4 Things Writers Get Wrong About Knights & Their Horses

by Mac

We writers love to base our fantasy worlds on medieval Europe: knights! Horses! Pageantry and chivalry! It’s certainly fertile ground for storytelling, but unfortunately a lot of our perceptions of the era have been influenced by modern media that lacks historical accuracy. When it comes to horse writing, these are a few of the most common myths that writers buy into:

1. Myth: Knights rode giant draft horses.

If any one item on this list is likely to send me off on a twenty-minute rant nobody wants to hear, it’s this one. Sure, some wealthy knights in medieval Europe rode an animal known as “the great horse,” or destrier, which was used by as a mount for tournament and war. But “great” doesn’t necessarily mean “big.” A knight’s horse, even the expensive destrier, would have been prized for its power, quality, and training, and not necessarily for its size.

We know from examination and measurements of artifacts (including horse armor and horseshoes) from the period that your average knight’s horse was around 14-16 hands high, which these days is a fairly normal size for a light riding horse; 16 hands would be fairly average today, and 14 hands positively tiny by the standards of most modern recreational riders. (Today anything under 14.2 hands high is considered a pony.) Though medieval artists weren’t renowned for their photorealism, it’s typical for manuscripts from the period to depict people riding fairly small horses compared to the human figures, with the riders’ feet reaching well beneath the animals’ bellies.

On an unrelated note, this work is apparently called “An Equestrian Duel Between A Creditor And A Debtor,” which I find amazing. Do you think I could discharge my student loans by way of armed combat? I’d be willing to do it and I think my desperation would give me an edge.

Not only did knights not ride draft horses, they probably wouldn’t have been caught dead on one: a horse in many historical cultures was a status symbol and a sign of wealth and prestige, and that meant the horse also had to be of an appropriate type to convey that status. Draft horses were bred for draft, the definition of that word which means pulling loads. The draft breeds were developed as labor animals, for drawing a plow, moving logs, pulling heavy carts of goods to market… they were farm horses, doing the same work as oxen. They were an essential and important part of medieval life, but they certainly weren’t the fashion for the local richie riches to be tooling around on, and the local lord was about as likely to be touring his lands on the back of a donkey as on the back of a draft horse. In his book The Last Duelauthor Eric Jager describes from historical sources the ignominy of knights returning from a foreign campaign so destitute, and having survived famine that killed their horses, that they rode farm horses home:

“They obtained passage to France and returned through Flanders, or wherever they could land, famished, and without arms and horses, cursing Scotland, and the hour they had set foot there.”

On returning to France, many knights and men-at-arms “were so poor they knew not how to remount themselves,” and some “seized the laboring horses wherever they found them in the fields,” straggling home without their warhorses and riding instead on the backs of beasts accustomed to pulling plows and wagons.

Obviously this wasn’t an ideal situation for any person of elevated position to find themselves in.

Today’s draft horses are far taller and larger than their medieval ancestor anyway, so the idea of a knight on a modern-type draft horse (as done by today’s full-contact jousters) becomes even more ridiculous. In my opinion, the modern horses that probably most closely resemble the knight’s destrier would be Andalusians (also called the Pure Spanish Horse or PRE) and Lusitanos. These compact, powerful horses are bred on the Iberian Peninsula, a region which has historically been as famous for the quality of its horses as it still is today, and they have the type of endurance, speed, and agility that would have been invaluable on the battlefield. Want to see the best qualities of these horses at work? The modern Working Equitation Speed Test offers some particularly terrific examples of equine athleticism:

These horses have been bred specifically for the sorts of traits that are exhibited here, and which are be ideal for a warhorse: power, maneuverability, responsiveness, and levelheadedness. On the field of battle, a knight would have prized his horse’s ability to act quickly to keep both horse and rider out of harm’s way.

2. Myth: A knight in full plate armor couldn’t mount his horse without assistance.

This is one of those myths for which modern culture is mostly at fault, with the idea being perpetuated in films that a knight in full plate armor required some sort of winch in order to be hoisted onto his horse. (Thanks for nothing, Sir Laurence Olivier.) It just isn’t true: a full harness often weighed only about 50 pounds; the heaviest (made for tournaments) were still under 100 pounds. And that’s weight distributed over the body, with armor typically custom tailored to the knight who wore it.

The best modern analogies for similar weights are a firefighter in full gear, or a soldier with field equipment. (If you’d like to see a firefighter, a soldier, and a knight walk into a bar run an obstacle course to compare their mobility, take a look at this! The full gear test starts around the 3-minute mark.) A fully armored knight could not only easily mount his horse (especially when we consider that it was probably somewhere between 14 and 16 hands high and not a towering modern draft horse), and he probably would have been able to vault on (jumping onto the horse’s back without using the stirrup). This short film by Daniel Jaquet shows not only a knight’s range of motion in full armor, but also the exercises that one knight used as a training regimen to prepare for tournaments:

Of course, at tournaments knights probably did mount with some assistance, simply because they could; they had mounting blocks or a short set of stairs, and just like modern riders, would probably have used them, if not simply to make mounting easier, then to reduce strain on the horse’s back. The equipment in use would also make a difference; before you write your knight vaulting back onto his horse in the heat of battle, bear in mind that many jousting saddles were very high in both the back and the front, and mounting with the use of the stirrup at very least would probably be necessary.

3. Myth: The mounted knight was the most powerful and important force on the battlefield

This would have depended a lot on the shape of the battle and the era in which it was taking place. Though the massed charge was probably a terrifying sight to behold, disciplined infantry with long spears could effectively repel mounted men, and the development of the English longbow completely changed the game. Many battles were also sieges, in which siege engines and strategy were much more important than mounted knights. There were many battles and many societies in which cavalry forces like knights were crucial and decisively victorious, but that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, often knights didn’t ride their horses into battle at all. Their horses were both expensive and valuable, and they wouldn’t necessarily risk them in the sort of battle that would result in heavy casualty of horses. (One 15th-century Italian master of arms advised that in tournament, one should aim for the man, and at war, he should aim for the horse.) Instead of risking their animals in the open engagement, if a massed cavalry charge wasn’t the most effective strategy, the horses would convey their riders to the front, and then be led away to be held in reserve. When the enemy was routed and fleeing, the horses could be brought back up so that the knights could use them for speed in the pursuit.

So against disciplined infantry with shield walls or pikes, horsemen might not have much impact unless the infantry wall broke; later, when bows and crossbows became increasingly powerful, knights were forced to leave their horses well behind the lines or lose them to hails of arrows. Dismounted knights acted as officers, directing infantry and bowman to devastating effect, as in the battle at Crecy, where an outnumbered force of English archers and dismounted knights turned back cavalry charges again and again, and killed thousands of mounted French knights in the process. The image of the knight on his horse dominating the medieval landscape in Europe was never a true reflection of reality. (For more, read James G. Patterson’s “The Myth of the Mounted Knight.”)

4. Myth: Medieval knights rode specific breeds of horses, like Friesians.

We’ve already tackled the draft horse issue, but here’s another one to trip you up. Today we think of horses as breeds, with specific bloodlines and recorded histories, but in medieval Europe, that wasn’t as much of a thing. Though there were definitely regional types, organized stud programs, and careful tracking of lineages (some orders of monks were well known for their breeding programs), horses were generally classified by their use, or their type. The jennets, hackneys and palfreys were light riding horses; the rouncey, courser, and destrier were used in war; and the sumpter was a pack animal. Of course, many horses had multiple uses — the rouncey for instance was a fairly low-cost all-around animal — and what specific qualities led a horse to be classified as one or the other is in some cases lost to time.

Painting of a person holding a blanketed leopard-spotted horse, with dogs milling around their feet.
John Wootton’s 18th century painting “Lady Conaway’s Spanish Jennet” depicts a colorful light Spanish riding horse.

For the most part, horses might be referred to by their type, by the region in which they were bred (which is where many modern breed names, like Clydesdales and Friesians, also originate), the person who bred them, their type of gait, or even their color. So your character referring to her horse as “the bay”, “the ambler” or “the Spanish jennet” would make more sense than her referring to it with a more modern name like “thoroughbred” or “Paso Fino”.

Medieval manuscript artwork of two knights jousting, while lords and ladies in elevated boxes look on. Jean de Saintré jousts with the Spanish knight, Enguerrant, at a tournament.
Knights may have used rounceys, coursers, or destriers in the joust… depending largely on what they could afford to ride.

Let’s talk about #chivalricproblems

If you’ve got the time to truly get your history nerd on, one of my absolute favorite talks of all time about medieval history is this hour-long lecture from The Met, How to Mount a Horse in Armor and Other Chivalric Problems:

Are you struggling with your medieval horse-world-building? Have questions about knights that you’d like to geek out about? Hit me up in the comments!

Like this post?

If you found this information helpful, you might enjoy my book, The Writer’s Guide to Horses! Learn about travel on horseback and by carriage, equine habits and personalities, the basics of riding and driving, worldbuilding a horse culture, creating fantasy horses, common tropes to avoid, and much more. Includes illustrations and quick reference guides to body language, color and markings, and vocalizations. Available as ebook or paperback!

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Phyllis November 1, 2019 - 4:01 am

Thanks for this article. I dropped in for ‘horse noise’ clarification (very helpful) and learned things about medieval horses and knights I didn’t realize I wanted to know!

Spring Strahm May 25, 2020 - 2:54 pm

Hey! This was super helpful! Also concise, well written and enjoyable. I’ve been consuming a lot of material in this vein, and I have to say this is the least painful read I’ve had so far. Thanks!

Mac August 14, 2020 - 11:22 pm

Thank you! I’ve got more content on knights coming, that’s a favorite subject since I was a kid.

Mac October 21, 2020 - 5:38 pm

Hah thank you, I’ll take it! I’ve got a lot more coming so if you have any particular questions you’re wrestling with, feel free to hit me up!

Fiona August 5, 2020 - 9:14 am

Lusitanos are from Portugal. Just saying.

Mac August 14, 2020 - 11:21 pm

Oooh yeah that was a fumble. I should’ve said Iberian, not specifically Spanish; I have now corrected my mortifying error. 😀

Jeff January 29, 2024 - 7:05 pm

Thing is, if one of these things fit in your work, use it. It’s fantasy. It’s funny people lose it over the size of a horse but have no issue with what is basically a giant flying dinosaur that breathes fire.

Mac February 1, 2024 - 3:30 am

Sure, like any writing advice you can take it or leave it, especially if you don’t want your work to be grounded in any of our own earth-bound historical reality. And sometimes magical fantasy horses are very much not regular horses for a reason. But not everyone is writing fantasy, some want even their highest of fantasy settings to be as realistic as possible, and I offer the advice so people can use it if it’s helpful for them. That’s pretty much my whole schtick here. 😀


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