The horse was an essential part of the knight’s equipment. Although the knight sometimes fought on foot, he was mostly considered a horse-soldier or cavalryman. He took the greatest pride in the breeding, training and skill of his war horses or destrier.
His horse was the knight’s pride and joy. It was carefully chosen for its strength, stamina and courage. The horse had to be able to charge into yelling, screaming crowds and had to be carefully schooled. In battle, the knight required his hands for holding his sword and shield, so the horse had to be guided by the rider’s knees.
It was not uncommon for the horse to be shod with sharpened shoes so that when their riders reined them in, they rose up on their haunches and beat about them with their deadly forefeet.
There were other kinds of medieval horses. Coursers or running horses were used for war or tournaments; palfreys for travelling or hunting, and hacks for everyday riding. Ladies rode small, spirited horses called jennets.
During the Middle Ages, the bridle consisted of a leather headstall, bit and reins. The headstall was made up of a series of straps fastened around the horse’s head to keep the bit in place. The most popular bit in medieval times was the snaffle. This was a simple jointed metal bar with cheekbars at each end containing rings on to which the cheekbands and the reins were fixed. In the early Middle Ages, the knights used single reins, but during the 13th century double reins became popular. These were often decorated with embroidery.
The saddle consisted of a strong wooden framework which was glued and riveted together, covered with sheepskin, leather or velvet. The covering not only made riding more comfortable but also prevented the horse’s sweat from seeping through into the wooden framework and causing it to rot.
The saddle was kept in place by a series of leather straps. The breast strap was a broad band which passed from the saddle, across the chest and prevented the saddle from slipping back. The girth strap passed from the saddle under the horse’s chest, holding the saddle secure. The crupper stretched from the saddle, along the back and looped under the horse’s tail, to stop the saddle slipping forward.
Horses were sometimes decked out in flowing robes called “caparisons” or “bards”. These were made of cloth, leather and sometimes even mail, although the latter must have been very heavy and uncomfortable. Later, around the 15th century, rich knights protected their war horses with leather or metal armour: a “chamfron” defended the horse’s face; a “crinet” guarded its neck; “flanchards” protected its flanks; and a crupper prevented injury to its back.