A number of hypotheses exist on many of the key issues regarding the
domestication of the horse. Although horses appeared in Paleolithic
cave art as early as 30,000 BCE, these were wild horses and were
probably hunted for meat.
How and when horses became domesticated is disputed. The clearest
evidence of early use of the horse as a means of transport is from
chariot burials dated c. 2000 BCE. However, an increasing amount of
evidence supports the hypothesis that horses were domesticated in the
Eurasian Steppes approximately 3500 BCE; recent discoveries
in the context of the
Botai culture suggest that
Botai settlements in
Akmola Province of
Kazakhstan are the location of the earliest
domestication of the horse.
Use of horses spread across
Eurasia for transportation, agricultural
work and warfare.
2 Predecessors to the domestic horse
3 Genetic evidence
4 Archaeological evidence
4.1 Horses interred with chariots
4.2 Skeletal indicators of domestication
4.4 Bit wear
4.5 Dung and corrals
4.6 Geographic expansion
4.6.1 Other evidence of geographic expansion
Horse images as symbols of power
4.9 Horses interred in human graves
5 Methods of domestication
6 Driving versus riding
7 Horses in historic warfare
8 See also
10 External links
The date of the domestication of the horse depends to some degree upon
the definition of "domestication". Some zoologists define
"domestication" as human control over breeding, which can be detected
in ancient skeletal samples by changes in the size and variability of
ancient horse populations. Other researchers look at broader evidence,
including skeletal and dental evidence of working activity; weapons,
art, and spiritual artifacts; and lifestyle patterns of human
cultures. There is also evidence that horses were kept as meat animals
prior to being trained as working animals.
Attempts to date domestication by genetic study or analysis of
physical remains rests on the assumption that there was a separation
of the genotypes of domesticated and wild populations. Such a
separation appears to have taken place, but dates based on such
methods can only produce an estimate of the latest possible date for
domestication without excluding the possibility of an unknown period
of earlier gene-flow between wild and domestic populations (which will
occur naturally as long as the domesticated population is kept within
the habitat of the wild population). Further, all modern horse
populations retain the ability to revert to a feral state, and all
feral horses are of domestic types; that is, they descend from
ancestors that escaped from captivity.
Whether one adopts the narrower zoological definition of domestication
or the broader cultural definition that rests on an array of
zoological and archaeological evidence affects the time frame chosen
for domestication of the horse. The date of 4000 BCE is based on
evidence that includes the appearance of dental pathologies associated
with bitting, changes in butchering practices, changes in human
economies and settlement patterns, the depiction of horses as symbols
of power in artifacts, and the appearance of horse bones in human
graves. On the other hand, measurable changes in size and increases
in variability associated with domestication occurred later, about
2500–2000 BCE, as seen in horse remains found at the site of
Csepel-Haros in Hungary, a settlement of the Bell Beaker culture.
Use of horses spread across
Eurasia for transportation, agricultural
work and warfare. Horses and mules in agriculture used a breastplate
type harness or a yoke more suitable for oxen, which was not as
efficient at utilizing the full strength of the animals as the
later-invented padded horse collar that arose several millennia
Predecessors to the domestic horse
Evolution of the horse
Evolution of the horse and wild horse
Replica of a horse painting from a cave in Lascaux
A 2005 study analyzed the mitochondrial
DNA (mtDNA) of a worldwide
range of equids, from 53,000-year-old fossils to contemporary
horses. Their analysis placed all equids into a single clade, or
group with a single common ancestor, consisting of three genetically
divergent species: Hippidion, the New World stilt-legged horse, and
the true horse. The true horse, which ranged from western
eastern Beringia, included prehistoric horses and the Przewalski's
Horse, as well as what is now the modern domestic horse, belonged to a
Holarctic species. A more detailed analysis of the true horses
grouped them into two major clades. One of these clades, which seemed
to have been restricted to North America, is now extinct. The other
clade was broadly distributed from
North America to central Europe,
north and south of
Pleistocene ice sheets. It became extinct in
Beringia around 14,200 years ago, and in the rest of the Americas
around 10,000 years ago. This clade survived in Eurasia,
however, and it is from these horses which all domestic horses appear
to have descended. These horses showed little phylogeographic
structure, probably reflecting their high degree of mobility and
Therefore, the domestic horse today is classified as Equus ferus
caballus. No genetic originals of native wild horses currently exist,
other than the never-domesticated Przewalski's Horse. The Przewalski
has 66 chromosomes, however, as opposed to 64 among modern
domesticated horses, and their
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) forms a
distinct cluster. Genetic evidence suggests that modern
Przewalski's horses are descended from a distinct regional gene pool
in the eastern part of the Eurasian steppes, not from the same genetic
group that gave rise to modern domesticated horses. Nevertheless,
evidence such as the cave paintings of
Lascaux suggests that the
ancient wild horses that some researchers now label the "Tarpan
subtype" probably resembled Przewalski horses in their general
appearance: big heads, dun coloration, thick necks, stiff upright
manes, and relatively short, stout legs.
Equus caballus germanicus front leg, teeth and upper jaw at the Museum
für Naturkunde, Berlin
The horses of the
Ice Age were hunted for meat in
Europe and across
the Eurasian steppes and in
North America by early modern humans.
Numerous kill sites exist and many cave paintings in
what they looked like. Many of these
Ice Age subspecies died out
during the rapid climate changes associated with the end of the last
Ice Age or were hunted out by humans, particularly in North America,
where the horse became completely extinct.
Classification based on body types and conformation, absent the
DNA for research, once suggested that there were
roughly four basic wild prototypes, thought to have developed with
adaptations to their environment prior to domestication. There were
competing theories; some argued that the four prototypes were separate
species or subspecies, while others suggested that the prototypes were
physically different manifestations of the same species. However,
more recent study indicates that there was only one wild species and
all different body types were entirely a result of selective breeding
or landrace adaptation after domestication. Either way, the most
common theories of prototypes from which all modern breeds are thought
to have developed suggests than in addition to the so-called Tarpan
subtype, there were the following base prototypes:
Warmblood subspecies" or "Forest Horse" (once proposed as Equus
ferus silvaticus, also known as the Diluvial Horse), which evolved
into a later variety sometimes called Equus ferus germanicus. This
prototype may have contributed to the development of the warmblood
horses of northern Europe, as well as older "heavy horses" such as the
The "Draft" subspecies, a small, sturdy, heavyset animal with a heavy
hair coat, arising in northern Europe, adapted to cold, damp climates,
somewhat resembling today's draft horse and even the Shetland pony.
The "Oriental" subspecies (once proposed as Equus agilis), a taller,
slim, refined and agile animal arising in Western Asia, adapted to
hot, dry climates. It is thought to be the progenitor of the modern
Arabian horse and Akhal-Teke.
Only two never-domesticated "wild" groups survived into historic
times, Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalski), and the Tarpan
(Equus ferus ferus). The
Tarpan became extinct in the late 19th
century and Przewalski's horse is endangered; it became extinct in the
wild during the 1960s, but was re-introduced in the late 1980s to two
preserves in Mongolia. Although researchers such as Marija Gimbutas
theorized that the horses of the
Chalcolithic period were
Przewalski's, more recent genetic studies indicate that Przewalski's
horse is not an ancestor to modern domesticated horses. Other
subspecies of Equus ferus appear to have existed and could have been
the stock from which domesticated horses are descended.
Genomics of domestication
Genomics of domestication and History of horse domestication
A 2014 study compared
DNA from ancient horse bones that predated
domestication and compared them to
DNA of modern horses, discovering
125 genes that correlated to domestication. Some were physical,
affecting muscle and limb development, cardiac strength and balance.
Others were linked to cognitive function and most likely were critical
to the taming of the horse, including social behavior, learning
capabilities, fear response, and agreeableness. The
DNA used in
this study came from horse bones 16,000 to 43,000 years ago, and
therefore the precise changes that occurred at the time of
domestication have yet to be sequenced.
The domestication of stallions and mares can be analyzed separately by
looking at those portions of the
DNA that are passed on exclusively
along the maternal (mitochondrial
DNA or mtDNA) or paternal line
Y-chromosome or Y-DNA).
DNA studies indicate that there may have been
multiple domestication events for mares, as the number of female lines
required to account for the genetic diversity of the modern horse
suggests a minimum of 77 different ancestral mares, divided into 17
distinct lineages. On the other hand, genetic evidence with regard
to the domestication of stallions points at a single domestication
event for a limited number of stallions combined with repeated
restocking of wild females into the domesticated herds.
A study published in 2012 that performed genomic sampling on 300 work
horses from local areas as well as a review of previous studies of
archaeology, mitochondrial DNA, and Y-
DNA suggested that horses were
originally domesticated in the western part of the Eurasian
steppe. Both domesticated stallions and mares spread out from this
area, and then additional wild mares were added from local herds; wild
mares were easier to handle than wild stallions. Most other parts of
the world were ruled out as sites for horse domestication, either due
to climate unsuitable for an indigenous wild horse population or no
evidence of domestication.
Genes located on the
Y-chromosome are inherited only from sire to its
male offspring and these lines show a very reduced degree of genetic
variation (aka genetic homogeneity) in modern domestic horses, far
less than expected based on the overall genetic variation in the
remaining genetic material. This indicates that a relatively
few stallions were domesticated, and that it is unlikely that many
male offspring originating from unions between wild stallions and
domestic mares were included in early domesticated breeding
Genes located in the mitochondrial
DNA are passed on along the
maternal line from the mother to her offspring. Multiple analyses of
DNA obtained from modern horses as well as from
horse bones and teeth from archaeological and palaeological finds
consistently shows an increased genetic diversity in the mitochondrial
DNA compared to the remaining DNA, showing that a large number of
mares has been included into the breeding stock of the originally
domesticated horse. Variation in the
DNA is used to determine so-called haplogroups. A
haplogroup is a group of closely related haplotypes that share the
same common ancestor. In horses, seven main haplogroups are recognized
(A-G), each with several subgroups. Several haplogroups are unequally
distributed around the world, indicating the addition of local wild
mares to the domesticated stock. One of these
haplotypes (Lusitano group C) is exclusively found on in Iberian
Peninsula, leading to a hypothesis that the Iberian peninsula or North
Africa was an independent origin for domestication of the horse.
However, until there is additional analysis of nuclear
DNA and a
better understanding of the genetic structure of the earliest domestic
herds, this theory cannot be confirmed or refuted. It remains
possible that a second, independent, domestication site might exist
but, as of 2012, research has neither confirmed nor disproven that
Even though horse domestication became widespread in a short period of
time, it is still possible that domestication began with a single
culture, which passed on techniques and breeding stock. It is possible
that the two "wild" subspecies remained when all other groups of
once-"wild" horses died out because all others had been, perhaps, more
suitable for taming by humans and the selective breeding that gave
rise to the modern domestic horse.
The Hyksos, c. 1600 BCE
Evidence for the domestication of the horse comes from three kinds of
sources: 1) changes in the skeletons and teeth of ancient horses; 2)
changes in the geographic distribution of ancient horses, particularly
the introduction of horses into regions where no wild horses had
existed; and 3) archaeological sites containing artifacts, images, or
evidence of changes in human behavior connected with horses.
Archaeological evidence includes horse remains interred in human
graves; changes in the ages and sexes of the horses killed by humans;
the appearance of horse corrals; equipment such as bits or other types
of horse tack; horses interred with equipment intended for use by
horses, such as chariots; and depictions of horses used for riding,
driving, draught work, or symbols of human power.
Few of these categories, taken alone, provide irrefutable evidence of
domestication, but combined add up to a persuasive argument.
Horses interred with chariots
Horse-drawn chariot carved in the
Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram
The least ancient, but most persuasive, evidence of domestication
comes from sites where horse leg bones and skulls, probably originally
attached to hides, were interred with the remains of chariots in at
least 16 graves of the
Sintashta and Petrovka cultures. These were
located in the steppes southeast of the Ural Mountains, between the
upper Ural and upper Tobol Rivers, a region today divided between
Russia and northern Kazakhstan. Petrovka was a little later
than and probably grew out of Sintashta, and the two complexes
together spanned about 2100–1700 BCE. A few of these graves
contained the remains of as many as eight sacrificed horses placed in,
above, and beside the grave.
In all of the dated chariot graves, the heads and hooves of a pair of
horses were placed in a grave that once contained a chariot. Evidence
of chariots in these graves was inferred from the impressions of two
spoked wheels set in grave floors 1.2–1.6m apart; in most cases the
rest of the vehicle left no trace. In addition a pair of disk-shaped
antler "cheekpieces," an ancient predecessor to a modern bit shank or
bit ring, were placed in pairs beside each horse head-and-hoof
sacrifice. The inner faces of the disks had protruding prongs or studs
that would have pressed against the horse's lips when the reins were
pulled on the opposite side. Studded cheekpieces were a new and fairly
severe kind of control device that appeared simultaneously with
All of the dated chariot graves contained wheel impressions, horse
bones, weapons (arrow and javelin points, axes, daggers, or stone
mace-heads), human skeletal remains, and cheekpieces. Because they
were buried in teams of two with chariots and studded cheekpieces, the
evidence is extremely persuasive that these steppe horses of
2100–1700 BCE were domesticated. Shortly after the period of these
burials, the expansion of the domestic horse throughout
little short of explosive. In the space of possibly 500 years, there
is evidence of horse-drawn chariots in Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.
By another 500 years, the horse-drawn chariot had spread to China.
Skeletal indicators of domestication
Some researchers do not consider an animal to be "domesticated" until
it exhibits physical changes consistent with selective breeding, or at
least having been born and raised entirely in captivity. Until that
point, they classify captive animals as merely "tamed". Those who hold
to this theory of domestication point to a change in skeletal
measurements was detected among horse bones recovered from middens
dated about 2500 BCE in eastern
Hungary in Bell-Beaker sites, and in
Bronze Age sites in the Russian steppes, Spain, and eastern
Horse bones from these contexts exhibited an increase
in variability, thought to reflect the survival under human care of
both larger and smaller individuals than appeared in the wild; and a
decrease in average size, thought to reflect penning and restriction
Horse populations that showed this combination of skeletal
changes probably were domesticated. Most evidence suggests that horses
were increasingly controlled by humans after about 2500 BCE. However,
more recently there have been skeletal remains found at a site in
Kazakhstan which display the smaller, more slender limbs
characteristic of corralled animals, dated to 3500 BCE.
Some of the most intriguing evidence of early domestication comes from
Botai culture, found in northern Kazakhstan. The
Botai culture was
a culture of foragers who seem to have adopted horseback riding in
order to hunt the abundant wild horses of northern
Botai sites had no cattle or sheep bones; the
only domesticated animals, in addition to horses, were dogs. Botai
settlements in this period contained between 50–150 pit houses.
Garbage deposits contained tens to hundreds of thousands of discarded
animal bones, 65% to 99% of which had come from horses. Also, there
has been evidence found of horse milking at these sites, with horse
milk fats soaked into pottery shards dating to 3500 BCE. Earlier
hunter-gatherers who lived in the same region had not hunted wild
horses with such success, and lived for millennia in smaller, more
shifting settlements, often containing less than 200 wild animal
Entire herds of horses were slaughtered by the
apparently in hunting drives. The adoption of horseback riding might
explain the emergence of specialized horse-hunting techniques and
larger, more permanent settlements. Domesticated horses could have
been adopted from neighboring herding societies in the steppes west of
the Ural Mountains, where the
Khvalynsk culture had herds of cattle
and sheep, and perhaps had domesticated horses, as early as 4800
Other researchers have argued that all of the
Botai horses were wild,
and that the horse-hunters of
Botai hunted wild horses on foot. As
evidence, they note that zoologists have found no skeletal changes in
Botai horses that indicate domestication. Moreover, because they
were hunted for food, the majority of the horse remains found in
Botai-culture settlements indeed probably were wild. On the other
hand, any domesticated riding horses were probably the same size as
their wild cousins and cannot now be distinguished by bone
measurements. They also note that the age structure of the horses
Botai represents a natural demographic profile for
hunted animals, not the pattern expected if they were domesticated and
selected for slaughter. However, these arguments were published
prior to the discovery of a corral at Krasnyi Yar and mats of
horse-dung at two other
Luristan bronze horse bit
The presence of bit wear suggest that a horse was ridden or driven,
and the earliest of such evidence from a site in
Kazakhstan dates to
3500 BCE. Because horses can be ridden and controlled without bits
by using a noseband or a hackamore, and such tools are used even
today, the absence of bit wear on horse teeth is not conclusive
evidence against domestication, but such materials do not produce
significant physiological changes nor are they apt to be preserved for
The regular use of a bit to control a horse can create wear facets or
bevels on the anterior corners of the lower second premolars. The
corners of the horse's mouth normally keep the bit on the "bars" of
the mouth, an interdental space where there are no teeth, forward of
the premolars. The bit must be manipulated by a human or the horse
must move it with its tongue for it to touch the teeth. Wear can be
caused by the bit abrading the front corners of the premolars if the
horse grasps and releases the bit between its teeth; other wear can be
created by the bit striking the vertical front edge of the lower
premolars, due to very strong pressure from a human handler.
Modern experiments showed that even organic bits of rope or leather
can create significant wear facets, and also showed that facets
3 mm deep or more do not appear on the premolars of wild
horses. However, other researchers disputed both conclusions.
Wear facets of 3 mm or more also were found on seven horse
premolars in two sites of the Botai,
Botai and Kozhai 1, dated about
3500–3000 BCE. The
Botai culture premolars are the earliest
reported multiple examples of this dental pathology in any
archaeological site, and preceded any skeletal change indicators by
1,000 years. While wear facets more than 3 mm deep were
discovered on the lower second premolars of a single stallion from
Dereivka in Ukraine, an
Eneolithic settlement dated about 4000
BCE, dental material from one of the worn teeth later produced a
radiocarbon date of 700–200 BCE, indicating that this stallion was
actually deposited in a pit dug into the older
Eneolithic site during
the Iron Age.
Dung and corrals
Soil scientists working with Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of
Natural History at the
Chalcolithic (also called Eneolithic, or
"Copper Age") settlements of
Botai and Krasnyi Yar in northern
Kazakhstan found layers of horse dung, discarded in unused house pits
in both settlements. The collection and disposal of horse dung
suggests that horses were confined in corrals or stables. An actual
corral, dated to 3500–3000 BCE was identified at Krasnyi Yar by a
pattern of post holes for a circular fence, with the soils inside the
fence yielding ten times more phosphorus than the soils outside. The
phosphorus could represent the remains of manure.
The appearance of horse remains in human settlements in regions where
they had not previously been present is another indicator of
domestication. Although images of horses appear as early as the Upper
Paleolithic period in places such as the caves of Lascaux, France,
suggesting that wild horses lived in regions outside of the Eurasian
steppes prior to domestication and may have even been hunted by early
humans, concentration of remains suggests animals being deliberately
captured and contained, an indicator of domestication, at least for
food, if not necessarily use as a working animal.
Around 3500–3000 BCE, horse bones began to appear more frequently in
archaeological sites beyond their center of distribution in the
Eurasian steppes and were seen in central Europe, the middle and lower
Danube valley, and the North
Caucasus and Transcaucasia. Evidence of
horses in these areas had been rare before, and as numbers increased,
larger animals also began to appear in horse remains. This expansion
in range was contemporary with the
Botai culture, where there are
indications that horses were corralled and ridden. This does not
necessarily mean that horses were first domesticated in the steppes,
but the horse-hunters of the steppes certainly pursued wild horses
more than in any other region. This geographic expansion is
interpreted by many zoologists as an early phase in the spread of
European wild horses were hunted for up to 10% of the animal bones in
a handful of
Neolithic settlements scattered across
Spain, France, and the marshlands of northern Germany, but in many
other parts of Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, the British
Isles, and much of central Europe, horse bones do not occur or occur
very rarely in Mesolithic,
Chalcolithic sites. In
contrast, wild horse bones regularly exceeded 40% of the identified
animal bones in
Neolithic camps in the Eurasian
steppes, west of the Ural Mountains.
Horse bones were rare or absent in
garbage in western Turkey, Mesopotamia, most of Iran, South and
Central Asia, and much of Europe. While horse bones have
been identified in
Neolithic sites in central Turkey, all equids
together totaled less than 3% of the animal bones. Within this three
percent, horses were less than 10%, with 90% or more of the equids
represented by onagers (Equus hemionus) or another ass-like equid that
later became extinct, Equus hydruntinus. Onagers were the most
common native wild equids of the Near East. They were hunted in Syria,
Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Central Asia; and domesticated asses
(Equus asinus) were imported into Mesopotamia, probably from Egypt,
but wild horses apparently did not live there.
Other evidence of geographic expansion
In Northern Caucasus, the
Maikop culture settlements and burials of c.
3300 BC contain both horse bones and images of horses. A frieze of
nineteen horses painted in black and red colors is found in one of the
Maikop graves. The widespread appearance of horse bones and images in
Maikop sites suggest to some observers that horseback riding began in
the Maikop period.
Later, images of horses, identified by their short ears, flowing
manes, and tails that bushed out at the dock, began to appear in
artistic media in
Mesopotamia during the Akkadian period, 2300-2100
BCE. The word for "horse", literally translated as ass of the
mountains, first appeared in Sumerian documents during the Third
dynasty of Ur, about 2100-2000 BCE. The kings of the Third
Dynasty of Ur apparently fed horses to lions for royal entertainment,
perhaps indicating that horses were still regarded as more exotic than
useful, but King Shulgi, about 2050 BCE, compared himself to "a horse
of the highway that swishes its tail", and one image from his reign
showed a man apparently riding a horse at full gallop. Horses were
Mesopotamia and the lowland
Near East in larger numbers
after 2000 BCE in connection with the beginning of chariot warfare.
A further expansion, into the lowland
Near East and northwestern
China, also happened around 2000 BCE, again apparently in conjunction
with the chariot. Although Equus bones of uncertain species are found
in some Late
Neolithic sites in
China dated before 2000 BCE, Equus
caballus or Equus ferus bones first appeared in multiple sites and in
significant numbers in sites of the Qijia and Siba cultures, 2000-1600
Gansu and the northwestern provinces of China. The Qijia
culture was in contact with cultures of the Eurasian steppes, as shown
through similarities between Qijia and Late
Bronze Age steppe
metallurgy, so it was probably through these contacts that
domesticated horses first became frequent in northwestern
In 2008, archaeologists announced the discovery of rock art in
Dhambalin region, which the researchers suggest is
one of the earliest known depictions of a hunter on horseback. The
rock art is in the Ethiopian-Arabian style, dated to 1000 to 3000
Horse images as symbols of power
About 4200-4000 BCE, more than 500 years before the geographic
expansion evidenced by the presence of horse bones, new kinds of
graves, named after a grave at Suvorovo, appeared north of the Danube
delta in the coastal steppes of
Ukraine near Izmail.
were similar to and probably derived from earlier funeral traditions
in the steppes around the Dnieper River. Some
contained polished stone mace-heads shaped like horse heads and horse
tooth beads. Earlier steppe graves also had contained polished
stone mace-heads, some of them carved in the shape of animal
heads. Settlements in the steppes contemporary with Suvorovo, such
Sredni Stog II and
Dereivka on the Dnieper River, contained 12%-52%
Suvorovo graves appeared in the
Danube delta grasslands,
horse-head maces also appeared in some of the indigenous farming towns
Tripolye and Gumelnitsa cultures in present-day
Moldova, near the
Suvorovo graves. These agricultural cultures had
not previously used polished-stone maces, and horse bones were rare or
absent in their settlement sites. Probably their horse-head maces came
Suvorovo immigrants. The
Suvorovo people in turn acquired
many copper ornaments from the
Tripolye and Gumelnitsa towns. After
this episode of contact and trade, but still during the period
4200-4000 BCE, about 600 agricultural towns in the
Balkans and the
Danube valley, some of which had been occupied for 2000 years,
were abandoned. Copper mining ceased in the Balkan copper
mines, and the cultural traditions associated with the
agricultural towns were terminated in the
Balkans and the lower Danube
valley. This collapse of "Old Europe" has been attributed to the
immigration of mounted Indo-European warriors. The collapse could
have been caused by intensified warfare, for which there is some
evidence; and warfare could have been worsened by mounted raiding; and
the horse-head maces have been interpreted as indicating the
introduction of domesticated horses and riding just before the
However, mounted raiding is just one possible explanation for this
complex event. Environmental deterioration, ecological degradation
from millennia of farming, and the exhaustion of easily mined oxide
copper ores also are cited as causal factors.
Perforated antler objects discovered at
Dereivka and other sites
Suvorovo have been identified as cheekpieces or
‘’psalia’’ for horse bits. This identification is no
longer widely accepted, as the objects in question have not been found
associated with horse bones, and could have had a variety of other
functions. However, through studies of microscopic wear, it has
been established that many of the bone tools at
Botai were used to
smooth rawhide thongs, and rawhide thongs might have been used to
manufacture of rawhide cords and ropes, useful for horse tack.
Similar bone thong-smoothers are known from many other steppe
settlements, but it cannot be known how the thongs were used. The
oldest artifacts clearly identified as horse tack—bits, bridles,
cheekpieces, or any other kind of horse gear—are the antler
disk-shaped cheekpieces associated with the invention of the chariot,
Horses interred in human graves
The oldest possible archaeological indicator of a changed relationship
between horses and humans is the appearance about 4800-4400 BCE of
horse bones and carved images of horses in
Chalcolithic graves of the
Khvalynsk culture and the
Samara culture in the middle Volga
region of Russia. At the
Khvalynsk cemetery near the town of
Khvalynsk, 158 graves of this period were excavated. Of these, 26
graves contained parts of sacrificed domestic animals, and additional
sacrifices occurred in ritual deposits on the original ground surface
above the graves. Ten graves contained parts of lower horse legs; two
of these also contained the bones of domesticated cattle and sheep. At
least 52 domesticated sheep or goats, 23 domesticated cattle, and 11
horses were sacrificed at Khvalynsk. The inclusion of horses with
cattle and sheep and the exclusion of obviously wild animals together
suggest that horses were categorized symbolically with domesticated
At S’yezzhe, a contemporary cemetery of the Samara culture, parts of
two horses were placed above a group of human graves. The pair of
horses here was represented by the head and hooves, probably
originally attached to hides. The same ritual—using the hide with
the head and lower leg bones as a symbol for the whole animal—was
used for many domesticated cattle and sheep sacrifices at Khvalynsk.
Horse images carved from bone were placed in the above-ground ochre
deposit at S’yezzhe and occurred at several other sites of the same
period in the middle and lower Volga region. Together these
archaeological clues suggest that horses had a symbolic importance in
Khvalynsk and Samara cultures that they had lacked earlier, and
that they were associated with humans, domesticated cattle, and
domesticated sheep. Thus, the earliest phase in the domestication of
the horse might have begun during the period 4800-4400 BCE.[citation
Methods of domestication
Equidae died out in the
Western Hemisphere at the end of the last
glacial period. A question raised is why and how horses avoided this
fate on the Eurasian continent. It has been theorized that
domestication saved the species. While the environmental
conditions for equine survival in
Europe were somewhat more favorable
Eurasia than in the Americas, the same stressors that led to
extinction for the
Mammoth had an effect upon horse populations. Thus,
some time after 8000 BCE, the approximate date of extinction in the
Americas, humans in
Eurasia may have begun to keep horses as a
livestock food source, and by keeping them in captivity, may have
helped to preserve the species. Horses also fit the six core
criteria for livestock domestication, and thus, it could be argued,
"chose" to live in close proximity to humans.
One model of horse domestication starts with individual foals being
kept as pets while the adult horses were slaughtered for meat. Foals
are relatively small and easy to handle. Horses behave as herd animals
and need companionship to thrive. Both historic and modern data shows
that foals can and will bond to humans and other domestic animals to
meet their social needs. Thus domestication may have started with
young horses being repeatedly made into pets over time, preceding the
great discovery that these pets could be ridden or otherwise put to
However, there is disagreement over the definition of the term
domestication. One interpretation of domestication is that it must
include physiological changes associated with being selectively bred
in captivity, and not merely "tamed." It has been noted that
traditional peoples worldwide (both hunter-gatherers and
horticulturists) routinely tame individuals from wild species,
typically by hand-rearing infants whose parents have been killed, and
these animals are not necessarily "domesticated."
On the other hand, some researchers look to examples from historical
times to hypothesize how domestication occurred. For example, while
Native American cultures captured and rode horses from the 16th
century on, most tribes did not exert significant control over their
breeding, thus their horses developed a genotype and phenotype adapted
to the uses and climatological conditions in which they were kept,
making them more of a landrace than a planned breed as defined by
modern standards, but nonetheless "domesticated".
Driving versus riding
A difficult question is if domesticated horses were first ridden or
driven. While the most unequivocal evidence shows horses first being
used to pull chariots in warfare, there is strong, though indirect,
evidence for riding occurring first, particularly by the Botai. Bit
wear may correlate to riding, though, as the modern hackamore
demonstrates, horses can be ridden without a bit by using rope and
other evanescent materials to make equipment that fastens around the
nose. So the absence of unequivocal evidence of early riding in the
record does not settle the question.
Thus, on one hand, logic suggests that horses would have been ridden
long before they were driven. But it is also far more difficult to
gather evidence of this, as the materials required for riding—simple
hackamores or blankets—would not survive as artifacts, and other
than tooth wear from a bit, the skeletal changes in an animal that was
ridden would not necessarily be particularly noticeable. Direct
evidence of horses being driven is much stronger.
On the other hand, others argue that evidence of bit wear does not
necessarily correlate to riding. Some theorists speculate that a horse
could have been controlled from the ground by placing a bit in the
mouth, connected to a lead rope, and leading the animal while pulling
a primitive wagon or plow. Since oxen were usually relegated to this
duty in Mesopotamia, it is possible that early plows might have been
attempted with the horse, and a bit may indeed have been significant
as part of agrarian development rather than as warfare technology.
Horses in historic warfare
Main article: Horses in warfare
Depiction of a mounted warrior from the Pazyryk burials, c. 300 BCE
While riding may have been practiced during the 4th and 3rd millennia
BCE, and the disappearance of "Old European" settlements may be
related to attacks by horseback-mounted warriors, the clearest
influence by horses on ancient warfare was by pulling chariots,
introduced c. 2000 BCE.
Horses in the
Bronze Age were relatively small by modern standards,
which led some theorists to believe the ancient horses were too small
to be ridden and so must have been driven. Herodotus'
description of the Sigynnae, a steppe people who bred horses too small
to ride but extremely efficient at drawing chariots, illustrates this
stage. However, as horses remained generally smaller than modern
equines well into the Middle Ages, this theory is highly
Iron Age in
Mesopotamia saw the rise of mounted cavalry as a tool
of war, as evidenced by the notable successes of mounted archer
tactics used by various invading equestrian nomads such as the
Parthians. Over time, the chariot gradually became obsolete.
The horse of the
Iron Age was still relatively small, perhaps 12.2 to
14.2 hands (50 to 58 inches, 127 to 147 cm) high
(measured at the withers.) This was shorter overall than the average
height of modern riding horses, which range from about 14.2 to
17.2 hands (58 to 70 inches, 147 to 178 cm). However,
small horses were used successfully as light cavalry for many
centuries. For example, Fell ponies, believed to be descended from
Roman cavalry horses, are comfortably able to carry fully grown adults
(although with rather limited ground clearance) at an average height
of 13.2 hands (54 inches, 137 cm) Likewise, the Arabian
horse is noted for a short back and dense bone, and the successes of
the Muslims against the heavy mounted knights of
that a horse standing 14.2 hands (58 inches, 147 cm)
can easily carry a full-grown human adult into battle.
Mounted warriors such as the Scythians,
Vandals of late Roman
Mongols who invaded eastern
Europe in the 7th century
through 14th centuries CE, the
Muslim warriors of the 8th through 14th
centuries CE, and the American Indians in the 16th through 19th
centuries each demonstrated effective forms of light cavalry.
List of horse breeds
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