Medieval Horses

If I asked for a show of hands from all of you out there who couldn’t wait to get your driver’s license as a teenager, I’m guessing that most of you reading this blog would have your hands up. Today, getting their driver’s license and better yet, their own car, is rite of passage for many youths.

Me as a kid in front of my dad’s Karmann Ghia.

When I was a young teenager I would check out all the latest sports car ads and wander by the auto showrooms wondering what it would be like to drive my own sports car. I liked the Mustang, and I always had a soft spot for the Karmann Ghia because my dad used to drive them. But eventually I had to lower my expectations to a somewhat more reasonable level. My first car was a 1967 Impala for which I paid— actually overpaid— $500.00. The car had a million problems, including a horn that would spontaneously blare to life with a teeth-shattering blast at the most inconvenient times— when I was stuck in line at the bank, when I was driving behind a police car… I’m sure you get the picture.

But what about transportation and youthful rites of passage from a time long before the automobile? What about from medieval times? In general, walking was the main method of getting from point A to point B. But depending on your status and financial means, you might have used a mule or a donkey or perhaps even oxen— both for transportation and for other types of work like plowing. But if you wanted to travel in class, well then the horse (of course) was the preferred method of getting around— the sports car of its time.

Today, horses are differentiated by their breed, but for much of the early middle ages, very few pedigrees were written down. Instead, horses were distinguished by how they were used. Here are a few kinds of horses common in the middle ages:

  • The destrier was a strong, sturdy, powerful horse, known for its great size (although it was likely smaller than many modern horses). It was very expensive, but prized by knights because it was well-known for its abilities in battle as well as being suitable for the joust.
  • The courser (or charger) was often used in battle because it was light, fast and strong. Sometimes they were used for hunting as well.
  • The palfrey was a riding-horse popular with nobles for riding, hunting and for ceremonies or show. It could be as expensive as a destrier. A good palfrey would be valued for having an ambling gait, which allowed for a relatively smooth, comfortable ride over a fair distance.
  • The rouncey was a good all-purpose riding horse that could be used for general transportation or trained for war. A poor knight might have ridden a rouncey.
  • The jennet was a small, quiet, dependable horse that came by way of Spain. They were popular as riding horses for ladies, although the Spanish used them as cavalry horses.
  • The hobby horse was lightweight, quick, and agile, and was often ridden in the light cavalry and used in skirmishing.

So like the teenager today who wants a really cool Ferrari or Porsche but discovers that he or she needs to be content with a practical Toyota, the young knight of the Middle Ages might have longed for a stunning destrier or courser, but found himself instead with an aged rouncey.

Kaye and Kadar (from “The Knighting of Sir Kaye”)

Interestingly, in the first book of my Sir Kaye the Boy Knight series, The Knighting of Sir Kaye, twelve-year-old Kaye Balfour has his own destrier named Kadar, which is pretty amazing. The horse was given to him by his father, Sir Henry, and although it’s not mentioned in the first book, Sir Henry got the horse after defeating another knight in battle—to the victor go the spoils.

Kadar is a very kind and gentle horse, if he likes you, and he can have a calming effect on the people around him. He’s also very protective of Kaye and won’t hesitate to jump into the middle of a fight if needed. Kadar has a good instinct about people and is very wary of strangers who seem untrustworthy. Kadar is a very well-trained battle horse too. In a tournament scene in the book, Kadar performed as though he didn’t even need a rider during the horsemanship displays.

I can honestly say that I have a pretty good understanding of how a teenager relates to his first car. But things are different with a living creature like a horse with a mind and a personality of its own. I don’t know very much about that, but I need to, because as I’ve been working on my series of books, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of horses involved. So I reached out to a knowledgeable source and in next week’s blog I’ll share some of the things I learned from equestrian expert Susannah Cord about the unique relationship between a horse and its rider.