A horse history lesson.
I have really enjoyed the time I have had to read during my first 22 months of retirement. In that time I have read well over 100 books. In previous blogs I have mentioned a few. Economics, History, and Politics dominate the topic of books I have read. In that time I have come to appreciate the unique, important, and not fully appreciated role the horse has had in the brief history of “civilized” man on the planet.
The first horses on earth, according to the most current science, are known to have existed 55 million years ago, more or less. The species is supposed to have originated in North America and at one point there were a half dozen kinds of horsed feeding on an expanding grassland plain due to climate changes 20 million years ago. All the species of horses other than today’s single existing horse species are now extinct. In fact, the horses that we interact with today here in the US did not come directly from North America as horses had become extinct on the continent long ago.
It would take the movement of humans to reintroduce horses to what was called the “new world”. It was not the first movement of humans here that brought the horse, it was in one of the succeeding waves of human migration that saw the reintroduction of horses to North America. I say succeeding because it is not certain how many times or from where humans arrived to our part of the world. Humans have been on the move for as long as they have existed. Humans streamed across the world, on foot, to fill distant spaces around the earth. The earth’s geography changing all the while. The “on foot” is the amazing part.
Horses were domesticated around 3,500 Before the Common Era (BCE), being the common reference today, in central Asia; perhaps on the steppes of modern day Kazakhstan. In 1,000 years humans had devised several methods of using horsepower. Of course they rode horses, but they also developed wagons or carts to carry their belongings from place to place no doubt seeking better forage for their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses that became part of their economic livelihood. The domestication of other livestock occurring much earlier and perhaps was the learning experience to domesticate horses. These groups of humans always on the move, but no longer on foot.
Human movement always being the rule; now the distances were so much greater because of the horse. Now taking more things along because horses can pack or pull so much more than a human can carry was possible. History documents ebbs and flows of people using horsepower to push movement ever further and faster. Horsepower allowed for human development as humans were no longer hemmed in to a place or with only the belongings they could carry. People could now go to new places, see new people, and share knowledge and belongings, with positive and in some cases negative effects.
I don’t know who first figured out how to domestic horses or why, but I can only imagine the wonderment of the first person on the ground meeting the first person they saw on horseback. It must have been a mixture of fear and awe. Once he or she got over the shock and got used to the idea of riding a horse, must have said I “I want to do that too.” It must be a kin to humans looking at birds flying and thinking of the possibilities of doing that. Oh wait we do that now too. Both riding and flying are complex activities with lots of details. Yes, flying more complex, but think of what was known and not known to humans 5,000 years ago versus the years when developing flying machines and the complexity of domesticating and training a horse seems equally daunting.
Horses were used for riding and hauling. The wheel and wagons expanded what humans could carry with them on their migrations. As human/horse relationship grew innovations dealing with the horse multiplied, again some with positive effects and others negative. This positive and negative effects is clearly a common aspect of human development The domestication and use of the horse is like the duality of nuclear power that has the ability to generate untold “horsepower” for work or untold “energy” for destruction.
The wagons and carts developed so early were modified into chariots used for firing platforms for arrows, another human innovation with dual purpose and duel effect. The innovation of the stirrup, (200-300CE) was mated to the saddle (likely invented around 800BCE), shifted what was done in warfare and chariots soon gave way to horseback archers that dominated warfare, military movement, and conquest for the next 1,500 years until the modern use of guns and gunpowder. From the domestication of horses to now it is an amazing story of development and cooperation.
Though we do not know the reaction of the first two people in the first encounter of someone on foot with someone on horseback, we do have information about reactions of Native Americans to horses brought by the European explorers of the Western Hemisphere. At that time some believed the man on a horse to be a very strange human/horse combination rather than just any strange new beast. The horse was large and powerful. The horse was used to devastating effect based on thousands of years of warfare experience in the old world. However as conquistadors spread out their conquests and encompassed more land they required work to be done. It was from that work that Native Americans must have learned horsemanship.
Overtime horses that escaped must have bred and utilized the Great Plains that would have greatly resembled their home on the steppes of Asia, or a horseman “escaped” his labors with horses to return to his life prior to new comers from Europe. Using the skills learned brought a new resource to Native Americans that had continued to walk everywhere. Suddenly cultures thousands of years old incorporated into their life something totally new and unique. Riding versus walking changed the possibilities of tribal life.
The horse cultures of North America were not ancient and did not last long, but impacted their human experience greatly. Walking to gather buffalo had to be much more tedious, difficult, and dangerous as opposed to the valiant hunt from horseback that occurred after the horse’s arrival on the Great Plains. Tribes could now exploit populations of buffalo that could have numbered 60 million. A sea of animals that covered what would equal some of today’s states on the Great Plains of central North America and could have been the largest concentration of herd animals on the planet.
This resulted in great shifts in tribes surrounding the Great Plains. The Comanche originally were from the desert and canyons of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. They moved to the plains and became what some consider the best light cavalry in the world at the height of their strength. They used the power of the horse to capture from other competing tribes the best range for the buffalo on the Great Plains in what was known as Comancheria in the southern plains of Texas and Oklahoma. Other tribes staked out other portions of the plains to exploit the vast herds of buffalo that migrated the immense grasslands. Comanche power and that of the other horse tribes was short-lived as it was broken by a post-civil war expansion of federal power in the great Indian wars 1870s to 1890s.
Quanah Parker was the last fighting chief of the Comanche. He was the son of a captive white women and a Comanche warrior leader. Near the end of Comanche power Parker moved his tribe around west Texas evading pursuing federal troops in ways that army commanders had difficulty believing. The end did not come with the death of Parker. In fact, Parker survived the Indian wars. It ended for the Comanche when the U.S. Army slaughtered the last large remaining herd of Comanche horses in a secluded canyon used by Parker and his remaining followers.
I don’t share this as a scholarly piece, but as information that I have picked up along the way “grazing” through books. I just find it fascinating to think of the impact in history by the horse and the interaction with humans. To me it is no coincidence that we still refer to the power generated by modern engines in terms of horsepower. It is a lasting tribute to the enduring influence and importance of the horse in human history.
This slice of history and information is tiny in respect to the long and varied story of horses and man across the globe. Like horsemanship and detail history is unending detail to be learned, discovered, or experienced.
By Mike B.