Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Horse Heredity in the Dark Ages

By Kim Rendfeld

The early medieval warhorse had two jobs. The first was to charge into battle with a fully armed and armored warrior on his back. The second was to beget foals as strong and brave as he was.

He—they were all stallions—was shorter than today’s thoroughbred. The modern thoroughbred can be 5-foot-1 to 5-foot-8 at the withers. A Germanic early medieval warhorse was about 4-foot-5, and a Roman military horse could be 4-foot-9 to 5-foot-3. (Yes, my horse friends, I know the proper unit is hands, and medieval people likely used that measurement or something similar. But like most 21st century Americans, I think in terms of feet and inches.)

All horses were expensive; they could cost three to five times more than a bull and as much as 90 times more than a ram. But the warhorse, a predecessor of the famous destrier, was the most costly of all livestock, both to purchase and to maintain. As was the case with all grazing animals, land had to be set aside for pasture rather than crops, and if we are to believe written sources, horses required a lot more oats in winter than oxen did.

Horses were critical to the military and had a variety of functions, carrying soldiers and baggage and pulling carts with supplies. The only time a warhorse was put to work was in combat (well, maybe he was used in the hunt, too).

This meant warhorses belonged only to the wealthy, who could afford to set aside land and have livestock work for such limited times. While medieval animals were valued more for their work than companionship as pets, warriors did get attached to their steeds, akin to fellow soldiers. The men relied warhorses not to freeze or bolt when they heard clashing swords and screams or saw an enemy attacking them. A horse giving in to fear endangered both man and beast.

Early Signs of Bravery

In other words, there was no room for cowardice—for anyone. Medieval people believed gelding would make a horse timid. The folk also thought that male horses were solely responsible for passing desirable characteristics, like courage and pride, to their offspring. As for the females, they just needed to have the broad quarters and abdomens good for bearing young, maybe be good-looking, and have attained the right age, at least 3 years. Some writers recommended mares stop breeding at age 10 because her foals would be lazy, while others thought she could reproduce throughout her life.

Mares outnumbered stallions, anywhere from 10 to 30, so not all colts grew up to reproduce. The rate of gelding varied region by region, but the decision of whether a colt would later become a stallion or a gelding was made when the animals were young, likely before they were 3. (Male horses were ages 3 to 4 1/2 before being allowed to mate. The belief was that younger parents had smaller and weaker young.)

Because bravery was a desired trait, owners would watch for signs. Those included a colt running in the front of the herd, staying calm when seeing or hearing something unfamiliar, being more playful than other horses his age, and when racing, leaping over ditches and crossing bridges without a fuss. Easily spooked colts would have an appointment with the knife in the fall, considered the perfect time for the procedure.

In Spring, a Stallion’s Fancy Turns To ...

At this time of year, between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, a stallion would be fulfilling his more pleasant responsibility and become reacquainted with his harem. He didn’t have access to his mares at any other time. He was fattened, perhaps on barley and vetch, before and during the spring because his duty was exhausting. A strong, well-fed stallion was believed to sire strong foals, but he had a deadline.

Breeding after summer solstice was believed to result in weaker foals. Yet a real practicality came into account. A mare’s pregnancy lasts 11 to 12 months. Her caretakers would prefer her to deliver when the grass was growing so that both mother and baby would have fodder.

Conceiving foals might take more than one try. The mare was thought to be pregnant when she no longer showed interest in the stud.

Not all the mares in the herd would be available to the stallion. Some of them would have recently given birth. Nursing foals took six months, and the mothers would not be bred for another six months after that. The waiting period might have been to time optimal conception and the availability of fodder. Yet the owners of the herd would want to keep their animals healthy, if more for practical reasons than sentimental ones. They needed to protect their investment.

The inspiration for this post is a tragedy that happened while Charlemagne was at war against the Avars in 791. In his half of the army, a pestilence killed nine-tenths of the horses, which from a military perspective is devastating. Think of it as nine-tenths of the vehicles being wiped out. Even if you have more tanks in production, that kind of a loss is still a huge blow, and in this case, you can't speed up production.

This occurred in the late fall, and more horses would be on the way. Some mares in the herd would be in foal, and there would be some months-old foals along with maturing colts and fillies. But none of that was enough to come anywhere near replacing a loss of this magnitude. A normal year would have some deaths from illness or age among the herd, and aristocrats would expect to lose some horses in battle. But not this many.

First, stallion and mares would need to wait until spring to breed. On top of the 11-to-12-month pregnancy, it would take another two years for horses to be ready for someone to ride them.

Replenishing the herd was a slow process indeed, and in the meantime, the army was crippled.

All images public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Source: Horse Breeding in the Medieval World by Charles Gladitz


Kim Rendfeld learned about the mass loss of horses while researching her work in progress, Queen of the Darkest Hour, a novel about Charlemagne's influential fourth wife, Fastrada, and his rebellious eldest son, Pepin. She has written two novels set in early medieval times.

You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, CreateSpace, Smashwords, and other vendors.

Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, thanks.

    "The only time a warhorse was put to work was in combat (well, maybe he was used in the hunt, too)."

    There would also be considerable time taken up with training. You can ride a horse at the age of 2 or 3 but he's not fully developed until he's 4. Even the bravest young stallion is going to require some conditioning to be able to carry a rider into battle even after he’s been broken to accept a rider and understand basic commands. (He’s still a bit of a brainless baby, even at age 4.) A horse is a prey animal whose first instinct is to run from something scary. If you look at police horses today and how much training they need to be able to face a rioting mob, that's the equivalent to training a horse to ride into battle. Also war horses were trained in aggressive moves. A capriole (leaping into the air on the spot and lashing backwards with both hind feet) is very pretty today in a riding display, but it was originally a battle move that could take out any rider getting too close behind you. (See youtube of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna training their stallions to do this.)


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