The horse is one of the most common charges in heraldry – unsurprising given that it was a key part of knightly identity and warfare going back thousands of years. It may appear as a charge, crest or supporter. It can also take a variety of postures, including rampant, passant, trotting, forcene, salient or spancelled (fettered). The crest is normally supported by a helmet, and the position of the helmet on top of the shield points to rank: a helmet with the visor open means a knight, with it closed, a gentleman.
Symbols other than those of the horse itself can be found on a coat of arms, mainly because heraldry evolved in a period when warrior identities were obscured by armor and battle helmets. During this time, kings, barons and other aristocrats needed ways to distinguish their soldiers on the battlefield. Coloured symbols emblazoned on flags, armour and shields allowed the warriors to be recognised by their allies and opponents.
The field of the coat of arms is the background on which the different symbols, called charges, are displayed. The field is usually divided into quarters by geometric bands, known as ordinaries and sub-ordinaries. The tinctures used on the charges are also important, as they provide the different colours of the individual components. There are many different types of ordinary and sub-ordinaries, which can make the process of designing a coat of arms very complex.
When it comes to crests, they could be designed to include anything that was appropriate for the family, such as religious symbols or animals. They might even feature specific flowers or plants, which had a particular meaning in heraldry. There is also the possibility of mythological creatures appearing on a crest, though these were rare.
The most famous example is the white horse of Uffington, carved into a chalk hillside in Hampshire. The heraldic arms of the Vale of Uffington show two bars wavy on a chief wavy Vert a representation of the White Horse with an ancient crown between two lightning flashes to represent links with Anglo-Saxon royalty. The supporters are on the dexter side a mitred Abbot to represent the Abbey of Abingdon, and on the sinister side a Saxon King to represent the heritage of Wantage in Berkshire. The motto is ‘SUB EQUO AEQUITAS’ – ‘Under the horse there is equity’. The horse is also a well-known symbol of the British Army. It appears on the badges of some regiments, and is a feature on the armband of the Duke of York’s Royal Tank Regiment. It is also featured on the coat of arms of Kent. The badges of the Royal Corps of Signals and the RAF Regiment both show a white horse, presumably to commemorate their ancestors with the Duke of York’s Regiment. It is also the motto of the Australian Army’s elite Unit, XVIII Cavalry Regiment. It is not clear whether the Unit’s heraldic arms have been altered since it was reformed in 2007. They are also used on the badge of the Royal Air Force’s Recruiting Branch.