The Celtic Horse

Gaulish and British horses were small compared to those of Italy. Domestic horses appeared in Gaul

during the course of the Bronze Age: pre-Roman equines, including types of pony, are depicted in French rock art. Horse-breeding formed an important part of Celtic culture: since Celts were, as a race, larger than Latins, efforts were made by the Gauls to upgrade their indigenous stock by crossing with Italian stallions, to produce larger, Gallo-Roman horses for warfare.19 But in pre-Roman Gaul and Britain, small, pony-like animals were used both as war-horses and as baggage-beasts. Unsuitable as ponies are as war-mounts, these smaller animals were often ridden in battle, especially in

Britain where the native stock was retained because of the isolation of the British Isles; in Gaul, however, interbreeding with Italian stock was producing larger breeds which could be used in war alongside indigenous ponies. The horses at Danebury (Hants) were small and pony-like; the majority of those whose remains were found were male and some were killed (for food) when they were 2 years

old or older. They were used both for riding and as pack-animals. Interestingly, in Britain, there is little archaeological evidence for riding after the late first century AD, but in Ireland, the horse-trappings

found indicate that it continued there for some centuries longer.

Celtic horses, whether they were used for warfare or in peacetime activities, required careful feeding: with grass in summer, hay in winter and 'hard-feed' (barley or other cereal grains) all the year round. In addition, a kind of broad bean, the so-called 'Celtic bean', was fed to horses, because it was high in


Horses were used both in domestic and in military contexts as draught-animals, but they could not be used to pull very heavy loads since horse harness was not designed for this purpose until the Saxon period. Accordingly, oxen would have been the main traction-animals on farms, whilst horses would be employed far more for riding and warfare. The Gauls

imported big draught horses from Italy which were heavier than their native ponies. Caesar alludes to a heavy draught-horse bred in

Gaul, and a kind of heavier pony was also used in Britain. Horses at

Danebury and Gussage All Saints (Dorset) were harnessed to pull light loads. Hallstatt chiefs were buried on wagons that had been pulled by two horses. Baggage-beasts were essential in warfare, and indigenous Celtic ponies were employed in this capacity. Ponies function more efficiently in cold, damp conditions than the mules and donkeys characteristic of the Mediterranean world. Ponies are especially

suitable as pack-animals since they are able to bear heavier loads, relative to their size, than horses.

Figure 4.4 Late Iron Age bronze horse, dedicated to the god Rudiobus, Neuvy-en-Sullias, Loiret, France. Paul Jenkins.

Harness was both functional and designed for display in battle. Richly ornamented and elaborate horse-gear is in evidence from the Hallstatt Iron Age until the first century AD, when the flamboyantly

decorated horse-trappings were buried in the Polden Hills hoard (Som.). Both simple and two-piece bits were used by riders to control their mounts. Stirrups are unknown at this period, but spurs were used: they were placed in tombs, such as that at Goeblingen-Nospelt; and one panel on the Gundestrup

Cauldron depicts horsemen with spurs (figure 4.5). A good, firm saddle is important to a mounted warrior, to keep him upright during charges and intricate manoeuvres. The Gundestrup Cauldron shows a cavalryman on a saddle with two horns rising up at the front and back, which would keep the rider

rigidly in position and incapable of being dislodged by a swerve or blow. But Caesar remarks of his campaigns across the Rhine that the Germans considered it shameful to ride in saddles and that they were happy to fight any number of saddled horsemen. From this, it may be assumed that the Celtic

cavalry in Caesar's army (see pp. 74-9) had saddles — The use of leather bracae or trousers, depicted for instance on the scabbard at Hallstatt and on the Gundestrup Cauldron, would have helped keep the cavalryman in the saddle. Metal or leather chamfreins (head-armour) were worn on occasions by war-horses. The later Iron Age Torrs Chamfrein from Scotland was a metal mask, to which horns were added later.34 The earliest example of a chamfrein in north-west Europe is that depicted on the thirteenth-century BC bronze horse at Trundholm in Denmark, which pulled a cult wagon in Bronze Age solar


It is interesting to note that farriery (horse-shoeing) was developed in the Celtic world and spread to the Roman world from there, though shoeing was not widespread until after the Roman period. Both Iron

Age and Roman sites have yielded horseshoes.

Figure 4.5 Plate from gilded silver cauldron, depicting a Celtic army scene, from the second- to firstcentury BC cauldron found at Gundestrup, Jutland, Denmark. Paul Jenkins.

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