Medieval Knights' Horse Armor: The Evolution of Barding

Medieval Knights’ Horse Armor: The Evolution of Barding

The sight of a fully armored knight charging into battle atop a similarly protected steed is a powerful image of the Middle Ages. This article delves into the intricacies of the armor worn by knights’ horses, commonly referred to as ‘barding.’ From the early use of textiles to the advanced metalwork of the late medieval period, we will explore how barding evolved and its role in medieval warfare.

What Horses Did Medieval Knights Ride?

Medieval knights rode specially bred and trained horses that were essential to their role as heavy cavalry. These horses were chosen for their strength, stamina, and temperament, making them suitable for the rigors of battle. Here’s an overview of the types of horses used by medieval knights:


The destrier was the most prized and recognized warhorse of the medieval period. They were strong, agile, and spirited, often chosen by knights for their impressive appearance and performance in battle. Destriers were not exceptionally large by modern standards but were muscular and robust, capable of carrying a knight in full armor.


Slightly smaller and more agile than destriers, coursers were a common choice for knights. They were favored for their speed and endurance, making them suitable for long campaigns and cavalry charges.


Rounceys were versatile horses used for various purposes, including riding, light combat, and as pack animals. They were not as strong or prestigious as destriers or coursers but were more accessible and utilized by squires, men-at-arms, and lesser knights.


Though not typically used in battle, palfreys were popular riding horses among knights and nobles. They were known for their smooth gaits, making them comfortable for travel, especially over long distances.

Breeding and Training

Breeding warhorses was a specialized task, often controlled by monasteries and royal stables. The best specimens were carefully selected for breeding, and the resulting foals were trained from a young age to respond to the unique demands of mounted warfare.

Regional Variations

Different regions had distinct breeds and types, influenced by the local terrain, climate, and warfare needs. Spanish horses, for example, were renowned for their agility and spirit, while German and French warhorses were known for their strength and stamina.

In summary, the horses ridden by medieval knights were specially bred and selected for the unique demands of combat and chivalry. Whether a noble destrier or a versatile rouncey, these horses were integral to the identity and effectiveness of the medieval knight, reflecting their role in warfare, social status, and the art of horsemanship.

The Importance of Warhorses in the Middle Ages

The importance of warhorses in the Middle Ages cannot be overstated. As the backbone of the medieval military, these horses were not merely a mode of transportation but also a symbol of power, status, and martial prowess.

During this time, the rise of heavy cavalry dramatically altered the tactics and strategies of warfare. The knights, adorned in armor, required strong and well-trained horses capable of carrying not just the weight of the knight but also his arms and armor. These warhorses, often of a breed known as “destriers,” were meticulously bred and trained for battle, displaying a unique combination of strength, endurance, and obedience.

The bond between a knight and his horse was profound. These horses were not mere property but companions in arms. Training a warhorse was a painstaking process, often beginning at a young age, to ensure that the horse would respond to subtle cues and commands in the heat of battle.

Moreover, warhorses were significant in the social context of the Middle Ages. Owning a destrier was a mark of nobility and a display of wealth. They were often adorned with expensive trappings and armor, reflecting the owner’s status.

In battle, the charge of heavy cavalry, thundering across the field, could break enemy lines and turn the tide of battle. The psychological impact of such a charge was immense, with both horse and rider armored and bearing down on foot soldiers.

In conclusion, the warhorse was more than just an animal in the medieval period. It was a vital military asset, a social symbol, and a trusted companion to the knights of the age. Its role in shaping the warfare and society of the Middle Ages places the warhorse as one of the defining elements of that historical period.

Training a Medieval Knights Horse

Training a medieval knight’s horse, often a destrier or a strong courser, was a rigorous and intricate process that required time, patience, and expertise. The horse needed to be acclimated to the sounds, sights, and chaos of the battlefield, and it also had to learn specific commands and maneuvers that would be used in combat.

Training usually began when the horse was young, often around two or three years old, and could last several years. Initial training focused on basic obedience and responsiveness to the rider’s cues. Gradually, the horse would be introduced to the weight of armor, both for the rider and itself, if it was to be outfitted in barding.

A critical aspect of the training was desensitization to noise and sudden movements. This could involve exposing the horse to the clamor of weapons, flags, and shouting, simulating the chaotic environment of a battlefield. The horse had to remain calm and responsive, even in these high-stress situations.

Battlefield maneuvers such as charging, turning quickly, and halting on command were drilled repeatedly. A well-trained warhorse could respond to leg pressure, shifts in the rider’s weight, and even voice commands.

Training a medieval knight’s horse was not merely about physical conditioning but forging a deep connection and understanding between horse and rider. This relationship was vital for success in battle, where clear communication and trust could mean the difference between victory and defeat. The process was an art form, reflecting the high value placed on warhorses during the Middle Ages.

Introduction to Barding

Barding derived from the Old French word ‘bard’ referring to the protective covering used for warhorses. With the rise of cavalry in medieval European warfare, the necessity to protect not just the rider but also his trusted steed became paramount. This protection evolved from simple padded garments to intricately crafted metal plates over centuries.

The Early Days: Textile and Leather Protection

Before Metal

The Initial Phase Before the widespread use of metal in barding, horses were adorned with textile or leather defenses. These rudimentary defenses offered some protection against arrows, blades, and blunt force.

Cuir Bouilli 

One of the earliest and most popular forms of leather armor was ‘cuir bouilli,’ a hard, boiled leather. This technique involved boiling leather to make it more rigid and then shaping it while still hot. Once cooled, it would retain its shape and provide a semi-rigid form of protection.

Chainmail Barding: A New Age of Protection

Construction and Design 

By the 11th and 12th centuries, chainmail (or ‘mail’) had become a knight’s personal armor staple. It wasn’t long before this protective innovation was adapted for horses. Mail barding, made up of thousands of interlocking rings, offered superior protection against slashing weapons.

Benefits and Limitations 

However, while chainmail was flexible and provided good defense against cuts, it was heavy and offered limited protection against blunt trauma and piercing weapons like arrows or lances.

Plate Armor: The Zenith of Horse Protection

Emergence and Popularity 

By the 14th century, plate armor for knights became more common with advancements in metallurgy and forging techniques. This evolution naturally extended to their horses. These metal plates, shaped to fit a horse’s anatomy, provided unmatched protection on the battlefield.

The Gothic and Milanese Styles 

The late medieval period saw regional variations in plate barding designs. The Gothic style, emerging from the Holy Roman Empire, emphasized fluted surfaces and ornate detailing. The Milanese style, from Northern Italy, was sleeker and more functional in design.

Knights Horse Armour Parts

Knight’s horse armor, known as barding, was a complex and highly functional system designed to protect both the horse and its rider during battle. Each part of the barding served a specific purpose and provided comprehensive protection. Here are some of the main parts of a knight’s horse armor:

  • Chamfron: This was the armor that protected the horse’s head. Often made of metal, it covered the forehead and extended down to protect the nose. Some chamfrons were ornately decorated and included eye holes for the horse to see through.
  • Crinet: This part consisted of segmented plates or mail that protected the horse’s neck. It allowed for flexibility while offering substantial protection against blows directed at this vulnerable area.
  • Peytral: Protecting the horse’s chest, the peytral was a crucial piece of armor, as it safeguarded vital areas like the heart and lungs. Depending on the design and period, it could be a solid plate or made of interlocking segments.
  • Flanchard: This part covered the horse’s flanks and protected its sides from lateral attacks. It was essential for close combat, where opponents might attempt to wound the horse from the side.
  • Crupper: The crupper extended protection to the horse’s hindquarters, including the back and tail. This section could be made of solid plates or chainmail and provided essential protection when retreating or in a chaotic melee.
  • Caparison: Often made of cloth or leather, the caparison was a decorative covering that often featured the knight’s heraldic colors and symbols. While not armor in the traditional sense, it could provide additional padding and identify the knight and his affiliations.
  • Saddle and Stirrups: Although not armor, the design of the saddle and stirrups were vital for the rider’s control and stability. Some saddles were equipped with high front and rear sections to provide additional protection for the rider.

The combination of these parts created a formidable defense system for the horse, which was essential in the brutal warfare of the medieval period. The barding was not only functional but also a work of art, often bearing intricate decorations and craftsmanship, reflecting the status and prestige of the knight and his horse.

Decoration and Symbolism in Barding

Heraldry and Identification 

In large-scale battles, distinguishing friend from foe was crucial. As such, barding often bore the colors and symbols of a knight’s heraldry. This not only allowed for easy identification but also showcased the knight’s lineage and allegiances.

The Use of Textiles Over Armor 

Overlapping the use of metal barding was the continued use of rich textiles like velvet or silk decorated with intricate patterns or woven with gold and silver threads. These were not just for protection but were a display of wealth and prestige.

What Was the Strongest Horse Armor?

The strongest and most effective horse armor during the medieval period was undoubtedly plate barding. This type of armor evolved in the 14th century and reached its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries, representing the pinnacle of medieval armor technology. Here’s why plate barding was considered the strongest horse armor:

  • Material and Construction: Plate barding was typically made of wrought iron or steel, providing a rigid and robust barrier against attacks. The plates were carefully shaped to fit the horse’s body, ensuring minimal gaps for weapons to exploit.
  • Protection Level: Unlike chainmail or leather armor, plate barding offered a strong defense against a wider variety of attacks. Whether it was arrows, swords, or lances, the solid metal plates could withstand and deflect blows that would otherwise injure the horse.
  • Flexibility and Mobility: Despite its strength, plate barding was designed to allow the horse to move freely. Articulated joints and carefully shaped pieces ensured the horse could gallop, turn, and maneuver without being overly encumbered.
  • Regional Variations: Styles like Gothic and Milanese plate barding showcased further advancements. Gothic barding added structural strength with its fluted surfaces, while the Milanese style prioritized sleek and functional design, minimizing weak points.
  • Combination with Other Materials: Plate barding was often used with other materials, like padded textiles underneath. This increased comfort for the horse and provided additional shock absorption, making the armor even more effective.
  • Aesthetic Considerations: Beyond functionality, plate barding was also a status symbol. The intricate designs, ornate detailing, and sometimes even gilding reflected the wealth and prestige of the knight.

But it’s essential to note that plate barding has its drawbacks. It was heavy, expensive to produce, and required skilled armorers to craft and maintain. As a result, it was often reserved for the wealthiest knights and nobles.

In the end, plate barding stands out as the strongest horse armor in the medieval era due to its material, craftsmanship, and comprehensive protection it offered. It represents a perfect blend of form and function, showcasing medieval armorers’ technological and artistic achievements.

The Decline of Barding

Changing Tactics and Weaponry 

With the introduction of gunpowder and more effective ranged weapons in the late medieval period, the relevance of heavy cavalry and, by extension, barding began to wane. Armored knights became more susceptible to musket fire, and the cost of equipping a horse with barding became hard to justify.

Economic and Social Factors 

The immense cost of producing barding was another factor in its decline. As feudal systems began to crumble and mercenary armies became more common, the grandeur and cost-effectiveness of equipping horses in full barding diminished.

Conclusion: The Legacy of Barding

While the days of knights and their armored steeds have long passed, the legacy of barding endures in our cultural memory. It stands as a testament to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of medieval armorers and the lengths to which societies would go to protect their warriors.

From the simple cuir bouilli of the early medieval period to the ornate plate armor of the late Middle Ages, barding evolved in response to the changing demands of warfare. Today, it remains an iconic representation of medieval chivalry and martial prowess.