Horses Research Paper

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After the invention of stirrups (c. 500 CE) horsemen became especially formidable as they charged forth in battle, thrusting spears or using both hands to shoot with bows and arrows. As a result cavalry warfare became dominant throughout Eurasia for the next thousand years, and the horse remained an animal of war until plowing and pulling wagons came later.

Horses played two main roles in world history. First and foremost, they served in war, and men driving or riding horses dominated battlefields for centuries in many but not all parts of the Earth. Second, when efficiently harnessed, horses pulled plows, wagons, and coaches faster than oxen were able to, and for a short while dominated short-range overland transport until displaced by tractors and motor cars in the twentieth century, at least in the Western world. A third role survives undiminished, for horses still run races and are used to play polo and chase foxes for the amusement of elite groups, as they have done for several centuries, here and there around the globe. And, occasionally, children still ride wooden horses on merry-go-rounds.


The evolution of horses from a small, three-toed creature called Eohippus that ran about in both North America and Europe some 2.5 million years ago is relatively well known. Successive species grew larger with longer legs and fewer toes until a hoofed, one-toed genus, Equus, evolved from which modern horses, zebras, and donkeys all descend. Modern horses (Equus caballus) appeared in North America about 2.5 million years ago and spread to the Old World across a land bridge between Alaska and Asia to occupy the grasslands of Eurasia. But, for reasons unknown, the species disappeared from its North American homeland between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, only to be reintroduced by Spaniards during their conquest of Mexico in 1519–1521. Human hunters arriving from Asia may have killed them off, but this is speculative and may not be true.

When horses arrived in Eurasia, they were highly specialized grass eaters, lived in herds (each led by a male stallion), and relied on speed to evade attackers, including human hunters. A few horses appear in the Magdalenian cave paintings of France, made between 16,000 and 13,000 years ago, and this suggests that they were among the game animals Magdalenians hunted. But domesticating fleet horses was not easy. Peoples of the western steppe in what is now the Ukraine may have succeeded in taming them about 6,000 years ago but for a long time continued to kill horses for food, just as hunters had done before. At some unknown date mares, like cows, were induced to let humans milk them, and mare’s milk remained a significant resource for later generations of horse nomads across the steppes. But mare’s milk was not very abundant. Cows gave more milk, and slaying male newborns to assure access to milk—however practical when applied to cattle—became costly for horse breeders when riding stallions allowed them to manage and protect their herds.

Going to War

Riding horseback probably began almost from the start of human interaction with horses, but the earliest evidence dates only from about 3000 BCE in the form of a few clay statuettes. It took a long time before riders could safely use weapons from horseback. The first riders were probably more interested in guiding their herds to the best pastures and keeping them together than in attacking other men.

As far as we know, horses first began to play a critical part in organized warfare about 1700 BCE on grasslands adjacent to the Iranian plateau, north and east of Mesopotamia. Wheelwrights learned how to construct slender, spoked chariot wheels able to withstand the bumps and thumps caused by rolling rapidly across battlefields. A pair of galloping horses could haul two men in a light chariot; one man held the reins and drove the horses while the other stood ready to use his bow to shoot arrows at the enemy. When such chariots were new they were very expensive, and all but irresistible in battle. Foot soldiers could not come to grips with a swarm of rapidly moving chariots, nor dodge the arrows that came so swiftly at them. The weapons charioteers used were short, resilient compound bows made of wood, bone, and sinew, and were just as difficult to construct properly as were the chariots’ wheels.

Building war chariots and making compound bows required specialized skills and materials that only civilized or semicivilized societies could mobilize. Feeding horses away from the steppes was also very expensive, since grass was scarce in the earliest centers of civilization. Charioteers therefore remained relatively few, but success in battle assured the eventual spread from their place of origin in every direction. Western Asia was closest and most immediately affected. Charioteers from the steppes conquered Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt by 1687 BCE when the Hyksos came in their chariots to invade and rule over Egypt. Chariots and horses arrived as conquerors in India about 1500 BCE, and Chinese rulers acquired them some two hundred years later. Westward, chariots probably arrived in Greece from Asia Minor. A stone carving in Sweden shows that even remote European chieftains had acquired war chariots by about 1300 BCE. For the first time the whole breadth of the Eurasian continent was disturbed by the impact of horses and the styles of chariot warfare they made possible, and its peoples remained loosely but significantly in touch thereafter, especially with respect to military and technological advances.

The Chariot’s Decline

To be sure, small elite groups of charioteers did not retain power for very long. Two further changes in warfare were responsible.

One was the advent of iron armor and weapons. Iron was abundant in the Earth and became much cheaper than bronze when methods for attaining the high temperatures needed to smelt it had been perfected. Successful smelting of iron started in Cyprus and eastern Asia Minor about 1200 BCE and spread across the Old World quite rapidly. Its effect in western Asia and Greece was to enable armored infantrymen, equipped with iron helmets, shields, and spearheads, to withstand charioteers’ arrows as never before; when superior in number, infantrymen were sure to be victorious in prolonged battles, since arrows were rapidly expended, and emptied quivers made charioteers wholly ineffectual.

Foot soldiers thus regained their former primacy in Greece and Western Europe for the next few centuries, despite the advent of cavalry warfare among steppe nomads, which allowed single bowmen to move even more swiftly without the hindrance and cost of dragging a chariot. This, in turn, required riders to let go of the reins and rely on legs and voice to guide their galloping horses wherever they wanted them to go, while using both hands to bend and their bows and aim their arrows. Horse and man had to learn to move as one and trust each other amid all the noise and excitement of battle. This level of coordination between two such different species is almost as extraordinary as the way cows and mares allowed human hands to milk them.

Once achieved, shooting from horseback made every adult man a potential soldier among nomad peoples of the steppes. This compensated for the superior numbers of farming populations; and the superior mobility of mounted men in warfare gave nomads an enduring advantage that lasted more than 2,300 years, from the time when steppe cavalrymen participated in the overthrow of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BCE until Chinese soldiers compelled the last steppe confederacy ever to confront a civilized army to flee and submit to Russian protection in 1757 CE.

Throughout that long period the frontiers between steppe grassland and cultivated farmland witnessed a long struggle between horse nomads and settled, much larger agricultural populations living south of them. Raid and trade were alternative ways of life for both parties. Nomads welcomed grain and other supplies from the south, while civilized populations needed peace to bring in the harvests and often hired border nomads to protect them from other steppe raiders. But peace was always fragile, and raids and conquests recurrent, as each side borrowed military techniques and organization from the other whenever possible.

A New Breed

A significant shift of military balance occurred during the Parthian Empire (247 BCE to 224 CE) in Iran when Parthians developed a new breed of horse, far larger and stronger than the steppe ponies that served their nomad neighbors. Such horses, fed on alfalfa, could carry an armored rider and wear a breastplate, so Parthian warriors became able to repel unarmored steppe raiders with comparative ease. But the big horses could not thrive on steppe grazing alone and were slower than the ponies, so a standoff set in that protected Parthian farmers from raids very effectively. News of these powerful horses reached China and in 101 CE Emperor Wudi sent an army all the way across Asia to bring some of them back. But feeding such big horses in China was so expensive that they remained rarities in Chinese armies.

Not so in Europe, for when Roman armies began to encounter big warhorses and armored archers across their eastern frontiers, the Parthian style of heavy cavalry seemed worth adopting, and by the time of Emperor Justinian (reigned 518–565) East Roman (or Byzantine) armies were mainly composed of armored bowmen who rode on big warhorses and were known as cataphracts. The fact that stirrups had by then been invented made riders far more secure on horseback.

Two centuries later King Charles Martel (reigned 714–741) granted estates to fighting men in France who became armored knights sworn to serve in his armies for a limited time each year on the same big warhorses. Unlike Parthian and Byzantine horsemen, however, these knights rode into battle carrying spears, perhaps because western Europe was still heavily forested and arrows could not pass freely through tree branches. Stirrups were essential for keeping knights safely seated when their spears engaged an enemy. Throwing a spearhead from a galloping horse allowed a knight to overwhelm anyone except another knight riding in the opposite direction, in which case one or both might be unseated or killed. These armored, human projectiles became the backbone of western European armies for the next few centuries, and knights became a powerful and often unruly privileged class in European society at large.

The Rise and Fall of Cavalry

Big horses could not find enough to eat on the open steppes, however, and steppe cavalrymen benefitted from stirrups too, so nomad raiders remained formidable wherever forests did not impede them. The apex of horse nomad ascendancy came when Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and his successors created an enormous empire (1227–1330) that extended westward from the steppes of Mongolia through Central Asia to Russia and the east coast of the Mediterranean, and also embraced the whole of China. The Mongols’ extraordinary victories depended on the way Chinggis Khan broke with traditional tribal organization by borrowing Chinese patterns of military bureaucracy, forming regular units of 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000 men commanded by officers promoted on the basis of success in battle rather than because of kinship or some other inherited status.

The Mongol armies moved with unparalleled rapidity and precision, relying almost wholly on cavalry. Yet they also enthusiastically accepted gunpowder, newly invented in China, and by spreading familiarity with its explosive power eventually paved the way for the overthrow of steppe nomad armies when handguns made arrows obsolete by about 1700. When the Mongol Empire was at its height, thousands of persons and caravans moved back and forth across the breadth of Asia, and the peoples of Eurasia began to exchange goods and ideas more intensively than before. Consequently, such influential Chinese novelties as the compass, paper making, and gunpowder all reached Europe and regions in between. Camels were the most efficient caravan animals, but horses and even donkeys played a part in long distance caravan trade as well.

In warfare, horses remained critical across most of Eurasia even after guns upset older balances by making it easy to destroy city and castle walls whenever heavy siege guns could be brought to bear upon them at close range. In civilized lands, combined forces of infantry, cavalry, and artillery became imperative. But horsemen retained much of their older prestige, riding ahead and along the flanks of advancing armies to guard against ambush or surprise, yet ready, when battle was joined, to charge en masse and deliver a decisive blow against a wavering foe and turn retreat into a route by hot pursuit.

The role of horses in war enlarged when lighter field guns were introduced, since horses pulled them and their ammunition to the scene of battle. And as roads slowly improved, horse-drawn wagons carried more and more supplies—tents, cook stoves, food, medicines, and bandages, for example—that were vital to an army’s long-term efficiency. Fodder for horses was a critical necessity for every army and long restricted campaigning to summer time, when fresh herbage abounded and hay did not have to come from the rear. As recently as August 1914, delivery of hay to the British army in France occupied more shipping space than any other single item of supply.

But cavalry played no part in the trench warfare that ensued from 1914 to 1918. Railroads bore the brunt of supplying the immobilized armies, and when mobile warfare resumed in World War II internal combustion engines in tanks, trucks, and airplanes displaced horses just as they had by then been displaced in civilian life by tractors, trucks, and automobiles. Noxious exhaust gases thus terminated the military career that had been so central for horses in world history.

Pulling Plows and Wagons

Civilian roles for horses were more modest. For a long time oxen were both cheaper and easier to harness, and so pulled Europe’s plows and wagons. In China and India, water buffalo were the principal animals pulling plows. Oxen and sometimes donkeys did so in western Asia where light scratch plows prevailed. But western Europeans adopted a larger, moldboard plow after about 900 CE that needed six to eight oxen to pull it. Until padded collars resting securely against each horse’s shoulder bones were invented, horses were useless for farmers since simple strap harnessing choked their windpipes when heavy pulling was required. Horses also required better fodder than oxen, and thus cost more.

In spite of that, by the seventeenth century well-fitting horse collars had been invented and horses began to pull wagons and plows in parts of Western Europe, where their superior speed allowed fewer people to plow more land and carry larger loads in less time than oxen were capable of doing. Thereafter, by slow degrees, European farmers’ reliance on horses expanded, and use of ox teams diminished. Similarly, as roads were improved (mainly in the eighteenth century) coaches and wagons began to travel long distances more rapidly, and horses took over the job of pulling them. Likewise within cities, paved streets allowed horse-drawn carts and wagons to distribute commodities of every sort to desired destinations with increasing frequency. Human and horse populations both increased in number accordingly, and even when canals and then railroads cheapened long-range internal transport after the 1750s, horse-drawn vehicles continued to multiply as local deliveries increased in scale.

In North America, internal combustion engines supplanted horses very quickly after 1910 or thereabouts, though horses still hauled milk bottles through the streets of cities like Chicago until about 1940. That was exceptional, however, and only a few police horses, used for crowd control, remained on the streets after the 1940s. Tractors replaced horses on farms throughout North America and much of the rest of the developed world. Aside from their prominent use for transport and agriculture in less developed countries, today horses survive most conspicuously at sporting events—as racehorses and polo ponies, for instance, and notably in Afghanistan’s famous game, Buzkashi—or as merry-go-round rides for children.


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