By Niobe Thompson, presenter of Equus  

“Dog is man’s best friend, but horses wrote history.”
- Anonymous

Horses evolved in the Americas; humans emerged in Africa. But when the world’s brainiest biped met the world’s fastest land-runner, history changed forever. Their story is told in the three-part documentary series, Equus: Story of the Horse.

Horsepower has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the speed and power of horses erased distance, enabling the exchange of ideas and fertilizing science, art and religion. On the other, horse-powered warfare brought countless civilizations to their knees. Think of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalus, General Washington and his mount Blueskin, or Wellington commanding the English at Waterloo from the back of Copenhagen.

Ancient man with spear

The first riders

For thousands of years, before we tamed them, our ancestors hunted horses. But then, some 6,000 years ago on the steppes of Central Asia, we began to ride. The earliest horse cultures were nomads with herds of livestock – and for them, horsepower changed everything.

Some scientists believe the domestication of horses sparked the beginning of nuclear families.  Humans on horseback can manage four times the livestock they can on foot, so horsepower enabled families to break from the larger clan and migrate across the open plains on their own.

Horses also triggered the first age of metal, the Bronze Age, making it possible to trade copper and zinc — the metal’s two ingredients — across vast distances. Bronze jewelry, tools, and weapons began to flow among cultures from China to Egypt to Scandinavia.

The invention of the chariot

But it was a new way of harnessing the power and speed of horses that turned the ancient world on its head. About 4,000 years ago, steppe warriors invented the chariot. This modified cart, with a single axle, spoke wheels and fast, light construction, became battle tank of its time. Chariot armies raced out of Central Asia in all directions, toppling Old World civilizations in China, Iran and India. Within a few hundred years, these tools of war even reached the Nile and Egypt, giving us the familiar image of a pharaoh riding into battle behind a horse-drawn chariot.

4 horse riders in the distance

But horses were used for far more than war. As new equestrian civilizations emerged, the speed of their horses gave them new reach and knit together distant lands.  The world’s first significant land empires arose, commanding vast territories from their nerve centres in Rome, China, Assyria, Persia and Egypt.  Without a network of roads, along which horse messengers galloped, their emperors could never have ruled effectively.

No empire lasted forever, and as each one fell, it was at the hand of horse-powered armies. Nomads from the steppes — so-called “barbarians” because of the strange languages they spoke — sacked Rome. The Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great fell in battle with the Scythian Queen Tomyris, slain by her army of horse nomads.

From warfare to the age of learning

In the 7th century, desert nomads, followers of the Prophet Mohammed, swept out of the Arabian Peninsula on horseback.  The Muslim invasion shattered the Byzantine Empire and creating a unified Muslim territory stretching from Spain in the west, south across the Sahara, and east through Persia.   The golden age of Arab science and learning followed.

Horse rider with weapon

In the 13th century, the greatest horse-powered army the world had ever seen galloped out of the steppes. The Mongol Chinggis (Genghis) Khan created the largest land empire in history. In battle, they were brutally effective. But in the territory they conquered, they established the world’s first passport and postal system. The Mongol Empire cross-fertilized the cultures of East and West like never before, bringing printing, gunpowder and forged steel from China to Europe.

Horses return to North America

Europe’s colonial conquest of the globe might never have happened without horses. Columbus sailed with 50 Spanish warhorses to the New World, where they had been extinct for 9,000 years. Mounted conquistadores smashed the foot-soldier armies of the Aztec and Inca, conquering a population of at least 25 million people.

Escaped Spanish horses soon spurred the rise of the great Indigenous “horse nations,” from the Mapuche in South America to the Comanche, Apache and Blackfoot in the North. When colonial settlers finally reached these frontiers, they encountered some of the finest mounted warriors the world had ever seen.

From building an empire to transforming industry

The Industrial Revolution and the rise of machines did not replace the horse overnight. As railroads tied cities together, horses pulled goods the “final mile” from train station to consumer. In the USA, the horse population peaked at roughly 15 million animals in 1915, well into the age of rail travel and the internal combustion engine. Horse numbers only began to fall as mass car ownership took hold in the post-war era, falling to their lowest number in 1959.

Today, there are more horses in North America than a generation ago: 11 million in Canada and the USA alone. Even in the age of machines, our fascination with horses hasn’t dimmed.

For more watch Equus: Story of the Horse.

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