A large group of forgotten combatants stare out at us every day from the annals of war history. They are visible to us in everything from ancient stone reliefs to elegant oil paintings to scratched early black-and-white photos; they regularly appear in statuary alongside famous war leaders, and they have taken part in too many historical battles to name. They are horses, and many avid military history enthusiasts usually don’t give much pause to think about them. This is because horses are animals and, as such, are often taken for granted.
Considered within conflict history, horses have often been viewed as little more than vehicles or baggage conveyors for warriors of the past. Yet horses were warriors in their own right.
In addition to bearing the stresses of combat, horses have also borne another burden alongside soldiers of yore—armor.
In medieval and Renaissance Europe, horses were essential for battle as well as tournament sports like jousting. A complete set of horse armor could weigh between 40 to 90 pounds—and that’s not even counting the added weight of the rider.
Most horses selected for battle or tournament challenges were robust breeds—the four-legged equivalent of tanks. Breeds capable of charging into combat wearing armor were known as destriers, coursers and rounceys. As with humans, armor for a horse was not always intended for merely protective functions, but could also be ceremonial and an indicator of its owner’s status in society.
While body armor for horses varied according to the riders’ culture, traditions and available materials, a universal and common element of horse armor across the globe tended to be the chanfron (also called shaffron or chamfron), head and facial armor which might fairly be called a “horse helmet.” The following is a roundup of some unusual examples of chanfrons and other elements of horse armor from around the world.
this article first appeared in military history quarterly