Archaeological evidence shows that war horses were at least 20 cm shorter than contemporary police horses.

A group of zooarchaeologists in the UK analyzed 1,964 horse bones from 171 different archaeological sites dated between AD 300-1650 and compared how these remains correspond to today’s horses. They found that the horses of the Middle Ages were much smaller than their modern descendants—usually no bigger than ponies.

Whether an equine animal is classified as a horse or a pony depends entirely on its size. The animal is usually measured from the ground to the ridge between the shoulder blades in units called “palms”, with one “palm” equaling 4 inches (a little over 10 cm). Modern horses are at least 14.2 “hands”, or about 1.5 meters tall, and race horses are often even taller – about 16 or 17 “hands”. Archaeologists have discovered that medieval English knights carried out their attacks on horses less than 14.2 “hands” tall – today they would be classified as ponies, not horses.

However, these horses have made a significant impact despite their small stature.

“The warhorse is central to our understanding of medieval English society and culture, both as a status symbol, intimately linked to the development of an aristocratic identity, and as a military weapon known for its mobility and striking power, changing the face of battle,” said archaeologist and lead researcher Oliver Creighton.

Archaeologists point out that while these horses may seem too small to be used in battle, the historical record is “conspicuously silent on the specific criteria that define a warhorse.” They add that it is likely “throughout the medieval period, at different times, in response to changing combat tactics and cultural preferences, different conformations of horses were desirable.” In other words, size wasn’t the only thing that mattered. Medieval horses were probably bred and trained for a combination of biological and temperamental factors that may have changed as military strategies changed, requiring animals to perform different functions.

But archaeologists also cannot definitively determine which remains belong to the horses involved in the battle. Without other indications, such as specific burial records, it is not possible to distinguish the remains of a war or farm horse from bones alone, even if researchers had access to whole skeletons rather than individual bones, which they usually obtain from isolated sites.

To learn more about the history of these horses, the authors write that they need to do more detailed research on how bone shape differs between individual horses. Future research may also use ancient DNA analysis to trace origins and observe how the genomes of English horses have changed over time.