Knighthood as we know it probably began around the year 800. Knights were an important element of feudalism, a pyramid of power, with God at the top, the king under him, lords and barons under the king, and at the bottom , the numerous serfs who did the labor. Males above the serf class were expected to perform military service as a knight.
When the Normans defeated the English in 1066 and took over Britain, they brought their system of feudalism with them. Knights would protect the interests of their lords in exchange for money or land.
A mounted knight, covered with armor and mounted on a sturdy steed, was considered the ultimate fighting machine at the time. The knight’s body was almost completely protected with metal plates held together with screws, straps, buckles, and hinges that could weigh well over 100 pounds in all.
Good war horses were in great demand and were very expensive. The horse had to be strong enough to carry the armored knight long distances and be capable of maneuvering in battle with quick attacks. It also had to be bold and courageous, willing to plunge headlong into the confusion and violence of war.
So what breed of horse was this indomitable destrier? Equine historians have debated this topic for years. Some believe the war horses were huge beasts standing 18 hands tall, ancestors of breeds like the Shire, Belgian, and Percheron. More recent evidence, however, suggests that the medieval war horses were of average height – 14 or 15 hands, and while they were certainly stout and muscular, they didn’t have nearly the girth of a modern draft horse.
How do they know this? Saddles, armor, and other items the horses wore have been measured and compared with modern equine equipment. The old fittings indicate that these legendary steeds were about the same size as the modern stock horse, perhaps comparable to a muscular Quarter Horse of foundation breeding.
The modern horse breeds that best fit the descriptions of the ancient war horse of Europe are the Friesian, the Holstein, and the Norman. A sub-breed of the Norman, the Norman Cob, is most likely the closest descendant of the mount the knight rode into battle.
How did a more or less average-sized horse carry a knight and his heavy armor? Humans in Europe were much smaller during the Middle Ages than they are today. The average man was only about 5’3” and weighed about 120 pounds. Add 100 pounds of armor to that, and you get 220 pounds. A short, stocky horse of average height, with good bone and muscling, would have no problem carrying the weight. A horse can fairly easily carry 20% of its own weight. If these chargers weighed 1,200 pounds, a burden of 220 pounds would certainly not be too much for them to bear.
We may never know exactly what breed the knights rode, or what modern breeds carry their bloodlines. From the evidence that has been recovered, however, along with the weight theory, we know that the animals were probably not the ancestors of our modern draft giants.