“A horse a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” This famous phrase originally occurred in Act-V, Scene-IV of William Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. In the middle of a battle, King Richard’s horse is killed and he wanders for hours trying to find it. Although used as a literary device, the phrase certainly captures the importance of the horse.
From the trade routes to the battlefield to the farm to the show ring, horses have been an important part of human history for over six thousand years. It’s hard to imagine, in this age of cars and orbiting space stations, that a horse could be so important to human history. After all, how could an animal be smart enough or capable to be trained to be of such importance? Non-horse owners are often amazed to find out that horses have distinct personalities and that they are capable of communicating with people. Research has proven that horses do not just ‘behave’ without considering the consequence of their actions. They are able to create a mental plan to evaluate how much a person is paying attention to them and to modify their communicative strategy accordingly. Horses seem therefore able of creating a problem-solving strategy. The horse is indeed then, a fitting partner for humans throughout history!
So let’s take a short trip through six thousand years of the importance of the horse in human history.
Imagine a world without a method to communicate other than transporting the message via human runners. Since there is no written documentation to determine if horses were ridden or driven first, we can only imagine some daring person deciding that getting on a horse or hooking a horse to something to pull might be a good idea – and not just to make a YouTube video that might go viral! Using horses for transportation changed the world much like computers and social media have changed the world. Horses and riders or horse-drawn carts could now cover huge distances at great speed. As a result, trade routes developed and cultures began to intermingle.
Archeological evidence tells us that horses were domesticated about 5000 BC However, the first known written information about horses comes to us in 1345 BC from a Mitannian horse-master known as Kikkulis. His “Chariot Training Manual” laid out a detailed plan for training and caring for horses. Kikkulis understood that a well trained, athletic horse was what was needed to rival the mighty power of Egypt. He developed a new method of training called “interval training”. Horses would pace a league then run a furlong followed by rest and then more exercise. Each few days the horses were asked to do more than the day before and rest and feed were increased as needed. Many baths and grooming sessions were also included.
In 430 BC a Greek named Xenophon wrote “The Art of Horsemanship.” It is the first fully preserved manual on the art of riding horses. He differs from other ancient writers on the horse because he encouraged a mutual respect between man and horse. A horse trained with Xenophon’s methods was indeed fortunate. Xenophon’s methods were very advanced for the time but he was still at a major disadvantage – he lacked a saddle! The first saddles constructed around solid trees first appeared during the Han dynasty in the year 200 BC. With the invention of the solid tree along came the invention of the stirrup as we know it today. By 477 AD the stirrup was widespread across China and then spread into Europe. The saddle tree and the stirrup offered great support for the rider. Horses could now be used more effectively in battle.
Through the centuries, countries and continents changed their ruling classes and borders many times via warfare on the back of a horse. In the 1500’s and 1600’s horsemanship was considered an art much the same as music, painting and literature. Great horse masters such as Antoine de Pluvinel, William Cavendish and Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere brought a new enlightened approach to training horses to be used for general riding and for battle. No nobleman’s education was considered complete until he acquired the art of equitation. Many of Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere methods used to train a horse for a nobleman to ride are still used today. The horses then needed to be stylish as well as responsive and were trained for battle so they needed to learn movements that allowed the rider to move and turn quickly as needed. Francois Robichon de la Guerinier had a very progressive schooling system. He often said that the “shoulder-in is the alpha and omega of all exercises”. The goal was a horse that was light, obedient and calm.
One of the most famous breeding and training programs using the methods of Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere was established in 1562 and is still in existence today. It is the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. Here the high school moves of pirouette, piaffe, passage are taught along with the airs above the ground: lavade, courbette and capriole in imitation of those thought to be used in battle.
The horse has been very important in the growth of America as well. When the colonies were first settled in the 1600’s the communities were very isolated from each other. In 1673 the governor of New York dispatched the first post rider to provide mail service between Boston and New York. Imagine trying to do that without a horse!
Horses were crucial to an American victory in the Revolution. Since bringing horses from England was difficult, the British had very few horses. Even though the Americans were outnumbered, horses allowed them to engage in swift hit and run tactics that helped to turn the war in their favor.
The Civil War put a great demand on the need for horses and mules. Horses and mules moved men, guns, messages and ambulances. This required people and horses to work together at an unprecedented scale. At the start of the war, the Northern states had approximately 3.4 million horses, while there were 1.7 million in the Confederate states. Over 1 million horses and mules died in the Civil War. One survivor was Colonel Phil Sheridan’s valiant horse, Rienzi, also known as Winchester. He is preserved and on display at the Smithsonian. Imagine not only the bravery of the men but also the horses such as Rienzi as re-told in the poem “Sheridan’s Ride” by Thomas Buchanan Read.
Up from the South, at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain's door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.
And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon's bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled,
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
With Sheridan twenty miles away.
But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good, broad highway leading down:
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight;
As if he knew the terrible need,
He stretched away with his utmost speed.
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.
Still sprang from those swift hoofs, thundering south,
The dust like smoke from the cannon's mouth,
Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster,
Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster.
The heart of the steed and the heart of the master
Were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls,
Impatient to be where the battle-field calls;
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.
Under his spurning feet, the road
Like an arrowy Alpine river flowed,
And the landscape sped away behind
Like an ocean flying before the wind;
And the steed, like a barque fed with furnace ire,
Swept on, with his wild eye full of fire;
But, lo! he is nearing his heart's desire;
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.
The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?--a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, 'mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril's play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
"I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day."
Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier's Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general's name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
"Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester--twenty miles away!"
America moved west with the help of horses. Blazing trails and tilling fields, the horse was crucial to the growth of America. As America moved west horses were again the only means of communication – the train and telegraph came later. The riders of the Pony Express carried mail from Missouri to California in only 10 days!
As America grew and developed the rest of the world moved at a fast pace too and soon the world was at war. When World War I started, horses were still very much a part of warfare. But machine guns, tanks, trench warfare and barbed wire made using horses for cavalry charges impossible and dangerous. Horses still proved invaluable for moving equipment because the “new fangled” motorized vehicles were unreliable. Over 8 million horses died in World War I.
Unbelievable as it may seem, horses were still used in World War II. Horses were not stopped by mud, snow and hills like motorized vehicles. Germany was lacking in natural oil reserves and other than the panzer division, horses were used for the majority of the transportation. George Patton supposedly once remarked that had he been given cavalry in the war in North Africa, not a single German would have escaped the Allies.
After World War II the world changed at a rapid pace. In the United Sates the number of automobiles produced annually quadrupled between 1946 and 1955. Today horses are still used by people in some parts of the world for transportation and farming but for most people, owning a horse is a hobby rather than a necessity.
Horses are enjoyed today in a variety of disciplines. Most people are familiar with jumping, thoroughbred racing and rodeos because these activities are featured in movies, on TV and in books. There are many ways that people enjoy horses. Polo, Dressage, Carriage Driving, Endurance Riding, and Gymkhana are just a few of the many activities people enjoy with their horses. Many horses are, as some owners call them, “pasture ornaments,” and may take their owners for an occasional ride but for the most part, provide a nice view out the window.
It’s hard for us today to imagine being dependent on a horse but remember, horses have been around longer than cars and planes. Horses have played an important role in the history of the world! Whether ridden or driven, horses were the means by which cultures intermingled, people were able to share communications, wars were waged and nations developed. For many people, looking out the window at a horse in a pasture is a serene reminder of human history yet still the horse brings with it all the potential of more adventures and opportunities to come.
3/6/2023 01:20:04 pm
Wonderful article. Very well written and full of facts and figures. I thoroughly enjoyed it
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