Palfreys, Chargers and Destriers
The Need for a Heavier Horse

From Carolingian times (9th Century) onward, Europe's dependence on the warhorse increased. He became part of the fighting force rather than just transportation. With the gradual sperad of the stirrup, combined with the ever deepening seat of the saddle, it was possible to use the lance more effectively as a shock weapon, incorporating the speed and weight of the horse to deliver more poundage to the thrust. The lance became heavier and was carried differntly, couched under the armpit with more length before the rider's body, rather than held along the middle of the shaft. The type of horse began to change, and gradually they became more substantial. It was not only the fact that the rider, and eventually the horse too, were wearing armour that created a need for heavier conformation. The other reason the warhorse needed to be larger and stronger was the combined impact of two heavy lances, one impact being delivered by a Knight on a horse traveling a moderate and controlled 20 miles per hour, the other by his opponent traveling at a similar speed, created a powerful shock which a horse needed great strength to withstand.

This suggests that a heavier horse was made imperative largely because of this shock poundage, not so much the weight it carried. However, another result of breeding the heavier horse was to load him more heavily. The armour weight eventually spiralled upwards until perfectly capable animals were overburdened by pushing the limits beyond common sense or good horsemanship, and even sturdier beasts were then needed, creating a vicious circle. Horses became unwieldy, as did their plate-encased riders.

The most popular medieval European warhorse was not a cold blooded heavy horse, but what would be considered a crossbreed of sorts. The Suffolk Punch of today is an example of a medieval warhorse, a Destrier. Only toward the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, with the adoption of massive plate armour, might warhorses have taken on some of the characteristics of the modern draft breeds, such as the Percheron and Belgian. Destriers had been known since the late 10th century. Information from a few centuries later indicates that they were getting bigger and clumsier as they were trained to walk, not trot, which would have been painful for an armoured Knight in the Medieval peaked saddle, and ony at the last moment would they increase speed, charging at a slow canter rather than a gallop.

I think highly of the draft breeds, especially the Percheron, who the Normans bred with a touch of Arab or Barb blood in them, to make them more athletic, more spirited and with a more refined head than other draft breeds. Because of these characteristics, I stood on these broad-backed steeds for my entire 14 year career as a Rosinback Rider with the Circus.

However, for some, the cold and hot blood cross is more suitable. These crossbreds are actually more like the medieval 'charger' than any purebred breed. This could be a half Percheron and half Quarterhorse, or a quarter Belgian and three-quarter Thoroughbred, or some other combination. The main thing to look for or breed for is a horse with substantial bone and muscling, athletic ability, stamina, and a good temperament and spirit, with an overall good looking conformation and not too far off the ground. This type of horse will look exciting whether being ridden in the games or in jousting. Also, a warhorse of moderate size and stature won't require a special horse trailer to be transported in either.

In the case of the modern day medieval warhorse, heavier is good, because we do deliver a tremendous impact when sport jousting. However, if the horse is too big, too heavy, or too clumsy, it becomes impractical to joust with him because of his lack of athletic ability and stamina.

Whatever horse or horses you choose, just remember, keep one leg on either side and your mind in the middle.


James Zoppe
Founder and Director
American Jousting Alliance



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