Shaping Civilizations: The Role of the Horse in Human Societies


What is history? We are told that history is acts, ideas, or events that will or can shape the course of the future. Most people think of history and civilization as being made and created by men, but often, history and the development of human societies and civilizations are drastically altered by the introduction of an influential catalyst. Some of those influential catalysts from our past are fire, the wheel, metal, agriculture, religion, and written language but one is missing in the typical history books and it comes in the form of an animal.

There is one mammal that transformed the world once its speed and power were harnessed. It is the first thing that allowed man to travel faster than his two legs could carry him on land. It is the creature that a few of us, as equestrians, know and appreciate in our current-day lives. The unsung hero is the Horse.

“We have had 6,000 years of history with the horse and only 100 with the automobile,” states Gloria Austin, President of Equine Heritage Institute, Inc. whose mission is to educate, celebrate and preserve the history of the horse and its role in shaping world civilizations and changing lives

Some people talk about the Stone, Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages while other talk about the Ancient World, Middle Ages, Age of Discovery, Revolution and Industry, and The Modern World. A student of the social history of the horse might look at things differently. The Horse Eras might look like this:

Horse Eras

Man’s first association with the horse, some 50,000 years ago, involved forcing them off a cliff, corralling them into natural cul-de-sac, or frightening them into pits so they might be clubbed to death for their meat. With 50% more protein and 30% more iron than leanest beef, it offered early cave men a tasty diet for sustaining life.

Some of our images of the importance of the horse appear in early cave art in France and other parts of the world. The greatest preponderance of prehistoric horse cave art appeared between 15,000 and 12,000 BC, along with other images of deer, mammoths, bears, lions, wolves and foxes.

Something special happened 6,000 years ago when the horse became domesticated. The world was transformed. The equine’s speed and power gave man a new approach to the world. Now tribes were united into empires, distance travel became viable, and cultures and languages raced around the known world.

The horse’s origin in the grassland of the Eurasian Steppe, north of the Black and Caspian Seas, was the launching platform for a revolutionary way of life that included faster travel. 4,000 BC appears in our list of Eras of the Horse since this ‘harnessed’ horse began to be used for its ‘horse power,’ speed, and the status it brought its user. Man was walking at about a rate of 4 miles per hour. The horse walks at that speed but trots long distances at twice that rate (8 miles per hour) and gallops at up to 35 miles per hour for shorter distances. Properly, conditioned the horse can cover as much as 100 miles in a day.

Once domesticated, the horse was poised for greatness because of its anatomy, physiology, and sociability. As a herd animal with a pecking order in the wild, it learned subordinance allowing man to become its boss and teacher. Its digestive system allowed it to eat and run whereas its predecessors – the reindeer and cow – must lie down, rest, and regurgitate and remasticate its food before working again. The biomechanics of the horse’s limbs allowed it to be an efficient and effective mover. Plus its conformation gave man a comfortable place to sit.

The uses for the horse in man’s life go on and on. The horse was used for food, herding, warfare, transportation, communication, agriculture, trade, commerce, pleasure, sport, religion, symbol, status, gift, industry, competition, and recreation. This is to say nothing about its significant role in the transfer of language, culture, and technology that resulted with the increased mobility the horse offered to man.

The Secondary Product Revolution (SPR)(The muscular power of the horse is valued enough to keep the animal alive.) marks the beginning of the Era of Herding that still exists to this day as cowboys and shepherds still use the horse for these purposes. The Era of Herding is the time that the horse went from a food source to a work horse. Packing, riding and driving horses took advantage of the animal’s speed and power. The SPR created a diffusion of wagons, horseback riding and wool sheep leading to Indo-European expansion. (David W. Anthony, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language)

The fast ridden horse was invaluable as an animal to herd animals like the already domesticated sheep and cows. It was the only way to herd other speedy horses. The horse brought increased efficiency to the shepherd’s life. One man and a dog could herd 200 sheep but one man with a horse and a dog could herd 500 sheep.

Generally, nomadic cultures tended to ride their horses and sedentary cultures tended to drive their horses. Driving horses would depend on whether: the given culture had previous experience driving other animals such as oxen or asses in harness; the culture had understanding of effective harnessing and the wheel; or they had a need for a draft animal. Most cultures that moved to wheeled vehicles used sledges or slide cars first. A sledge had two wooden runners and a platform holding the runners together and a slide car (travois in French) was made of two poles lashed to the sides of a horse with another holding the dragged pole apart at the rear of the horse. Both were used for transport of goods, the sick or the elderly. A culture with chariots or wagons had to have a fairly sophisticated technology to put together the horse, the harness and the wheeled carriage.

Wheeled vehicles were invaluable to cultures that had developed cities and confined their animal in pens. There was a need to move grain and fodder from the countryside to the places where people and animals congregated. Congregation in cities was generally done to protect the population from aggressors who wanted to steal food, property and wives.

The horse and wheel gave a great boost to man’s ability to move goods from place to place. A man can carry about 50 pounds, a horse can pack 200 pounds, but a horse and a wheeled vehicle can transport up to twice the horses own weight; consequently a 1,000 pound horse could move 2,000 pounds of cargo to penned animal or shops in the city.

The horse has had an impact on the world – everywhere it went and on every aspect of life.