When I was a child in New York, the holiday season meant warm hours inside the medieval hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, a mounted regiment of knights in suits of armor guarded a large tree that was always installed next to the Ghent Altarpiece.
I used to marvel at the suits of armor. With the exception of the famous "giant" who must have stood taller than six feet, they were small. The average knight couldn't have been more than 5 1/2 feet tall. But the horses on which they sat, for which we have saddles, stirrups and all manner of fittings, were larger than the average horse today.
As a child I accepted the explanation that medieval people were ill-nourished and thus shorter by inches than vitamin-enriched Americans. No one said anything about the horses.
Now Professor Ralph Davis, a distinguished medievalist from Merton College, Oxford, suggests that the medieval war horse in Britain and France was the product of deliberate breeding and that its production changed the course of European history. The huge war horse, he points out, did not exist in nature. Archeologists in Britain have found horseshoes for animals that stood little more than waist high. The larger horses we are familiar with were probably native to central Asia, from where they were brought west to Greece, Rome and Spain.
These horses thrived for centuries in Italy and Andalusia where, around the 10th Century, they were "blown up" to their maximum sizes by feeding on rich, wet pasture and oats. The best of these large animals were imported into Britain during the 11th and 12th centuries. The nobility who had imported them fed them on the nutritious lime-rich English grass and kept them isolated from the common work horse. Then, during a period of relative calm--a period Davis describes as one during which fences were not broken down so that the horses could not escape and mate randomly--they bred the backbone of a modern cavalry.
Once they knew what they wanted, families like the Fitzallens of Shropshire had only to acquire one stallion and a few mares, keep them separated from the rest of the manor's horses and allow the stallions to "cover" only the prize mares. Within a century the war horse bred true. By the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) the production of war horses had become big business. Davis points out that in one year alone 3,500 war horses were shipped across the channel to France.
The war horse determined the nature of battle in the late Middle Ages and reshaped the culture of the warring classes. A new kind of castle had to be built high on a steep mound that was impossible for horses to climb. Possession of the war horse allowed Britain and France to dominate warfare and thus develop a sense of national identity with which feudal states in the Germanies could not compete. Moreover, the art of horsemanship and the skills of the tourney cannot be learned in six weeks of basic training. Small boys were apprenticed as knights, and a new class emerged, bringing with it the rules and etiquette of chivalry (the word means horsemanship) that added a dimension to Western culture.
Artifical selection of animals did not begin with the horse. People have bred dogs for a longer period of time, and have produced breeds specifically specialized to help in hunting, retrieving, shepherding and protecting human life and property. There is also evidence of bird and bee breeding that antedates the appearance of the war horse.
Yet there has been no animal that has so changed human history. The development of the horseshoe triggered the first transportation revolution when it made long-distance journeys almost commonplace. Horses had long served as draft animals in Europe before the Spaniards brought them to the Americas. Here they freed them to propagate on their own and become the mainstay of a new culture for Native Americans of the northern plains.
Most of the wild horses of the Old West are gone, along with the great war horses of medieval Europe. Yet the development of the war horse remains, according to Davis, one of the greatest technical achievements of our history.