were fewer military horse breeds in the Middle Ages than there are now, many current breeds may be traced back to destriers and coursers.

The featured photograph is by @lillentheshire (Instagram).

7 Common Medieval War Horse Breeds


Friesian horse, a common war horse breed in the medieval times Vera Zinkova / Shutterstock.com

These graceful, strongly muscled combat horses are widely acknowledged as descended from medieval destriers.

The earliest accounts of Friesian-like horses stretch back thousands of years and are native to the Netherlands. Illustrations from the medieval era depict knights riding noble black horses into a battle that strongly resembles the modern breed.

The ancestors of Friesians were slightly shorter horses, around 15hh tall with a stockier conformation. Many people respected them for their courage in war as well as their smooth, high-quality gaits.

Heavy military horses were progressively phased out after the medieval era. As a result, this war horse breed has received an infusion of Spanish blood to create lighter carriage horses.

The breed’s official studbook was established in 1879. At the time, Friesians were used mainly for agricultural and draft work.

Agriculture automation in the early twentieth century almost wiped off Friesian horses. Luckily, they survived and is now a popular breed in dressage, showing, driving, and even filmmaking!

Mongolian Horse

Mongolian war horse tacked up and being led Maxim Petrichuk / Shutterstock.com

The Mongolian Horse is a 2,000-year-old military horse breed that has lived and fought with the Mongols. As they served as coursers under Genghis Khan (1206-1227), they became dreaded military horses. In the battlefield, their great toughness and endurance made them a highly coveted mount.

Its sole disadvantage was their stocky build, which rendered them slower than other war horse breeds.

According to historical sources, Mongolian warriors would always bring a small herd of horses (5-20 animals) into battle. This was done to ensure that they always had a fresh horse to ride, increasing their chances of success.

The Mongolian horse has stood the test of time with regard to its appearance and temperament. It is the most genetically varied horse breed in the world, with a population of 3 million horses.

The Mongolian horse is still the main means of transport in many parts of the country. It is also maintained for its milk, as well as for riding and racing.


Dapple grey Andalusian war horse breed originating in Spain Alexia Khruscheva / Shutterstock.com

Many countries hailed the Andalusian throughout its history as one of the most skilled military horses ever lived.

These beautiful horses, sometimes known as the “royal horse of Europe,” were suitable to carry kings and aristocracy into combat. Their muscular build, balanced gaits and bravery made the Andalusian an extremely valuable destrier.

Throughout the Late Medieval Ages, this magnificent Spanish battle horse breed won the hearts of European monarchs and queens. The French kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV and the king of England Henry VIII especially favored the Andalusian and widely employed them in their cavalry.

Recognized as an official breed since the 15th century, the ancestors of the Andalusian have roamed the Iberian Peninsula for tens of thousands of years. Because of their beautiful appearance and kind temperament, Andalusians have helped to enhance the majority of current horse breeds.

Today, the Andalusian is a versatile riding horse breed that is popular in classical dressage. It’s also been seen in a number of historical and fantasy films, like The Lord of the Rings.


Big black Shire horse breed, traditionally used to warfare and farm in England Marina Kondratenko / Shutterstock.com

The forefathers of the contemporary Shire horse dominated battles across medieval England.

Known as the English Great Horse during their golden ages as war horses, they were in high demand in the cavalry of Henry VIII (1509-1547). He even prohibited the breeding of stallions less than 15hh in order to increase the average height of the horse breed.

As a consequence, Henry VIII designed a fearsome destrier capable of transporting a knight in full armor.

Despite the fact that the development of gunpowder put an end to this hefty military horse breed, the Shire horse remained a popular and adaptable breed. They became essential work horses of the agriculture, forestry, transportation, and brewery industries.

Despite its early medieval roots, the Shire breed has only been in existence since the mid-18th century. Their numbers dropped considerably after World War II, but the breed persisted. Yet, they are still considered a vulnerable horse breed.

Shire horses are still employed for forestry and advertising, as well as for riding and driving.


Chestnut Arabian horse stallion. A breed traditional used in the middle east for desert warfare skmj / Shutterstock.com

When you picture the delicate, fragile-looking Arabian horse, you probably wouldn’t consider it befit for medieval warfare. The actuality, however, is exactly the contrary.

Arabians have been engaged in more wars than virtually any other military horse breed throughout history. From Ancient Egypt, they spread to Greece, Rome, Spain through the Muslim invasion, and via the Ottoman Empire to the rest of the world.

Arabian horses proved to be fiery, agile coursers whose speed and endurance was second to none. They were the preferred horses for raids and, subsequently, light cavalry charges.

With the decline of heavy war horses in the Late Middle Ages, the importance of the Arabian became paramount. They were also employed to improve the agility and refinement of other light cavalry breeds.

The contemporary Arabian is as magnificent and robust as its medieval counterpart. A horse of outstanding beauty, it is one of the most popular breeds in the world.

The Arabian is suitable for almost all equestrian sports because to its intelligence and adaptability. When it comes to endurance, this exceptional horse is yet to find a worthy rival.


Black Marwari horse standing still, traditionally used in the Indian cavalry Olesya Nakipova / Shutterstock.com

Marwari coursers have served in the Indian cavalry since the Early Middle Ages. Their fearlessness and dexterity made them a highly sought-after military horse.

The Marwari’s origins are mainly unclear. However, there are speculations that the war horse breed has had Arabian, Turkoman, and potentially Mongolian influence.

The Marwari’s skill as a military horse extended beyond its original land’s boundaries. Although a rare breed today, the 16th century ruler of the Marwar region once held a cavalry force of over 50,000 horses!

This unusual breed is now designated India’s national horse. It’s closely related to the Kathiawari breed, with which it shares the characteristic inward-curving ears.

Owning a Marwari had been a privilege of royalty and nobility for most of history. They are now versatile riders with horses that excel in dressage and polo.

Marwaris are often mated with Thoroughbreds to generate bigger sporting horses. They also take part in shows and religious ceremonies, wearing traditional adorned tack.


Big & beautiful grey Percheron horse trotting in a field. A traditional French war horse breed Lenkadan / Shutterstock.com

This French military horse breed was bred to serve, with the characteristic appearance of a medieval destrier. Indeed, the ancestors of the Percheron often appeared on paintings as the mounts of armored knights.

Native horses were combined with Spanish and Oriental stock in the riverlands of Northwestern France, where the breed evolved.

Throughout the High and Late Medieval Ages, the Percheron was a popular medieval battle horse. Its natural strength and large size made this breed ideal for the French heavy cavalry.

After the decline of armored knights, the role of the Percheron has shifted towards coach pulling, agricultural and forestry work. Breeders began to choose taller animals with an emphasis on pulling strength and docility.

Percherons began to colonize the United States in the nineteenth century and are currently the most common draft horse breed there.

The hue of these huge draft horses is generally grey or black. The majority of their past draft applications still applicable today. Percherons, when crossed with Thoroughbreds, contribute to the development of heavy hunter and police horses.

Frequently Asked Questions

How big was a medieval war horse?

The height of medieval military horse breeds varied from 14hh to 15hh (56 to 60 inches). Selective breeding for taller and bigger horses is believed to have started as early as the 9th century as heavily armored knights became more common.

How much would a horse cost in medieval times?

In medieval times, a well trained war horse would have cost tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. While a typical farm horse would be significantly less expensive, most ordinary people in medieval times could not afford a military horse. The cost of a horse in the Middle Ages varied widely based on the animal’s age, training level, kind, function, and lineage.

What is a Destrier Horse?

Destriers were a sort of battle horse that looked a much like draft horses today. Their immense power and heavy musculature allowed them to carry a fully armored knight with ease.

What horse did Alexander the Great ride?

Bucephalus, a black stallion named for Alexander, was one of the now-extinct Thessalian horses. After his death in 326 BC, Alexander honored his horse’s bravery by founding the city of Bucephala.

Are horses still used in the military?

The military in most countries still employs horses for ceremonial purposes, as packhorses on mountainous terrain and also as patrol horses. Horses are still used in organized armed confrontations in several Third World nations.

The featured photograph is by @lillentheshire (Instagram).

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