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Basic Information

The Destrier was the classic heavy warhorse of Northern Europe. The name is derived from the latin dexter meaning "right" (as in "right hand") and may (the eytmology is disputed) be related to the association of the right hand with weapon wielding, or possibly to do with a tradition that the best warhorses always lead their gait with the right.

This was not a specific breed of horse, but rather a designation for the best horses available and could only truly be given to a stallion, trained from a young age to be ridden in combat. Contrary to popular myth they were not the draught-horse like creatures that they are often portrayed as, but generally (from analysis of skeletons, tack and barding) beasts of 14-16 hands, much like a modern field hunter but rather cobbier. Some authorities suggest that the best analogy would be a bigger version of the Baroque horse, large and strong but agile. Some of the modern heavy draught breeds may have come from bloodlines bred to create destriers, but they are bigger, slower and less handy than their ancestors.

A destrier typically had to be trained by its rider and training seems to have started at about eighteen months - the horse might have had some basic schooling before that at the hands of an ostler, perhaps from as young as a year old, but real training needed the rider present. The training was designed to reduce the horse's natural fear of people and increase its aggression, as well as building a lasting bond with the rider. The end product was a horse that was as close to fearless as possible, prepared to fight and kill humans and other horses alike and capable of almost seamless teamwork with its rider, who was often the only person the horse would truly respect - indeed legend has several accounts of the loyalty of destriers to their owners and, more prosaically, their aggression towards pretty much anyone else. They might tolerate a familar groom, but in general they were even more refractory than would be expected of a typical stallion, with the exception of that one particular bond.

There is some suggestion that at least part of their effectiveness in battle was due to them being as eager to fight the horses opposite them as their riders were to fight the other horses' riders. Stopping them fighting the other stallions on your own side was part of the skills required of the user, although some authorities suggested letting them fight well in advance and get used to one another.

Unsurprisingly these horses were expensive - only the elite could afford them (purchase price appears to have started at seven times that of the next best horses - there are legends of them changing hands for the value of a knight's fee), and even then they required an immense investment in time and effort to get the best out of them, and even then there was the possibility of the horse failing training or becoming unfit. It would seem the market for a second hand destrier would be extremely limited. The majority of medieval horsemen - even knights and nobles - seem to have ridden lower classes of horse.


The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades, Hyland, Ann ISBN-13: 978-1856279901

The "yellow devil" Pommers from Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel might be a good example of this class.

Game and Story Use

  • Most PCs are unlikely to be able to operate on of these unless they're prepared to spend most of their time at home training and looking after it. In the sort of campaign where PCs play feudal nobles and gentry doing realstic feudal things this will be less of a problem, but if they are traditional slaughter-hobos this is not the sort of animal you can buy at the generic outfitters and leave outside the dungeon with a servant.
    • Of course, they could always be sold one, and find they have a horse that is nearly completely umanagable.
    • Even if they do operate one, they may end up paying out a fair bit of blood-money for various unwary ostlers that have been crushed against the sides of stalls or kicked across yards.
  • Just transporting one of these is likely to be an immense nuisance, especially if its owner isn't present.
  • Of course finding and delivering a suitable yearling could be a good Fedex quest in the right setting.
    • Hell, make a group of PCs transport an adult destrier for their liege/patron.
  • From the GM's point of view, these things should probably have their own character sheet - and they will certainly be proactive in melee (indeed, proactive in starting melees), biting, stamping and kicking against anything within reach.
    • Indeed, especially with crowds about, a destrier could cause all sorts of trouble by attacking nearby civilians.
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