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In the days before wagons had springs and were enclosed for comfort, nearly everyone who travelled went by horseback.

The term horse applies to the whole race of Equus caballus, to an individual animal, and to the male of the species whether stoned or gelded.

Henry VIII decreed that in the interest of improving the native English horse, all male ungelded horses were to be kept in their stalls so that their breeding could be controlled. In the common way of English with such words, those in the stalls became stallions: the stalled ones.

Thus, a stallion is a male horse with all his parts intact, also called stoned or unsplayed. If he is less than four years old, he is also a colt.

A castrated male is called a gelding, also called splayed, stoneless, or unpaved (in that he hath no stones). The horse you ride every day, whether you are gentleman or lady, is probably a gelding, being more manageable than a stallion and nearly as strong.

A female horse of any age or condition is a mare, although if she is under four years old she may be called a filly.

A horse's mother is its dam, the father is its sire. A horse who services a mare is said to have sired her offspring.

When the dam drops a foal, she has given birth. A foal is a newborn horse of either sex. When it is a year old, it will be a yearling.

Horses are big beasties, and their height is expressed in hands, a standardized length of 4 inches. A 15-hand horse is 5 feet tall at the withers, the highest point on the back (the point just before it becomes the neck).


A middle-weight, somewhat stocky riding horse, also used as a pack animal, is a cob.

A pack horse can also be referred to as a sumpter horse. Such horses carry the freight and baggage that does not travel by wagons. Their gait is a foot pace or fast walk. Typical height, 15.1 hh (hands high).

Contrary to modern usage, a nag is a good reliable horse—sure-footed, strong, even-tempered and smooth-gaited. The ambling nag is the horse you choose when you're going to be in the saddle for a long trip.

A nice gentle palfrey is usually preferred by ladies.

A similarly useful animal is the hobby, a sturdy Irish breed.

A golden horse with flaxen mane, usually called an Isabella, is imported from Spain.

The jennet—sometimes genet (but not jenay)—a smooth-gaited, spotted Spanish horse with Moorish forbears, is a popular riding horse among the great and good, and often used in pageants and displays of fancy riding. Curiously, a female donkey is also called a jennet. The possibilities for humorous confusion must have been endless.

Mules were also sometimes trained for riding.

The enormous war horse that can carry a man in full plate armour is called simply a Great Horse or sometimes a horse of service. Familiar types include the Almaine (various German breeds), the Flanders (Belgian and Percheron), Frieslander (Frisian), and Neapolitan. Typical height, 14–18 hands high.

The flashy mount you choose for processions and parades is referred to as a foot-cloth horse. A trotter, it shows off its rider to great advantage and loves a crowd. It also looks fabulous (and knows it) in the fancy bardings that include the long ceremonial saddle cloth that drapes to its feet, from which this horse takes its name. It may be any breed as long as it behaves well and makes you look good.

When a horse is past its prime—old, broken down, used up and worn out—it becomes known as a jade. This term is sometimes also applied insultingly to a woman in similar condition.

You could buy a draught horse for about £3, but for the most powerful specimens you had to go to one of the regional horse fairs.

Training and care

We are not especially sentimental about animals (witness bear baiting, for example) and this insensitivity extends to the methods for training and keeping horses. Many Elizabethan methods and tools would be considered inhumane and possibly illegal today.

A bit or curb, the part of the harness placed in the horse's mouth, is a powerful piece of metal with high ports and crickets to get and keep his attention. This kind of bit requires a light hand on the reins or it can damage the horse's mouth.

Some horse diseases are fashions, fives, spavins, and lampas. Horses can also catch random fevers (colds and even flu) from humans. Colic and belly ache, brought on by a variety of causes, can kill even an otherwise healthy horse.

Horse keepers and ostlers: Let the world go how it will, be there never so much alteration in times and persons, they are still stable men. –contemporary joke

A Stallion
The King's Privy Council was sure that "the decay of horses within the realm, ... partly riseth by stealing and carrying numbers of horses, geldings, mares, and colts out of the realm, and by neglecting the breeding and keeping of horses within the realm, according to the laws provided."

The King directed commissioners to places where this kind of theft was known to be going on and deal "diligently and straightly by order of law, and thereupon to proceed sharply to the execution, as the cases shall require."

Henry VIII established standards among Great Horses for his breeding program. Mares were to be at least 13 hands, stallions, at least 15. Horses from marshy areas like the fens of Cambridgeshire were allowed to be a bit shorter.

Shorter animals were supposed to be rounded up and culled from the breeding population, although this was probably not as systematic as it sounds.

Most of the best horses are imported, or bred from imported stock, because the native stock is mainly moor ponies and plow horses. Farmers prize their native draught horses, such as the Suffolk Sorrel or Punch for their power, stamina, longevity, and docility, but not their beauty.

One of the duties as the King's Master of Horse, which he took quite seriously, was to re-establish and maintain a breeding program to improve English horses, especially for military use.

A stud farm or breeding facility is called a studdery.
Breeders and owners all identify horses by where they're from rather than by what we think of as a breed. That is, one has a fine Spaniard, a feisty Barb (Arab), or a sturdy German.


The modern English saddle and "posting" ride are unknown. We either sit well in the saddle or bounce, according to our skill and the horse's gait.

Gait is any of the several ways in which a horse moves along, whether walking or running at various paces.

Amble: a slow rocking gait in four beats, in which the hind and foreleg on the same side move together
Pace: similar to an amble but a bit faster
Gallop: a gait in 3 beats intended for speed
Trot: a 2-beat gait in which the alternate hind and foreleg move together
Career or cariere: a gallop ended with a collected halt, a kind of sliding stop. Mainly a military movement or for showing off
The great riding schools of Europe are in Naples and Ferrara. The maneggii (manages) taught there are exercises involving the handling of a horse with specific movements and gaits in formalized figures.

Advanced leaps and movements such as capriole, corvette, and the galloppo gagliardo (galliard gallop) are reserved for horses which are gagliardo (strong, nimble, and spirited) and 'light by art and by nature.' These movements are intended for show, and have no military application while war horses are still of the Percheron variety.

The saddle is generally curved and padded both at the pommel (front) and cantle (back) to keep a rider from being knocked out of the saddle.

When a woman rides pillion, she is riding double on a pad behind the rider who is actually managing the horse.

Side saddles have come in but many women prefer not to use them. The plank saddle is basically a chair mounted sideways on the horse's back, with a plank for the lady's feet. The horse must be led by a groom at not much more than a slow amble. Those who ride astride do so in divided skirts, not men's clothes.

In 1558, the Venetian ambassador suggested that England was the land of comforts because even the peasants were accustomed to riding on horseback—usually their own draft animals.


Edwards: Horse and Man in Early Modern England
Segar: The Booke of Honor and Armes 
Raber & Tucker, Culture of the Horse
Cockaine: A Short Treatise on Hunting

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