The Domestication of the Horse

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The Domestication of the Horse


The horse is best described as a single species (Equus) that consists of various breeds. It is a hoofed, herbivorous mammal that has had a significant impact throughout the history of man. In fact, the horse has been referred to as "the proudest conquest of man," by the French zoologist Georges Buffon (1707-1788). Its importance to the course of human history cannot be understated.

The relationship between horse and human is quite unique. Unlike most other large animals, the horse has been likened to a partner and friend. From its earliest history, the horse has served as a food source, aided agriculture by plowing fields and bringing in the harvest, helped to track and hunt down game, served as an important transport vehicle for goods and people, as well as an integral part of war and conquest, and has even provided many forms of recreational activities.

The earliest form of the horse, known as Hyrocotherium, or eohippus (dawn horse) is believed to have first appeared on Earth approximately 50 million years ago. It is characterized as a being a timid creature about the size of a dog. It lived in swampy areas and its range extended over much of the world. As the habitat of the early horse changed from swamp to forest to grasslands, it went through many evolutionary changes until it reached its present form, Equus, that is seen today. It should be noted that although the range of the horse initially spread throughout the world, it became extinct in the Western world some 8,000 years ago and was brought into Western hemisphere by the Spanish about 500 years ago.

Initially, the wild horse was used as an important food source. This use is depicted in Stone Age cave paintings, such as those seen at Lascaux, France. These are believed to be nearly 20,000 years old and show the horse as an object of human prey. In order to make better use of the horse, it was domesticated. There is little agreement as to when this actually happened, but it is likely that other animals such as dogs and cattle were domesticated first. Some authorities argue that early Cro-Magnon farmers were nomadic and domesticated the horse for use as a pack animal. Others make the case that domestication took place 6,000 years ago by native tribes living on the steppes adjacent to the Black Sea. After this time, horses quickly became indispensable to the people who used them.


After domestication, horses were still used as a ready food source for their meat and mare's milk. But there is recent evidence that humans began to ride horses soon after domestication. The minimum amount of equipment needed in order to control the horse would be some sort of bit or mouthpiece attached to reins. Archeological evidence shows horse teeth with bit wear dated as early as 4000 b.c. The early forms of bits were probably just ropes around the jaw, but more sophisticated bridle setups using antlers coupled with some other pliable material have been uncovered. This type of system would give the rider superior control over the horse and indicates that these early nomads were probably accomplished horsemen.

Early humans had seen the power of draft animals and the yoke was believed to be invented around 5000 b.c. to harness this source of power. In the Near East, cattle were used to drive sledges, but wheels were added in the next millennium. As horses were brought from Asia between 2000 and 3000 b.c., it became apparent that these animals were much faster than cattle and they quickly became the draft animal of choice. The yoke collar needed to be modified for use with horses because it restricted their breathing. Breast straps and other types of collars were invented in order to circumvent this problem. By the fifteenth century b.c., Egyptians developed a wishbone-shaped yoke, joined by straps, that enabled the horse to breath without restriction while being used as a draft animal.

The use of the horse for war and hunting was not overlooked at this time either. An early form of a chariot pulled by horses was developed for these purposes. It was a light, responsive vehicle that gave the driver much control. All metal bits were introduced for use on chariots around 1500 b.c. These made the use of the chariot in warfare more effective because they were stronger and gave greater control over the team of horses. At that time, warfare was still restricted to large chariot forces requiring disciplined horses that were in good condition. It would be another 500 years before men got directly on the horse and began forming cavalry units.

Speculation exists as to the reason why early humans generally preferred driving horses rather than riding them. One reason commonly given was the small stature of early breeds. However, given the fact that small horses are used today as effective mounts, this assumption is questionable. It may have been sociological factors that influenced this, as it seems the upper class had a great aversion to horse sweat, so it may have been undignified to come into direct contact with the horse.

The first group to make wide use of the horse for successful warfare was a united group of nomadic tribes from the Russian steppe, collectively called the Scythians, in 800 b.c. They mastered the technique of horseback archery and measured their wealth in terms of horses. As feared warriors, they influenced future generations with their demonstration of the horse's great power and advantage. By 700 b.c. riding horseback was much preferred over a chariot for both hunting and war.

Native tribes of the steppes made most of the technological advances involving the horse, and these advances were brought west as they tribes invaded neighboring lands. The first horseshoes are no exception. Horseshoes of various types were used by these tribes, but it was the Romans who made wide use of them. Horseshoes were used by the Romans to reduce wear of the hooves, especially on paved roads. These iron shoes were known as "hipposandals" and were tied to hooves. The modern iron horseshoe, which is nailed to the hoof, first appeared around the fifth century a.d.

The advent of the saddle, a seat for the rider, was an important development. The leather saddle, developed in around the third century b.c., greatly improved the utility of the horse. In conjunction with this, the stirrup—used to support the rider's feet—was used to help in the control of the horse as well. Attila the Hun (406?-453) is credited with introducing the stirrup to Europe, giving rider's in the West much more maneuverability and control. Subsequent advances in both the saddle and stirrup occurred throughout early history, with modern stirrups and saddles bearing a striking resemblance to those of the Middle Ages.


Throughout human history the horse has been extremely beneficial and has helped to shape society into what it is today. The horse has been an important component in recreation, travel, labor, and especially war. First and foremost, its domestication was absolutely essential for society to realize how useful and valuable the animal could be. Secondly, the invention of important technological advances, such as the invention of the collar, bit, bridle, stirrup, saddle, and horseshoe, allowed humans to make the horse much more functional, which was important in its rise to significance.

The first domesticated horses were used as food and their hide, but subsequent generations began to use the animal for other things. It seems likely that the next major step was to use the horse to lessen the work done by man. As the horse was harnessed as a power source, the need for human power was reduced. This had the effect of reducing human slavery, since slaves were used primarily as a major source of power.

The legacy of the importance of the horse in antiquity would not be complete unless its significance in waging war was discussed. Armies that used horses for conquest had distinct advantages over those that did not. During antiquity the world was overrun by various ethnic groups that relied heavily upon horses during battle. The initial preference was for two-man chariots, that consisted of a driver and an archer positioned to shoot arrows at the enemy. Later, men directly mounted horses for combat purposes. This gave well-trained armies using the horse a significant advantage and proved to be a key component of conquest for thousands of years. The horse figured significantly in the course of human history and those that could best harness its natural power played more dominant roles until the technological advances of machines made the horse relatively obsolete in modern countries.


Further Reading

Caras, Roger A. A Perfect Harmony: The Intertwining Lives of Animals and Humans Throughout History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Clutton-Brock, Juliet. A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Facklam, Margery. Who Harnessed the Horse? The Story of Animal Domestication. New York: Little Brown & Co., 1992.

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The Domestication of the Horse

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