Horses in the Anglo-Saxon & Medieval Period

horse 8 image by Harvey Hudson from

Horses in the Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods were subject to the same caste system as peasants. Different breeds were groomed for specific jobs, just as peasants born into certain castes were raised to learn specific trades. While horses were used primarily for war and transport of cargo during the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, by the medieval period horses were breed for war, sport, transportation, and travel.


Brought to England following the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by William the Conqueror, the destrier was bred as a warhorse, and used in combat by knights in the Middle Ages. Conditioned for use in battle, a destrier was trained to follow a knight's commands from leg pressure rather than the traditional use of reigns, freeing the knight's hands to wield his weapon. A warhorse was also trained to trample fallen enemies, and bite and kick on command. A typical destrier had a thick torso, strong back, muscular hindquarters, powerful legs, and dense bone structure. The destrier breed from the Middle Ages is believed extinct today, but horse breeders have attempted to duplicate the destrier by breeding Clydesdales with quarter horses.


An expensive, well trained horse used for travel, sport and combat, the palfrey breed was ridden predominantly by royalty and the affluent. Known for its distinctive ambling gait, the palfrey was a smaller breed than trotting horses, but were favoured for their smooth ride by the gentry. The palfrey's training would allow the horse to function capably in battle or joust, but their small stature made them less favoured than a knight's destire for war. Trotting horses such as the Thoroughbred would eventually replace gaiting horses due to their ability to pull carriages, and the rising popularity of horse racing.


A good cavalry horse, the courser was the most common breed used in warfare. Cheaper than a knight's destire, the courser was favoured in battle due to its light frame, strong build, and good speed. The courser would not be as well trained as a knight's destire, but their high endurance and cheaper cost made them ideal for use in the king's cavalry or guard. coursers today are used for hunting, cattle herding, and ranch work.


The common man's horse, the rouncy breed were frequently called nags, or hackney horses. Cheap and with no training, the rouncy was used by peasants and commoners for travel and field work. A domesticated animal, the rouncy was indispensable to farmers in the medieval period, but would of been little use in the Anglo-Saxon period as the use of horses for domestic purposes had yet to develop in society.

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