Ponies or Horses?

Size does matter, but words confuse

two small ponies pulling a reconstructed British chariotThere was no distinction made between "ponies" and "horses" until much later in history. No conclusions about size can be drawn from a modern translation of any ancient word as "horse".

The chariot burial at Wetwang (Yorkshire; 300-100 BC) yielded a bronze jointed snaffle bit of 3.5 inches. A reconstruction of the chariot at the Kentucky Horse Park (June 2003; right) is pulled by ponies of 12 hands - and even these need a 4 inch bit.

The Romans and Celts were probably smaller than modern men. Vegetius, who laid down heights for the selection of cavalrymen and first line infantry in 390 AD, required: "...the standard for the cavalry of the wings and for the infantry of the first legionary cohorts ... six feet, or at least five feet ten inches." Due to a slight difference between the modern and the ancient inch, the six-foot recruit would be 5 foot 9 and a half in modern measurement. Thus even 14.2 hand "horses" would have seemed a decent size to them. Certainly in the early years of the Christian era, riders did not have the benefit of stirrups for mounting and security in the saddle. (Stirrups made of leather are found in Central Asia associated with Sarmatian burials; conscripted Sarmatian horsemen could well have used them in the Roman cavalry service, but owing to lack of archaeological evidence, at present the consensus is that the first known use of stirrups in Britain is in the late 8th C AD.) Roman cavalrymen mounted by vaulting, which they had to practise to make them able to mount quickly from either side of the horse with or without their weapons in hand; Greeks did so with the aid of their spear haft. (Xenophon) This technique would be more difficult with larger horses, particularly since the Roman saddle had four "horns" to assist the stirrupless rider to maintain his seat, but which forced his leap to the saddle to be much higher. Some classical texts indicate that the horses were taught to kneel or stretch out to allow the rider to mount. It was not until c. 590 AD that Emperor Maurice Tiberius wrote a military manual (The Strategikon: 2 - The Armament of the Cavalryman and the Equipment to be Furnished) that not only defined Army commands but also made stirrups mandatory on Roman saddles:

The saddles should have large and thick cloths; the bridles should be of good quality; attached to the saddles should be two iron stirrups (skala), a lasso with thong, hobbles, a saddle bag large enough to hold three or four days' rations for the soldier when needed.

In the civilian as well as the military world, people may have ridden the intermediate sized ponies; loaded packs onto the smallest (not so far to lift things), and used the largest for heavy transport work (plenty of muscle and weight to move heavy wagons) or as heavy cavalry. Animals were described by their suitability to the various jobs, so they were types rather than breeds, much as cobs and hunters are today.

With regard to our Cumbrian breeds, big "horses" find it very hard to thrive on the northern fells, so whether or not cross breeding occurred, by natural selection the wild northern type probably remained as what we would call a "pony".

double jointed bronze snaffle bitIn Anglesey (North Wales; 300-100 BC) a double jointed bronze bit was found, measuring 4.5" to 5". This could have fitted a pony of from 13 to 14 hands high. Again, it is asymmetrical and so it was clearly one of a pair. It is very finely made with hollow rings, cleverly cast joints and highly moulded mouthparts. Apart from the moulding it is similar in action to a French Link snaffle. (National Gallery and Museums of Wales: on loan to "All the Queen's Horses", Kentucky Horse Park, April-August 2003. Sketch from original, © S Millard 2003.)

Two later bronze bits have been found at Middlebie (Dumfries, Scotland; 0-100 AD). Both are decorated straight bar snaffles. They measure in the 3.5" to 4" range. One is for a pony in a pair, the other is symmetrical and might be for a single pony. The bit rings bear clear signs of wear so they were not just ceremonial items but were made to fit real, small animals and were in regular use.

bit mouth seen from aboveA bit found at Rise, East Yorkshire, is a thick bronze snaffle whose mouth is roughly 3" wide. This tiny mouthpiece (left, seen from above to show the ring holes) would only fit a small pony of under 11 hands high if the horsemen used the same methods of fitting as we do when fitting bits today. Perhaps the side extensions of the bit rings were intended to lie partly between the ponies' lips. We don't know for certain how snugly they were fitted. However, the rings themselves are only 4" apart when the bit is laid flat so the ponies must still have been small. It dates from between AD 40 and AD 100.

bronze snaffle bit, side viewdecorated bit from Rise, YorkshireThe rings of the bit from Rise (seen here from the side, complete with the mouthpiece shown above) are decorated more on the one side than the other, indicating that the ponies were used in pairs, the outer sides of their bits being more elaborate because these were more easily seen. This bit is decorated with blue leaf patterns on a red ground. (British Museum: on loan to "All the Queen's Horses", Kentucky Horse Park, April-August 2003. Sketch from original, © S Millard 2003. Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons: Bridle-bit, AD50-100 Rise, East Yorkshire. Given to the B.M. by Sir A W Franks PRB 1866, 7-14,2.)

J C Ewart published work (1911) on the archaeology of Newsteads Roman Fort, Melrose, Scotland. In it, he summed up the horse types found there: although the classifications he hypothesised for "Forest", "Steppe" and other types are now considered outdated, his remarks about the evidence found on site are still relevant:

"It may hence be assumed that while some of the horses belonging to the auxiliaries who garrisoned the Newstead Fort measured nearly 15 hands, the majority were below rather than above 14 hands. In all probability the better bred horses, measuring about 14 hands, belonged to the cavalry and the mounted men (about one in four) attached to the infantry regiments, while the coarse-headed animals were as a rule used for transport. As the Gauls, from the second century onwards, had been improving their horses by means of well-bred stallions imported at great cost from the South of Europe, the majority of the horses belonging to the cavalry and mounted infantry probably came originally from Gaul. The more powerful large-headed animals, on the other hand, probably came from Germany—belonged, in fact, to the 'bad and ugly' native German breeds referred to by Caesar."

Pictorial Evidence

Flavinus' tombstone in Hexham Abbey showing mounted Roman standardbearer. Photo: S Millard Classical pottery and sculpture show riders' feet hanging well below their steeds' bellies (see left). Of course, allowance must be made for possible artistic licence or pictorial fashion, but the regularity with which the pictured horse is shown as pony sized surely cannot be accidental. We know that early men were shorter than their modern counterparts, so this is a further argument that their horses are unlikely to have been "horses" by our modern measure. (Xenophon)

The photo at left is the tombstone of Flavinus, a standardbearer from the crack fighting unit, the Ala Augusta Gallorum Petriana milliaria civium Romanorum or Ala Petriana. He is shown riding over a bearded warrior.

The 9-foot-high stone now stands in Hexham Abbey, where it was found in 1881 among the foundations of the 12th Century eastern section of the cloister. Because there is no known Roman station at Hexham, it has been assumed that Flavinus died when the Ala was stationed at Corbridge during the period before 130 AD, and that the stone was later moved to Hexham. The reason for its removal is not known.

The sculptor has shortened the horse to fit onto the sandstone slab, and, following a fashion for showing the success of Roman cavalry over the barbarians, he has extended Flavinus' leg from the knee down so he can "boot" the enemy's backside!


[To the Gods and the Departed Dead, Flavinus, Horseman of the Petrian Cavalry, Standardbearer of the Troop of Candidus, twenty-five years of age, with seven years' service, is laid here.] An excellent and informative gallery of images of Roman tombstones is online at RomanArmy.com.

What about evidence from bones?

Measurements taken from bones excavated in Southern England support the bit evidence. Ponies, mostly between 11 and 12.2 hands, lived in association with people in Late Iron Age to Roman times. There is also some evidence of bigger animals both in the Roman period and later. Note the number of examples recorded for each period.


Cannon Bone average length (inches)

Late Iron Age - Early Roman (1-25 AD) 8.1 (2 examples)
Early Roman (43-100 AD)
7.4 (1 example)
Roman (43-410 AD)
8.2 (9 examples including one bone of 10.7 inches!)
Early medieval (833-932)
8.4 (16 examples)
Medieval (1300-1499 AD)
8.3 (15 examples)
Post medieval (1700-1799 AD) 9.9 (1 example)
Modern Fell (2003 AD) 13.1 hands high 9
Modern British Shetland, 10 hands high 6

Iron Age, Roman, Saxon and Medieval

drawing of a Pictish carved outline of a horse from Inverurie ChurchyardPictish carvings show small ponies in comparison to their riders. One (left) in the Churchyard at Inverurie, Aberdeen, shows a pony in some detail moving diagonally ("square" trotting); others are depicted moving laterally (pacing or ambling).

" ... in the Iron Age, horses (or more accurately ponies) averaged 12.1 hh in height and resembled the modern Exmoor breed in terms of overall build. Roman horses show two distinct types; the first similar to the Iron Age ponies but taller (13.3 hh), the second taller still (14-15 hh) and more heavily built (much like a modern cob). During the Saxon period there appears to be a change back to predominantly smaller (13.2 hh) but quite robust ponies. In the Medieval period the average horse appears very similar to Saxon ones, although a few relatively large individuals begin to appear." (Johnstone 1997) The horse in the Anglo-Saxon Lakenheath burial (~570 AD) was about 14 hands high although his rider is estimated to have been six feet tall.