A History of Horseback Riding and Man’s Relationship with Equines

Horseback Riding History Has Multiple Aspects

There are countless facets to the complex relationship between men and horses which has been so crucial to both species. We summarize some of the most important below with links to more detailed discussions of the particular subject elsewhere on our websites. How can we know who we are or find a wise direction for the future without knowledge of what formed us? Horses originated in America and many millennia ago some made the journey across the Bering Straits to Asia and Europe where they thrived. Men began to hunt them and found them an excellent food source which they still are today in many countries. The cave drawings dating back over 20,000 years in places like Alta Mira  attest to this though probably they were not used for riding until much later when the horsemen of the Steppes discovered their revolutionary advantages for this purpose.

An outstanding example of how the use of horses could revolutionize a society is the sudden acquisition of the horse by the Plains Indians after the Santa Fe Rebellion of 1680. It is ironic to consider that Native Americans are now thought to have hunted horses in North America to extinction about 10,000 years ago. It is fascinating to speculate what course world history might have taken if Native Americans had discovered the real potential of horses and they had not crossed the Bering Straits. Without the horse to help free us from the struggle to feed ourselves by doing the heavy farm work like plowing and harvesting, we would have had much less time to devote to art and science. European and Asian societies could never have developed as fast as they did and the ultimate clash of continents might have had an entirely different result.

Mounted Indians closely pursuing a buffalo herd on horseback.

Travel on horseback made possible the cohesion of great empires like Persia which stretched from Turkey and Egypt to the borders of India until its destruction by Alexander the Great. The Persian mounted couriers routinely made the 2,000 mile journey from Sardis to Susa in 7 days and their messenger system had many offshoots to the farthest corners of their empire.

Cavalry were very often a determining factor in winning the strategic battles which changed the course of history. The incredibly swift spread of Islam and Arab domination across large parts of Europe, Africa and Asia was made possible by mounted horsemen riding superb Arabians. Their advance was only barely turned back by the heavy cavalry of the Franks at the battle of Poitiers in central France where the then recent innovation of the stirrup may have played a deciding role. That battle and those that followed drove the Moslems out of France and may be the reason why most of us go to church now instead of the mosque. It was the intervention of the Polish Cavalry under Sobieski which saved Vienna during the siege of 1683 at the last moment and deprived the Turks of a strategic foothold deep in central Europe.

Horses have helped mankind in other ways besides warfare, travel and transport. They have enormously facilitated hunting in many parts of the world as in the case of the Plains Indians and the buffalo. Another very useful task for which horses are exceptionally well adapted and which they often enjoy is working livestock. They are almost indispensable for cattle drives even today. While it cannot be termed riding, horses revolutionized agriculture by plowing the fields, harvesting the crops etc. making it possible for one man to do the work of ten.

Did you ever stop to think how many expressions we still use related to horses in our everyday speech? We hear things like “champing at the bit”, “dark horse”, “Trojan horse”, “eats like a horse” or “horse sense” and dozens of others very frequently.

Many equine sports practiced today derive from necessary tasks performed by riders. A prime example is dressage which originated by performing battle maneuvers like the capriole which must have been devastating to surrounding foot soldiers. Rodeos, fox hunting, reining, team penning, tent pegging, bullfighting, buzkashi, jumping and polo are a few. The outstanding example is horse racing, “the sport of kings”, watched by millions where the big money is today.

The often tragic history of the wild mustangs which are descendants of the horses escaped from the Spaniards is another interesting chapter. In the late 17th and 18th centuries some of these fine horses coming from the best Spanish blood lines escaped to the wild and multiplied on the Great Plains until they numbered several million. Predators could rarely kill them because they were fast, had keen hearing, an excellent sense of smell and a very powerful kick as well as strong jaws. According to J. Frank Dobie in his wonderful book, “Mustangs” and others who should know, some of these horses even sought out predators like mountain lions and wolves to kill them. There are also feral horses in Australia known as brumbies and made famous in that wonderful Banjo Patterson poem “The man from Snowy River,” also made into a movie.

Individual states like Wyoming, Arizona, Utah and Texas have their own unique histories. Each of these states and many others as well owed their settlement and early development to horseback riding. The cattle ranches, which were long vitally important to their economy, would not have been possible without the use of horses and the wild mustangs provided an abundant supply of mounts. At the same time the superb cavalry of tribes like the Comanche and the Sioux considerably delayed white settlement.

While horses are no longer indispensable to the daily lives of most of us as they were 100 years ago, they remain very popular in our society as a sport and a diversion. There is no denying the tremendous aesthetic appeal of these magnificent equine athletes in motion which have captivated mankind for millennia. Many of us find them responsive pets who form a close bond with their riders and share our pleasure in a fast canter or an interesting trail ride. Cow horses seem to enjoy working cattle as much as we do if not more. We are also rediscovering the great pleasure of traveling on horseback simply for pleasure and education. There are abundant and varied possibilities.

Other related articles:

Adventure Travel on Horseback

Advantages of Solo Travel on Horseback