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What is a Palfrey?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The term “palfrey” was used during the medieval period to classify a particular type of horse with a unique four beat gait which was suited to long endurance rides. Because the gait of a palfrey was naturally smooth and flowing, the horse was a preferred riding horse, especially for women. Men, however, also rode palfreys, especially on long trips, as the horses could move for hours at an even pace. A palfrey was very costly, and only members of the nobility could afford one.

A palfrey is not a specific breed of horse, but rather a type. Today, the palfrey is better known as a singlefooter, a reference to the unique ground covering gait which the horses employ. They move in a four beat rhythm which is extremely smooth, and also highly energy efficient. The gait is comparable to a trot in terms of speed, but far more comfortable, and at a certain point during the horse's movement, only one of its feet will be on the ground. Hence, the name “singlefooter” to refer to these unique gaited horses, which began to experience a resurgence in popularity in the 1990s, when riders found that the gait worked well for disabled and new riders, as well as being pleasant and fun for experienced riders.

In the medieval era, a palfrey of quality was usually owned by a member of the upper class, and peasants and members of the lower classes rode trotting horses or rounceys, common horses which did not have special gaits. Typically, a knight would own several palfreys for use while traveling, and women rode palfreys exclusively. The highly bred horses could be used for hunting and pleasure riding as well as journeys. In all cases, a palfrey had to be beautiful as well as talented, as many medieval paintings of horses and their riders attest.

The unique gait of the palfrey is sometimes classified as an amble, because it is effortless for the horse and smooth for the rider. Many breeds of horse, such as the American Saddlebred and Icelandics, also have unique gaits which can be brought out in naturally talented horses. The amble of a singlefooter is related to these gaits, but requires less effort on the part of the horse. Numerous breeds are crossbred to bring out the unique ambling gait of a palfrey, with singlefooter registration associations awarding inclusion of the basis of merit, rather than bloodlines.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ceilingcat — On Sep 22, 2011

@KaBoom - How awful about your moms friend! Maybe she didn't have to tell you that story so many time though.

I stumbled on this article because I saw a movie set in the medieval time period recently. They kept referring to palfreys and I was curious what the term meant. In the movie though, they only referred to a horse as a palfrey when a lady was riding it.

By KaBoom — On Sep 21, 2011

I've been afraid of horses since I was younger. When I was little, every time the topic of horses came up my mom would tell this terrible story about how one her friends was thrown off a horse and killed when they were both 18! Needless to say, that didn't make me feel inclined to ride a horse.

I've only ridden a horse one time as an adult. However, I have a good friend who is really into horseback riding and even owns two horses. She's always trying to convince me to come ride one. She told me one of her horses is a "singlefooter" and great for beginners.

So of course I had to find out what that term meant. After reading this article I feel a little better about possibly riding this horse. Maybe.

By sunshined — On Sep 21, 2011

I have always enjoyed reading about the types of palfrey horses that were ridden during medieval times.

Once I began riding gaited horses, I have never bought anything else to ride on the trails. Right now I own a Rocky Mountain gaited horse that has been one of the best horses I have ever owned.

Not only does he have a smooth gait but has the best temperament in a horse that I have ever had. This is one of the biggest reasons I bought him. I have read several articles that described them as the "Golden Retrievers" of horses, and knew this was the gaited horse for me.

By John57 — On Sep 20, 2011

We always had quarter horses when I was growing up and this is what I was used to riding. I had no idea there could be such a big difference until I had the chance to ride a Tennessee Walker.

This was a very pleasant experience that prompted me to buy one of my own. My husband still rides his quarter horse when we go trail riding and since I am riding my walker, I am always in the lead.

Not only can she cover a lot of ground, but the ride is so much smoother. I could never trot for a very long period of time because it was so rough. The whole time I am riding my horse I feel like I am going the speed of a trot without the rough bumping up and down.

I was familiar with the term 'gaited horses', but never had heard of them referred to as a 'palfrey'. After riding one, it is easy to understand why these were owned by nobility.

By wavy58 — On Sep 20, 2011

I once rode a palfrey at a park that offered horseback riding. It was the first horse I had ever ridden, and it was a pleasant experience.

I was a bit scared at first, because the horse was so big, and it seemed I had to climb up really high to mount him. I didn’t quite trust him, either.

Once we started moving, my fears subsided. He seemed to be the most gentle creature instead of the monster I feared he would be. Once I saw that I would not be bouncing around and falling to one side, I relaxed and enjoyed the smooth ride.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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