Today it may be hard for some people to imagine the importance of a horse during the Middle Ages. In fact the horse was one of the most important possessions until the dawn of the 20th century.
The horse represented independence during this time. Like a car today, one who possessed it could travel distances that would be impossible by foot. To have a horse, places and people were attainable within your reach; the horse means you made your world smaller.
Although selective breeding of the horse to provide specific tendencies had probably occurred a few centuries after it was domesticated, there is little literature about them. Before the 13th century, account of specific horse breeds were not written down or documented, instead the horse characteristics and description was.
Compared to horses today, medieval horses were smaller and lighter (matched to the same breads today). This could be explained by diet and medicine, such as we today are much bigger and heavier than our medieval counterpart.
One of the most famous breeds of horse during the medieval period was the drestrier. This horse was known for its capabilities in war, for it was fast, agile and strong. It was the horse of choice for knights, if they could afford it. This horse was the Ferrari and a tank rolled into one.
A courser bread horse was a smaller than the drestrier. The courser was lighter than the drestrier, but what it lacked in size, it made up with agility and speed. This horse was less expensive than the drestrier, and was more common. This was also referred to as a charging horse and may have been used by the cavalry.
The most common horse in combat was probably the rouncey. It was the horse used, by squires and men-at-arms. Although, it did not match up to the drestrier, or the courser, it was a good well rounded horse which could be used in combat or used for simple riding.
Besides, the royalty and the fighting forces of medieval times, most people had simple carthorses, or packhorses.
As the name suggests, Carthorses were used to pull carts or carraiges. Many of this were horses may have been rouncey or draft horses, and are classified more by their skill than by a breed. This may seem like a simple answer, but that is a specific trait that a needs to be taught to a horse. Pulling a cart demands specific skills and attributes that not all horses possess.
A packhorse (or sumpter horse) was a horse used to carry supplies usually in some form of a side saddle or panniers. These horses probably carried much of the provisions and materials used during the middle ages. This horse was invaluable in transporting goods over difficult terrain where a cart or other wheeled vehicles could not be used. This breed also may have of been the first use of the domesticated horse.
Now we should discuss the mule. A mule is usually bred from a mare and a male donkey. This breading brings out a less temperamental personality in the mule compared to that of a horse, also a mule can withstand more extreme temperatures and requires less sleep and feed. Although he is not as famous as the drestrier, the mule was a sure footed transportation which many people relied on.
Farming: Many might believe that horses were used in farming during the middle ages. It is true that a horse could be useful, carrying supplies or moving gear from one place to another, but not in the plowing of the land. Although, there probably were horses who were enlisted into this job, they would not have been good at this job at this point in time.
Oxen would have been used mostly during the middle ages for farming. Oxen almost outnumbered the horse during this time. The main aspect of using ox was the technology of the harnesses being used.
In Europe, during the medieval times, the yoke was used to pull heavy objects like a plow. The yoke pulls on the neck of the animal is fitted to. An ox physiology allows this to be used, but a yoke on a horse chokes the animal or does not allow the animal to use their entire strength.
This all changed with the horse collar, which replaced the yoke. The horse collar allowed the use of the horse’s power without strangling him. This collar was invented in China, and made its way to Europe in the 9th century.
Once fitted with the proper collar, a horse was now to use his shoulders and not his head in the act of pulling. This allowed the horse could use his entire strength and power. A horse with this collar could generate 50% more foot pounds per second than the typical ox. Using a horse allowed farmers to grow more food, which lessened starvation and increased wealth. This in turn allowed common farmers to have more free time, and increased their wealth. With more money they were allowed to buy more items which lead to more trade. Trade between countries of mercantile goods also includes exchange of ideas. Exchanging of ideas allowed people to think differently than they did before and expand knowledge. The use of the horse was a contributing factor to the emergence of the renaissance.
In my upcoming novel, since I respect the horse, my writing reflects that opinion. The horse is a companion to us in our travels through life, and not a beast of burden. Without the horse, our civilization would never have developed, we owe them much.
Next Time: What a well-dressed horse wears