The Domestication of the Horse

This article is provided courtesy of the Horse Industry Association of Alberta

By Carolyn Willekes, PhD

The domestication of the horse sometime in the 4th millennium BCE altered the future not only of equines, but of humans as well. The horse turned out to be a pretty useful animal. Given the impact of the horse on cultural, technological and military evolution, you might think that the horse was one of the first animals to be domesticated, lascauxbut that was not the case.

The horse-human relationship is a very old one, dating back to at least 30,000 years ago. This early relationship is recorded with great detail in Paleolithic cave art from Southern France, Northern Spain and Northern Portugal carved and painted between 30,000 and 8,000 BCE. These dramatic, often larger than life murals are found deep inside labyrinthine caves at places like Altamira, Lascaux and Chauvet. The equines carved and painted on the cave walls of southern Europe were very much wild animals, and remained so for over 20,000 years. Given the long human fascination with equines, it is perhaps surprising to discover that the horse was one of the last major animals to be domesticated – an event that took place thousands of years later than the initial period of Neolithic domestication that brought cattle, sheep, goats and pigs under human control. When it did happen, however, the domestication of the horse had an unprecedented and unimaginable impact on human history.

Although the horse would eventually fulfill a wide variety of roles in human society, he was first and foremost a food chauvetsource. Sites like Solutré in France provide evidence for the long-term, regular, systematic hunting of horses. When the horse was finally domesticated, it was for food. Although equines are a less practical source of meat than other livestock – they are a relatively in fecund species in comparison – horses were regularly used as a food source in Asia and Europe for at least 3,000 years following domestication and he remains a primary part of the diet in many Central Asian countries even today. More important than meat was mare’s milk – airag or koumiss – which has been an essential component of the Central Asian diet for thousands of years. Horse milk is very high in vitamin C and thus provides necessary nutrients missing from the meat-based diet of the Eurasian nomads. Analysis of 5,500-year-old potsherds from the site of Botai in Kazakhstan shows presence of proteins found in mare’s milk- providing our earliest evidence for the domestic horse.

The horse was also far better adapted to survive the harsh winters of the Eurasian steppe than sheep, goats or cattle. Unlike other animals, the horse uses his hooves to break through ice to find water and dig through deep snow banks for buried forage. Cattle and sheep use their noses to push snow aside; in the course of a harsh, snowy winter these quickly become too bloody and raw to use and the animals will starve unless they are fed additional fodder. Further, the naturally high leg action of the horse allows him to move through deep snow with relative ease, unlike the lower-slung cattle, sheep and goats.

milkingTwo main archaeological sites are associated with the domestication of the horse: Dereivka in the Ukraine and Botai in Kazakhstan. Located in the lower Dneiper valley, Dereivka was inhabited by the Sredni Stog culture c.4200-3500 BCE. Of the over 4,000 animal bones found on the site, 61% belong to horses. The majority of the equine remains from Dereivka are those of young male horses between 4 and 10 years of age. Some scholars argue that this indicates the practice of controlled animal husbandry, particularly for the purposes of slaughter for meat. Others state that the skeletal evidence from Dereivka suggests the hunting of wild horses rather than the slaughter of a domestic population. The majority of the Dereivka horses died between the ages of 5 and 8, when they would have been at their reproductive and athletic peak. From a food standpoint, the tenderest meat comes from horses killed at 2-3 years old. The evidence from Dereivka suggests the killing of wild animals on account of age and gender. Horses form two types of herds in the wild: harem bands which are comprised of a stallion, mares and their young; and bachelor bands made up of young stallions who have not successfully challenged an older stallion for his harem. In a harem band, it is the alpha mare who leads the herd whenever they flee from possible danger while the stallion guards the rear of the fleeing group, hanging back to threaten or attack any potential threat. Based on this behaviour, it is more likely the stallion would be killed than his mares. When hunting groups were sent to the Mongolian steppe in the early 1900s to catch Przewalski foals, the hunters almost always had to kill the stallion before they could approach the youngsters. In the case of a bachelor band, any horse killed would likely be a young male.

The site of Botai is located in the Tobol-Ishim drainage on the northern Steppes of Kazakhstan. It was home to the Botai culture, which flourished in this region between 3500-3000 BCE. Horse bones and tools made from them are numerous at Botai. Slaughter methods, evident from cut marks on bones, support the argument that the Botai peoples hunted wild horses but also slaughtered domesticated animals; there is evidence for poleaxing, a method of slaughter only possible with a domestic animal. Large, concentrated amounts of manure have been found in the vicinity of the site. This suggests that groups of horses were kept in contained spaces. Finally, there is the previously mentioned discovery of mare’s milk protein on potsherds from the site. As Olsen points out, Botai is an example of what might be termed a transition horse-culture. The inhabitants of the site practiced a horse-based economy. They clearly hunted wild equines, but there is strong evidence to support their exploitation of domesticated animals as well.

No one can say when exactly someone first realized he could climb onto the back of a horse and harness its power for his own advantage, but once it happened the horse-human relationship changed irrevocably. The horse enabled humans to move beyond the boundaries of their valleys and villages and into the wider world. He allowed cultures to interact with each other and for trade to flourish. ‘High speed’ communication systems developed and warfare began to take place on a much vaster scale. Humans quickly came to rely upon the horse for numerous tasks; so much so that it no longer seemed possible for a society to function without them. Once a culture was introduced to the horse, he very quickly took up an essential role in the fabric of their daily lives. This dependence necessitated a shift in the horse-human relationship. No longer was the horse simply a source of nourishment. This new relationship cannot be called one of master and servant. In fact, the ancient evidence does not often convey the idea of submission or servitude in the horse; instead it seems to have been one of equals or even of affection and friendship.

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.”