This article is provided courtesy of The Horse Industry of Alberta
The domestication of the horse had a massive impact on the development of human civilizations. Although the horse continued to be used as a food source, he also came to fulfill a number of other essential roles in day-to-day life. With domestication came the discovery that we could also ride and drive these animals. For the first time in human history rapid, long-distance travel became possible. The speed and stamina of the horse allowed people to venture beyond the familiarity of their villages and valleys into the wider world, resulting in the emergence of new cities, civilizations, religions and trade routes. At the other end of the spectrum, however, was war. So, on the one had, the horse helped civilizations to flourish, while on the other hand he became our most important tool of war.
As we all know, the horse is a prey animal with a very strong flight instinct. This means that taking him to war was not a simple task; you could hardly expect to grab a random animal and ride him into combat. Well, you could try, but I doubt it would turn out very well! Thus, with the advent of chariot and cavalry combat came a new profession – that of the horse trainer. When the horse first began to make his appearance on the battlefield during the Bronze Age the best horses and horsemen came from the region of the Mitanni, located in what is now eastern Turkey and western Armenia on the shores of Lake Van. Our earliest treatise on horse training was written by a Mitanni horsemaster named Kikkuli who served at the court of the Hittite King Suppiluliumas I in the 14th century BCE. The Kikkuli Texts are essentially manuals explaining how to select, train and condition the (military) chariot horse. Kikkuli’s conditioning methods would be very familiar to the modern endurance rider or three-day-eventer as they focus strongly on what we now term: interval training. Clearly Kikkuli and his compatriots knew what they were on about, because the Hittites with their war chariots became one of the major military powers in the Bronze Age Near East.
The Hittites were not the only culture to benefit from the war horse: the empires of the ancient Near East grew and fell behind the reins of these animals- Egypt, Babylon, the Mitanni and Assyria along with the Hatti (Hitties) became the first great military states in history thanks in large part to the horse. At the same time, the horse was also much more than a simple military tool: he was also a powerful status symbol coveted by the monarchs and aristocrats of the Near East. Wealthy individuals established stud farms in order to build substantial herds of equines for both military and personal use. Indeed, inclusion in the ‘club of great powers’ was confirmed by the willingness of the other kings to exchange daughters and horses with you; while letters exchanged between these monarchs included a wish ‘that your horses be well’ as part of a formulaic greeting. The significance of the horse went beyond military might and personal image- it stretched into affection and emotional attachment. Some monarchs made no attempt to hide their love for the horse. The Nubian Pharaoh Piankhi was so distressed to discover that his mares and foals had suffered hunger and thirst in his absence, that he recorded it in official documents. Moreover, the horse is one of the only animals to be consistently given personal names. The majority of domestic animals were viewed as livestock or working beasts, and as such were not viewed as a familiar, and given a name. In his monumental reliefs recording events at the battle of Kadesh, the Pharoah Rameses II includes the names of his chariot horses and praises them as the only members of his army who did not abandon him when the going got tough.
The shift from chariot to mounted warfare happened in the early first millennium BCE. This is not to say that horses were not ridden before this point – they most certainly were – but not into battle. It was the Assyrians who made the change, although early depictions of mounted warfare suggest a continuation of chariot combat. A chariot carried two men, the driver and the warrior: one was responsible for controlling the team, the other for fighting. Early cavalry combat seems to have been similar: the ‘driver’ and warrior rode side-by-side, the driver controlling both horses, while the warrior fought. Clearly this was an awkward way of going about things, and the Assyrian cavalryman soon began to fight and control his horse alone. These first cavalrymen fought with spear and bow to great success, building on a tradition of horse breeding and training begun centuries before – a tradition that would continue in the Near East for thousands of years, making the region home to some of the greatest horsemen and horse cultures in history.
Carolyn Willekes received her PhD in Greek and Roman Studies from the University of Calgary in 2013. She has been a part of the Spruce Meadows School Tours since 2009 teaching the ‘Warhorse to Sport Horse’ exhibit and has a book coming out titled “The Horse in the Ancient World: From Bucephalus to the Hippodrome.”