Rubicon Heritage’s Faunal Specialist Claudia Tommasino Suarez describes work she has been carrying out on a highly significant horse assemblage from Mullamast, Co. Kildare, which may provide evidence for the breeding of the animals that gave rise to the Hobelar cavalry of the medieval period.
From the 13th century onwards Ireland made an important contribution to medieval warfare, particularly in the conflicts in and between England, Scotland and Wales. However this contribution was not typical- it came in the form of a small, light, swift and maneuverable horse: the hobby or hobin.
The secret of this four-legged warrior’s success was determined by its performance in difficult terrain. The animal’s attributes led to the rise of a form of light-mounted soldier known as a ‘hobelar.’ These troops became proficient at roles such as scouting and patrolling in environments like mountains, bogs and woodlands, where heavier armoured knights mounted on destriers struggled to operate.
The hobby or hobin was a native horse (or pony) species from Ireland that were first encountered by the English during the Anglo-Norman invasion. The Normans later decided to incorporate the animal into their own forces; James Lydon in his Irish Sword paper noted that they provided a middle ground between mounted archers and armoured knights.
As a result this horse, that did not exceed 12-14 hands (121- 142 cms.) became a highly valuable Irish contribution to the English army in the 13th century, and was widely used during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Lyons has found references in the 14th century for up to 500 hobelars being transported from Ireland to take part in military campaigns.
Given the historical references to these horses it is clear they were of significant military value, and the English administration must have endeavored to insure their continuing availability. But where were these horses acquired? Could there be archaeological evidence of such demand? Excavations carried out by Rubicon Heritage Services at the deserted medieval village of Mullamast, Co. Kildare might provide such evidence. Excavated on behalf of Kildare County Council and the National Roads Authority, the site’s faunal assemblage was dominated by one species of animal: small horses.
Zooarchaeological assemblages from medieval excavations in Ireland usually produce very small quantities of horse bones, often not exceeding 1% of the total number of bones. However, at Mullamast a staggering 28% of the animal assemblage could be identified as horse. Coupled with this, the Mullamast horses were small individuals. The adult specimens did not exceeding 130cms (12.8 hands), measurements that would correspond to hobins or hobbys. The evidence suggested that they were bred on the site, an interpretation confirmed by the presence of neonatal and infant specimens in the record. These animals were not being consumed, though some of them were used for ploughing or other activities which could cause serious injuries to their bones.
It is not possible for us to conclusively state that the inhabitants of Mullamast raised these horses to satisfy the military demand. Even if this was one reason for their breeding, it is clear from the evidence that the horses were being exploited for local labour activities. However, the sheer number of animals suggests that the Mullamast site may well have been an important breeding centre, where hobbys were produced in a well-controlled region to provide not only for the agricultural needs of the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland, but also its ever-increasing military requirements.