Horses in History
The clattering of hooves pierced the dark stillness of the Austrian night. It is the fall of 1855. The gilded Ambruster Dress Carriage, a beautiful vehicle trimmed in glimmering black paint and shiny gold leaf that stood out against the inky night sky, traveled up the long, graveled driveway. It was effortlessly pulled by a team of six gleaming white horses. As the coachman brought the team to a smooth halt in front of the mansion, the two footmen leapt down from their platform at the rear of the carriage with a flourish. The first went to front of the team, where he held the horses’ heads to keep them from moving forward. The chock man moved quickly to block the wheels of the carriage. Once the vehicle was secure, the second footman opened the door to the carriage, lowered the steps, and helped the royal passengers out. Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Empress Elisabeth, gingerly unfolded themselves from the comfort of the carriage, and stepped out onto the drive. Nodding dismissively at the coachman, they made their way to the entrance of the stately building and their awaiting party.
While the Hapsburg dynasty has long since ended, their history as one of Europe’s most influential royal families has not been forgotten. However, a major element of the Hapsburg history, and of world history, is at risk for extinction.
Horses have played a monumental role in the development of the modern world. The use of the horse revolutionized agriculture, helped develop cities, improved transportation and communication, facilitated imperialism and nation-building and revolutionized warfare. They contributed to medical breakthroughs and battle victories and remain a cultural icon to this day. In addition to their use transporting the Hapsburg family to events and to distant parts of the Austrian empire, horses were used by the Austrian royal family for recreation purposes. Empress Elisabeth was an avid equestrian who spent many an hour riding sidesaddle and was well respected for her horsemanship.
Despite horses’ enormous contribution to the world around us, they remain strangely absent from history textbooks and curriculums across the education landscape!
The Equine Heritage Institute was founded in an effort to bridge this knowledge gap. Established in 2000, the mission of the Equine Heritage Institute is to educate, celebrate and preserve the history of the horse and its role in shaping world civilizations and changing lives. The Institute is working to ensure that the developments that horses facilitated throughout history are recognized, embraced, and taught to future generations.
The horse was domesticated in 4000 B.C. By 2400 B.C., horses were put into harnesses that resembled a yoke for oxen. The yokes were poorly suited to the anatomy of the horses, though, and they had a habit of pinching the horse’s windpipe. During the 5th century, the Chinese developed a harness called the full collar. Rigid but padded, it conformed well to the shape of the horse’s body without interfering with its breathing. Lines and traces, or lengths of wood, could be attached from the collar to any number of tools, including plows and carts that the horse pulled behind him. The harness gave the horse something to lean on, literally harnessing his power and strength. A horse in harness had power to do the work of 50 men, thus this is the origin of the term “horsepower.”
Thanks to the development of the full collar harness and improvements in farming tools, the use of horses in farming became standard practice. They were used to pull plows and harrows and other farming instruments through the fields and to transport crops. The strength and speed of the horse enabled farmers to cultivate larger plots of land than were manageable without equine assistance. The combination of improved farming implements and the use of horsepower resulted in better crops. Horses increased farming efficiency, requiring less time to produce higher yields.
Farmers transitioned from subsistence agriculture to producing surpluses which they could then barter or sell, thus facilitating more financial security. Surpluses contributed to the development of cities, as farmers needed a central location in which to sell their excess fruits. More efficient agricultural techniques also meant increased leisure time. Farmers had more free time to trade, set up businesses, invent, create art, and travel.
On a different kind of field, horses enabled skilled warriors to revolutionize their battle tactics. Greek conqueror and noted horseman Alexander the Great utilized a mounted cavalry, which was easily and quickly maneuvered, to attack the vulnerable flanks of enemy armies. By changing the focus of the battle from the front lines to the flank, Alexander was quickly able to overwhelm opponents with far greater resources.
Alexander’s reputation as one of the most successful military commanders in history is due to his skillful use of horses in battle. His victories ushered in the Hellenistic Age, a period that stretched from Alexander’s death in 323 BC to the annexation of the Greek peninsula by the Romans in 146 BC, which was marked by the spread of Greek ideas and influence throughout the world.
Ancient Greeks weren’t the only the ones to employ horses for more effective wartime communication and battle techniques. During the American Revolutionary War, soldiers on horseback galloped through sleeping Massachusetts towns to warn residents of the imminent attack by the British. Had the message been delivered on foot, it might not have arrived in time. Were it not for the Revolutionary Army’s use of horseback messengers, Americans today might still be bowing to Her Royal Highness, the Queen of England rather than saluting the American flag.
In 1781, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Virginia Militia Captain Jack Jouett Jr. and his horse were credited with saving Thomas Jefferson and other important legislators from British capture. The 26-year old Jouett was enjoying a pint outside the Cuckoo Tavern near Charlottesville, Virginia on the evening of June 3 when he heard a large procession of mounted soldiers approaching. As the soldiers neared, Jouett quickly recognized the British forces. Putting two and two together, he realized that they were en rout to Thomas Jefferson’s estate in nearby Monticello to arrest the founding father on charges of reason and other crimes against England. Jouett set off to warn Jefferson and the residents of Charlottesville of the impending attack. Because the soldiers were traveling on the road, Jouett was forced to ride 40 miles through the rough countryside with only the moon to light the way in order to avoid capture.
After hours in the saddle spent scrambling through briars and splashing through streams in the dark night, Jouett arrived at Monticello in the wee hours of the morning. His face and arms were bleeding and would be permanently scarred from the branches and brambles he encountered, but he arrived in time to notify the sleeping legislators of the approaching danger. Jefferson and his fellow statesmen avoided capture thanks to the quick thinking and bravery of Jouett and his steed. Yet again, it appears that skilled horsemanship contributed to the colonies’ victory in their rebellion against British rule.
Whether as mounts for cavalry officers, in harness transporting weaponry, food, or wounded soldiers, or utilized as a vehicle for military reconnaissance, horses continued to take part in military operations through World War II. By the end of the Second World War, though, horses were being phased out in favor of mechanized tools such as the tank. Even today, though, horses are still sometimes used by the military for purposes other than ceremonies. In modern day Afghanistan, for example, soldiers use horses to patrols the rugged countryside.
Before the era of cars and airplanes, horses revolutionized communications all over the world. Their speed and strength combined with their ability to carry people by carriage or on horseback allowed kingdoms to become empires. They enabled emperors and kings to unite warring territories and enabled warriors and nobility to easily conquer un-mounted subjects.
In America, in the days before the mail was carried across the country by semi trucks and jumbo jets, letters traveled the 2000 miles between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California in a mere 10 days when sent via the Pony Express. In operation from 1860 until it was replaced by the telegraph two years later, Pony Express riders relied on quick, hardy Mustang-cross horses to travel through the rugged West. Relay stations were established every 25 miles where riders picked up a fresh mount or handed off the mail to the next rider.
Prior to the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad, which linked the east and west coasts of America, travelers went cross country via stagecoaches. Passengers often traveled two days by train from New York City or other east coast cities to St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, they boarded the stagecoach for the 25 day trip to San Francisco. The coach, which traveled up to 125 miles per day, was pulled by teams of four to six horses who were changed out every 10 miles.
The horse even made a significant contribution in the field of medicine. Now nearly eradicated thanks to vaccinations, diphtheria, a virulent respiratory ailment with a high mortality rate, especially among children, was rampant in America during the 1920s. Scientists discovered that horses could be used to produce a serum to treat and prevent the bacterial infection. Akin to an inoculation, a small amount of the bacteria was injected into to the horse, who then suffered an immune response which produced antibodies to neutralize the toxin. Scientists collected blood from the treated horses and the created the serum from the blood products. The diphtheria vaccine was administered to children and adults to prevent them from contracting the virulent illness.
In addition to creating diphtheria antitoxin, horses also led to the formation of a federal medical regulator agency. Jim, a retired milk wagon horse, produced over 30 quarts of diphtheria antitoxin, however, while still producing antitoxin, Jim contracted tetanus. His illness wasn’t immediately caught, though, and active tetanus bacteria made its way into one batch of the antitoxin. Several children who received the contaminated vaccine later died from tetanus complications. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research was formed to regulate the biological industry. Today, this agency falls under the wing of the Food and Drug Administration.
Culturally, the horse was so revered that it took on iconic status and became legendary through mythological stories, art and sport. Primarily appreciated for their speed, but also greatly valued for their strength and power, horses were the first thing that allowed man to travel fast than his own two legs could carry him.
Forever a symbol of freedom and strength, the horse has lent its likeness to some of the most successful consumer product launches in history, including the Ford Mustang. Launched in 1964, over one million Mustangs sold in its first 18 months on the market. Ford’s signature sports car personified American muscle cars the same way the wild horses of the American West characterized strength and freedom.
In the 120 years that the automobile has been in existence it has become an essential part of daily life. Cars quickly replaced the more literal horsepower which was relied upon for over 2,600 years. Few people today remember or are even aware of a world where streets were filled with horses and carriages rather than sport utility vehicles and compact cars.
By encouraging development in so many aspects of life, the horse effectively put himself out of work. The cities that the horse helped to create are now populated with children and young adults, many of whom have never even seen a live horse, let alone understand the effect it has had their lives. Sadly, much of the history of the horse is at risk to be lost forever. We are now two generations removed from using the horse in daily life, and the pool of people who recognize the equine contribution to development is fast shrinking.
Of the approximately 4,000 colleges and universities in this country–including 124 offering programs in equine studies–not one offers instruction related to the impact of the domesticated horse on society. And while there is information about horses in history strewn about the curricular landscape, the lack of an area of study dedicated to the sum of the horse’s impact undermines its importance. Students can’t understand where the world is headed tomorrow if they don’t know where it’s been. Thus, one of the goals of the Equine Heritage Institute is to work with primary, secondary, and university-level teachers to develop education materials, to build a curriculum of the social history of the horse, and to provide teachers with the resources they need to teach this subject. Horses have been changing lives for centuries, and it’s time to recognize them.
Realizing that not everyone can travel to an equine museum, the Equine Heritage Institute has created a Virtual Museum. The Equine Heritage Institute strives to ensure that the vast contributions of the horse are not left behind and forgotten in the wake of the technical revolution. Losing sight of the social history of the horse would render it impossible to understand or appreciate the world we live in today, let alone the future.