The term destrier is derived from the Vulgar Latin dextarius, meaning “right-sided” (the same root as our modern dexterous and dexterity). This may refer to the fact that it was led by the squire at the knight’s right side (or led by the right hand) or to the horse’s pacing (leading with the right).
While highly prized by knights and men-at-arms, the destrier was actually not very common.
Most knights and mounted men-at-arms rode other war horses, such as coursers and rounceys. These three types of horses were often referred to generically as chargers.
The word destrier does not refer to a breed, but to a type of horse: the finest and strongest warhorse. These horses were usually stallions, bred and raised from foals specifically for the needs of war. The destrier was perhaps more suited to the joust; coursers seem to have been preferred for other types of warfare. They had powerful hindquarters, able to easily coil and spring to stop, spin, turn or sprint forward. They also had a short back and well-muscled loin, strong bone, and a well-arched neck. From medieval art, the head of the destrier appears to have had a straight or slightly convex profile, strong, wide jaw, and good width between the eyes.
The destrier was specifically for use in battle or tournament; for everyday riding, a knight would use a palfrey, and his baggage would be carried on a sumpter horse (or packhorse), or possibly in wagons.
Characteristics of the Destrier Horse
There are many theories as to what type and size destriers attained, but they apparently were not enormous draft types. Recent research undertaken at the Museum of London, using literary, pictorial and archeological sources, suggests war horses (including destriers) averaged 14-15 hands, and were distinguished from a riding horse by their strength, musculature and training, rather than their size.
This estimate is supported by an analysis of medieval horse armour located in the Royal Armouries, which indicates the equipment was originally worn by horses of 15 to 16 hands, about the size and build of a modern field hunter or ordinary riding horse.
It is probable that the modern Percheron draft breed may be a descendant in part from the Destrier, though it is probably taller and heavier than the medieval horse. Other draft breeds such as the Shire claim destrier ancestry, though proof is less certain.
Equestrian statues in Italy suggest a “Spanish” style of horse that today would be referred to as a Baroque horse, such as the Andalusian horse, Friesian horse, or even a heavy but agile warmblood breed such as the Irish Draught. Modern estimates put the height of a destrier at no more than 16 hands, though with a strong and heavy physique.
Modern attempts to reproduce destriers usually involve crossing an athletic riding horse with a light draft breed. One example is the “Spanish Norman”, bred by crossing a Percheron with an Andalusian.