"No, no, no, tha's just superstition, that is, they aren' unlucky, they're dead clever and useful!"
-- Rubeus Hagrid (OP21)
Thestrals are huge winged horses that are only visible to people who have witnessed death.
They have white shining eyes, dragonish faces and necks, and skeletal black bodies, and are carnivorous and so attracted to the smell of blood. They have no flesh; their skin clings directly to their bones (OP10). Despite their menacing appearance, they are generally friendly animals (OP21, OP34).
The only herd of domesticated Thestrals in Britain lives in the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts, tended to by Hagrid (OP21). They are well trained, for example, not to attack the many owls flying around the castle (OP17). The herd started with a male and five females; they have lived in the Forbidden Forest for years, and it is believed that the original members of the herd came to Hogwarts as means of transportation for some students before the introduction of the Hogwarts Express (PmP). A number of Thestrals have been born since, beginning with one named Tenebrus, who is a special favorite of Hagrid's (OP21). They are used to pull the school carriages from the train station up to the school (OP21, OP10).
- Few of the students in Hagrid's Care of Magical Creatures class could see the Thestrals during Harry's fifth year (only Harry, Neville, and an unnamed "stringy" Slytherin boy who may be Theodore Nott). People used to think they were bad omens, that seeing them meant bad luck, but this is just superstition (OP21).
- Thestrals have an amazing sense of direction and move magically fast through the air. Dumbledore used them to travel if he didn't care to Apparate (which probably explains how he got to the Ministry in PS16) (OP21).
- Harry and a group of students flew Thestrals from Hogwarts to the Ministry of Magic in an attempt to rescue Sirius (OP34). Thestrals were also ridden by Kingsley, Hermione, Bill, and Fleur in the Battle of the Seven Potters (DH4).
- In 2017 when Albus Potter went to Hogwarts for the first time, his brother James tells him to watch out for the Thestrals, thoroughly scaring his brother. Harry reassures him that Thestrals are gentle creatures (DH/e).
- Luna Lovegood is also able to see Thestrals, since she saw her mother die at the age of nine (OP38). Everyone who cannot see them assumes that the Hogwarts carriages magically pull themselves.
- The Elder Wand contains a Thestral tail hair, a highly unusual wand core (Pm).
- In 1927 Auror Rudolph Spielman brought a Thestral-drawn black carriage resembling a hearse to MACUSA in New York City to transport prisoner Gellert Grindelwald back to Europe, but he was able to escape, ironically with the Elder Wand - containing a Thestral tail hair.
People often wonder why Harry could not see the Thestrals until The Order of the Phoenix, even though he saw his parents die as a baby. J.K. Rowling answers this question on Pottermore:
"Being able to see Thestrals is a sign that the beholder has witnessed death, and gained an emotional understanding of what death means. It is unsurprising that it took a long time for their significance to be properly understood, because the precise moment when such knowledge dawns varies greatly from person to person. Harry Potter was unable to see Thestrals for years after his mother was killed in front of him, because he was barely out of babyhood when the murder happened, and he had been unable to comprehend his own loss. Even after the death of Cedric Diggory, weeks elapsed before the full import of death's finality was borne upon him. Only at this point did the Thestrals that pull the carriages from Hogsmeade Station to Hogwarts castle become visible to him. On the other hand, Luna Lovegood, who lost her own mother when she was young, saw Thestrals very soon afterwards because she is intuitive, spiritual and unafraid of the afterlife."
Winged horses are collectively given the Ministry rating XX-XXXX in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but Thestrals are probably an XXXX rating (dangerous/requires specialist knowledge/skilled wizard may handle) (FB) as Umbridge says the Ministry has classified them as "dangerous" (OP21).
Scientists have named a genus of Chilean shield bugs after Thestrals, as their high camouflage and scarcity of numbers mean they are very hard to see (source: Wikipedia).
From the Web
"The Legend Behind Thestrals" on Mugglenet