No other animal has made a more relevant contribution to history, in general, and to mankind development in particular than the horse.
Since it was domesticated, about 6,000 years ago in Central Asia, in what has become today a country called Kazakhstan, the horse has been perennially present over the course of our trajectory as a civilization.
Fossils indicate that horses were present in North America until 12,000 years ago when they became extinct in the continent. No horses were present in the Americas until their reintroduction by the Spanish in the 15th century.
The first use that humans made of the horse was as food, either milk or meat, quite likely both. A 600 pound mare granted enough meat for all the tribe for many months. In addition, their skin was very useful for making cloths or for the manufacture of tents.
Figure 1: Vogelherd horse, sculpted from mammoth ivory 35,000 years ago.
It proves that equines already fascinated humans millennia before their domestication.
Source: Commons Wikipedia
But this would not be the most significant contribution of this equine. Shortly after this domestication, someone devised, also in Central Asia, the reins: two leather strips joined by the bit: a piece of metal inserted in the animal’s mouth. Something so simple allowed maneuvering with the animals in such a way that they slowed, turned and accelerated to the will of the rider.
Figure 2: Rein: See the bit between the horse lips.
Source: Commons Wikipedia
This finding resulted in two fundamental changes in the use of horses: on one hand it started the military use of horses as the embryo of what later became the army cavalry and, on the other, their utility as a means of transport was forged. Both abilities would change the history of humankind forever: activities that until then required enormous efforts and a colossal investment in brute force like pulling trees or moving stones, could be done now with a pair of horses in a faster and much more comfortable way. Conquering, fleeing, traveling, transporting, became much faster, safer, and more effective with the help of steeds or pack mules.
If internet today has made globalization a click away, horse domestication made globalization a ride away.
Little by little, new inventions were added to horse riding that improved the services equines would deliver: the invention of the saddle – at first a simple piece of cloth – was a first step. The cart paved the way to transport heavy loads, but the evolution that really caused a leap forward was the invention of the stirrup.
This gadget was first used in China in the year 300 AD and arrived in Europe about three hundred years later. This simple instrument gives stability to the rider, allowing him to travel greater distances with less effort and combines the man and the horse as a single unit.
Figure 3: Stirrups. China. 300-250 BC
Source: Commons Wikipedia
This invention was so revolutionary that, according to the historian Lynn Townsend, the stirrup allowed the appearance of a powerful nobility that, possessing the overwhelming force of cavalry, established feudal society. Even today, historians discuss this conclusion, but what is certain is that the horse revolutionized history when man was able to ride on it and direct it at will.
As a consequence, perhaps the most frequent use of horses – besides plowing – has been war. Horses played a relevant role in all conflicts until WWII (the last recorded cavalry charge happened in 1942 in the Eastern front when 200 Italian cavalrymen, part of the Axis army, fought the soviets on Russian soil). However, horses’ role has often been forgotten by historians. Let us then give a brief sample of the role played by the equines –also mules were involved- taking as an example their interventions during the Napoleonic wars:
In the battles that the Grand Armeé fought, cavalry was decisive. Specifically, in the Russian campaign, between 160,000-180,000 horses were used for transportation and combat. Such amount of animals require about 900 tons of hay a day that were not – as historian Richard Holmes points out – easy to find in enemy territory. This factor, coupled with the intense cold, forced the horses to eat grass of the land, even the thatched roofs served as fodder.
Under these conditions the animals began to die as bedbugs. All this combined with the thick layer of ice that covered all roads and the inability of the French army to make horseshoes to walk on it led to the destruction of the Napoleonic dreams. Mortality was horrible, the animals not only died because of the weather conditions but also because they were butchered by the starving soldiers. The French cavalry did cease to exist.
Conversely, the adaptability of the Russian horse breeds was also decisive in the Gallic defeat: Russian steeds were much smaller – the riders could touch the ground with their boots while riding them -, they needed less food and were acclimated to the icy steppes, they did not even need to be horse-shoed according to the historian Dominic Lieven.
Figure 4: Napoleon withdrawal from Moscow by Adolph Northen.
The French army was forced to withdraw on foot as most of their
horses and mules died due to the harsh cold and lack of food. Source: Commons Wikipedia
Besides war, another less known contribution from horses started at the beginning of the 20th century: they were to be used as a medical tool. In order to treat diseases that caused high mortality, mostly amongst children, such as diphtheria or tetanus, horses were inoculated with the causative agents of these diseases; not the bacteria themselves but rather their toxins (poisoning molecules synthesized by the bacteria and which are the real cause of the symptoms we observe in ill people). Once the horse is exposed to those toxins, its immune system produces antibodies against them. Once this happens, veterinarians bled the horses, that is, they extracted a limited amount of blood from which serum was obtained. This serum was overflowing with antitoxins, which were capable of attaching to the toxins that caused the illness and destroy them making the patient healthy again.
To illustrate this point, suffice to say that in 1894, there were 2,870 diphtheria deaths in New York City; by 1900, the number was down to 1,400, and it declined steadily in the following decades.
There are many more examples in which horses help us. I would like to enumerate some briefly as the topic would give itself for a complete book: racecourse races are an important industry that generates an important income where they take place, other modalities such as trot, polo game, equestrian art or some types of hunting that still count on the horse as the main character.
We must not forget their use for leisure or for security -police riding- or in managing extensive cattle. Their role in therapy of some mental or personality disorders is also important because interacting with these animals has proven to have healing properties.
On the other hand, many services that in the Western world have fallen into disuse are still frequent in other latitudes. It is not uncommon to see plowing with horses or colts in the third world and they are still the most suitable method of transportation in rough terrain. In fact, even today, practically all the armies preserve horses –and donkeys- in their cavalry. The US Army equines were heavily used in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001 (the last time the US military had used them in combat had been against the Japanese in the Philippines in the year 1942).
- Lieven, D. (2011). Russia against Napoleon. The battle for Europe 1807 to 1814. Penguin books.
- Holmes, R. (2015). The Napoleonic Wars. Carlton Books.
- White, Lynn (1966). Medieval technology and social change. Oxford University press
- Derby, Dan (2001). How the stirrup changed the world. http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20010924/stirrup.shtml
- Lienhard, John H. Engines of our ingenuity. 1988-1997. Stirrups.
- Jay F. Kirkpatrick and Patricia M. Fazio. The Surprising History of America’s Wild Horses. Live Science Animals. July 24, 2008
- Jesse Greenspan Remembering History’s Last Major Cavalry Charge. AUGUST 2012
- Long Ago Against Diphtheria, the Heroes Were Horses. New York Times. July 10, 2007