Hunting and Horses
While not evey Medieval noble ever went off to war, they all, if physically able, went off to hunt on horseback, and not just the men, but the women --who rode astride-- as well. Hunting was the favorite pastime of the warrior class, and the cause of most injuries and deaths among the aristocrats. Hunting was also representative of how large a role horses played in the life of an aristocrat. Horses were more than mere transportation, they were a way of life. The nobles spent a lot of time travelling and this was usually done in the saddle. One fought, or at least got to or away from the battlefield, on horseback. The favorite entertainments, hunting and tournaments, revolved around horses.
Hunting was an exciting sport, especially for men reared on weapons and warfare, for which it was a form of training. And there was plenty of opportunity to do it. In 1300 Northwest Europe contained about one seventh as many people as it does today. There were vast forests and numerous herds of deer, which was the favorite prey. In addition, there were wild pigs, wolves, and in some areas even bears, so hunting helped the peasantry by curbing such potentially dangerous animals.
Hunting on horseback was, if nothing else, an excuse to go out and ride the many horses even the poorest noble household kept. Your typical knight had a least two, one for riding around on (a palfrey) and one for fighting on (a destier). It was poor knight indeed who had only one horse. Many successful farmers had a horse, particularly the English yeomen ., but the mark of nobility was the possession of as many horses as possible. A well turned out lord, when traveling, would take along one or two riding horses, a war horse, and perhaps even a hunting horse (who could fill in as a war horse). The horses were somewhat smaller than modern ones, being between 50 and 60 inches at the shoulder. A war horse might be larger, and much heavier. This was not just to carry the heavier load of arms and armor, but to give the charging knight a maximum amount of impact (both visual and physical.) In fact, a properly equipped knight carried less weight than a modern cavalryman. The war horse was bred largely for looks, as this was the beast a traveling noble would switch to before entering a town. In fact, a noble while traveling would wear nondescript (that is, comfortable) clothing and sit on a good riding horse, leading his charger. Before reaching his destination, his party would halt so he could change into more impressive clothing and switch to his war horse. Thus his entrance into a town or castle would be befitting his rank. The commoners would be awed and his peers would not be insulted by the appearance of some dusty traveller.
But the best horses a noble owned were those bred and trained for hunting. These were generally smaller than the war horse (some of which were 72 inches high and a ton in weight), but larger than the riding horse. A "hunter" was strong and possessed of great stamina and intelligence.
Given the abundance of game, the usual tactic was to leave one's castle or manor house with several mounted hunters and one or more packs of dogs. Several servants on foot or horseback did the work of flushing out the game. These servants were generally either the lords hunting specialists, or the local "game wardens ." These fellows, often called "foresters" where the key players during a hunt. When not keeping the poachers in check, the foresters would assist at hunts by directing the hunting party to where game was most likely to be found. Other servants, in charge of the hounds, would be directed towards the best spots to unleash the dogs. A mounted forester would guide the hunting party through the wilderness as everyone listened to the hounds tracking the prey. The dogs gave off distinctive howls when the prey was in sight, and at that point the hunters took off at high speed to intercept the game. The same techniques were used whether going after, deer, wild pig, bear, bison, or wolves, with modifications depending upon the terrain and habits of the prey. When chasing two legged prey (criminals and brigands), the same tactics were used.
Hunting was a rough and tumble exercise and it kept the warrior class in shape. By examining the custom made armor of these nobles, and their bones, historicans have discovered that most of them were quite athletic, although small by current standards. The average commoner was closer to 65 inches in height and only 130-140 pounds in weight. An aristocrat would be a few inches taller, 20-30 pounds heavier, and all muscle when in their prime. If hunting accidents didn't kill a noble, an injury would often force him to give up hunting. At that point, the poor fellow would continue his 5,000 calorie a day diet without all the exercise to work it off. Getting fat, and clogging one's arteries with a diet heavy on meat soon led to health problems that are rather more common today.
To keep their horses in the best condition, they had to be fed a diet of roughly half grain (usually oats) and half hay. Horses could be let loose to feed entirely on grass, as horses in the wild did. But a grass diet leaves little time for useful work and does not build up the horse as well as a grain diet. A hunting horse, or good sized palfrey (riding horse), would consume about ten pounds of oats a day, with another ten or twelve pounds of hay (somewhat more concentrated and nutritous than grass). This diet would cost some five or six ducats a day, rather more than what it cost to feed a two footed servant. This would amount to nearly 2,000 ducats a year, but the frugal lord would put the horses out to feed on grass when the steeds were not needed. While your average noble would go riding every day, if this were just an hour or so then a grass fed horse could be used.
Many nobles were, however, quite rich and not only kept over a hundred horses for themselves, their family, and servants, but also bred them for sale. Even during the Dark Ages, breeds of horses were recognized and certain areas were known for their fine horses. Normandy, both before and after the Vikings arrived, was noted for it's excellent horseflesh. Through the Medieval period, French and English knights favored Normandy bred horses.