Modern equestrian sports are dominated by European horses, many of whom were imported to Canada to compete under Canadian riders. Researchers in England have now uncovered evidence that seems to prove that elite sport horses are nothing new.

Published this month in the journal Science Advances, the paper reveals research at the University of Exeter into an “exceptional horse cemetery” discovered under Elverton Street in the City of Westminster, London. This area was once the seat of royal power in medieval England, and over 70 whole or partial horses were found at the burial site. This is unusual, because during that era in history, even favourite horses were not interred in special graves.

An old drawing of two knights jousting.

“The finest medieval horses were like modern supercars – inordinately expensive and finely tuned vehicles that proclaimed their owner’s status,” said Professor Oliver Creighton, a medieval specialist at the University of Exeter and part of the research team. ( image)

Historians and researchers have found evidence that royalty and wealthy aristocrats went to great lengths to find, breed, and train horses for sport, farm work and the battlefield, often buying from abroad and importing them to England. But huge gaps as to how these horse-trading networks operated remained. To fill in the details, the project “Warhorse: The Archaeology of a Military Revolution” was started. The study of the horse grave grew out of that project and focused on the animals found in the London gravesite.

Not unlike today’s top show jumpers and dressage mounts, these ancient horses came from several locations across Europe and were coveted for their height and strength. The sport of choice for the era (14th to 16th century AD) was jousting. According to, the horses that were studied included “three of the tallest animals known from late medieval England, standing up to 1.6 meters or 15.3 hands high, which while quite small by modern standards would have been very impressive for their day.”

The chemical composition of the remains was examined and allowed the researchers to learn where the elite horses were born and bred. Using advanced techniques to study the teeth, and the chemical composition of the water they drank, researchers were able to pinpoint where 15 of the horses had originated. Tests indicated that ten of the horses were from the UK, while five of the animals appeared to have been born and bred across continental Europe, in areas as diverse as Sweden, Finland, and the central/south Alps.

The scientists were also able to determine how much a horse moved around during its lifetime, such as being stabled for breeding in one location. Mares, stallions, and geldings were all found in the burial site.

The paper concludes by stating that while the site and the horses found share “unusual features: (i) the exceptionally unusual form of cemetery deposition, (ii) its elite location close to the royal complex of Westminster, (iii) the high proportion of exogenous animals imported from abroad, and (iv) the presence of some unusually large and robust horses within the assemblage,” none of these features are particularly unusual when discussing “high-status horses.” However, the presence of all these factors together do seem to imply that these particular horses were “elite animals owned by elite households, including possibly the royal household itself.” The research also shows evidence “linking specific horses to the long-distance horse-trading networks that supplied the medieval London elite.” And that intel goes a long way to helping create a baseline for research into the non-elite horse-trading in London and Britain.