Horsepower Transforms Civilization

Most human activities can be categorized as war, travel, work, or leisure. The horse has been indispensable in all four. 

War.        The horse proved its worth first in war, as it was by far the fastest, most agile and most maneuverable engine for a chariot or a mounted soldier. Oxen and donkeys, although much calmer than horses, could not come even close to the horse on the ancient battlefield. They simply were too slow. The Hittites, or Hyksos, invented the war chariot and conquered Mesopotamia and Egypt around 1800 B.C.E. as a result. The swift-moving chariots held two men, one to drive and one to fight. The appearance of these unfamiliar animals and the speed at which chariot-borne spearmen and bowmen could deliver their deadly blows must have been as terrifying to Bronze Age footsoldiers as the thought of the hydrogen bomb is to us today.

Copy of  Greek Bronze
c. 5th Century B.C.E.

Since its first recognized contribution to civilization was on the battlefield, the horse immediately became identified with power and privilege, while cattle and donkeys were relegated to the peasantry. In an ancient Mesopotamian fable cited by John Keegan, in A History of Warfare, the horse boasts to the ox that he lives near kings and eats without being eaten.  It is an early indication of the horse being associated with pride and wealth.

Individual mounted soldiers do not appear in historical records until some 800 years later, around 1,000 B.C.E.  Scholars explain the long interval as the result of needing to breed larger and stronger horses to carry an armored man.  I believe other factors contributed to the delay.  As pointed out previously, ponies can carry adults; size alone does not tell the whole story.  People needed to figure out how to ride a horse.  There is nothing obvious about horseback riding!  Reins, leg aids, the type of seat -- all  the signals a rider of today takes for granted -- had to be invented, as did all the equipment.  It probably took months and years of effort, with advice being handed down orally from wise old grooms and herders.

Travel.    After winning the wars, the conquerors had to keep control over their far-flung territories. Until the steam engine and the telegraph appeared in the 19th century, there was no match for the horse for swift travel and communications. The Persians in the fifth century B.C.E., who built the largest empire of their time, dispatched commands from their capital using relays of mounted couriers whom "neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness stays from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," in the words of Herodotus (adopted as the motto of the U.S. Post Office). Building and maintaining empires was in early times the principal means of encountering other cultures. Travel and trade extended that contact and produced the spread of ideas that created the civilizations of the ancient world. Making much of that possible – perhaps all of it – was the horse.

Leisure.    When people took time out from fighting each other, they found in the horse a handy source of entertainment. As soon as humans learned to ride, they realized they could chase bigger and more challenging game for the table or for sport. Persians and Greeks staged horse races and both seem to have been the earliest people to take an active interest in horsemanship as a discipline. The Art of Horsemanship, a treatise by the Greek historian and philosopher Xenophon, who lived from 430 to 354 B.C.E., is the oldest surviving text of its kind in the world, and much of his advice is followed by horsemen today.

Work.    Although having proved its worth in war, travel and sport, the horse had to wait some time before joining the regular workforce. Throughout Hellenistic, Roman and early Medieval times, oxen and donkeys remained the primary forerunners of the internal combustion engine. The horses available then in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empires were too light and small to compete with the ox in pulling large loads. Moreover, horses were at all times more expensive to keep than oxen or donkeys. Their relatively less efficient digestive systems meant they had to be fed more often and they required more expensive feed. Until heavier breeds were introduced to the West, the horse was limited to military campaigns, chariot races and other forms of aristocratic luxury.

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Any information, suggestions or contributions would be greatly appreciated.  I am particularly interested in material on the use and training of horses in Asia.   Please email me at:

Thanks to Jim Sadur for digital photo!

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