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How Horses Have Shaped History


By Leigh Ballard

It is mindboggling to think of all the history that wouldn’t have been made without the horse. Estimates vary, but all agree that horses have been domesticated for at least 5,000 years. Horses have been used for work, for warfare, and for travel for these many thousands of years, and because of this, horses have helped humankind progress through the ages. Horses are said to have done more to shape and create the course of human history than any other domestic animal.

In a past traveling exhibit called Horse, The American Museum of Natural History declares, “The close relationship between horses and humans has changed us both. People have remade horses, creating dozens of breeds in our efforts to make horses faster, stronger, bigger, or smaller. But horses have also changed us. The ways we travel, trade, play, work, and fight wars have all been profoundly shaped by our use of the horse.”

In certain areas of the world, agriculture was able to flourish with the use of the horse as a beast of work and burden, because the animals were able to do so much more labor than men. Plowing and harvesting were increased; the transportation of seeds and plants to new lands increased agricultural diversity; food and nutrition improved; people were able to stay in one area to tend their soil and develop their societies and cultures – all of this with the help of the horse.

 J. Edward “Ted” Chamberlin, in his book How the Horse Has Shaped Civilization, points out, “In the Middle Ages, horses were bred for size to carry the load of a knight and his amour. The ‘great horses’ became the draft horses that pull heavy loads.” And these draft horses later pulled wagons of goods and logs from forests and helped build cities. Later, they even pulled streetcars, buses, and fire engines as cities grew and societies flourished.

Chamberlin, a horse breeder and professor of comparative literature at the University of Toronto, has collected stories about horses for most of his life. His choices of the five horses that changed history are: 1) Przewalski’s horse; 2) Bucephalus (the horse of Alexander the Great and one of the most famous horses of antiquity); 3) Whistlejacket (an oil-on-canvas painting from about 1762 by British artist George Stubbs showing the Marquess of Rockingham's racehorse, rearing up against a blank background); 4) The Arabian Horse; 5) The workhorse. Chamberlin notes that  Przewalski's Horse is a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse (Equus ferus) native to the steppes of central Asia, specifically China and Mongolia. In contrast to other wild horses, Przewalski's Horse has never been successfully domesticated and remains a truly wild animal today. Once extinct in the wild, it has been reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia, and bred with limited success in a handful of zoos around the world. 

With developing societies and cultures, competition between them also grew. Warfare became an area where horses made a difference in who won or lost the battle. Chamberlin states, “The horse was the first means of mass destruction. They allowed the hordes to move in and wipe out whole peoples.” In Britain, the kings might not have conquered the roaming tribes without their knights on horseback. On our own continent, the Spaniards might have never conquered the Aztecs and other native peoples without horses. The Aztecs and others had never seen horses, so the relatively few Spaniards on horseback were able to strike fear in the thousands of natives who saw them as a mythical godlike creatures.

For travel, horses were key to carrying explorers across new frontiers. The Horse exhibit explains, “For most of human history, there was no faster way to travel over land than on a horse. Their speed and endurance are amazing for a creature so large, making them ideal animals to carry people and goods around the world.”  The Chinese expedition to Fergona to acquire horses was a 3200-kilometer expedition undertaken over 2,000 years ago. It is credited as opening a part of the important ancient trade route called The Silk Road, which facilitated interaction between cultures of Asia and Europe. Horses were an integral part of ancient Greek (as well as Roman) culture and mythology.  Alexander the Great was able to spread the Greek culture across wide lands from the back of his legendary horse, Bucephalus.

The Spanish explorers and conquerors brought horses to the New World over 500 years ago, and many events that define American history include the horse. Would Ponce de Leon ever have traveled through Florida, setting the path for future exploration and settlement?  In our own mid-south, would Hernando Desoto ever have made it to the Mississippi River? Undoubtedly, American history would be quite different if not for the horse. The Choctaw, Apache and Comanche, and other Native American tribes wouldn’t have had the horses that we think of as part of their cultures in our cowboy western imagination.  What about the Gold Rush and other early settlement of the West?  How many pioneers would have actually traveled west on such daunting journeys without horses? A great deal of our nation’s history, indeed all of the New World’s history, was determined in very large part by the horse.

The Museum of Natural History exhibit states it well: “For more than 1000 years, people have called on the power of horses to achieve their own ends. Horses have cleared forests, plowed lands, herded cattle, and driven machines.  Horses and humans working together have shaped the world in remarkable ways.” Although horses no longer seem necessary to help humans change the world, they still maintain their ancient allure in sport, spirituality, and luxury.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. (2007) How the Horse Changed Civilization.Vintage Canada publishing.

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