T'ang Dynasty
c. 7th Century

Horses did not have as wide a variety of roles in Asia as they had in the West.  They were generally (although not solely) restricted to military and government and were not common in agriculture and transport.  Both environmental and cultural factors affected horse use in Asia and contributed to their comparatively limited roles.

   China.   Horses have a long history of being used and ridden in China, and China can take credit for two of the most significant items in horse use: the shoulder collar and the stirrup.  Horses were vital to China’s defenses against the mounted nomads that continually harassed the Middle Kingdom from as early as the 4th century B.C.E.  For hundreds of years before then, horses had been used to draw chariots, which had been introduced into China by Central Asian tribes.  The earliest known example of a Chinese horse-drawn chariot comes from the grave of Emperor Wuding, who died in 1118 B.C.E.  The chariots are believed to have been used primarily for transportation and not as fighting vehicles, unlike the chariots of the ancient Hittites.  By the fourth century B.C.E., the Chinese were relying solely on mounted men in battle and not on chariots.  Not surprisingly, this is about the same time as the stirrup began to appear.

        In addition to their role in war, horses were used by government couriers to carry messages.   When polo was introduced into China from Persia, it became the rage at the emperor’s court and among the aristocracy, the military and the scholarly classes.  Even women joined in the game.  Horses were decked out in elaborate trappings and performed trained movements at court entertainments, but these were more in the nature of circus tricks than haut école dressage.  All these aspects of horse use were confined to the upper classes.  Peasants did not use horses on their farms, and merchants did not routinely haul goods on horse-drawn wagons.  This was most likely because China was unsuccessful in establishing a domestic breeding program, perhaps because of unfavorable terrain and a lack of good pastureland.  Whatever the reason, China could not produce sufficient domestic horses and had to import them from Central Asia at great expense.  Consequently, horses remained a luxury item.

    Japan.  As in China and the West, the horse figured prominently in the Japanese military from at least as early as the invasions from Korea in the 1st century of our era. Interestingly, I have found no reference to chariots, indicating that the mounted warrior was the preferred fighting method from the start. This is not surprising, given that the Japanese landscape is dominated by hills and mountains, which would render chariots useless in war.

    Like their Persian and Chinese counterparts, the Japanese emperors used mounted couriers for their communication network. In daily activity, horses pulled carts but not plows, since Japanese agriculture was and is centered on rice, which requires a completely different method of cultivation. As in China and Europe, the horse was primarily identified with power and privilege, although unlike in China, many a humble farmer had one to pull his cart to the local market and many a wealthy merchant would ride into town.  When traveling by horseback however, the merchant would not hold the reins, for holding the reins oneself was considered inappropriate for anyone but a soldier.  His horse would be led by footmen on either side, which ensured much longer travel time than if the merchant had taken the reins himself.  The horse was forced to go at the pace of the men on foot.  This represents a waste of the horse's potential as a means of individual transportation.

The basic differences in agriculture and social factors meant that the horse had significantly less influence on Asian economic and political development than it had in the West.  In one aspect, however, the Chinese and Japanese were ahead: women rode astride, in contrast to the West where women were forced to perch precariously on a sidesaddle until the beginning of the 20th century!

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