I am really curious about the capabilities of warhorses that the military used before the combustion vehicle came and mostly replaced them on modern battlefield. I had read a bit about warhorse, but many of those article didn't really explain the horse's capabilities. To put it simply:

  • What is the most powerful warhorse breed in history?
  • What is the fastest warhorse / messenger horse in history?

As the other had pointed out, I more interested at time where heavy cavalry is the main battle tank of medieval warfare. Maybe 14-15th century? When Cavalry was a heavy factor for the army.

By "most powerful" and "fastest," I mean more specifically:

  • How far can they march in one day at war and at peace (if there is difference in marching speed)?
  • What is their usual (or maximum) 'operational range'?
  • For a charging warhorse, what is their maximum/heaviest rider carrying capacity?
  • Also, how long can they hold their full charging speed?
  • You would be supposed to try to do some research yourself, and come here to ask questions about that. Not to just ask about a topic, before trying to find the answer. – o0'. Aug 9 '15 at 15:28
  • I had read about destrier and courser, but most article I had read focused on their breeding, training and warfare usage without provide how fast they can be possibly or how long they can be used... Also most warhorse breed had extinct, so it really hard to find some number.... – Satori Wita Aug 9 '15 at 15:57
  • Then I advise you to incorporate these infos in the question itself. – o0'. Aug 9 '15 at 16:24
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    I think there is a good question within this. I think the answer will depend on time. The answers for a Roman auxiliary cavalry, a Parthian, a Mongolian and a Native American are likely to be different. Probably different for light infantry, horse archers and messengers. The answer will also (indirectly) be affected by the invention of the stirrup. (did you mean to ask about a specific time?) I'll ask some of my recreationist friends and see if they have a reliable answer. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 9 '15 at 21:21
  • I want to know about the maximum limit of warhorse... so maybe the age of Heavy Armor Cavalry of Medieval European? – Satori Wita Aug 10 '15 at 5:45

Talked with my favorite professional historian (who is also a professional equestrienne).

She pointed to the Tevis Cup as one source that might be instructive. Most of the Tevis competitors are Arabians, who have been bred to run fast and hard on minimal water & care. They shed heat well, but they can't carry the weight of someone in armor. (There is a reason you'll find few suits of Bedouin plate mail.) Depending on your interest, you may also want to search for the Mongol Derby (friend of a friend rode that last year) as an example of endurance riding.

They don't "march" - and their travel distance isn't limited by political conflict, as much as it is by fodder and terrain.

It is an error to assume that larger horses can carry more; larger horses are generally built for pulling. The Royal Armouries use a 15.2 hands Lithuanian heavy draught as their model for displaying 15 &16th century heavy horse armor because it fits well; that may be useful as a visual model. Note that the picture of the Ardennes horse does not even remotely look like a contemporary Ardennes horse. The breed shifted dramatically in the 19th century.

She concurs with the wikipedia article that during the middle ages they conceived of "breeds" rather differently, and tended to categorize the horse by use rather than by genetics. That article may answer many of your questions.

She also strongly objected to comparing a knight's horse with a messengers'; that is a little like comparing the Chevy 2500 she uses to haul her horse trailer with my ex-wife's old Fiat. Sure they both have 4 wheels, but if you hook the fiat up to the trailer, all you're going to get is laughter. The Knight may charge into battle atop a destrier that is some form of draft horse, but he will ride a smaller horse to battle (a "rouncy"), and include a few pack horses in the train. The fuel consumption for the draft horse is going to be rather different than that for the rouncy.

The typical formula for the capacity of a riding horse is 20-30% of the horses weight, assuming the horse has been bred for riding, not pulling. (This is a general principle; horse people will argue with me on this.) Riding Horses are built to tolerate a load on their back; pulling horses are bred to apply force through a horse collar or yoke. They have different anatomical structures.

She also objected, as I did, to comparing horses across the range of human history excluding only the past 100 years. She said that comparing horses across all geography is probably even more absurd. Native Americans riding horses across what came to be Kansas have different challenges than trying to cross the alps, or ride into Russia in winter.

There is another reason why your question is difficult to answer; take for example your question about their top speed while charging. They lie. THey didn't have speedometers, and contemporary estimates of speed are going to be in units that emphasize poetry over accuracy. There is no real reason to record a horses charging speed; if you're in front of the horse, it is too fast. It isn't running as fast as a race horse.

Generally H:SE prefers that you consult wikipedia and other common sources before you ask questions here, but I thought perhaps her comments and some sources might be useful to you. If you are interested, I can reach out to another contact who is a professional jouster.

A few sources:

  • The wikipedia article - she consulted that while I was writing this and said it is fairly good for the issues you want.
  • Horses in Shakespeare's time (Anthony Dent) - An ordinary traveler will rarely make more than 30 miles/day (and that is on roads, switching horses to avoid tiring the horse). I think that 30 miles/day is therefore an upper limit of operational range, depending on terrain, etc. Not a lot of warhorse in this book, but good reference material for some of your underlying questions.
  • Xenophon - if you want to know about the military use of the horse rather than about European Chivalry.
  • Your local SCA chapter or ren faire; they are generally happy to talk about their horses. (Have a friend call you after a half an hour, or prepare another escape plan).
  • Thanks for the pointer. Ihad read Wikipedia articles and in other site that offer information of Medieval warfare. I'm just become more curious because I hardly can picture what kind of horse they use. Since I never meet a real horse before (typical urbanites). I just need some number that I vcan relate to so that I can appreciate the impact of these wondrous beast on our predecessor battles. – Satori Wita Aug 10 '15 at 5:48
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    1) Important to note that an "ordinary traveller" is not going to be an "equestrian", and will often be limited by extreme discomfort in a saddle used only occasionally if ever, probably more so that the actual limits of the mount. 2) Genghis's cavalry is reputed to have been able to move at speeds of up to 100 km/day for reasonably extended periods. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 10 '15 at 6:54

I can answer only partially.

The most powerful horse breed I regard to be the Ardennes horse. This breed was able to carry a fully outfitted knight into battle.

The fastest war horse would be light cavalry as used in the Napoleonic and Krim wars. A charge's maximum speed was 20 km/h. It could be kept up only for a short period of time.

Cavalry travel speeds would have been much lower especially in unsafe conditions. Here probably steppe nomads like the Huns or Mongol armies would have been fastest.

For messenger speed a good candidate is the Pony Express with 1900 miles in about 10 days.



Ann Hyland wrote two books on The Warhorse with different subtitles re the time periods covered: the first ancient and medieval, the second Renaissance and modern. She also wrote Equus on horses and mules in the Roman realms.

First, wash out any images of knights on Shires and other big draft horses. Draft horses are for draft, are weak in the back for carrying, have gallumphing gaits, and only developed in the later 1700s, but mostly in the 1800s. Shires get their height from Thoroughbred blood. (Silver, Horses of the World)

Thoroughbreds were developed from the 1600s forward as cavalry remounts (Osmer, On Horses), and one of the qualities desired was speed. So they developed as racehorses. They are the fastest breed.

Now, you can erase all this modern stuff because medievals didn't know about it. While Svinhufnud did translate an Anglo-Saxon horse care text, we can see from that the medievals were still largely basing choices in riding horses on Xenophon, On Cavalry, c.350 BC. (You can get a translation at Project Gutenberg or the Perseus Project.) What makes a good horse for the job had not changed.

A good-sized warhorse was 15hh, and a hand is 4", measured to the withers, the pointy bit behind the neck. Hyland bases a lot of her sizing on horseshoe sizes, and surviving saddletrees. Smaller was common. The look of the horse was like a heavy hunter. Roman noses were the norm. Look at statuary. The Frisians of today preserve much of the look, and so were used in the movie Ladyhawke. A Frisian/Saddlebred cross is possibly closer, and a completely droolworthy beast.

Warhorses were called destriers/dextriarii because they went on a dexter lead (our left lead), according to S. A. Bolich. This put the support in the right place for crashing your lance into someone else. On the right lead, the horse is far more likely to fall back. So they took special training.

It's controversial whether they had haute ecole training (like the Lippizzaners in Vienna), if this would be any use in battle, but a horse fighting footsoldiers under saddle is reported as far back as the Graeco-Persian Wars. The Athenians had a special bounty out on Mardonios's warhorse because it was such a terror. You can also see haute ecole poses in the Elgin Marbles. Bolich says it could work, and it would seem to be required to take on a phalanx.

As to travel: depends on breed, condition, supplies, and roads. Not to mention climate, weather, and necessity. Some Mongol horses probably travelled from Mongolia to Europe. I would need my notes at home to quote weights of armour for the destrier.

  • 4"=10.16 cm. 15hh horse would be about half a ton/434 kg before you put anything on it. – Zither13 Aug 15 '15 at 13:19

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