Our best friend? It’s the horse
Our best friend? It’s the horse
By Niobe Thompson, presenter of Equus  

We start our three-part series – Equus: Story of the Horse – with a provocative idea: that horses — not dogs — deserve the title of best friend to humans.

There’s no question that dogs make great companions.  A friendly presence you can take into the house, and on a forest walk, a dog is always eager to offer you its soul on a plate. And unlike any other animal, dogs can show affection: unrestrained emotion seems to be their evolutionary specialty.

When our Ice Age ancestors were still running away from giant sabre-toothed cats in the Pleistocene, we were domesticating wolves as fireside pets. The 30,000-year old remains of "wolf-dogs" who lived with humans and ate our food have been discovered in Europe. 

Recreation of ancients riders atop horses

We tamed wild horses "only" 6,000 years ago; humans hunted and ate horses far longer than we’ve ridden them. And today, few people have the money or the space to keep horses as pets.  Even when we do, it doesn’t work to bring a horse into the living room for a cuddle.

So why do we insist that horses are our best friend?

Dogs entered our lives as a way to escape the challenges of a hunting life. It was easier, and safer, to scrounge for a meal at the edges of the campfire than to chase down reindeer and bison on the Ice Age plains. Dogs became invaluable as hunting partners and for guarding our camps from threats, but it was their gift for affection that melted our hearts. Dogs colonized the human world: it is a parasitic relationship. They came to us, not the other way around.

Thousands of years later, when the horse-human partnership began, we went to horses.  Wild horses were powerful, fast and intelligent animals, and they certainly didn’t need us to survive.  There was no shortage of grass on the Eurasian steppes. Yet somehow, they agreed to let us on their backs, and then to carry us at a speed we could never reach on our own two feet.  When the world’s brainiest biped climbed up on the world’s greatest land-runner, history was made.

Scene from Equus: "It was a game changer."

Think about it this way: did we create the modern world with "dog power"?

Dogs are great companions, and their undying love is deeply reassuring.  But horses give us superpowers: speed, pulling power, height, and if we’re smart enough to notice, a deep and complicated companionship.

Today, in the age of machines, our friendship with horses persists. There are more horses in North America with every passing year. From an all-time low of under 2 million in 1960, today there are more than 11 million horses in Canada and the USA combined. You could argue that we don’t need horses, but the numbers suggest we do.

Let’s remember what horsepower meant for our species.  Horses transformed the human story, toppled ancient civilizations and built new ones, knit the world together into a global community of knowledge, and propelled us at speed beyond our frontiers.