Sunday, 1 November 2015

The horse in civilization

Certain animals are very familiar to us and it is easy to forget how important, if not crucial, they have been to our civilisation and  history. In another post I list the attributes of the domestic dog, some of them verging on the miraculous

In his book HiddenTreasures in the Book of Job Hugh Ross highlights a number of animals which have been pivotal  in the history of civilization. Parts of the world lacking these , e.g. Australia prior to colonization, continued in the pre-civilization  mode until influenced by colonial expansion
Along with the horse humans have employed  donkeys, cows, oxen, sheep, goats , llamas, yaks,  camels,  elephants, ostriches, birds of prey and dogs , all variously used  in transport, communication, ploughing, grinding grain,  pumping  water, forestry, supplying milk, cheese and meat, hunting, rescue, scavenging, policing, ceremonial  events, cavalry, sport, entertainment and provision of companionship.

It is not surprising that horses, which were first  tamed around 2000 BC,  have proved particularly valuable since they are well suited to breeding  and training for purpose,  providentially having  genetic characteristics which lend them to this, as do dogs.  In contemporary society this is particularly noticeable in the case of race horses.   Horses are just the right height for riding – not too low, so that a tall  rider’s feet don’t trail on the ground as with a donkey, and not  too high to risk serious injury to the rider in the event of a fall.  They are also quite hardy and adaptable to the weather, being able to perspire when hot  and wear a blanket  when it is cold. 

In retrospect, a horse can be considered as a predecessor of today's automobiles and communication lines.

They are valued as loyal and courageous by their owners, especially in battle.  They demand minimal maintenance: just 1 hour of feeding in the morning and 1 hour in the evening.  Their ability to smell water has been invaluable on journeys where this is scarce e.g. Bedouins in the desert used them to locate the next watering hole. 

Over time they have been used for:

  • transport over short and long distances, taking rider or luggage or food  over all kinds of terrain, ranging from grassy plains to rocky mountain passes and allowing trading between distant nations

  •  carrying of messengers and couriers in relays via posting stations, allowing information to reach command centres or edicts to be rapidly disseminated by a central authority, a great enabler of nation states and empires

  • organised agriculture: pulling ploughs, powering water pumps and mills, hauling logs

  • search and rescue in all weathers, taking the rider to the distressed and injured and able to transport both the rescuer and the rescued back to safety

  • healing of the mentally stressed and distressed by allowing themselves to be stroked, petted and hand fed

  • circuses , pageants and military parades, for entertainment or inspiration  of crowds 

  • fighting, riot and crowd control, being trained or blinkered to remain calm even in noisy or potentially disturbing situations, when explosions, flashes or gunfire might be expected to upset them

Horses have also had a major role in our military history up to World War I, risking their lives and staying loyal to their owners  in battle in a way which is not matched by any other animal. 

One particular military use of the horse has been in conjunction with the stirrup, which appeared in Europe around 500 AD. This was fundamental in the rise of feudalism since it led to mounted knights with much superior power over foot soldiers.  A knight with a stirrup to hold him steady could easily overcome resistance from an opponent on foot who prior to this invention could have toppled him off the horse.  The stirrup gave a strategic  advantage to those seeking to establish, maintain or expand a fiefdom.  The feudal lord would also have amassed sufficient wealth to train and equip knights and build a castle, giving him impregnable power until the invention of gunpowder, which enabled the king or other national leader to demolish the lord’s castle in one afternoon of heavy bombardment and firearms made the feudal knight in armour obsolete, with or without the use of a stirrup.

Today the military and farming role of the horse has been usurped by engine-driven machinery. Now perhaps their main use is as a major source of entertainment:  show jumping, racing for the gambling industry, breeding competitions, ceremonial  activities and circuses. Yet they still come to the for in crowd control and fighting in mountainous country.

In researching this blog I was surprised to discover that the modern two-toed horse (Equus caballus) originated some 6000 years ago, about the time organized agriculture was taking over from  pastoral/ hunter gather ways of life and on the N.American continent. There had been dog-sized predecessors  for millions of years.   It was first domesticated around  4000 years ago somewhere  in the Black Sea area.  At that time, before the sea level had risen to current levels due to the  melting ice of the last Ice Age, there was a land bridge between the N.American and Asian continents, where the Bering Straits are at present. The American horses migrated across this to Asia and Europe; others, according to recent research,  were hunted to extinction by  native Americans. Today’s wild horses in America came from Europe over the last few hundred years, since the first  Spanish explorers around 1500.

Almost certainly the technology of today which allows blogs like this to be distributed worldwide would not have arisen without the advances in civilization arising from the use of horses. 

John Sears
Author, 2077: Knights of Peace