Poised for Greatness

Early man recorded images of the horse on cave walls, now the Equine Heritage Museum tells story of the domestic horse virtually. From the moment of domestication the horse has been quick to reflect the style, taste, and inclinations of civilizations through his own physique. While humans were occupied with changing the horse, the horse changed the world.

From the dawn of the horse nearly 55 million years ago to the equine of today the horse has played a major role in the history of mankind. While the domestication of the horse is shadowed in time, humans have over 6,000 years of history with the horse. They have been a food source, a means of transportation, warhorse, and played key roles in agriculture and communication.

This is a brief look at the history of the horse and its role in shaping world civilizations.

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Horses and Wheels

The horse is the unsung hero when it comes to transportation. The relationship started with the sledge during the Stone Age, progressed to the slide car, and moved to the wheel during the late Neolithic Period. Eventually humans discovered that wheels allowed easier transportation of goods which allowed for more travel. Travel in turn brought nomads in contact with other people – changing their cultures, languages and way of life. Change often results in conflict and those with horses were often more effective in war. The chariot, with spoke wheels, revolutionized warfare from 2000 BC into the 4th century.

For the classical Greeks wheeled vehicles represented a high status. They were commonly used in ceremonial functions and make many appearances in mythology. In China, chariots were used as mobile command vehicles and by royalty. Among the general population, war machines gave way to more ornate and refined vehicles for high society and much more practical transportation solutions for the common people. Agriculture began to change as plowing and harvesting became more productive. Unfortunately for much of the Middle Ages the sophistication of the wheel remained the same as in Roman times. By the Industrial Revolution wheels had again gained traction, even though laws now prohibited straked wheels. In 1640, the first stage coach ran. By 1777, coach speeds were picking up as road conditions improved. By 1895, when the first hydraulic tyre-setters were introduced from America, European society was ready to move along. From the very first wheel, society has been on an evolutionary journey that still continues today.

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Medieval Horse

One of the most important inventions in horse history came about during the Middle Ages – the full collar. This collar allowed the horse to maximize its pulling power by better distributing the load. Of course, during the Middle Ages the knight evolved. Whether you enjoy the romantic version or the practical version the mounted knight changed warfare forever. Through their service a knight could advance himself in society. Oddly enough, while the horse helped the knight it also played a pivotal role in ending the feudal system and launched the rise of modern Europe. Whether a means of personal transportation or as a beast of burden horses continued to evolve.

The combination of a full collar, horse shoes and the invention of the whippletree allowed horses to pull more efficiently. A horse could make a significant difference in the quantity of crops and the speed at which those crops reached the market. Codes were eventually written limiting the load horses could pull and the types of wheels that could be used on wagons. Horse ownership could have a positive impact on the quality of life a farmer lived, however keep a horse was expensive. Even in Medieval times being a horse owner was a simple of wealth and class status.

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The War Horse

Humans have had a relationship with horses for nearly 6,000 years, for 5,000 of those years we've used them for warfare. Until the automobile, the horse was the fastest mode of transportation, thus allowing warriors to roam farther than ever before. Many fierce warriors were also great horsemen, including the Hittites, the Huns, and the Scythians. Over time fighting groups like the Hussars developed not only advanced horsemanship but also both light and heavy cavalry units. The invention of the saddle, stirrup and the full horse collar changed the effectiveness of the horse.

Depending on the terrain and type of warfare the size and type of horse also changed. Small and quick ‘ponies' are very effective for raiding while larger horses were needed for knights in armour. The addition of gunpowder to war meant yet another change as light cavalry units gained favor. They were crucial not only during the Napoleonic wars but also during the American Civil War. Battle loses accounted for a large percentage of war-related equine deaths during the World Wars but disease and exhaustion also played a critical part. Horses eat approximately ten times as much food as a human soldier and transportation of horse rations has been a continual problem during times of war. Despite this factor, many recruitment pictures paint a dashing picture of the bond between a soldier and his mount. Today, mounted military units still exist although primary for ceremonial purposes.

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Modern Horse

The horse is a social animal that instinctively wants to follow a leader and bond with a herd. These characteristics make a one of the most useful animals in the history of civilization. Equus caballus is the name that scientists have given the modern horse, society has named the individual species everything from golden horses of Turkmenistan, the Akhal-Teke to Lithuanian war horses, the Zemaitukas. With these unique species came a variety of sizes ranging from 17 inches tall to 6 feet, 10 ¾ inches tall. As modern equines these horse are used more for sport than as a transportation method.

The word “horse” is believed to have evolved from the Anglo Saxon word “hors” which means ‘swiftness.' The speed and surefootedness of the horse is needed in sports like horse racing, gymkhana, and endurance riding. From the horses' military service we gain eventing, tent pegging and polo. And from his service as a transportation agent we have driving – combined driving, pleasure driving, and horse pulls. The modern horse has survived thousands of years of evolution to the emerge not only as a work animal but also as a one of man's closest animal companions.

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Additional Info

The history of the horse, all 6,000 years of it, is not easy to categorize. Tent pegging for example started as a war act and then evolved into a sport. Bells were once legally required transportation accessories but are now collectors' items. Where does a fur lined horse collar go? We've included this section to include seasonal galleries (sleighing during the winter months for example), resource pages for those unusual items, and news from around the world. The museum also hopes to expand to include art and other cultural items that have meaning.

In this area you'll also find information on the Equine Heritage Institute, whose mission is to educate, celebrate and preserve the history of the horse and its role in shaping world civilizations and changing lives. The Institute is working to ensure that the developments that horses facilitated throughout history are recognized, embraced, and taught to future generations. The Equine Heritage Institute has funded this virtual Equine Heritage Museum in an effort to continue their mission and educate future generations about our long-standing relationship with one of nature's most wonderful and utilitarian creatures, the horse.

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