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in Ancient China

Manchu warhorses were dressed to match important owners for parade.
Alt Text--Parade Ground War horse armour

In Ancient China, horse armor was often made of brigindine plates in either steel or leather. The well dressed warhorse on parade wore the same colours as his rider. This set is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The picture through the glass display case doesn't do justice to it. You'll have to go and see it for yourself. A warhorse takes time to train. They were as valuable as their riders and just as vulnerable to enemy steel. If the horse was disabled in battle, the soldier was left on foot and also more endangered. This made good horse armor very important in the battles of ancient China.

European horse armor.
Alt Text--European horse armor
European warhorses also wore armour to battle. The one in the picture to the right is from the Metropolitan Museum as well. All over steel armour meant stiffer movements. As with the armour for the soldiers, most of it would have to have been made for the individual horse, since a good fit meant the difference between moving freely and being chafed raw and crippling valuable war horses with pain and infection.

Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian examples of battle equipment for horses still exist, and are on display in Museums throughout the world. I photographed most of the examples on this page during my two trips to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I live in Australia so it's quite a trip, but if you live close enough and are interested, make the most of it and visit often.

The beauty and detail in some of these pieces makes me think of the care some people take with their cars in the modern world. Much warhorse armor was plain, but those of importance showed it with elaborate armour, decorated in gold and silver.

In Tibet, iron and leather formed the basis of the armour but other metals were used as well - mostly for decoration: gold, silver, copper. Textiles were also used, including silk brocade in the Chinese brigandine armor. Various woods were used, as were coral, yak hair (especially in Tibetan horse armor), and turquoise.

If a larger area was to be covered in silver, a process know as damascening was used to attach it. Sometimes pierced work was done in metals. We see all of these processes used in the creation of Chinese armour for humans as well. My Qing helmet has engraving. We often see this on horse armor. Chiseling and embossing decorated leather pieces. The effect was functional but also beautiful.

Tibetan war horse breast plate.
Alt Text--war horse breast plate from tibet
Tibetan horse armor was probably the most elaborate. They sometimes used gilded, varnished leather panels in combination with iron lamillar plates. Shellac and tung oil were layered over gold leaf in an effect seen nowhere else in the world.

The breast plate in this picture is Tibetan, probably from 1402 - 1626. It features bhuddist symbols and yak hair. It needs to be said that decoration of this nature was rare. They were usually much plainer, and with good reason. This piece was made to protect the front of the horse from spear thrusts. It wouldn't take many of those to destroy all the beautiful work.

In case anyone has some romantic notion of the appearance of Chinese warhorses, I thought I'd show off this little fellow. He's a Mongolian wild horse - about two hands taller than a Shetland pony, and, as you can see, very unsophisticated. Imagine a whole army of Mongolian soldiers mounted on these guys, decked out in armour, charging towards the enemy. That's more like it! Not Anglo Arabians, or even heavy Percherons. No, sturdy little ponies - at least for the Mongolian army.

Mongolian warhorse.
Alt Text--Mongolian warhorses

This one lives in the Washington Smithsonian Zoo, so he may very well be in better condition than the average Mongolian wild/warhorse. No, he's not dead - just enjoying a happy roll in the dust to scratch his back.

These were what the Mongols rode to war.
Alt Text--Mongolian war horse

And now .... back to horse armor...

Manchu shaffron
Alt Text--Horse armor Manchu shaffron
The piece of armour horses wore on their heads is commonly known as the shaffron. The Chinese one pictured on the left would have been fitted to the horse perfectly in order to have the eyeholes in exactly the right place. They were sometimes made of steel lamillar rivetted between layers of fabric, in the same way as the Manchu soldiers' armour was constructed. Sometimes the lamillar was made of leather pieces. The rivets showing on the outside of the cloth were what gave it the name of dingjia, or "nail armour".

The bridle is worn over the top of the shaffron, in this picture. The top layer is silk brocade. This is parade armour made to match the Blue banner.

Tibetan shaffron.
Alt Text--War horse shaffron from Tibet

The shaffron to the right is an unusually elaborate one from Tibet. It was made in the 15th - 17th century and the decoration marks it as probably belonging to the horse of a high ranking general, or even a king.

It is made of iron and leather. the decoration is in damascened gold and silver. There is a lot of detail. Look at the area above the eyeholes. There are little scrolls outlined with iron spheres. A lot of work has gone into this piece. The horses of common soldiers would not have been dressed so well.

The front of the nose is further reinforced with with a long strip of metal, elaborately decorated with texture. This would have protected the horse from a good solid sword cut delivered at speed.

The pieces below, again, housed in the Metropolitan Museum, are Tibetan war horse neck armour. They are also from the 15th - 17th century. These pieces lay along the sides of the horse's neck. These ones are decorated with gold peony and lotus blossoms.

War Horse Neck Armor.
Alt Text--War horse neck armor

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