A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse. Hm. Anything smaller, maybe?
February 24, 2012 12:38 PM   Subscribe

Have horses grown in size since the Middle Ages/Renaissance?

Over the long weekend, I visited the small, but really wonderful Neue Galerie in NYC, including its collection of (mostly) Renaissance arms and armor.

On display were several full suits of armor that looked like they were designed for a wee fellow--maybe 5'3 or 5'4". Changes in nutrition and medicine have allowed significant increases in stature in the past 500 years. At 6'1", I'd look like a giant in comparison.

Also on display were two complete sets of barding, or horse armor. The barding was mounted on full-size horse mannequins--I'm no expert, but armor seemed to be properly sized for what seemed to be a life size horse model.

It's clear that the riders have grown over the past five centuries--did their mounts? On the one hand, horses have pretty much been eating the same thing since forever, and I'm not sure a nobleman's horse would have gone malnourished.

On the other hand, holy smokes, the human suits of armor perched on those horses practically looked like a modern person riding an elephant.

What's the scoop? I have no doubt that armored skirmishes were (literally) awesome, but if the horses were as big as they seemed in this exhibition, it must have been terrifying.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There are bunches of different breeds of horses that have been bred to various sizes. I don't think there's any way to do a direct comparison like with humans, because even if there are bigger horses now, there are also smaller ones.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:42 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia sez that yesterday's heavy-weight war horses were the ancestors of today's draft horses, and some of these look colossal.
posted by jquinby at 12:52 PM on February 24, 2012

We have metal bits from ancient times that appear to have been used and are not especially small.

Historically, clashes between people on large, powerful horses and people on small, quick horses, have usually gone to the quick. Unless the large horse people had especially pointier sticks or better means of sending prontiles toward the enemy.

Horses and tack comprised much of the arms race for centuries. Different sizes and types were valued at different times.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:57 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

monju_bosatsu, I'm not seeing that at all from that link. The "Size of War Horses" section says,
There is dispute in medievalist circles over the size of the war horse, with some notable historians claiming a size of 17 to 18 hands (68 to 72 inches (170 to 180 cm)), as large as a modern Shire horse.[43] However, there are practical reasons for dispute over size. Analysis of existing horse armour located in the Royal Armouries indicates the equipment was originally worn by horses of 15 to 16 hands (60 to 64 inches (150 to 160 cm)),[44] or about the size and build of a modern field hunter or ordinary riding horse.[15] Research undertaken at the Museum of London, using literary, pictorial and archeological sources, supports military horses of 14-15 hands (56 to 60 inches (140 to 150 cm)), distinguished from a riding horse by its strength and skill, rather than its size.[45] This average does not seem to vary greatly across the medieval period. Horses appear to have been selectively bred for increased size from the ninth and tenth centuries,[46] and by the eleventh century the average warhorse was probably 14.2 to 15 hh (58 to 60 inches (150 to 150 cm)), a size verified by studies of Norman horseshoes as well as the depictions of horses on the Bayeux Tapestry.[47] Analysis of horse transports suggests thirteenth century destriers were a stocky build, and no more than 15-15.2 hands (60 to 62 inches (150 to 160 cm)).[48] Three centuries later, warhorses were not significantly bigger; the Royal Armouries used a 15.2 hand (62 inches (160 cm)) Lithuanian Heavy Draught mare as a model for the statues displaying various fifteenth-sixteenth century horse armours, as her body shape was an excellent fit.[49]
From that, it looks like horses in general were not all that different - although it doesn't seem like knights rode on massive draft horses all that much.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:04 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you're slightly exaggerating the difference. No doubt the average height has gone up, but you are still on the tall side, and there are still men who are 5'4" and don't see you as a "giant" but just a tall guy.

Also, consider modern-day jockeys who ride racehorses - they are specifically smaller in order to allow the horse to go as quickly as possible - not beyond possibility that medieval fighters took that into account as well.
posted by mdn at 1:40 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of armor that survives was parade or ceremonial armor, not necessarily meant to be fought in but rather to look good and show off how wealthy you and your family were. They may have also been suits for younger men - teenagers, even - not fully grown warriors.
posted by PussKillian at 2:22 PM on February 24, 2012

As an interesting case study, the Icelandic horse is supposed to be essentially unchanged as a species since the Vikings first brought them to the island during the Viking Age.

They are small. Adorably small. Small enough that every tourist I talked to wanted to call them ponies, despite the fact that this makes Icelanders upset.
posted by zjacreman at 2:58 PM on February 24, 2012

Yeah, I'm pretty sure selective breeding causes more of a differentiation in terms of size than nutrition does, unless you're talking about a special case like the Chincoteague Ponies. Parade horses might also have been fancier, more expensive horses than battle horses, or the armor might have been for a younger soldier. The Roman cavalry had higher standards for height than what you're imagining (5'10"? 5'8"? can't remember exactly) and that was over a millennium before the armor you saw. 15.2 hands isn't huge but it's pretty large.

(Of course, a long time ago, all "horses" were adorably small! But that was admittedly 52 million years ago...Falabellas are bred to remain tiny and adorable, and this picture between a miniature horse and a Belgian Draft Horse is a good demonstration of the range of breeding patterns and genetic quirks possible within Equus.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:29 PM on February 24, 2012

According to a curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, shoes which survive long enough to become historical artifacts tend to have been abnormally smaller than their own contemporaries: they survived because they were rarely worn, and they were rarely worn because few people could fit in them. Armor is tough (obviously), but does get dented and punctured, and armor designed for earlier eras would be especially vulnerable to later weaponry. On the other hand, unworn armor presumably runs the risk of not being maintained, or even of being melted down. It is conceivable that some of these pressures skewed the sample of horse and/or human armor to survive -- or even that opposite pressures operated on each one (since people might have been less reluctant to melt down horse armor, or, alternately, less reluctant to keep re-using it) -- and that this could help account for the elephantine discrepancy you noticed.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:16 PM on February 24, 2012

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