Our study of history, at least for those who have ventured past public education’s pig-headed boring version of history as rote memorization of dates, names, and locations, has concentrated on innovation, culture, and utilization of natural resources.
Jared Diamond initiated new concepts into the study of history with his book,”Guns, Germs, and Steel”. The book does an excellent job of explaining the advantages certain cultures had over others and debunks many, if not all, of the theories racists hold as proof of racial superiority.
Diamond’s theories are difficult to dispute; however, he was not a horseman and he left out important components of history: the horse in all its various physical forms and the cultures of horsemanship that used the horse for transportation, war, and agriculture became advanced and able to exploit weaker cultures with no horsemanship or inferior horsemanship.
It is this knowledge, the ability to manipulate the strength, courage, speed, and stamina of a horse, that has been a fundamental driver of history, until the beginning of the twentieth century.
The average student of history, when asked to identify a horse in a barn yard, will be able to point out a horse, among sheep, goats, and pigs, but when he is asked to identify the breed, weight, age, suitability for particular jobs, the student will probably be bewildered. Yet, he assumes the horse in the barnyard is the same horse that cultivated the fields, that fed cities, the horse that logged, the horse that pulled carriages, wagons, and barges, the horse that was used in war, and the horse that worked cattle.
We are losing this part of our culture, after the horse was used as the foundation for building civilization, he doesn’t even merit an honorable mention on the pages of history.
Today, the small sub-class of horse enthusiasts cheer those who ride in arenas, doing precision cavalry movements of the past (dressage), or jumping over fences and ditches, or working cattle in the same monotonous patterns for hours, but all of these games of sport were prerequisites for the horsemen of the past. They were serious horsemen, who had no fences and kept horses for survival and conquest, instead of amusement.
It was the men on horseback, who scouted ahead to find bivouac areas with water, fuel, and possibly feed. It was heavy cavalries that smashed and destroyed infantry formations. It was light cavalries that made heavy cavalries obsolete. It was chariots that decimated infantry columns and struck fear into foot soldiers. It was heavy horses who ran as a team into battle pulling artillery pieces and caissons with shot and powder. It was horses who pulled the wagons with food and supplies for armies. It was horses that pulled the carriages and rail cars that allowed people to travel in large cities. It was horses that allowed families to migrate. It was horses that struck fear into indigenous Americans so that a hundred men could kill thousands in a single day.
This animal called horse, was so important in maintaining the culture of Spain, gentlemen or caballeros were prohibited, by King Ferdinand, from riding in carriages or on a mule. Horses weren’t gelded, but mules were probably gelded, since they are infertile. The mule has a smoother ride with its ambling gate. Thus it was considered effeminate to ride a mule, and Spain was worried about the “chickification” of their culture; especially, when they needed manly men to conquer the New World and enrich Spain with gold and silver. Manly men rode stallions. Christopher Columbus was given dispensation and allowed to ride a mule. His voyages to the New World had caused debilitating damage to his body, perhaps it was scurvy, but he was allowed to ride a mule for the rest of his life.
Only a few advanced cultures have evolved without benefit of the horse, but those were often overwhelmed by cultures that exploited the horse.
There is one exception to this premise; the ox had great power for transportation and agriculture, but speed was compromised. Contrary to public opinion, the ox was used on the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails because of its ability to survive on feed that would kill a horse. The ox can even survive eating White Sage.
The horse maintained a prominent place on the battlefield, until after the Boer War. World War 1 and the machine gun was the end of horses in war, and although horses have dominated battlefields for 2,500 years and perhaps longer if we had records, it is the use of the horse and ox in agriculture that allowed cities to be built and modern civilizations to begin.
Some of us are aware of instruments of warfare, agriculture, and the of the tools and technologies required to build those tools, but far fewer of us can identify the horseflesh or types of horses that were needed for those societies to flourish.
It’s true, the horse has had his day, and fewer of them will be required to endure the cruelties of war and overwork, but it is time to offer him his rightful place in the annals of history; for without the horse, civilization would be much different today.
Yes, the author is a horseman; however, he is a student of history as well, and though some will judge this essay to be biased, the premise may be hard to debate with logic.