The Cult Stallion and the Domestication of the Horse

One of my favorite books on horses is The Nature of Horses by Stephen Budiansky.  Budiansky is a science writer who has also written about our favorite domestic creatures, science, and history.

According to Budiansky’s research and writing, the pivitol moments in the horse/human connection occured about 6,000 years ago, shortly after their fossil remains (and I’m not sure about this — how long does it take for bone to become fossil? Is 6K long enough?) began to vanish.  There were horses the heck all over the place including North America, but they died out because . . .because they did. And the cave paintings in France and Spain from, when? 30,000 years ago? look like that Przewalski’s Horse; the stocky build and the brushy zebra-like mane.

So it was in Dereivka, a place on the Dneper River about 500 kilometers north of the Black Sea, that may have seen the first human on the first horse. Archaeologists found a grouping of bones including the skeletons of two dogs, a horse skull, some figurines — and the cheek pieces for what could have been a rope bit and bridle.

How on earth did someone decide to ride a horse? How did that person/those persons discover that you could get on the back of this animal that didn’t want you on its back AND that you could control it by controlling its mouth?  Did it start with an orphaned foal on the edges of agriculture who nickered sweetly to someone cutting grain? There must have been some social interaction or surely the horses would have been eaten (which they were).  Since the author talks about the bit and bridle and not about pieces of a cart, it seems that humans didn’t see horses as beasts of burden.  Food, yes.  Moving vans, no. But what made someone decide to ride? To get up on the thing’s back and ride?

So, as the wild horse vanished from the land, the domesticated horse showed up.  One decreased, one increased.  Human, per Budiansky, saved the horse.

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One response to “The Cult Stallion and the Domestication of the Horse

  1. I can sort of understand why, once you’d decided to tame a horse, you’d go the riding route. You watch a herd of horses running along the plains and think how useful it would be to run that fast. I think the leap from “I’d like to run as fast as a horse” to “maybe a horse can carry me” is much smaller than the leap from “I’d like to run as fast as a horse” to “maybe I can build a contraption the horse could pull.” Pulling things, I think, would come after the horses were already domesticated and you started to wonder how else you could use their size/strength.

    But as far as what would get someone to actually imagine riding a horse–instead of just wishing they could run that fast? I have no idea, either. And why a horse and not deer or moose? Why weren’t the zebras domesticated in the same way?

    Does Budiansky say anything about whether the horse was domesticated before or after other animals, like wolves? It would make a difference, I think, if people knew some animals, at least, could be taught to live and work with people.

    (Although I will never, ever understand what made someone look at an elephant and go, “Oh, wow! I could ride that!“)

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