A star-fronted mare


Esmeralde, Arpil 2019 – my star-fronted  mare

While most noble riders in medieval Europe would despise anyone reduced to riding a mare, mares were ridden in the nomadic societies throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

The poem of “Jostled by Horses” legendary sixth-century warrior and poet of clan ‘Abs, ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād, is eloquent with praise of his valiant mare:

Jostled by horses

I aimed my mare’s star-front toward

a rider skewered

in a thicket of spears

James E. Montgomery and Richard Sieburth explain that “A horse with a ‘star-front’ is a thoroughbred with a blaze on its front, a sign of prime stock”. Ibn Shaddād should have been breeding from it – by European standards – but no, he rode it, unashamedly, boastfully, into battle!

The bottom line is that, of course, mares make as good fighters as stallions, so Ibn Shaddād knew what he was doing.

Some people prefer riding stallions, and some people prefer geldings, while I love mares (both my horses, accidentally, are mares). Still, a good horseman would not discriminate but would judge each horse on its merits. In yet another war song, “An enemy squadron attacked”, the poet describes his tribesmen as perfect horsemen, who are good training horses of both genders: they are “steadfast men, trainers / of sleek stallions and lean mares”.

I wonder, though, if under certain circumstances the tribes of the Arabian peninsula would prefer horses of one sex rather than the other, as Ibn Shaddād writes “Bring on the warriors / brandishing their spears / on A‘waj stallions” in his poem of ruin and destruction entitled “Antelopes sprinted right and left”?

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The Best Breed of the North

Speculating on the origins of the Galloway horse is a process that is fraught with the issues besetting any contemporary breed enthusiast, since the whole concept of a “breed” is a very modern one and it probably did not cause medieval horse breeders any sleepless nights. A good horse was a good horse, valued for purpose rather than ancestry, and described by gait, or height, or even color or size, but principally by function.

Miriam Bibby, ‘The (Galloway) Horse and His Boy: Le Roman Des Aventures De Fregus and “The Best Breed in the North”?’

in The Horse in Premodern European Culture, ed. A. Ropa and T. Dawson

What do Fregus, Robert the Bruce, and Shakespeare’s Pistol have in common? These disparate individuals, who are either completely fictional (as Talbot’s characters) or partially fictionalized (Fregus is based on a an actual Scottish ruler, but was turned into the title hero of an Arthurian romance by Guillaume le Clerc, while Robert the Bruce, arguably, became the protagonist of Scottish myth-making effort under the skillful pen of Barbour) share one important element. All of them rode – and valued – what has been known as the best breed of the north, the Galloway horse.


Of course, it was not a breed in Fregus’s lifetime, and the formation of horse breeds was in its infancy when Talbot was writing his plays, but Galloway nags were already famed for their hardiness, endurance, and, most of all, their speed. These little horses (possibly even ponies, by modern standard), became extinct in the nineteenth century, and have been forgotten by most of the world. Yet, as Miriam Bibby notes, there is genetic evidence that the Galloways stand at the origin of the English Thoroughbred, the fastest horse in the world. Although most documentary evidence concerns the three foundation sires of the English Thoroughbred, all three Arabians, the mares should not be neglected. What is more, recent genetic analysis shows that the speed gene in the Thoroughbred does not originate from the Arabian genetic material but from the local one.

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Cutting the Stallion’s Tail: A Very Strange Crime that Might Have Occurred in Medieval Wales

the stallion hywel ddaInspired by Edgar Rops, “The Horse in Welsh and Anglo-Saxon Law,”

from The Horse in Premodern European Culture,

ed. by Anastasija Ropa and Timothy Dawson

Owain was neither thief nor coward, and he certainly did not want to appear like one. He did not disguise himself, but, early in the morning, went to the town of Caernarfon in his usual dress, found the inn where Ian was lodging, and asked to be taken to the stable and be shown the horse. Owain’s calm, resolute appearance did the job: no one asked him a single question or protested against the ungodly hour at which he arrived. He walked in with confidence, holding the edges of his cloak with his right hand, to avoid it being soiled in contact with the posts – or was there another reason?..

It was a big, powerful stallion, standing thirteen and a half hands, with slender neck and legs, a wide chest, intelligent eyes and sleek, silver-grey coat. Its long flaxen tail swept the over the straw that lay in the stall.

Owain examined it from all angles, appreciating its magnificence, and commented wryly, standing by the horse’s rump: “A pity that such a noble animal is in the possession of an ignoble beast!”

Then, swiftly taking hold of the stallion’s tail with his left hand, he produced large shears from under his cloak and took away a portion of the stallion’s shining tail, cutting into the flesh at the dock.

Taken by surprise, the horse reared. The flaxen halter, to which the ropes securing the stallion to one of the posts were tied, broke, and the stallion was free momentarily. It reared and bucked, and the servants, taken by surprise, failed to catch it at once.

In the commotion, Owain walked out of the stable, as calm as he had walked in, leaving the shears on the floor and quietly smiling to himself.

He was equally serene when, two months later, he was summoned to the court, tried, and charged with paying the full cost of the stallion to his enemy. “He was not worthy of riding it. Such a noble animal dominated by the rascal,” muttered Owain. “At least now it’s mine. And so I am avenged…”

He named it Drudlwyd, the courageous grey, in honour of the legendary courser from the island of Prydein. Still, he did not dare ride the stallion, whichnot only because it was shameful to ride a mutilated steed, but also because Owain knew that this stallion had but one rider, like King Alexander’s Bucephalus. He let it out with his herd of mares, in a little glen among the mountains, not far from the place where St Melangel’s chapel stood. There the stallion with the cut tail ran freely, engendering silver-grey foals that would be free of all mutilation, shame, and treachery. Owain felt that he had fared well, not only avenging his family’s shame, but also gaining a prize sire for his horses, all for a sum of money which, albeit large, was not too much for what he had achieved by cutting the stallion’s tail and thus making it unfit as a nobleman’s mount.


As we read in the article by Edgar Rops “The Horse in Welsh and Anglo-Saxon Law,” medieval Welsh law is unique in having elaborate provision for horses and horse-related offences. The clauses were designed to ensure that a customer buying a horse is not cheated and that a person would be compensated for cases when a horse would be damaged or lose its value through a third-party intervention, as in the fanciful episode imagined above. All names and circumstances are entirely fictional, but the crime of cutting a horse’s tail to make the horse lose its value as a mount to render it unfit to carry a noble person is one of the crime mentioned in the Welsh law. So are the provisions, the perpetrator paying the compensation to the person whose horse was damaged (the horse’s statutory price, rather than its market value) and taking the tailless horse.

The unprecedented detail to which the Welsh legislators went in detailing the crimes and remedies for equine-related offences testifies to the importance of the horse in the Welsh society.

The Welsh law co-existed with another, completed different legal system that was practiced across the Welsh border but was much less detailed or well-organized, the Anglo-Saxon law. The two systems were roughly contemporary in their origin and development, yet the Anglo-Saxons, much as they seemed to have valued their equines, appear to have been much less careful in organizing the legal system of compensations and fines for equine-related offences. In his article, Edgar outlines the differences between the two systems and the reasons for the different treatment of horses under the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon laws. His argument is illustrated with a range of examples, some of them amusing, others shocking, still others making one stop and think about the societies that went to such length in regulating their lives and the destinies of their livestock. With no extant court records, it is hard to know how and whether these laws were implemented, yet it is surely stimulating to think about the contexts and situations that could have provoked application of these laws. Contemporary literature could provide some answers, and it would be very interesting to read Welsh and Anglo-Saxon literature with the knowledge of the legal systems that operated in the societies that produced the literature. Still, one must be careful to distinguish between fact and fiction, as literature does not always reflect reality faithfully.

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Some thoughts on medieval urban equines

in the late Middle Ages, the horse became more widely popular as a means of transportation than ever before in history…

(Fabienne Meiers, “Equestrian Cities: The Use of Riding Horses and Characteristics of Horse Husbandry in Late Medieval Urban Agglomerations,” in The Horse in Premodern European Cultureed. A. Ropa and T. Dawson

Today, if you want to leave the busy metropolis to travel to the countryside on business or just for a few hours of fresh air, you would most probably take your car. Or, if you don’t have a car, which is quite rare these days, you would use public transport. In different countries the public transport system may range from very cheap/free to being more expensive than driving and offer varying degree of comfort, convenience, and speed. However, the public transport is always there, if only in the form of a twice-daily, crowded, and rather outdated bus.


Imagine what life would have been like in the Middle Ages, when no buses or trains were in existence, and the only means of travelling for an urban dweller would be on foot or on horseback – or by water, though this means of traveling was restricted to river courses and the availability of boats and ferries. A horse in the urban area was more of a liability than an asset, as it had to be fed, water, and sheltered, not to mention waste removal – and, on occasion, the removal of the bodies of dead horses… So only the rich could keep horses for their own use, and what about the ordinary citizens? The officials, the craftsmen, and all the rest of the common folk? Would they be restricted to traveling on foot – a slow, laborious, and often unbecoming way of moving beyond the city walls?

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The Less Glamorous Equines

Horses have the speed and spirit, but for strength, endurance, and steadiness, they are often the inferior of other species and varieties. That so much depended upon four-legged freight makes it something of a surprise how neglected it is in the historical record and scholarship.

(Timothy Dawson, “Baggage Animals – the Neglected Equines. An Introductory Survey of Their Varieties, Uses, and Equipping,” in The Horse in Premodern European Culture)

Packhorses in Perceval, Montpellier H249, fol. 60v

Packhorses in Perceval, Montpellier H249, fol. 60v

Timothy Dawson’s is the first study of the overlooked but vital factor in one of the most popular areas of medieval history – medieval warfare. Given how much attention has been given to horses by military historians, it comes as a surprise that no one has ever treated baggage animals at any length. Baggage animals were an integral, ubiquitous – and invisible – part of medieval life. Medieval military theoreticians are silent about them. Images are scarce and far between. No baggage saddle has survived – though its existence as an item and the possibility that it can be used for riding is mentioned by none less than Dom Duarte in his treatise on the art of horsemanship.

In his groundbreaking study, Timothy Dawson not only looks into the references to and uses of baggage equines, but also discusses various ways of securing baggage and constructions that can be used for the purpose. Timothy has also experimented with constructing baggage saddles based on medieval visual sources – as no example of this inexpensive, perishable item has survived from the medieval period – testing one of his models on the baggage animal par excellence, the donkey.

This is a short study, which I hope will inspire scholars to give more attention to baggage animals and to explore other, including non-equine baggage animals. Not only horses, mules, and donkeys were used to bear loads in the medieval world. So did camels and elephants, though experimenting with constructing, let alone testing structures used on elephant could run into logistic and economic impediments.

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The Hardest Part of Producing the Horse History Volume was the Introduction…

…It is necessary for any scholar working on the pre-modern period, irrespectively of his or her discipline, to have some understanding of the horse in the [pre-modern] society…

(“Introduction,” The Horse in Premodern European Cultureed. A. Ropa and T. Dawson)

queen mary psalter f 133v

Queen Mary psalter, f 133v

Writing the introduction to The Horse in Premodern European Culture was probably the trickiest part. One would think that, having acted as editor to the volume, selecting the contributions, arranging them in order, reading through the finishing texts, editing them for content, grammar, and referencing style, sending to the authors for revision, then rereading them… Who would know the volume content better? Also, having been interested in all aspects of medieval equestrianism, I had a reliable notion of what the state of art of medieval horse history is. Still, the introduction was the single chapter of the volume that received considerable criticism from the external reviewer and required considerable revisions. I actually rewrote 2/3 of it. The main criticism was that I did not do justice to the existing body of scholarship on horse history. Actually, I did not want to be dismissive, but my point was that there is no comprehensive, up-to-date volume that would available to an academic reader seeking a reliable introduction to different issues in medieval equestrian studies.

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Accomplishing the Mission: a prehistory to The Horse in Premodern European Culture

In July 2015, two medievalists met at one of the social spaces of the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. It must have been a reception, with wine flowing as usual, as the two medievalists who did not know each got talking freely and established that, despite their different backgrounds (one of them being an Arthurian scholar and the other a Byzantinist) they still have a medieval interest in common: horses. Sadly, the theme has been largely neglected since the publication of Ann Hyland’s influential books on ancient, medieval and early modern horses. Even the International Medieval Congress, one of the biggest and arguably the most glamorous event in medieval studies, did not have a single session devoted to horse history. The two historians decided to amend this shortcoming by organizing at least one horse session.

Levantia saddlery display at IMC 2016. Timothy Dawson, organizer of horse sessions, demonstrates a Roman saddle, while my husband, Edgar, holds out a spear to him.

Levantia saddlery display at IMC 2016. Timothy Dawson, organizer of horse sessions, demonstrates a Roman saddle, while my husband, Edgar, holds out a spear to him.

Having written the call for papers and published it at all the likely venues, they waited anxiously to see if anyone would apply, determined to speak themselves if there would be too few applicants. They need not have worried, as they have received enough responses to organize three sessions of three speakers in each. At the first sessions in 2016, the audience consisted mostly of speakers themselves and their friends. However, the following year saw a major breakthrough, as not only the organizers were overwhelmed with paper proposals for the sessions, but attendance of some of the sessions was such that people had to stand!

It was also at IMC 2017 that the organizers negotiated the Medieval Institute Press, which was eager to publish a comprehensive volume on horse history, The Horse in Premodern European Culture – the first publication dedicated to different aspects of pre-modern equestrianism since Ann Hyland’s The Horse in the Middle Ages in 1999!

The Horse in Premodern European Culture - book coverIt took just under three years to gather contributions, based on papers from IMC 2016 and 2017, as well as invited authors from outside the IMC, review the articles internally, then send the monograph for external review. The MIP did an admirable work, reviewing the manuscript in very sensible time and being supportive throughout the process of negotiations and publication.

It took only two years from the signing of the contract to the printing of the volume, which is the first publication devoted to different aspects of horse history in pre-modern Europe in over twenty years! The chapters in the volume reflect the variety of the contributors’ disciplinary approaches, covering a variety of spaces and chronological periods. From the Carolingian Empire to Byzantium, from experimental archaeology to post-humanism, from hippiatric writings to dressage manuals, to legal codices… The volume is rich and diverse, illuminating different aspects of the horse’s centrality to premodern European culture.

Over the following weeks, I will be publishing short quotations from the volume’s chapters, followed by my own commentaries as the volume editors on what reading and editing each chapter meant to me and how it contributed to my understanding of horse history.

Flyer for The Horse in Premodern European Culture

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Happy New Year 2020!

New Years wish 2020.jpg

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Why Gingerbreads and Horses Make a Perfect Christmas Match

In Latvia, gingerbreads, paper-thin cookies made of brown dough with honey, pepper, and lots of other spices are traditionally baked for Christmas. Now, there are different spice mixes, but, as experience proves, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and honey are paramount for successful gingerbreads. Optional ingredients would also include cloves, nutmeg, and molasses.

horsey gingerbreads.jpg

So, what does it have to do with horses?

First, horses make lovely pets, and, traditionally, Santa in this part of the world (so close to Russia) would arrive in a sleigh pulled by a sturdy little horse, or a threesome of horses, rather than by reindeer. So the traditional song, performed to the melody of ‘Jingle bells’, reads: ‘Jingle bell, jingle bell, Christmas arrives, there will be gifts for you and for me, as children call’.

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Top 7 Latvian Horsy Superstitions

Two most superstitious groups of people are probably sportsmen and those who are involved in agricultural work. It follows that equestrians are bound to have twice as many superstitions as ordinary folk. With this in mind, I asked Edgar, who, like me, has a lifelong interest in horses and local history, to provide a top pick of the most interesting horsy superstitions recorded in Latvia, and he duly obliged.


My first experience at driving a Latvian horse – and doing it for a wedding, too!

These superstitions were collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by local folklorists, but some of them are likely to date to pre-Christian times. Translating them into English for the first time and exclusively for my blog, Edgar has added some commentary on the logic behind the superstitions.


Enjoy! But please bear in mind that we in no way encourage you to try these on your horses, and, if you do, we are not going to take responsibility for any damage incurred by the horses or their handlers!

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