Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Great were Great Horses: Where did this idea come from?

   Hollywood is littered with images, in movies like “A Knights Tale” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” of medieval knights on mammoth horses, thundering down lists and over battlefields. Lesser characters may ride thoroughbreds or quarter horses (they’re cheaper) but the hero inevitably appears on some sort of draft. Renaissance Faires and dinner theaters use draft horses and draft crosses almost exclusively. As a rider, this always struck me as another Hollywood fiction. These horses, as much as 18 hands high (or more)[1], have heads the size of a human torso, and feet as large as a human head. They are impressive, and they are loud. However, they lack maneuverability, and they lack enough speed to increase to force of a lance hit. And of course, a horse of that size with the aggressive attitude expected of a warhorse would have been an incredibly dangerous animal to train. A smaller, lighter, but faster horse would have been more manageable, have been able to do more damage, while still being able to take his[2] rider to safety. It seems, however, that Hollywood is not alone in this image of the medieval warhorse. Nor do they seem to be the source of it, as I once believed.

   The modern Shire Horse Society supports this myth, as do many other draft breed associations. It's good for business, and there is likely a grain of truth to the idea that they are related to the medieval "Great Horse," though the later was type rather than a breed and bore little resemblance to the modern draft.[3] However, when these registries were being founded in the nineteenth century (the SHS was founded in 1878), histories were created out of the Victorian imagination. Sir Walter Gibley's 1899 publication of "The Great Horse; Or, The War Horse: from the Time of the Roman Invasion Till Its Development Into the Shire" was not likely the origin of the idea, but it is certainly the most quoted, and why the SHS is more vocal than any other draft breed about its noble origins.

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[1] Six feet tall. One hand is 4 inches, and each “point” is one. 15.2 hands is read fifteen point two hands, equaling fifteen and a half hands or five foot two.

[2] Medieval European warhorses were almost invariably intact males.

[3] The Old English Black (more type than breed, but with a somewhat geographically bounded gene pool) was used for the production of some Great Horses (defined by type and training, not blood). Descendants of the OEB almost certainly contributed to the creation of the modern Shire. However, there are two factors that separate the OEB and the modern Shire. The first is that the OEB was not a breed, and many other types and bloodlines went in to the creation of the Shire. The second is the type itself. While the OEB was considered a tall and heavy type for its time, it was not as tall, as heavy, or precisely the same type as the modern Shire. They are relatives, but not the same animal.

1 comment:

  1. You might look into the Meren horse which now is found mainly in the Pyrenean French departments of Ariege and Aude. I've vacationed there and always enjoy seeing them just in their pastures or at shows. Would loved to have taken one of the Transhumance rides but time never allowed. I can't do justice to them but check them on on Wiki:
    If you look them up on youtube I'm sure you'll find videos of herds being taken to the summer valleys--and much more. I do love horses but there is a quality about the Merens I've been around...intelligence, awareness, gentleness (but strength too).
    I follow certain blogs but then I'll click on the 'Next Blog' tab to see where it takes me. I share my interest in horses with my interest in the history of the 'Midi' which fits in with the Templars who had many commanderies in the area, various wars and battles and such...
    There's an old seal that show two Templars riding on the same horse (loyalty in battle) and the horse certainly doesn't look like a Shire....(do a google'll see).
    Hope this helps you in your research, good luck and good reading!