For thousands of years, humankind has relied on horses to support our lives. And for much of that time, horses have been used in battle. Some people choose to wear a purple poppy on Remembrance Day to remember the sacrifice made by animals in warfare.
Different breeds of horses brought different attributes to the battlefield. Some animals were required to carry heavy loads. Others needed speed and agility to carry soldiers as they fought.
Here, we take a look at 17 war horse breeds, and find out why they were chosen.
In medieval times, the Destrier was the king of war horses. Contemporary accounts even call it “the Great Horse”. Strictly speaking, it was not a breed but a type of horse, usually a stallion. They were bred, raised and trained specifically for battle.
They were not much larger than other horses, typically measuring between 14 and 15 hands. But what distinguished them from riding horses was their muscular physique. Their strong hindquarters allowed them to sprint, spin and stop abruptly, making them perfect mounts for cavalry.
Medieval paintings show other distinguishing characteristics were a straight or slightly arching neck, short back and heavily muscled loin. They were expensive horses, and were used in tournaments as well as in battle.
The Friesian horse takes it names from the region where it was first bred, Friesland in the Netherlands. It was popular as a war horse throughout the Early and High Middle Ages.
The first illustrations of the horse date to around the 11th century. They were most usually black, and stood around 15 hands tall. They had a stocky build, but were considerably more graceful and agile than might be expected for their size.
Like the Destrier, medieval Friesians had powerful hindquarters. These allowed their riders to move quickly and smoothly on the battlefield. And the horses’ calm demeanor made them less likely to get spooked by the noise and chaos around them.
Friesians can still be found today, although the breed has evolved over time and is now much taller. Fortunately for them, you are more likely to find them as riding or dressage horses than in battle.
The elegant Arabian horse has been used in battle by civilizations from the ancient Egyptians to the Ottoman Empire. Its value on the battlefield lay in its intelligence, speed, stamina and agility. And although known for its beauty, it’s also a very hardy animal.
They were used both for raids and as chargers for light cavalry troops.
Although the breed has developed over centuries, today’s Arabian horses retain their speed, agility and stamina. They are now used in virtually all equestrian disciplines, including show jumping, dressage and flat racing.
The Andalusian was known as the “royal horse of Europe”, and was the mount of choice for kings and noblemen. It originated in the Iberian Peninsula, and was used by both French and English forces. Both Henry VIII and French monarchs Louis XIII and Louis XIV rode Andalusian horses.
The Andalusian has been recognised as a specific breed since the 15th century. It is usually gray, with a thick mane and tail. It’s known for being intelligent and docile, as well as for its stamina and athleticism.
Today, its graceful appearance makes it a favorite choice for dressage events. And it’s also often used in TV and films, including in the Lord of the Rings movies.
The Marwari originates from North-West India, in the region of Rajasthan. It was first bred in the 12th century, and was prized for its hardiness, loyalty and courage in battle.
It was used as a calvary horse by Indian rulers and the people of the Marwar locale. It was noted for its exceptional hearing and sense of direction. That meant that Marwari horses were often able to return wounded soldiers from the battlefield without guidance.
The breed can be found in all equine colors. Its most distinctive feature is its ears, which curve gently inwards. They can rotate a full 180 degrees, touching at the tips. It also has long, broad shoulders, a medium-length back and rounded, muscular hindquarters.
The Percheron is another breed that takes its name from its region of origin, Perche, in western France. The emergence of the breed is lost in the mists of time. The horses were, however, documented in the region from the seventeenth century.
Percherons were used extensively during the First World War. Their calm temperaments saw them used with guns and forward units. And the lack of feathering on their legs helped in the muddy conditions in which they often had to work.
The popularity of the breed declined after the Second World War, but numbers are now recovering. Percherons are still used in agriculture, and in English equine disciplines including show jumping. Sadly, in France, their ancestors’ loyalty and war service is repaid by being used for meat.
The strong and placid Shire horse is another breed that was instrumental in the First and Second World Wars.
The horses, the largest and heaviest breed in the world, were requisitioned from farms across Britain. Their rural working days were swapped for a life of pulling guns, weapons and supplies, transporting the wounded, and even cavalry charges.
The breed survived both wars, but during the 1950s, the increasing use of machinery on farms saw their numbers dwindle. Today, dedicated enthusiasts have kept the breed alive, and you can even visit them at specialist centers.
Perhaps the most famous of all war horses was Bucephalus, the beloved steed of Alexander the Great. Thessaly in Greece was renowned for its horses, and Bucephalus was reported to come from the “best Thessalian strain”.
Legend has it that the 12-year-old Alexander won the horse in a bet with his father. If he could tame him, his father said, he could have him.
Alexander succeeded by speaking calmly to the stallion, and turning him away from the sun. The result was a partnership between man and horse that lasted almost 20 years.
It came to an end when Bucephalus was injured in Alexander’s final battle. He died of his wounds, and Alexander founded a city, Bucephala, in his memory.
Mongolian horses were key to the success of the 13th century Mongol Empire. The breed is reputed to remain largely the same today. There are currently over 3 million horses in Mongolia, more than the population of traditional Mongolian nomads who own them.
Mongol soldiers in the time of Genghis Khan relied on their horses to carry their equipment and to ride into battle. The horses are hardy, with excellent stamina, and could be left to forage for their own food. They were, however, slower than some other breeds.
Legend has it that a Mongolian horse would come at the whistle of its owner. Each warrior would have a number of horses, so that he could always ride a fresh mount into battle.
The Courser originated in Spain, and was used in medieval times. It was much faster and lighter than the Destrier, and was usually ridden without armor. It was preferred for fast strikes and raids, and was also used for hunting.
Its speed meant it was sometimes ridden by kings, and it was often used as a messenger horse.
The name is usually taken to come from the old French “cours”, meaning “to run”. It’s more likely, however, that it’s derived from “corsiero”, the Italian for “battle horse”.
Another horse to see battle during medieval times was the Palfrey, also known as the Jennet. This was usually ridden by lower ranking knights on the battlefield.
It was not a specific breed, but was a horse known for its smooth gait. That made it a comfortable ride for both soldiers and noble women. And it was regularly used in hunting and for ceremonial parades.
It was shorter than the Destrier, and had a longer back. And it had plenty of stamina, making it a good choice for riding over long distances.
The category of Iberian actually covers a number of different breeds of horse. These include the Andalusian we discussed earlier, as well as the Lusitano, Garrano and Pottoka.
They combine sturdiness with agility and athleticism, and as such were highly prized as war horses from classical times. They were reputedly used by the Spartans to sack Athens, and by Hannibal to defeat the Romans in the Second Punic War.
Today, many of the warmblood European horses have Iberian lineage.
The Rouncy was another horse used in medieval times. Less expensive than the Destrier, its powerful build made it invaluable for carrying heavy loads.
It was frequently used in agriculture, particularly for pulling plows. But Rouncys were also trained as war horses. These were often the mounts of poorer knights, squires and men-at-arms.
They were faster than Destriers, and were the preferred horses for archers. And when a summons for horses for warfare was sent out in 1327, it specifically asked for Rouncys.
The Holsteiner breed originated in the 13th century in Germany, in the region known as Schleswig-Holstein. It’s considered to be the oldest of the breeds known as warmbloods.
The earliest Holsteins appear to have been bred by monks. They took native horses, which were small in stature, and bred them to develop larger mounts, more suitable for warfare. They were in great demand by armies and royals across Europe.
Today, the Holsteiner is renowned as an excellent jumper, frequently appearing in show jumping, dressage and eventing. Most horses are bays, and have an elegant build and graceful, arching neck.
As its name suggests, the Hanoverian originates from Hanover in Germany. Its blood lines date back to the Early Middle Ages, when its powerful physique enabled it to carry armored knights.
Over time, it was bred with Oriental and Spanish horses to produce a breed more suitable for cavalry. Its versatility also saw it used as a riding horse, in agriculture and for drawing carriages.
Modern Hanoverians are taller than their ancestors, standing between 16 and 17.1 hands. They have long backs and large shoulders and chests. And they can be found in a range of colors, with brown, bay, black and chestnut the most common.
The Ardennais hales from the Ardennes region, which straddles France, Belgium and Luxembourg. It was used in warfare both to carry cavalry troops and to transport artillery.
Their ancestry dates back to Roman times, and Julius Caesar described them as “rustic, hardy and tireless”. During the French Revolution, they were considered the best of all artillery horses, because of their power, stamina and temperament.
Their strength is reflected in their heavy-boned build and thick, muscular legs. They are most commonly bay or roan, but can also be gray, chestnut or palomino. Despite their compact and muscly build, they move freely with a long stride.
17. Boulonnais of Flanders
The Boulonnais of Flanders was one of eight different breeds of horse used in the Napoleonic Wars.
Their strength and stamina made them an obvious choice as a draft horse. But they were also used for heavy cavalry. Napoleon bought thousands for that purpose, and they were widely used amongst other cavalry forces across Europe too.
They are usually gray, although they can also be black and chestnut. Over time, they were bred with Oriental blood lines, giving them an appearance more elegant than many draft breeds.
The debt of war
That brings us to the end of our round-up of 17 war horse breeds. Whether Shire horses transporting equipment, or Arabians used for swift strikes, their role has been central to centuries of warfare.
While these animals had no choice in going to war, they were instrumental to the outcomes of many battles. Many paid for that with their lives.
For every Bucephalus with a city named after him, there are thousands of horses whose memories are lost to history. Humankind owes them a great debt. Perhaps next Remembrance Day, more of us will wear a purple poppy to mark their sacrifice.