Horse armor, known as “barding,” was as important to the success of an army as the armor that knights wore. As armor technology became better and better, opposing armies began to target the knights’ more vulnerable horses, unseating the riders and making them easy prey for heavy infantry. The idea of putting armor on horses was not a new one, but prior to the middle ages it was made primarily of hardened leather (or metal scales in the case of the Byzantines) rather than chain mail and metal plating.
There were many different pieces of armor that horses could wear, but the amount of armoring they needed varied depending on the way a particular army used their cavalry. Some only wore chest and head pieces, while others were almost completely covered by armor.
A chanfron (or “shaffron”) was made of interlocking metal plates and was designed to protect a horse’s face. The size of these pieces varied, with some chanfrons covering only the forehead and top of the nose and others with hinged cheek plates that went down to the jowls and covers for the ears and eyes. Chanfrons often had a rounded spike in the center of the forehead called a rondel which, despite looking like a weapon, was purely decorative. The chanfron was known to be used by cavalry in ancient Greece, but wasn’t seen in Europe until the 12th century when metal armor began to be used for horses rather than hardened leather.
An open chanfron was open around the horse’s eyes, with some believing that this was done to allow full range of vision. More common were chanfrons with flanges protecting the eyes. While this helped keep a vulnerable part of the horse safe (enemies would often aim for the eyes of horses to try and get them to throw their riders or crash into other horses), it acted like a set of blinders and prevented the horse from seeing very far to the sides or behind. This in turn could cause the horse to panic in battle if they were surrounded by loud noises that they couldn’t see.
The criniere (also called a manefaire) was a series of segmented metal plates called lames used to protect a horse’s neck. Each piece was held together by cloth laces or leather straps, allowing the horse to bend its head while still maintaining the protection of the armor. Heavy cavalry often wore two sets of lames, one over the mane and another around the front and sides of the neck. Light cavalry only covered the mane, with thin leather straps running across the horse’s chest to hold it on. The criniere was often buckled or strapped to the chanfron to keep it in place. Additionally, it was common for chain mail to be attached to the top row of lames and wrapped around the neck for extra protection.
A croupiere was used to protect a horse’s hindquarters. Since this area faced away from a charge and was not likely to be targeted to bring a horse down, horses typically wore less or lighter armor on their hind end. Croupieres could be made of any combination of plate armor, chain mail, or leather. Chain mail was the most common, usually attached to the back of the saddle and draped over the horse’s hindquarters like a blanket. Plate armor, while providing better protection, wasn’t flexible like leather or chain mail and often had to be made too large so that the movement of the horse’s hind legs was not impeded. Additionally, there was no one-size-fits-all design for these types of croupieres, since horses vary in size and build. When they were used, plate croupieres were attached to the back of the saddle either by leather straps or a molded metal front piece to the armor that fit over the rear cantle.
The flanchard was used to protect the horse’s flanks. It could be made of riveted metal plates sewn on top of leather, or a type of hardened leather called cuir bouilli, which was boiled and sealed with beeswax. Flanchards were attached to the saddle and usually had a strap that wrapped around either the front or the rear of the horse to keep the armor from pulling the saddle to the sides. This strap often took the form of a peytral, a curved band of metal that protected the horse’s chest and sometimes stretched as far back as the saddle. The flanchard sometimes had small round or oblong openings that allowed the rider to use spurs. Another piece often added to horses’ armor ensemble was metal plates or chainmail links riveted to the reins so they couldn’t be cut.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable parts of medieval horses’ armor is the caparison. These were cloth coverings, often bearing heraldry designs, that could range in size from what was essentially a large saddle covering to blankets that covered the horse from neck to tail and nearly to the ground. It is not known exactly how well they functioned as armor, but modern reenactments have shown that a loose covering made of relatively thick material is reasonably good for blocking arrows and other projectiles, or at least lessening their impact. Caparisons may have also had an undercloth layer called a gambeson. These were quilted from linen or wool, and partially stuffed with horse hair or straw to provide padding. The caparison could also have had an underlayer of chain mail or flexible riveted plates, though this likely would have been used only by heavy cavalry as the traditional armor beneath combined with the full-body protection of the caparison would have been more than enough to protect the horse by itself, not to mention the excess weight of a full coat of chain mail would add unnecessary weight.
Heraldry and the display of a rider’s coat of arms was very important both in battle and in tournaments such as jousting. The caparison worn by a knight’s horse in particular usually displayed colors and symbols unique to its rider. The main tincture of a knight’s coat of arms was usually the base color of the caparison, with charges (symbols located on the shield of a coat of arms, often animals, mythical creatures, or geometric designs) painted or embroidered along the sides. The color of these designs could have multiple meanings: sometimes it represented the tincture (secondary or “top” color on a coat of arms) and other times it represented the knight’s livery colors (indication of a noble’s status or wealth).
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Shaffron (Horse’s Head Defense). Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art. In The Met. Accessed November 30, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/14.25.1664/.
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