The Ancient Origins of the Horse

Eohippus by Heinrich Harder

Eohippus by Heinrich Harder

The Ancient Origins of the Horse

The modern horse began as Eohippus, an omnivore not much better than a fox. It had a springy, rounded back shaped more like a rabbit’s than modern horse’s and all of the major bones in the legs were unfused, allowing Eohippus to dodge quickly around trees and low-laying brush. His fore- and hind-limbs also had 5 toes which were padded, like a dog’s, but instead of nails they had tiny hooves.

Due to planet-wide climate change over the millenea, the forest environment that Eohippus was accustomed to gave way to open planes. Because of this Eohippus grew taller, his legs got longer, 5 toes shrank to 1, and his back became flat and stiff. All of these changes were designed to make ancient horse able to run very fast, over short distances, in a straight line.

The first record of human interaction with horses are cave drawings found in the French Laseaux caves, dating back some 10,000 years. The increase in the number of horse fossils found in archaeological sites in countries such as Kazakhstan and Ukraine lead archaeologists to believe that horses will probably domesticated around 6,000 years ago. More than likely they were kept like cattle.

Archaeological sites dating from 3,500 B.C. show the first signs of tack, indicating that horses had progressed from livestock to riding animals. It wasn’t until 600 years ago that horses were reintroduced to the Americas by Spanish settlers. (They had been indigenous to the Americas in the Eocene era, but a combination of over-hunting and the rapidly changing climate of the ice age proved too difficult and they died out).

Christopher Columbus, and later, Hernan Cortes brought horses to the “new world” to aid in transportation, agriculture and trade. Subsequent Spanish conquistadors bought even more horses to the Americas, and a breeding operation was even established in the Caribbean by the Spanish. Eventually, horses broke free, were lost, or stolen, and bands of wild horses quickly procreated and spread throughout the entirety of North and South America.

It is likely that horses were first trained to pull plows and chariots. Shortly after, however, man would have mounted the horse and learned how to exploit this animal for warfare.

Between 4,000 and 3,000 BC the mounted soldier became a force to be reckoned with. A man on horseback could travel twice as far, twice as fast, and would conserve his energy for battle. The cavalry was more maneuverable, had a height/weight advantage, and was the most valuable part of any army. In fact, many historians credit the cavalry as one of the most effective elements of war of the Arab Muslim armies during the Islamic conquest of the Levant.

While the exact date of the first polo match is unknown, in ancient Persia around 600BC it was called chaugán, which refers to the polo mallet. It was played with hundreds of players to a side and was designed to mimic war, giving soldiers ample practice time. Just like archery, swordplay, and falconry, polo became an excellent pastime to teach young warriors and nobility the rigors of war. As armies all around Asia began using the horse in battle, polo became THE way of training.

In the 4th century BC, Xenophon wrote a complete dissertation on horsemanship and the training of cavalry horses and officers. Nearly every famous ancient world leader owes his fame to the horse: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Attila the Hun for example.

 

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