Classical sources mention fifty different horse breeds in the Roman Empire. In the Roman world there were three classes of horses:
- Noble horse – for riding, for the circus and sacred games.
- Mules – valued as highly as the noble horse and the best were bred in Italy.
- Common stock – used as working animals.
Women tended to the horses. Stallions were kept fat and were fed high energy feed. Mares were kept lean and worked until the later stages of pregnancy.
“Then, their months gone on and they’re now full with foal, let no one hitch them to a heavy wagon”
- Virgil, Roman writer and poet
The perfect cavalry horse
The Roman army valued the horses bred by the Celtic tribes which formed the core of the auxiliary cavalry units. Breeds favoured for cavalry mounts included those from Libya and Spain.
What did a cavalry horse wear?
The equipment of the Roman cavalry horse was both functional and decorative. The saddle, bridles and straps were used to aid the rider. They were also adorned with decorative motifs, graffiti, pendants and religious symbolism. The Romans believed such symbols would protect the horse and rider.
Discs of metal, most commonly silvered bronze or carved bone were used at the junctions to decorate the horse. Also common were crescent and other shaped pendants and even beads.
Click on the image to examine this surviving Roman harness mount. You can zoom in and rotate the image:
Both breast and haunch straps as well as the girth were used to hold the saddle in place. They helped the rider have a firm seat as he engaged the enemy.
A wood frame with leather cover was the basic construction for the Roman saddle. Four horns at each corner were stiffened by metal plates to help give a solid base. This allowed the horses to be ridden without stirrups.
Hipposandals were iron hoof coverings. Unlike horseshoes of the 21st century, they were not worn every day. Hipposandals were used when travelling over very rough ground, to help the horse get more traction. They were also used to keep bandages and poultices on hooves during treatment.
"The saddle with the four horns helps me to ride without stirrups."
Uncover more about Rome's elite horsemen in our Hadrian's Cavalry section.