Domesticating the Horse
Work horse, war horse, or trail horse, man’s connection to this animal is an age-old relationship with it’s glory days in the past. Referred to as the aristocrat of animals, horses have captured our hearts and imaginations for millennia, and have helped lead humanity along it’s course of ever increasing speed and mobility.
45 million years ago the dinosaur was already extinct. Early primates had emerged, as had the earliest horse ancestors. Our own primate ancestors evaded predators by climbing trees. Horses back then were much smaller than they are today, fox-sized, and so were able to hide throughout the dense foliage that covered the floor of the tropical forest that was Earth at the time. This prehistoric horse is called Eohippus and had four padded toes on the front legs and three padded toes on the back legs.
18 million years ago the Earth began to cool, creating entirely new, drier habitats. Tropical forests became grasslands and horses became much larger as they adapted to this new environment. Their heads became longer to house extra molars needed to mulch grass. They got taller and their eyes grew larger, perfect for spotting danger among the tall grasses. To evade predators, their stomachs adapted so they were able to quickly digest food and run directly after eating.
Their legs evolved to become longer and thinner. They lost all fingers but one, which became a single hoof - less surface area, less friction. Less friction, more speed. The way their muscles store energy, the way they breathe - all evolved purposefully until the horse was an animal built to run, specialized for speed.
Instead of hiding from predators they now became faster animals, able to outrun their enemies and keep them at a distance. Even today baby horses can run after just a few hours of being born.
A group of horses will not go to sleep at the same time – at least one of them will act as a look-out to alert its companions of potential dangers. It was adaptations like this that made the horse perfectly suited for domestication by humans.
30000 BCE Although horses appeared in Paleolithic cave art, these were wild horses. The horses of the Ice Age were hunted for meat by early humans. Many of these Ice Age subspecies died out during the rapid climate changes associated with the end of the last Ice Age or were hunted out by humans, particularly in North America, where the horse became completely extinct.
4000 BCE (draft) The earliest evidence of man’s use of the horse is as a draft animal in the Eurasian steppes where it appears they were being used to plow fields. One model of horse domestication starts with individual foals being kept as pets while the adult horses were slaughtered for meat. Foals are relatively small and easy to handle. Thus domestication may have started with young horses being repeatedly made into pets over time, preceding the great discovery that these pets could be ridden or otherwise put to work.
3500 - 3200 BCE (draft) The wheel is invented, solid discs were used to pull ox carts with draft horses
3000 BCE (ridden) Widespread horse domestication, bit wear on teeth shows evidence of riding
2000 BCE (driven) The chariot is introduced after the invention of the light weight spoked wheel
1300 BCE Chariot use peaks at the Battle of Kadesh which pitted the Egyptians against the Hittites and was fought with 6000 chariots.
350 BCE - 100 CE - Alexander the Great conquers much of Asia and NE Africa in an unprecedented military campaign on horseback, while the Romans begin a system of roadways that, at their peak, can be used by a rider on horseback to cover over 80km a day.
100 - 1900 CE Light cavalry with mounted archers leave the chariot obsolete. Mounted warriors such as the Scythians, Huns, Vandals, Mongols and the Muslims who invaded eastern Europe in the 600-1300 CE, as well as the Native Americans in the 1500 - 1900 CE, each demonstrated effective forms of light cavalry.
In our modern, post industrial revolution world, machines do the work that horses once did, but it is not hard to see the effect that horse domestication had on early man in terms of mobility.
Originally used as a draft animal for farming, the horse helped early man give up the nomadic lifestyle and settle into an agrarian lifestyle. Leaving a nomadic lifestyle behind meant building empires which had to be defended. For those who remained war-like or nomadic, the horse was equally as revolutionary in terms of speed and range. A horse can gallop twice as fast as a human can run, even with a rider on its back.
For whatever purpose, a horse’s speed and labor saving attributes gave its first users an insurmountable advantage and for thousands of years afterwards the horse was man’s greatest method of mobility. Historically, no other animal has done more for us.
Sources: Wikipedia. Equus: The Story of the Horse