You might associate horses most with riding, but humans have used them for a wide variety of activities over the past several thousand years. Horses have been used in war and agriculture, for the transportation of people and goods, and even as a source of meat and milk. In this post, we’ll walk you through some of the most important developments in humans’ relationship with horses.
The history of the horse begins long before their domestication. In North America, over 50 million years ago, there lived a funny little creature called Hyracotherium or Eohippus. This leaf-eating horse ancestor was about the size of a small dog.
Eohippus’s several toes worked fine when it was living in swamps or the tropical rainforest, but, as North America dried out, a change was necessary. The toes transitioned into 1 toe then into a hoof. Horses’ ancestors also gradually became larger and developed more powerful legs that enabled them to run through the prairies.
During this period, some of these early horses were crossing the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and onward to Europe. For reasons that are not entirely clear, all horse ancestors disappeared from the Americas 10,000 years ago.
The Domestication of the Horse
Humans’ first interactions with horses probably involved raising them for meat and milk. It’s difficult to determine an exact timeline for horses’ domestication, but experts locate it between 4000 and 3000 BCE in the steppes north of the Black Sea. Humans likely used horses to pull plows and chariots before they tried to mount them.
Fossils of horse teeth dating back to about 3000 BCE reveal that humans had started using riding bits. The earliest available records of horse training are from about 1350 BCE by a member of the Mitanni people, who lived around ancient Mesopotamia. What’s certain is that, by the final centuries before the Common Era, horseback riding had become well established.
The Chinese developed the first good harness around 200 BCE. They also dreamt up the stirrup not long afterward. The stirrup meant that warriors had their hands free to use weapons like spears and bows and arrows.
The Return of the Horse to North America
Spanish settlers brought horses to New Mexico in the late 17th century. Indigenous groups living on the plains could use horses to hunt buffalo and to travel much farther and faster than they had previously. These beautiful animals quickly became status symbols and an important component of Indigenous trading.
During the 1680 Santa Fe Rebellion, hundreds of horses were captured or escaped. They would go on to form a mustang population of several million animals roaming around the Great Plains.
Today, in many parts of the world, people use horses more for leisure than for work. It’s interesting to think, however, about all of the essential roles that they have held over the years.
Did you learn something new about the history of riding? Let us know in the comments!
Hello, My name is Shelby Gatti, and I am the owner of Shelby Ranch. I love being able to share my passion for animals with you and your family. At Shelby Ranch you can expect a ton of family adventure from horseback riding to mechanical bull riding & axe throwing.