Medieval Horses - Breeds and Types
Question: I collect Breyer models and also
participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism
(SCA). I'm familiar with the three types of horses
used in the middle ages: Destrier (larger horse
ridden by knights in battle), Palfrey (A smaller
horse with an ambling, comfortable gate -- basically
a travel horse) and Courser (A "Hot Blooded"
horse used for carrying messages, etc, wherever
speed was necessary.) My question is, if I were
looking for modern breeds to embody these three
types of horse, which would I use? I know the
Friesan was used and other French draft breeds,
but I'd like to know which might look the best.
I'm especially curious about the palfrey as it
was described as a long bodied, short legged horse.
The courser seems pretty obvious -- and Arab or
barb cross would do I expect.
ANSWER: Destriers--weren't usually as
large as most of us think. The full armor of the
late 16th century required the bigger Great Horse
(equivalent to today's modern draft). These horses
were also more for tourneys and jousting at that
The destrier of choice was what we know as the
Spanish Andalusian. One of my resource books equates
the typical medieval destrier as a stallion about
the size of a modern heavy hunter. Deep chested,
heavier boned, yet quick on its feet. Don't believe
the nonsense about stallions being unmanageable.
A well trained horse is a well trained horse.
My first show horse, which I started showing at
age 10, was a 10 year old Arabian stallion. He
was a perfect gentleman. Back on track...William
the Conqueror rode an Andalus stallion at Hastings.
They were the Cadillac of destriers.
Flemish horses, as well as other European (Italy,
France, and Spain, mostly) war-horses, were the
most prized. Modern equivalents would be Trakehners,
Holsteiners, and other Olympic level dressage
and jumper horses.
Palfreys were the riding horses. The knights
wouldn't generally ride their destriers from battle
to battle, but rather a horse with a smoother
gait. Arabians were popular. So were horses of
Barb descent. They covered a lot of ground and
had good endurance, for which Arabs are particularly
noted. Palfreys were the sports car of the horse
The courser was used for speed. Modern
equivalents would be Thoroughbreds. Arabs were
most likely also used, again for their endurance.
There's a fourth type as well, the rouncy
or sumpter horse, which carried the baggage.
Usually smaller and heavier, not well suited for
riding long distances, yet with good endurance.
Modern equivalents would probably be small cobs.
If palfreys were the sports car equivalent, rounceys
were the bicycle.
Actually, horses of color (pinto or palomino)
were more prevalent in the Middle Ages because
there were no stud books. Bedoiuns (Arabs) were
the only ones who were prejudiced (and extremely
so) against horses of color within the Arabian
breed. It is said that a Bedouin would not let
a pinto or palomino type into his camp for fear
it would corrupt the breed. Arabians have the
purest lineage of any breed. I've seen 16th century
portraits of pinto Andalusians, which was pretty