A Tank On Legs

Part of the Horse exhibition.

Horses were a huge advantage in battle. Riding on horseback made a soldier much bigger, faster,and stronger than a fighter on foot. But horses, like the warriors who rode them, needed armor to avoid injury. Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, knights and their horses wore steel armor. Such armor is heavy, often weighing more than 50 pounds (23 kilograms) for the horse, and as many for the rider.

European horses were bred to increase their size and strength just so they could carry knights into battle. While the horses of 500 years ago did not approach the size of modern horses, several large horse breeds today, such as the Percheron and shire horse, claim descent from the noble steeds used by ancient knights.

A Horse In Shining Armor

A knight in shining armor wouldn't get very far unless his horse was well protected, too. During the 1500s, the armor worn by horses in Europe rivaled that of the knights that rode them. The major elements of equine armor are listed below.

In a museum exhibition hall, a model of a horse wearing metal armor, a bridle, and a saddle with stirrups.
Horse Armor, Germany, 1480-1500, Deutsches Historisches Museum.
Denis Finnin/AMNH


Covered the horse's head and carried the rider's family crest or coat of arms


Made of overlapping plates so the horse could move its head easily


Protected the horse's hindquarters


Protected the rider's waist from lances, spears and arrows


Raised or flared outward to provide freedom of movement for the horse's legs

A Knight and His Horse(s)

European knights had different horses for different purposes. The largest, grandest horses, reserved for battles, tournaments, and jousts, were called destriers or "great horses," as shown in the exhibit by an Albrecht Drer illustration. A large modern breed, the shire horse is said to have been bred from destriers. When a knight needed a faster horse that could change direction quickly in battle, he rode a courser. For everyday use, he rode a smaller, all-purpose rouncey. Destriers, coursers, and rounceys were descriptive categories, not distinct breeds.

Worth A Hundred Men?

"There is no other beast which so befits a knight as a good horse... A brave man mounted on a good horse may do more in an hour of fighting than ten or maybe a hundred could have done afoot."
 --Spanish knight Gutierre Diaz de Games, 1400s

Living Large

Knights in shining armor were too heavy for most British horses, so large horses had to be imported from other European countries until at least the 1500s. Determined to increase the size of British horses, King Henry VIII decreed in 1535 that major landowners must keep at least two large mares, and in 1541 he banned stallions from grazing on public lands unless they met certain height requirements. The king may have had a vested interest in breeding strong horses, since his own waistline ballooned after an injury that the once-athletic monarch suffered while jousting.

From The Horse's Mouth

Horses have long been associated with high status in Europe. The French, Spanish, and English words for gentleman--chevalier, caballero, and cavalier--all mean "horseman." The phrase "get off your high horse" may have once referred to the superior attitude of knights who looked down at common people from their tall horses. The phrase "come off it" supposedly refers to the same thing.