Sunday, November 16, 2014

Destriers vs Palfrey--Which is better to ride to Jerusalem

Tim Severin wrote Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem about his riding by horseback in the 1980s the 2,500 route of Duke Godfrey de Bouillon  during the first Crusade in the late 1000s.  He attempted to get horses and tack similar to what was used during the time period.  However, he had never ridden before so some of his choices were questionable.  He bought Carty, a 3/4 ton, 4 year old untrained Ardennes draft horse gelding as his riding horse.  His fellow traveler Sarah rode an Irish trekking horse and later they obtained some horses in Hungry and Turkey. 

The Ardennes horse breed is historically accurate but the modern day version is much heavier and bigger boned, more suited for pulling cannons and heavy farm equipment than carrying knights.  He could not understand why the horse kept breaking down and was so uncomfortable to ride.  As Severin complains in the early stages of his journey, "...Carty marched more slowly than I had expected and the discomfort of his gait had been a most painful surprise.  Yet nothing could be done.  I had opted to try riding a Heavy Horse and now knew why a medieval knight travelled on his palfrey."  In Barvaria, a friendly saddle store owner explained that in the Middle Ages "the Ardennes horses would have been selected and raised for long-distance work.  That type of breeding had been completely lost..."  Carty surprised everybody by making it as far as far as he did on the journey.  

Modern Ardennes horse in harness showing
typical roan color and heavy bone
Photo by Steffen Heinz-Wikipedia 
Carty the Ardennes is worth a book in and of himself.  Curious, friendly, stubborn, willful, enduring, pain tolerant, Carty was always getting himself in trouble--especially since no halter, leadlines, or fencing could hold him if he wanted to go exploring.  Tim and Sarah were constantly sneaking out of villages after Carty had demolished civic property in his investigations.  In Serbia, Tim and Sarah were asked for their papers by the local police.  The stop was greatly expedited when Carty walked himself over to the border patrol car, accidentally knocked off the antenna and twisted the car mirror so he could stuff his big head in the front window and pin the officer to the seat. "Short of pulling out his pistol and putting a shot through Carty's head, the man was helpless."  Pulled away from the car like a lapdog, Carty wistfully watched his new playmates drive away as quickly as they could.  

At the end of the first year of riding, Tim and Sarah had ridden as far as Turkey.  They determined that Carty would probably die if they rode him further south, as did most of the Crusaders' horses.  The modern day travelers replaced Carty with a local pack pony and Carty went to a farm in Austria.  Later he appeared to great success as "the horse that went on the Crusade" in the Vienna Horse Show.   

Interestingly, Severin and his companion Sarah spent the night at a farm in the Odenwald in Germany.  The Lufthansa pilot who owned the farm had Icelandic horses, a breed much more historically similar to a gaited palfrey of the Middle Ages--a comparison never realized by Severin.  In Antioch, Turkey, during the second year of the trek, Severin needed to buy another replacement horse for the last 500 miles of the trip to Jerusalem.  Aided by a local businessman, Severin found a rahwan horse, or ambling horse the travelers named Yabangi. This type of horse was frequently used by locals as a pack animal, not a cart horse, because it could keep a steady, smooth, and fast pace for hours. 

As Severin describes his first ride on a gaited or ambling horse, "It was the most unexpected sensation.  After riding a normal horse for two thousand miles with the usual walking and trotting action, I found myself being carried off as smoothly as if the mare was mounted on wheels.  There was none of the usual staccato action of the hooves.  Instead, the palomino paced out level, swerving her spine slightly from side to side but holding it completely flat and steady.  The only description that I could think of was that she glided along, though technically she was an ambling or pacing horse.  I was astounded and delighted." p. 280  Interestingly, the other two horses had to make changes to keep up with Yabangi.  Either she walked slowly or she ambled so fast the other horses struggled to keep up.  After she regained her health after ill treatment by her previous owner, "she could out-travel the other horses with little effort" especially on level ground.

Finishing their personal Crusade, Tim and Sarah ride into Jerusalem on their two surviving horses,  Yabangi and Zippy.  They entered the city via Herod's Gate just a few yards from where Duke Godfrey de Bouillon had stormed the city.  At the end of this amazing journey, Yabangi and Zippy retired to kibbutz to become pets of the children at the cooperative farm.


In my summary of the book, I have neglected Severin's excellent re-telling of the history of the First Crusade to highlight the destrier versus the palfrey contrast of the journey.  Severin made some poor choices in health care and provisions for the horses and I was often frustrated and angry at how the horses suffered for it. However, I appreciated how he wove the history of the Crusade through his encounters with modern day folks along the travel route--from Bulgarian border guards to Turkish shepherds to a Serbian "ogre."  The recounting certainly helps you imagine the logistical nightmare of coordinating the travels of tens of thousands pilgrms and crusaders.

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