Although horses were domesticated at different times by people in different parts of the world, the oldest evidence of humans taming horses comes from Asia. Prehistoric horse cultures have been found in what is now the Southern Ukraine, Caucasus and Central Asia. These people were nomads, wandering the broad, grassy steppes, herding cattle, sheep or horses and hunting wild animals.
They practically lived on horseback, using the horse for food, mainly in the form of mare’s milk, as well as transportation. Horses were so important that they were often buried with tribal chiefs in elaborate tombs below ground.
In the more developed civilisations of Persia, China and Japan, the horse was valuable military asset and carried messengers to all points of the kingdoms. Horses were celebrated in paintings, poetry, pottery and legend. Rustum, the Persian hero, rode his magic horse Rakish in battle and on adventures. Pottery horses of the T’ang Dynasty are supreme examples of Chinese art.
The horse made empires possible. Muslim warriors on horseback took control of lands from Persia to Spain in the 700′s. Jengiz Khan and his mounted Mongol warriors conquered the largest empire in human history, from China to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean in the 12th Century. The horse enabled rulers to administer their far-flung territories by using couriers to send messages and instructions to local governors. The style of riding introduced into the Middle East by the warriors of the Prophet spread through Europe and eventually formed the basis for the style of riding now known as English saddle or hunt seat.
In northern Africa, Arab and Barb horses provided the mounts for the armies that created great kingdoms in Mali, Niger and Sudan. The ruler of Timbuktu was said to have had 3000 horseman in his troop and would purchase the best ones from each caravan that passed by. The sub-tropical and tropical climates of central and western Africa make it almost impossible to raise horses locally.
The presence of disease-carrying insects, especially the tsetse fly, and another factor limiting the ability of horses to survive in Africa. Horses were scarce for other reasons: Africans traditionally herded cattle, sheep and goats on foot, and the African soil was too poor for large-scale farming. All these factors combined to leave little need for horses in daily life. As a result, their use was limited to the military and to the ruling classes, who enjoyed using horses in elaborate displays of wealth, such as the durbar in northern Nigeria.
South of the jungle formed by the great Congo Basin, which divides Africa from East to West, the horse was unknown until Dutch and English settlers arrived. They used horses in the same way in Europe, for farming, herding and travel. The native Africans had no need for the horse in farming and herding, but they used horses occasionally for transportation. As a result, the horse did not play an important role in the economy or society of southern Africa, unlike elsewhere in the world.
Modern Europe has its origins in the kingdoms of the Middle Ages, which have their origins in the feudal system, which was made possible by the horse. More exactly, feudalism was made possible by the introduction of the stirrup into Europe in the 800′s. The stirrup turned a man on horseback into a formidable fighting unit. The mounted knight in armour was the mainstay of the medieval army. The system of land ownership required to support the knight developed into a highly complex social organisation. The feudal kingdoms eventually evolved into the nations of Europe, as we know them today.
Stirrups helped not only the knight, but also the merchant, the traveller and the courier of the king. A rider with stirrups is much more secure than a rider without them and the result was to vastly increase the use of the horse for riding.
In addition to the stirrup, the shoulder collar, another imported piece of equipment, helped the horse to become important in European social and economic development. During the Roman Empire, long before the Middle Ages, horses were used in almost exclusively for war or sport. They did not usually pull ploughs or carts because the Roman harnesses were not efficient. The shoulder collar enabled the horses to pull ploughs and wagons. Stronger and faster than the ox, the horse became much more useful to the peasant and the merchant.
Until the invention of the internal combustion engine, the horse was Europe’s most important source of energy. The word ‘Horsepower’ is still used today to measure engines.
It is hard to imagine the history of North America without horses, yet horses had vanished from the Western Hemisphere many thousands of years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Remains of ancient bones found in parts of the United States indicate that horses may have been hunted by humans, but by the time the Europeans began to explore the continent, the horse was gone. It was not even a memory among the native tribes.
The Spanish conquistadores brought horses back into North America in the early 1500′s. Although vastly outnumbered, the Spanish were able to conquer the Aztec empire in Mexico as well as most what is now the western United States because the native populations had never seen horses and usually ran away in terror from their first sight of these strange animals.
Exploration and settlement of the vast North American continent would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without horses. Although oxen pulled the pioneers’ wagons west into the prairies, they are slower than horses and are not as useful. Without horses, for example, there would have been no Pony Express to deliver the mail, no cowboys to round up cattle and no stagecoaches to carry people from town to town. The horse pulled the farmer’s plough, carried the cavalry soldier in battle and brought the doctor his patients.
The Western style of riding developed directly from the medieval Spanish saddles, and the cowboy’s seat, with long stirrups and straight leg, is the same seat used by a knight in armour. The universal image of the West is the cowboy and his horse.
The Spanish conquistadors brought horses to South America in the 1500′s The native people had never before seen these large creatures and they were at first terrified at the sight of men on horseback. As a result, mounted soldiers were able to conquer the native empires and establish Spanish rule over much of the continent. Afterwards, horses continued to be imported by Spanish and Portuguese colonists for use in farming, ranching and transportation, just as they were used in Europe.
In South America today, horses remain valuable for ranching on the great cattle-raising estancias of Argentina and on the ranchos of Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and northern Brazil. The gaucho on the his pony is a symbol of the pampa, the South American plain, just as the cowboy is a symbol of the open range in the western United States. On the pampas, the horses are not stabled or corralled but range free in herds called remudas, which are led by a dominant mare. The mare is trained to follow the gaucho on his rounds, and when the gaucho’s horse tires, he simply selects a fresh mount from the remuda.
Along with the use of horses in herding, the European settlers brought their traditions of horse-based sports. Polo and racing remain popular today in many countries of South America. The South American breeds, developed from fine horses bred on the Iberian Peninsula since Roman times, are prized for their beauty and stamina.