Hello and welcome to Rome Across Europe! At the end of August we looked in on a topic that has never been far from battles, military animals.
In this opening article we looked at Dogs of War. Just like today, man’s best friend has also been holding its own as either a soldier or rehabilitation companion when put in harm’s way.
Moving forward, we’re going to look at next most relied on animal for fighting. Today we discover the Roman War Horses!
When someone speaks of the Imperium Rōmānum, an initial thought to cross a person’s minds is the magnificent size of her dominions. Because of this vastness, Rome had to maintain its Exercitus Romanus that was capable of crushing any possibility of rebellion.
Similar to the Greeks before Alexander the Great, the Romans relied primarily on its Legiones, the phalanx and other engines of war for fighting. Horses were mainly used for chariots, light skirmishing and hauling supplies.
With so many lands under Rome’s’ control, it’s natural that they would use different types of horses. Particular favorites appear to be the Arabian, the Andalusian, the Camargue, the Dales Pony, the Fell Pony and the Galician Pony.
As Rome was a military empire, the horse was an essential element in communications, transport and fighting. That is why the Romans were smart enough not to rely on just one specific breed of horse.
The Romans inherited knowledge of horses from the Greeks and amassed a corpus of expertise which covered the best types of horses to employ the most effective tackle and training methods to use, and the most effective veterinary practices.
Stallions from Parthia, Persia, Media, Armenia, Cappadocia, Hispania and Libya were the most prized. Preferring larger animals, horses were also selected for their temperament, stamina, and resistance to extreme environments and food deprivation.
Training ensured horses became used to group charges, flashing weapons, battle noises and strange animals such as elephants which the enemy might field.
Horses were fed barley and each member of the Equites Romani was allotted 6 bushels each month. According to Polybius a horse received 3.5 lb per day.
Despite every care taken, horses ran the risk of disease and injury. The most common, by far, was lameness for horses were largely unshod. In battle, less serious wounds to the animal could be treated but the biggest threat came from infected wounds.
Roman monuments certainly show us a small stocky animal. Recent work on bone evidence suggests that actual military horses were what we would call ponies, robust specimens of 13.2 hands with small regional differences.
Much has been written on the size of the Roman horse. To generalize, there is a consensus that Roman horses in the west were around 13 to14 hands (hh), with some as tall as 15 hh.
Certainly it is safe to assume that strong animals were needed to carry armored riders over considerable distances, and speed would have been a resulting consideration. Size was crucial in determining speed of maneuver, and thusly the effectiveness of Roman Cavalry.
Cave paintings show that horses have been present on the Iberian Peninsula as far back as 20,000 to 30,000 BC. Throughout history, the Iberian breeds have been influenced by many different peoples and cultures who occupied Spain, including the Celts, the Carthaginians, the Romans, various Germanic tribes and the Moors.
The Andalusian, also known as the Pure Spanish Horse (Pura Raza Española), was identified as a talented war horse as early as 450 BC, and was prized by the nobility. They are known for their intelligence, sensitivity and docility.
Andalusian horses are elegant and strongly built, yet compact. Andalusians have long, thick manes and tails. Their most common coat color is gray, although they can be found in many other colors.
Andalusians stallions and geldings average 15.75 hh (61.5 in) at the withers and 1,129 lb in weight. Mares average 15.5 hh (60.5 in) and 908 lb.
Members of the breed have heads of medium length, with a straight or slightly convex profile. Necks are long and broad, running to well-defined withers and a massive chest.
They have a short back and broad, strong hindquarters with a well-rounded croup. The breed tends to have clean legs, with no propensity for blemishes or injuries, and energetic gaits.
The mane and tail are thick and long, but the legs do not have excess feathering. Andalusians, when treated with respect, are quick to learn, responsive and cooperative.
Mitochondrial DNA studies of the modern Andalusian horse of the Iberian peninsula and Barb horse of North Africa present convincing evidence that both breeds crossed the Strait of Gibraltar.
They were used for breeding with each other, influencing one another’s bloodlines. Thus, the Andalusian may have been the first European “warm blood”, a mixture of heavy European and lighter Oriental horses.
The Arabian, or Arab horse, is a breed of horse that originated on the Arabian Peninsula. With a distinctive head shape and high tail carriage, the Arabian is one of the most easily recognizable horse breeds in the world.
Horses with these features appeared in rock paintings and inscriptions dating back 4,500 years. In ancient history throughout the Ancient Near East, horses with refined heads and high-carried tails were depicted in artwork, particularly that of Ancient Egypt in the 16th Century BC.
It is also one of the oldest human-developed horse breeds, with archaeological evidence of horses in the Middle East that resemble modern Arabians. Throughout history, Arabian horses have spread around the world by both war and trade, used to improve other breeds by adding speed, refinement, endurance, and strong bone.
The Arabian developed in a desert climate and was prized by the nomadic Bedouin people, often being brought inside the family tent for shelter and protection from theft. Selective breeding for traits including an ability to form a cooperative relationship with humans created a horse breed that is good-natured, quick to learn, and willing to please.
The Arabian also developed the high spirit and alertness needed in a horse used for raiding and war. This combination of willingness and sensitivity requires modern Arabian horse owners to handle their horses with competence and respect.
The Arabian is a versatile breed and dominate the discipline of endurance riding, a trait certainly used by ancient riders.
Arabian horses have refined, wedge-shaped heads, a broad forehead, large eyes, large nostrils, and small muzzles. Most display a distinctive concave, or “dished” profile.
Many Arabians also have a slight forehead bulge between their eyes that adds additional sinus capacity, believed to have helped the Arabian horse in its native dry desert climate.
Another breed characteristic is an arched neck with a large, well-set windpipe set on a refined, clean throatlatch. In the ideal Arabian it is long, allowing flexibility in the bridle and room for the windpipe.
Other distinctive features are a relatively long, level croup, top of the hindquarters, and naturally high tail carriage. Well-bred Arabians have a deep, well-angled hip and well laid-back shoulder.
Most have a compact body with a short back. Arabians usually have dense, strong bone, and good hoof walls.
The breed is described as standing between 14.1 to 15.1 hh (57 to 61 inches) tall, “with the occasional individual over or under.” All Arabians, regardless of height, are classified as “horses” even though 14.2 hh (58 inches) is the traditional cutoff height between a horse and a pony.
A common myth is that Arabians are not strong because they are relatively small and refined. However, the Arabian horse is noted for a greater density of bone than other breeds, short cannons, sound feet, and a broad, short back.
All of which give the breed physical strength comparable to many taller animals. Basically, even a smaller Arabian can carry a heavy rider or travel longer.
The Arabian is also classified as a “hot-blooded” breed and, like other hot-bloods, Arabians’ sensitivity and intelligence enable quick learning and greater communication with their riders. However, their intelligence also allows them to learn bad habits as quickly as good ones, and they do not tolerate inept or abusive training practices.
The Camargue horse is an ancient breed of horse indigenous to the Camargue area in southern France. Its origins remain relatively unknown, although it is generally considered one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world.
For centuries, possibly thousands of years, these small horses have lived wild in the harsh environment of the Camargue marshes and wetlands of the Rhône delta. There they developed the stamina, hardiness and agility for which they are known today.
Traditionally, they live in semi-feral conditions and are used to herd the black Camargue bulls used in bullfighting in southern France. Camargue horses galloping through water is a popular and romantic image of the region.
Camargue horses are always gray. This means that they have black skin underlying a white hair coat as adult horses.
They are born with a hair coat that is black or dark brown in color, but as they grow to adulthood, their hair coat becomes ever more intermingled with white hairs until it is completely white. They are small horses, generally standing 13.1 to 14.3 hh at the withers, and weighing 770 to 1,100 lb.
Despite their small size, they have the strength to carry grown adults. Considered rugged and intelligent, they have a short neck, deep chest, compact body, well-jointed, strong limbs and a full mane and tail.
Some researchers believe the Camargue are descended from the ancient Solutré horse hunted during the Upper Paleolithic period. Extensive archeological evidence has been found in the present-day Burgundy region of France.
The Camargue breed was appreciated by the Celtic and Roman invaders who entered the Iberian Peninsula. Their genealogy is closely tied with Iberian horses, especially those of the northern part of the peninsula.
Horse remains dating to Roman times were found in the Ribchester area of the Dales, during North Pennines Archaeology’s excavations at land behind the Black Bull Inn in 2009. The Romans themselves named an ancient British tribe to the east of the Pennines the Gabrantovici (Horse-Riding Warriors).
The breed is known for its strength, hardiness, stamina, courage, intelligence, and good disposition.
The Dales Pony is ideally 14 to 14.2 hh (56 to 58 inches). The head is straight, neat, and broad between the eyes, with a fine muzzle and incurving ears.
The body is fairly short in the back, with a broad and deep rib cage, long, broad and well-muscled quarters, a well-muscled neck of a good length joining neatly into strong withers and strong sloping shoulders.
The legs are very muscular, with hard, dense bone, clearly defined tendons, flexible pasterns, and large round hooves with open heels. The mane, tail and leg feathers are straight, silky and abundant.
The Fell pony shares its origins with the now-extinct Galloway pony which was also the root of the Dales pony. It is believed to have originated on the border between England and Scotland, quite probably pre-dating Roman times.
They are primarily a working breed of pony with activity, stamina, hardiness and intelligence that enables them to live and thrive in tough conditions out on the fells in the Lake District.
The Fell pony was originally used as a packhorse, carrying lead, slate, copper and iron ore. They were also used for light agriculture and the transportation of bulky farm goods such as wool.
With their sturdy bodies, strong legs and equable disposition, and being good, fast walkers, they would travel up to 240 mi a week. They were favoured by the Vikings as packhorses as well as for plowing, riding and pulling sledges.
By the Iron Age, equines were in relatively common use in Britannia. They averaged 12.1 hh in height and resembled the modern Exmoor breed in terms of overall build.
By the later part of the Roman occupation, somewhat later than the improvements in other domestic species, the average height of British ponies had increased to around 13 hh.
The Galician Pony (cabalo galego or poldro galaico in Galician) is a breed of pony developed in Galicia. It is thought to have developed partly from a mix of Celtic horses, Roman horses and horses brought to Galicia by the Swabians.
The ponies are hardy and rugged. They are between 3.9 and 4.6 feet in height, with a short body and strong legs. They have a straight profile, and usually are bay in color.
There was a strong love for quality horses in Roman society. This love sometimes becoming so extreme it neared worship.
Particular stories of Romans going to great lengths for their horses survive to this day. Particular celebrated horses were practically treated as royalty. Their hooves were painted with gilt and they were given spectacular presents.
In fact, the “Mad Emperor” Caligula is said to have presented his favorite horse, Incitatus, with a house complete with furniture. Caligula also insisted that friends come to dine with his horse and in turn invite their own horse to dine with them.
Rome was built on the backs of its infantry, but got some help from its horses. We hope you enjoyed learning a bit about the varieties of horses used by the Romans.
Come back soon to check out what we have in store for you. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
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About Fell Ponies.
History of the War Horse. The Roman Empire and its Enemies.