Equine History & Domestication
History & Domestication

"Wherever man has left his footprints from Barbarism to Civilization, my hoofprints are found beside them."

Horses of the Sun
Robert Vavra

"Look back at our struggle for freedom, Trace our present day's strength to its source; and you'll find that man's pathway to glory, Is strewn with the bones of a horse."




The origin of the equine species can be traced back 60 million years ago to the Eocene period. In 1867, scientists excavating rock structures of that period in the American South discovered a complete skeleton of what became known as the first horse. They called it Eohippus meaning The Dawn Horse.

Eohippus descends from the Condylarth, a group that was the distant ancestor of all hoofed creatures and lived on Earth about 75 million years ago. The Condylarth was no bigger than a dog and was five-toed, with each toe having a horny nail.

Fifteen million years later, the feet of Eohippus altered. On the forefeet were four toes and on the hind there were three. This creature was thought to have weighed about 12lb on average and stood about 14in at the shoulder. This is about as big as a medium size dog. The texture and color of the Eohippus' coat is not known, but it was thought to be like that of a deer, the background being dark with lighter spots or blotches. This would provide the animal with camouflage in his forest surroundings.

The toed feet were equipped with pads like that of a dog. This revealed that the Eohippus lived in an environment that included the sort of soft soil found on jungle floors and around the edges of pools. The pads enabled the animal to cross wet and marshy ground without difficulty. Neither the eyes nor the teeth bore much resemblance to those of the modern horse. The teeth were more like those of pigs or monkeys, but they were well suited to a diet of soft leaves growing on low shrubs.

Eohippus was succeeded by two similar and probably overlapping types in the Oligocen period, 25 - 40 million years ago. These were Mesohippus and the slightly more advanced Miohippus. Both of these animals were bigger with longer legs and were equipped with teeth that enabled them to eat a variety of soft plants. Their toes were reduced to three on each foot, with most of the weight supported by the center toe.

The watershed in the development of the horse occurred between 10 and 25 million years ago in the Miocene period. During this period, the jungle environment gave way to treeless plains and steppes, supporting a low growth of wiry grasses. Adapting to these changed conditions, the horse developed teeth that were suitable for grazing and a longer neck to make the grasses easier to reach. The position of their eyes altered to give them all around vision against the approach of predators. Their legs became longer and were equipped with flexing ligaments and, eventually, a single toe or hoof. All of these changes increased the speed with which it could flee if an attack was imminent.

Pliohippus was the first single hoofed horse which evolved 6 million years ago. Pliohippus was the prototype for the true horse, Equus caballus, which was established a million years ago. This was half a million years before man.

Equus spread from America over the existing land bridges to Europe and Asia. When the glaciers retreated, maybe 10,000 years ago, the land bridges had disappeared and, for reasons which could only be speculation, the horse became extinct on the American continent. It was not re-established until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.

The three principal, primitive types of horses evolved according to the dictates of environment and may therefore be considered as the foundation for the world's breeds. They were the Asiatic Wild Horse, which still exists in zoos; the lighter, more refined Tarpan of Eastern Europe and the Ukranian Steppes, which is exemplified by the famous herd maintained at Popielno in Poland; and the heavy, slow-moving horse of the northern European marshlands known as Equus silvaticus, from which our heavy horse breeds derive.

Just prior to domestication, four sub-species had evolved - two pony types and two horse types. Pony Type 1 was similar to today's Exmoor pony and became established in Northwest Europe. It was resistant to wet and thrived in harsh conditions. Pony Type 2 was bigger and more heavily built. It inhabitated northern Eurasia and was able to withstand the cold. The Highland pony most nearly resembles this type. Horse Type 3 was about 14.3hh. Long and narrow bodied, goose-rumped with long neck and ears. This type inhabitated central Asia. The nearest modern equivalent to this type is the Akhal-Teke, a breed that is able to tolerate heat. Horse Type 4, while smaller than the others, was much more refined, with a concave profile and high-set tail. It came from western Asia and its present equivalent is the Caspian pony. It is postulated as the prototype Arabian.

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Evidence points to the horse being domesticated in Eurasia 5-6,000 years ago, at the end of the Neolithic period. Prior to domestication, the contact between man and horse was that of the hunter and the hunted. During the last stages of the Ice age, there is much evidence to show that primitive man used the wild horse herds as a source of food. The favorite tactic was to kill the animals by driving a group of them over a cliff, a method with obvious advantages over individual pursuit.

The cave drawings at Lascaux in France and Santander in Spain vividly illustrate the pursuit of horses, as well as providing a remarkable record of primitive life. Huge depositories of horse bones, relics of horse herds driven to their destruction, have been found in many parts of France, particularly at Lascaux and Salutre, but also at a number of other places.

The people responsible for domesticating the horse herds were probably nomadic Aryan tribes moving about the steppes bordering the Caspian and Black Seas. There is evidence of this happening, but it is probable that domestication was also taking place simultaneously elsewhere in Eurasia, in areas supporting a horse population.

These nomads possibly began as herders of semi-wild flocks of sheep, goats and, more importantly, of the tractable reindeer. The switch to horses would have been made out of practical considerations. In the harsh steppe lands, horses were a better proposition than other animals, better equipped to find food. Furthermore, horses are not migratory animals like the reindeer, whose movement is governed by the incidence of the "reindeer moss" on which they feed.

Initially, horses were herded. Their flesh provided food, their hides were used to make tents and clothes and the manure could be dried to make fires. Mares supplied milk, which could be fermented into kummis, the fiery brew of the steppes. In time, the mobility of the tribes was increased by employing the quieter animals to transport the household effects. The natural consequence thereafter was for men and women to ride the horses, an accomplishment which made the task of herding that much easier. To this day, horse herds are kept in the same fashion throughout the eastern republics of the USSR, and still provide the vey staff of life for the horse people of the twentieth century.

In rough, mountainous countries, men rode horses, even though these animals would have been of small stature. For the first time in history, in the flat, valley lands of the Middle east, horses provided the key to the establishment and maintenance of a succession of great empires. Their role was almost wholly confined to drawing the chariot. Two horses, however small, could pull a light chariot carrying two or even three men. The addition of two more horses, hitched abreast, reduced effort and increased speed potential. The solid wheel was being used in the Tigris-Euphrates valley around 3500B.C., and spoked chariot wheels were commonplace in Egypt by 1600B.C.

As methods of agriculture improved, horses could be hand-fed. This, combined with selective breeding, produced bigger, stronger and faster horses suited to the particular requirements of the day. For the most part, those requirements were concerned with warfare and transport, as well as, of course, for the purposes of sport in the great circuses of the classical civilzations of Greece and Rome.

At no point in the early civilizations was the horse employed in cultivation or in menial tasks. The horse was considered altogether too valuable, and work of that sort was left to oxen. Indeed, in the pre-Christian era, the horse had been an object of veneration, occupying an important place in mythology and religious ritual - often being regarded as the supreme sacrifice. In Ancient Greece, Ares, the god of war, traveled the firmament in a chariot drawn by white horses; the image of the goddess Demeter was the head of a black mare and her priests were known as "foals." White horses were occasionally drowned in honor of Poseidon, the god of the sea and the creator of horses, while horses belonging to kings and chieftains were frequently interred with their masters.

Possession of horses ensured mobility; it was the means of creating and extending civilizations, and sometimes it created new societies and a new concept of life. It did this for a short time with the American Indians. They formed the last of the world's true horse cultures, although they were not in the same class as the archetypal horse societies of the Mongols and Huns. Those nomadic horsemen of the steppes, under their greatest leader, Genghis Khan, built an empire on the backs of shaggy Mongolian ponies.

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Reference: The Ultimate Horse Book; Elwyn Hartley Edwards; 1991


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