I found this trivia in a historical strategy game (whose name shall not be disclosed) and I want to know its credibility.

It is stated that warhorses — say, destriers or other types of European warhorse used by knights or heavy cavalry — can't graze naturally on grass fields because they got used to eating their exclusive type of hay — I don't know the name of this type of horse food. Hence, the cavalry or the supply units also had to bring this horse food, too.

So, is this generally true? If so, what are specific examples of this happening?

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    Might be just me, but I'm struggling to picture a band of knights traveling around with a bunch of carts loaded with hay in the rear for the sole purpose of feeding their steeds. Methinks it's just some game mechanics to offset some otherwise advantageous characteristics of using a war horse in your strategy game. Aug 3, 2019 at 6:09
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    I believe this overstates the truth. Warhorses can eat grass, but they need more energy than grass can provide. Left to graze, they'll starve because they burn more calories than they can consume. Warhorses' diet needs to be supplemented with grain. (hat tip to @jamesqf for the correction).
    – MCW
    Aug 3, 2019 at 10:48
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    @Mark C. Wallace: No, or at least it varies depending on the type of hay. Grass hay is just dried grass, alfalfa hay has more energy and tends to make a horse "hot" (though I don't know when alfalfa started to be used for hay). The horses might also get a supplementary ration of grains for energy, but they'd also need hay/grass for bulk.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 3, 2019 at 17:45
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    As an aside, this also ignores the (brutal) fact that an army on the move would commandeer supplies from local residents, friend or foe, just as they would for the men.
    – TheHonRose
    Aug 5, 2019 at 5:07
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    Anyone who has spent any length of time around horses in the field will tell you they never refuse the chance to browse on available grasses. Aug 5, 2019 at 15:34

2 Answers 2


No. War horses are simply horses. Perhaps a little bit finicky with eating but not overly so.

The reason why they were fed hay is different. You need a LOT of fields with edible grass to daily feed them. Those pastures have to be guarded, lest the horses run away or the enemy runs away with your horses. Grass must be ready for consumption and for some parts of the year it isn't.

It's logistically much easier to feed the horses hay while on campaign. Yes, you need to bring that hay to the encampments. But you don't have to guard the pastures. And part of the year you have to bring your hay anyway.

  • 4
    Before the introduction of modern balers, I would think it'd be quite difficult to transport enough hay to feed horses. Even today, I certainly wouldn't take hay along on a horse-packing trip. Horses could easily be hobbled or picketed to graze. They are herd animals, and tend to stay with a group unless frightened. Even then, they'll usually return. (If I had room, I'd tell you about my friend's horse and the charging bear...)
    – jamesqf
    Aug 5, 2019 at 5:40
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    @jamesqf it's as much or more the quantity of feed needed for a large group than the problem guarding the horses. A large mounted force can easily need more land to pasture their horses than is available in a campaign area (and guarding dozens of acres of land 24/7 is going to drain your foot troops).
    – jwenting
    Aug 5, 2019 at 5:53
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    I would assume the group would contract with local farmers, the same as they would for their own food. "We need 20 pigs, 100 chickens, 2 barrels of beer, and 2 wagonloads of hay." (Grocery list truncated)
    – Cyn
    Aug 6, 2019 at 18:39
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    @Cyn Problem here is that the list contains (probably) everything the farmer owns. Most farmers object to that. Enemy farmers for sure, allied farmers weren't very keen either.
    – Jos
    Aug 6, 2019 at 23:06
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    @Jos And that's assuming the army even asks the farmers. Or pays them. Yeah, war is horrible for all sorts of reasons. Ransacking the countryside for supplies and starving the people you're pretending to go to war to protect is part of it. If the army does contract, it would be with a community of farmers (and others), not just one.
    – Cyn
    Aug 6, 2019 at 23:46

If we want to know about war horses in the middle ages we can look at the nomads that visited Europe a prime example of which were the Mongols. In "Horse and pasture in Inner Asian History" by Denis Sinor a case is described were the lack of edible grass hindered the Mongol advance.

In March 1242, a Mongol detachment pursuing the fleeing Hungarian king Bela IV reached the city of Split in Dalmatia. The archdeacon Thomas of Split, describing the events, expressly stated that Qaidan, chief of the Mongol forces engaged in the operations arrived with only a fraction of his army "as there was not enough grass for all his horsemen; it was early March with heavy frosts".

If war horses needed a special type of hay and did not graze then they would make sure to make provisions of it and wouldn't rely on local fauna.

  • 2
    The problem here is what the OP means by "war horses". There's a big difference between Mongol horses - small, stocky, and adapted to steppe conditions (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongolian_horse ) and the large war horses bred to carry European knights in armor.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 8, 2019 at 16:37
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    @jamesqf You are right mongol horses were different than european horses in their physiology, however I don't see why they should be different in their diet. European horses were kept in stables and fed hay true but as Jos said in his answer they are still horses. Grass is their friend. Aug 9, 2019 at 6:13
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    It's not "European horses" in general, but specific breeds that have been bred, or evolved, to do certain things. So if you take a mustang like mine, whose ancestors spent several centuries scrabbling for survival in the sagebrush steppe of the Great Basin, they're probably going to have a rather tougher digestion than say a pampered thorobred. Just for instance, while we were out riding today, I noticed him eating (with apparent relish!) bitterbrush, rabbitbrush, yarrow, and the tops of a couple of small pine trees, among other things.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 10, 2019 at 3:57
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    @jamesqf: Thoroughbreds are Arabians. Look it up, that what is thorough about their breeding. Nothing at all to do with the steeds used by medieval knights, which would be more akin to elite draft horses like Clydesdales or riding breeds like the Lipazzans. Apr 25, 2020 at 17:20
  • @Pieter Geerkens: Thoroughbreds are NOT Arabians, but were developed by crossing English horses with Arab stallions, much later than horses that would have been ridden by knights. They were, of course, bred primarily for racing. (And in modern times, for distances not much more than a mile or so.) Purebred Arabians are quite different, and tend to dominate in endurance racing. I'll save you the trouble of looking it up: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoroughbred en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabian_horse
    – jamesqf
    Apr 25, 2020 at 19:01

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