Warhorses in Europe and the Middle East (Blog 5)

Middle Eastern, or “Oriental” horses, were bred with much more precision than European horses. Breeds such as the Arabian, Akhal-Teke, and Barb developed in this region and are all considered to be among the oldest horse breeds on the planet due to their long history of selective breeding practices and careful pedigree records. People in the Middle East also bred for different characteristics than Europeans. Part of this was due to climate—Europeans tended to favor the shaggy highland ponies that could withstand cold temperatures as well as breeds with feather around their feet that protected their legs while traveling difficult terrain. Middle Eastern horses on the other hand were thin skinned and much lighter and slimmer in build.

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An Arabian horse in the desert. Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1810

Both regions used their horses for war as well as for ceremony and sport. As previously noted, European cavalry orchestrated its offense by charging enemy lines, using the strength and numbers of their horses to overpower their opponents. Middle Eastern people on the other hand often raided enemy settlements and needed a fast, agile horse to do so. Often very lightly armored, these horses were also characterized by extreme endurance and hardiness, with some legends saying they could run for fifty miles without slowing. While these claims may have been exaggerated somewhat, modern Arabian horses are the undisputed champions of endurance races and are one of the hardiest breeds in existence today. The breed is also characterized by having greater bone density than other horses along with lean muscle, giving them a strength not often attributed to their relatively small size (14.1—15.1 hands is the modern breed standard height).

Both Middle Eastern and European warhorses were considered to be “hot-blooded” breeds. This trait, broadly defined as being spirited, quick to learn, and generally more suited to speed and agility than strength, was an important characteristic for a warhorse to have. The horses from both cultures displayed this trait very differently however: many sources point to European warhorses as being fierce and difficult to handle, while the Arabian horse in particular traveled with nomadic groups and was prized for its cooperative and good-natured disposition. Middle Eastern people also rode mares into battle almost exclusively, which could have been a contributing factor in their horses’ friendliness and how easy they were to control. Mares could also be kept close together without fighting, while the stallions favored by Europeans sometimes turned on one another during battle. Additionally, mares tended to be much quieter (stallions often neigh to establish dominance), and the nighttime raids the warhorses were most often used for required stealth.

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“Mameluck en Attaque” 18th-century painting by Carle Vernet depicting an Arabian warhorse

Additionally, Middle Eastern cultures such as the Bedouin people prized their horses much more highly than Europeans, who saw them more as a commodity that could be easily replaced. To protect their horses from theft, the Bedouin often allowed them to stay inside the family tent at night. As only the horses with a good temperament were used for breeding, the Arabian horse has evolved over time to have a good relationship with people. The draft breeds that (may or may not have) descended from the European warhorse can be quite friendly, but no other breed of horse has had quite the same long-term partnership with humans as the Arabian. This partnership was important because humans were the only source of food and water in the desert, and both the nomadic people and the horses had to learn to work together to survive.

Works Cited:

Głażewska, Iwona. “Speculations on the origin of the Arabian horse breed.” Livestock Science 129, no. 1-3 (2010): 49-55.

An Arabian horse in the desert. Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1810

Raber, Karen, and Treva Tucker, eds. The culture of the horse: Status, discipline, and identity in the early modern world. Springer, 2016.

Bennett, Matthew. The Medieval Warhorse: Origin, Development, and Redevelopment. Wiley Blackwell.

Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades. Royal Asiatic Society, 1994.

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