Wednesday, February 19, 2014

You Asked About Horses?

by Sue Millard

I was going to start this blog post with a snappy run-down of the history of the horse since the Bronze Age—skipping through Roman, Anglo Saxon and medieval history with a click of the tongue and a crack of the whip. But, as I’ve done a good deal of that already and it’s called The Fell Pony and Countryside Museums, I won’t. For which you should be jolly grateful, otherwise this post would have been even longer.

However, I had better clear up a few technical terms here which I’ll be using throughout:

Horse or stallion – an entire adult male with all his breeding equipment intact, a bit touchy and difficult to handle if there is a nice mare nearby.
Mare – an adult female.
Gelding – a male horse of age over 1 year, who has been castrated to stop him breeding, and make him easier to handle.
Colt – young horse under the age of 4 years (in England, also, usually this refers to a male).
Filly – young mare under the age of 4 years.
Foal – young horse under 1 year of age.

Hand – a term of immense age, the width of a man’s hand, standardised as 4 inches. Horses are measured for height at the withers; when a horse puts its head down to graze, the wither is the highest point of their body, the bony part of the spine just above the shoulder. A horse of 12 hands high measures 48 inches / 4 feet / 122 centimetres from ground to wither;  one that is  13.2 hands high measures 54 inches / 4 foot 6 inches / 137.2 cms; 15 hands high is 60 inches / 5 feet / 152.4 cms[i].  And so on.

Time span

The horse has been around people for an awfully long time—since circa 5,500 years ago, when they were domesticated in the steppes of central Asia. Since then the horse has developed an almost symbiotic relationship with humans and, like the dog, cat, sheep and cow, has become a highly successful domestic species.

From the time of the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan, up to the advent of steam locomotion in Britain in the 1830s, the horse’s job has been to supply power and/or speed.

Quality over quantity

Just as with cars in modern times, the more power and speed you want, the more you have to pay for it. This means that the most powerful people have the fastest and most powerful horses while the poor old foot soldier and farmer has to make do with what he can get—or else, do without. Historically, though, this doesn’t mean that the rich own very tall horses. 

“... in the Iron Age, horses (or more accurately ponies) averaged 12.1 hh in height and resembled the modern Exmoor breed in terms of overall build. Roman horses show two distinct types; the first similar to the Iron Age ponies but taller (13.3 hh), the second taller still (14-15 hh) and more heavily built (much like a modern cob). During the Saxon period there appears to be a change back to predominantly smaller (13.2 hh) but quite robust ponies. In the Medieval period the average horse appears very similar to Saxon ones, although a few relatively large individuals begin to appear.”[ii]

The horse found accompanying the Anglo-Saxon Lakenheath burial (~570 AD) was about 14 hands high although the man is estimated to have been six feet tall.

Most British “horses”, through many centuries, would be classed as ponies by modern standards. Imagine a world where the horse population only included the current British native pony breeds.

Kinds of horses

There were no distinct horse “breeds” until the late 18th century; no pedigree societies and no stud books except the memories of the men who handled horses as part of their employment.

Horses were classified by the work they were suitable for. They were sumpters (pack horses); rouncies or cobs or nags who trotted along carrying tradespeople (including the young squire struggling with his master’s war stallion). Small horses did the work of all the industries, bore messages, carried people on pilgrimages and transported packs of goods many hundreds of miles from farm to consumer. A few horses drew farm carts harnessed side by side in pairs or “at length” nose to tail but, given the often poor state of the roads until the toll system was introduced, probably far more were employed carrying packs and people on their backs.  Pack horses from Kendal walked to London and back within a month, taking wool, cheeses and other produce southwards and bringing back all the dainties of civilised life from the capital to the rural communities.

Powerful and warlike men of course required war-horses. These stallions were led by mounted squires to keep them fresh for a knight’s use, hence the term destrier, from dextrarius, the “horse at the right hand”. A war horse, even for an armoured man, was nowhere near as tall as the modern Shire or Clydesdale draught horse; most likely he stood around 15 to 15 and a half hands at the shoulder and was a square-trotting powerful cob like the “Powys Horse” of South Wales, or the modern Welsh Section D cob (before it began to shoot skyward in modern times).[iii]

Hobelars (mounted local militia, used for skirmishing in times of war) rode hobbies of 13 to 14 hands high. Hobbies were quick and sturdy, like Fell ponies, Connemaras, and the taller types of the New Forest ponies. There is some discussion about whether they trotted, as all British breeds now do, or paced or ambled; these “lateral” gaits where the legs on each side move together were easier for a lady to “sit” safely.

Gentlefolk, both men and women, rode palfreys or pads that paced or ambled; the old term was paraveredus from which palfrey comes, as does the Regency word prad. My Lady might be seated on a palfrey on a pillion pad behind her older brother or husband, perched completely sideways; if she rode alone, she would have both her feet on a planchette (footboard), and her palfrey perhaps led by a servant—both positions that didn’t encourage independence. The side-saddle, enabling ladies to control their mounts without a servant, developed from the mid-16th century onward.[iv]

Under Henry VIII the owners of certain sizes of property had to keep a given number of mares over 13 hands, for breeding—which strongly suggests that English horses in a majority of cases were under that height. Henry’s much cited edict required autumn drives to round up the stock, within 15 days of Michaelmas, and any "unlikely tits" or "unprofitable beastes" were then to be killed off. These laws seem to have been widely disregarded, as in 1580 Queen Elizabeth had to proclaim that to ensure the "breed and encrease of horses", in future the penalties for non-compliance would actually be applied, and not winked at as in previous times.  A tit is a small or young horse, a term dating from the 1500s or earlier, that developed, as many words do: 1726, “Tit, a little Horse, and some call a Horse of a middling Size a double Tit.”[v] The word persisted till at least the 1890s, with various meanings including a girl, a young man, or a junior or weaker party of any kind, as well as its remaining modern meanings of a bird or a female breast. 

Around 1597 the term Galloway appeared[vi] and quickly changed its meaning from a small Scottish horse to any short, stout, quick general purpose animal—replacing the old “hobby horse” who is only remembered now as a child’s wooden toy or a phrase dismissing obsessive enthusiasm. Even as late as this they were still known as horses; the word pony or “poney” for a smaller animal than the Galloway didn’t appear until the mid 17th century, probably from French “poulenet”.[vii] In any case, you didn’t really need the word pony when you had the word tit!

It isn’t until the 17th century that pedigrees begin to be found, primarily for what developed into the Thoroughbred racehorse. Horsey children are taught about the three foundation stallions—the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk and the Godolphin Arabian—but the original Thoroughbred coursers or “running horses” were bred out of native British mares, using these Oriental stallions as sires.[viii] Many of the racehorses competing under the patronage of Charles II would have been only 13.2 hands high—a very long way short of modern racehorses who are generally closer to 16 hands than 15. Every racehorse still carries the mitochondrial DNA of those proud little British and Irish mares.[ix]

There were also local types of ponies and horses, such as the north-country Chapman horses which were stout, short-legged pack horses which travelling pedlars or “chapmen” used; these were said to be the foundation of the tall Cleveland Bay and in turn the Thoroughbred-cross Yorkshire coach horses, which were in demand for fast coach travel because of their strength and the ease of matching them for colour.[x]

Horses vs. Oxen in farming

Until the mid 18th century, heavy ploughing was more often the job of oxen (bullocks) than of horses. Rob Johnson, who has worked bullocks in Australia, tells me:

Bullocks are stoic, and willing to please. A bullock team works on what it can graze, while a horse team needs supplements like oats. Ploughing deeply in heavy clay would be easier with bullocks’ slow, steady, cloven hooves, and bullocks tend to work together more than horses. The early wooden ploughs would have been fairly rudimentary as well. As the variables improved, like the ploughs requiring less draught power, feed for horses being more freely available and harnesses becoming better, then the quality of the farm horses was improved, and they became better all round animals. They probably still wouldn't match bullocks for the heavy going, but they were more versatile.

There were even ox-teams working in England up till the end of the 19th century. Another point in favour of working farms with oxen was that when they were no longer useful they could be eaten, whereas in England for millennia there has been a taboo on eating horses.


Horses belonging to land-owning families seem to have been generally well looked-after. They were so useful that they couldn’t be neglected! Stabled horses, then as now, needed to be fed corn (oats or occasionally barley) to fuel them for hard work, and in the absence of their natural food, grass, or green meat as it has sometimes been called, they must have generous quantities of hay to keep their digestive systems working; plus large amounts of water, between 5 and 8 gallons a day. Not to mention straw for bedding!

Letters to Margaret Paston written in 1471[xi] tell us that her son, who had been detained away from his Norfolk home for some time, wished to make sure that his horses were well fed, healthy and available for him to use when he returned:

... I have now enough hay of my own, and as for oats, Dollys will purvey (buy/provide) for him, or I will pay whoever does so. And I beseech you that he have every week three bushels of oats, and every day a penny worth of bread (probably horse-bread, made of beans). And if Boton is not at Norwich and Syme keeps him, I shall pay him well for his labour. Also that Philip Loveday should put the other horse out to grass there as he and I agreed....


The Fenlands of East Anglia were drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th century[xii], and these engineers are said to have brought Friesian trotters with them. These in turn influenced the Norfolk trotter, and the Old English Black (later the Shire)—and the word “black” brings me to the colours we might have seen among the horses of historic times.

Many of the horses described after the battle of Flodden in 1513 were grey; out of 252 horses, 95 were grey. It was easily the most frequent colour of all, and “grey” did not include the ones the accounting clerk recorded as “white”.[xiii]  These horses belonged to the ordinary Dales farmer-soldiers who were being “demobbed” after Henry VIII's Scottish campaign.

The hair colours in another account, from the famous horse sales at Appleby in Westmorland (1623 to 1646) ranged through a drabbish rainbow from black, black bay, black brown, brown bay, red bay (with a “white main”), bay, mouse brown, lead-coloured, roaned, and piebald (black-and-white, coloured, pinto) to grey (not “white”  although a grey horse as it ages will look white).

It’s interesting that, in searching these Civil War period accounts, I haven’t yet turned up an example of the term “chestnut.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites it being used as a term for a horse colour in 1636 and Shakespeare used it as a hair colour for people in 1600 in As You Like It, so it was in use in Southern England some 50 years before these sales were being recorded. But the alternative term “sorrel” is not in those Appleby accounts either. I wonder what the red bay horse with the white mane looked like.

Over the centuries, increasing control of horse-breeding, by gelding colts, allowed less skilled people to handle horses safely. It also exerted a selection process over which animals got to pass on their qualities to subsequent generations.  Some areas even spayed filly foals: I learned from a university vet just today that speying mares had become so commonplace in France that it had to be banned by Ordinance in 1717—and being a good academic he even gave me the reference for it.

Since the improvement of farming equipment and harness, and the beginnings of selective breeding, draught horse breeds such as the Shire, Clydesdale and Suffolk had been used to plough and harvest, as well as to draw heavy waggons in the arable counties of the east of Britain. But the poorer the owner was, the rougher the horse, vanner, cob or pony he would own, down to the local milk lady who might well be serving her produce out of churns strapped either side of a donkey.

Once the railway age began in the 1830s the need for relays of well-bred horses to draw mail coaches declined somewhat, but they were still heavily used by private individuals who could afford to race, ride, hunt, or drive. With the advent of the internal combustion engine in the 1890s the horse began to escape his task of providing practical day-to-day power and speed, and to be wanted mainly for the leisure uses we see today.

Here’s a little thought for you to go away with: picture a farm horse coming home from ploughing. Of course the ploughman has jumped up and hitched a ride to save his tired legs after mile after mile after mile of single furrow ploughing. You might not realise, though, that he’s riding sideways, like a medieval lady, rather than astride. Plough horses are built for power and their backs are groin-achingly wide. I am reliably informed from the Other Side of the Bed that without a saddle (or even with) there are certain aspects of male physique that discourage men from riding astride. So spare an admiring thought for the warriors of ancient times who spent so much time on horseback and still came home from war to father a family!


Sue Millard looks after the web site of the Fell Pony and Countryside Museums at Dalemain, Her historical novel, Coachman, is available from her Jackdaw E Books site,


[iii]Hyland, A., The Horse in the Middle Ages
[xiii]DENT, A & MACHIN-GOODALL, D, 1962: Foals of Epona (Galley Press) reprinted 1988 as A History of British Native Ponies (London: J A Allen)
Fleming, 1881 - Veterinary Journal 12:145ff.


  1. This is wonderful! I would love to work out a way to keep this article on my computer for potential research. Who would have thought the destriers were so small? They must have been sturdy, though, to carry a man in armour into battle!

  2. Sue, thank you for this piece, while I knew much I learned much more. I do have a question about side-saddles, however. I have read that Anne of Bohemia, Richard II's wife, introduced them in the early 15th Century, and other sources say the Byzantines had side-saddles for women. (Relevant for me as I'm writing about the crusader states.) More significant, perhaps, is the famous incident in 1168 when Eleanor of Aquitaine was attacked by the Lusignans and the Earl of Salisbury urged her to mount his horse, as it was the strongest and fleetest horse with the party. Eleanor mounted the earl's horse and escaped, while the Earl of Salisbury was killed by the Lusignans. The relevance of this incident to your topic, is that it is often commented upon that Eleanor "rode astride" to make her escape -- as if she had been riding side saddle before -- or would usually have been riding side saddle. Of one thing I am certain: Eleanor of Aquitaine was not sitting in any kind of a position where she did not control her mount, and she most certainly was not being led by a servant, husband or brother! Any more information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.


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