The Human-Horse Encounter

     Archeological and paleontological evidence indicates that the horse was domesticated about 5,000 years ago, substantially later than other farm animals. By that time (approximately 3,000 B.C.E.), the dog had been our companion for 9,000 years and we had herded goats, sheep and cattle for upwards of 5,000 years. The horse came late into our lives but lost no time in transforming us.  

Meat and Milk.     Cave paintings in France leave no doubt that the horse was a prime food source for Stone-Age hunters. When the Stone Age ended and the Bronze Age began, human beings in Europe and Asia had had generations of experience working with animals, having mastered the skills of herding sheep, cattle and goats.  They had also learned to herd horses, which they kept mainly for meat, possibly also for milk (as nomads in Central Asia still do today).   People also had learned to cultivate grain and had abandoned hunting in roving bands in favor of settling in permanent communities.  By 3,000 B.C.E., therefore, humans were assured of regular food supplies and then had the time to appreciate the horse for qualities other than its ability to feed a family of four for a week or so.

    The earliest evidence of horse domestication has been found in the steppes of the eastern Ukraine, northern Caucasus, central Russia and Kazakhstan. Hunting horses had never been easy and taming them was even less so. Cattle and sheep are much slower than horses and easier to control in herds. The horse posed a greater challenge. Not only was he fast, he was no doubt as skittish then as he is today. Gaining the trust of the first horse must have been a difficult task, yet (fortunately) humans persisted.

The Cart Before the Horse?     The prevailing view among paleo-historians is that the first horses to be tamed were hitched to carts before being mounted. They base their conclusions on early depictions of horses that appear to be too small to carry an adult human. From studying skeletons, it does appear that Bronze Age horses were only about the size of large ponies, about 14 hands (56") at the shoulder. Although the evidence does not establish conclusively that riding came first, I side with those who believe it did. Bronze Age horses were small, but so were Bronze Age people. Children today find it hard to resist the urge to climb on a pony's back; and it is not likely that human nature was much different in the Bronze Age.  And size doesn’t really count -- even a pony can carry an adult a fair distance. It also seems to me that Bronze-Age people would have found it much simpler to climb on the back of a horse and ride off than to spend the days and weeks required to build a complicated rig like a chariot or a cart. 

New evidence is emerging to support the view that humans were riding earlier than previously supposed.  In Ladakh Zanskar, a region in the Himalaya Mountains of northwest India (claimed also by China), 3,000-year-old rock carvings from an early Tibetan culture clearly show mounted humans, possibly hunting game.  Riding horses in the mountains is far more practical than inventing a cart for them to pull.  Even today, carts are not found in Ladakh.  Their absence is not because the people were too primitive to invent the wheel-- far from it.  Wheels symbolized the sun on ancient rock carvings; they were later used to grind grain, and are used today in Tibetan prayer wheels.  So the absence of horses pulling carts has nothing to do with wheels and everything to do with the challenging terrain of the Himalayas.  I am indebted for this information and the photo to Christian Chabert, who is quite familiar with the Himalaya regions, having traveled to Ladakh Zanskar in 2005 and 2006 and who provided the information and photographs of the rock carvings.  He confirmed that "the carvings never show horses hitched to a cart or plow.  When humans are shown riding, they are always of a size corresponding to a mounted man."*

Clearly, on the wide steppes, in mountainous regions and in other areas of similarly challenging terrain, the domestication and use of the horse for transport during the Bronze Age (whether for people or possessions) was a major step in promoting population movement.  In other parts of the ancient world, it probably was the case that horses were first hitched to wagons and chariots before being ridden. In the less mountainous Middle East, oxen, asses, onagers and other hoofed animals had been drawing carts well before the horse was tamed, and it would not have been impossible to adapt one of those carts for  a small horse. And of course, with no one around to teach them, humans had to learn how to ride the hard way, by trial and error. Mounting a horse, however irresistible, is far easier than staying on!  The horse's instinct is to panic and run away when someone tries to climb on its back, and to buck wildly once someone manages to get on. It must have taken a long time even after horses were used to being herded for human beings -- and horses -- to adjust to riding.

    Domestication and training of horses had a profound impact on the people of Eurasia.  Suddenly, the horizon expanded; travel beyond the limits of one's own two legs became possible.  Beckoned by unknown lands, forced by climate change or drought, people began to migrate, to explore and to conquer.

Table of Contents
Home     Domestication       The Classical Period       The Middle Ages       Modern Times
East and West, a Comparison        Bibliography        Links     Essay

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: mmaidens@verizon.net

photo courtesy of www.corbis.com 

1999-2009 Melinda Maidens
*text Chistian Chabert, translation Melinda Maidens
All Rights Reserved