HOW IMPORTANT
WAS THE HORSE?
by Scott MacGregor

I always wanted to be a knight in shining armor - in fact my horse’s name is Knight. I guess I never grew up! I loved reading about the Greeks and Egyptians or stories of chivalry during the Middle Ages. I have always heard that the horse was important to the development of western civilization. With a little research, I started to realize that horses were far more interesting than my pet led me to believe.

Eastern Steppes

In the article “The Origin of Horseback Riding” (Scientific American, December 1991) David Anthony states that the head of a six to eight year old stallion was found in the hamlet of Dereivka dating back to 4000 BC. This horse’s head was preserved in a Copper Age grave, as a ritual offering by the people of the Sredni Stog culture of the Ukrainian. Wear on the anterior premolars causing a beveling of the leading edge of the tooth commonly seen in the mouth of a horse ridden with a bit seems to prove that this horse was used as a ridden mount. He couldn’t be a cart horse because the wheel wouldn’t be around for another 500 years. The antler cheek pieces of a bit were also found in the Sredni Stog settlement in Aleksandriia from the same time period. The most compelling evidence is that their language and culture spread very suddenly from this area too quickly for people on foot. Parts of this language are found in common with Sanskrit, Homeric Greek and Latin as well as the modern languages of English, French, Russian, Persian and Hindi among many others. Horseback riding may be the mechanism for the dispersal of this language through war and trade. By riding the horse people travel much farther distances and attain power. When people attain power their language is learned whether through force of conquest or trade and that language spreads in all directions of influence. Because the Indo-European languages have a common historical background and trace back to the same people whom were the first riders of domesticated horses it seems probable that the horse was the tool that helped to start the spread of our own culture.
Nowhere would learning to ride be more useful than the steppe environmental regions of the East. This desolate grass land stretches 3,000 miles from the mouth of the Danube River at the Black Sea to Mongolia. The wagon and cart were also developed in 3,300 BC in this area by the Yamna. The Yamna culture was a descendant of the Sredni Stog people of Dereivka. With the wagon they could pick up their belongings and follow their herd along the steppe. The spoke wheel chariot was developed around 2,000 BC by the Sintashta culture of southern Russia who was a descendant of the Yamna. The idea of horses and chariot spread through the steppe and then down to Egypt by 1,500 BC. The Egyptians lightened the chariot to make it quicker and added an archer for further offence.

The Egyptian and Persian Empires

By 1,300 BC the Egyptians replaced the primitive horn bits with the introduction of metal bits. This innovation made the bits stronger so they wouldn’t wear out or break during battle. The communication of cues through the bit to the horse became more consistent as the design of the bit became more reliable. In conjunction with this stronger bit, the draw rein and the martingale were created to assist in collecting the horse’s head allowing the charioteer to control the horse’s speed and direction with more accuracy. These inventions greatly aided the Egyptian civilization as it continued to dominate the world as the first major empire in history and in the process made the horse a very important animal.
To defeat the Egyptian empire it was necessary to have a new concept of battle. The horseman of Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire in 530 BC added spikes to the bit for even greater control and again rode the horse as cavalry. They were known as the greatest horsemen of the ancient world - both mounted and as charioteers. By mounting the horse they were able to use the added control of the spiked bits to maneuver more quickly during battle.

This advantage led to their success and a new empire was founded - again by using the horse as an improved tool of war. 

Greek and Roman Empires

In 430 BC, an Athenian, Xenophon, wrote the first surviving books on horsemanship “Hippike,” and tactics, “Hipparchikos.” He was a member of the Equestrian class in which horsemen provided their own horses and equipment. He fought in the Peloponnesian wars and later joined a Greek army to assist the Prince of Persia who was trying to take the throne from his brother. When the Prince was killed, Xenophon was elected to lead the Greek troops out of Persia in “The Retreat of the Ten Thousand.”

During this campaign Xenophon observed a weakness in the Persian cavalry. The Persian cavalry was controlled solely by the King. He carried this knowledge back to Greece which later paved the way for the legendary Alexander the Great to end the Persian reign. Alexander used independent leaders and attack squads of cavalry to penetrate deep within the lines of the Persian army. This threatened the King directly causing him to retreat leaving the battle field. Without leadership, the battlefield soon became chaos for the Persians and led to their defeat.

Alexander went on to conquer the world by 323 BC using this same strategy which was to separate his cavalry into independent groups of which each commander had a concept of the overall battle plan. As the battle changed each commander could make independent adjustments to achieve the overall goal. By changing the way the horse and riders were used tactically Alexander created a better tool and founded the Greek Empire.

By 200 BC two new ideas were introduced into Roman Warfare; the horse shoe, created by the Greeks and the saddle, developed by the Sarmatians. As the Roman Empire advanced into these lands their ideas were absorbed into the horsemanship of the Roman cavalry. The horse shoe allowed the army to travel long distances without causing lameness to the horse. The saddle allowed the rider to remain astride for many hours without causing the horse’s back to become sore.

With the use of these two new inventions the Roman cavalry was able to travel by horse three times the distance of their foes in the same amount of time. With this speed the Romans went on to conquer the world – again using the horse as a better tool.

The Hun and Holy Roman Empires
By 375 AD, the Roman Empire began to fade and Attila the Hun’s invasion threatened Europe. His people, the Huns, developed a way to make the horse a better war tool by using the stirrup. This invention allowed a rider to keep his balance while turning at speed. Instead of having to stop his horse before engaging in hand-to-hand battle the rider could gallop into battle and throw his spear or engage in conflict at speed. This agility allowed Attila to terrorize Europe and defeat an empire.

After the Hun invasion Europe was left broken into many smaller segments, the Roman army was slowly called home. As they retreated out of England to Flanders in 407 AD they brought with them the shank bit. It would be the late 700’s until Charlemagne’s troops used it for better control of their mounts subsequently enabling them to conquer “the world” and create the Holy Roman Empire.

Modern History in the West

In more recent history the horse was used very effectively to expand the borders of three empires. The Spanish used the horse to conquer Mexico at the height of their empire; the British used the horse to help conquer India and America used the horse to conquer the west establishing the boundaries of our “empire.”

These modern “empires” would be the last to rise on the backs of horses. The Industrial Revolution arrived. The invention of the machine gun and its later use during WWI ended the use of the horse in war. The Industrial Revolution not only developed the machine gun but also the automobile which led to the tractor. By 1920 the horse was obsolete; replaced for transportation by the car and replaced in the work force by the tractor. Without a purpose the horse began to disappear from large segments of society. 

No horses fought in WWII but something very special happened to the horse. While fighting in Austria, American soldiers saw the old horse schools, one of which was the Spanish Riding School. These stables were full of Lipizzaner horses. General Patton, a recognized horseman, realized this breed was one of the “jewels” of Austria and also realized its future was threatened if something wasn’t done. The story of General Patton and his troops transporting the Lipizzaner horses out of Austria and saving them is well known.
This story helped glorify the horse and captured the hearts of horse lovers and non-horse lovers throughout the world. Many of our soldiers returned home with a newfound affection for the horse leading to the beginnings of the hobby horse industry. Blessed with a good economy the industry has developed into what we enjoy today. There are now more horses per capita in the world than when we used them out of necessity for war, travel and labor. 
How important is the horse? Are we the civilization that we are because of the horse? Where would we be if a man hadn’t put a piece of bone in a horse’s mouth? What would have happened 6,000 years ago if no one had thought to bring a horse into their village? What would we be like if a horse was looked upon like a deer or we ate it like we eat beef?

I love my pet horse, Knight, and I thank all his ancestors for the life I now enjoy as a horseman.

Article by Scot MacGregor  Edited by Martie Jacobson, Carol Hill and Jack Orr

 

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Last Updated: November 22, 2012