Horses in History: Europe

nderstanding European history depends, fundamentally, on understanding the history of the horse.

The horse had a profound impact on European history, from its earliest beginnings, when it was eaten, well through the middle ages, where it had a profound effect on the Agricultural Revolution. Horses have been used as companion animals, war beasts, beasts of burden, and fast transportation.


This history only speaks about horses from primitive times to the middle ages: the focus of Crystal Obelisk. I may venture into Rennaisance history if I feel ambitious. Horses had a profound impact after this period as well, although their influence diminished by modern eras.

Horses Being Eaten

Long before horses were ever domesticated, they were eaten as meat. 50,000 years ago horses were first being hunted and eaten. In a few sites in Europe, (Salutre and Lascaux in France, for example), there is archaeological evidence that over 10,000 horses were chased off cliffs by Cro Magnon hunters.

Presumably, since so many horse bones are found at the bottom of the cliff, this also means that they left the bones there. Presumably they removed the meat and carried it back to their homes. No point in carrying heavy bones, when all you want is the meat.

These early horses were probably genetically similar to Prezwalski's horse, which are still around today.

Around 12000 BCE, long before the horse, wolves were domesticated as the first dogs.

Around 8000 BCE, herd animals such as goats, sheep, and cattle were domesticated.

4000 years later, in 4000 BCE, horses were first kept domesticated for meat and possibly milk.

Horse meat is similar to beef, although it is leaner and has more flavor. The flavor is slightly sweeter than beef, somewhere between venison and beef. Horses older than three years have tastier meat, and the meat is a brilliant vermillion color. Young horses have more tender meat, but it is lighter in color.

Horse milk tastes a little sour (somewhat like liquid yogurt), and can be fermented into alcohol. One such alcohol, known as koumiss, is still consumed in Kazakhstan. Another such alcohol, airag, is enjoyed in Mongolia. No cheese is produced by horse milk (it's too low in fat).

Riding Horses

Many experts believe that the earliest horses were too small to carry riders (around 12-14 hands). Constrast this with a modern draft horse, which is around 17 hands. Essentially, these were ponies. There is some dissent about this point, and some people seem to think this silly, as people even today ride ponies that are that size.

On this, Amy Smith writes: '(by the way, 12-14 hand "ponies" would have no problem carrying adults, provided they were of the sturdy native stock available before the overproliferations of "breeding" :) As my last summer's brief experience among yak herders on the tibetan plateau indicated... their "horses" of that size would carry a full-grown men plus two big sacks of barley flour or a bag of cheeses... this at 11,000 ft.)'

XXX maybe all horses didn't start out small? Lisa to supply reference.

Around 4000 BCE seems to be when horse riding first started to take off. Archaeologists have found evidence of early bridles in Eastern Europe, southern Russia. Antler cheekpieces and toggles for soft mouthpieces were found north of the Black Sea. Horse teeth have been excavated in the Ukraine with possible evidence of bit wear.

In 3000 BCE, the horse was domesticated in Ukraine, northern Caucasus, central Russia and Kazakhstan. This was made possible in these regions because the new system of cultivation meant that food was at a surplus, and horses could be used for other purposes.

Horse riding seemed to take off much more slowly in the Near East. It is still a mystery as to the exact reason, although in a letter to King Zimri Lim (1782-1759 BCE), the king was told that riding on chariot or mule is ok, while riding on horseback was bad. Big mystery, mostly. A horse historian named Mary Littauer opines that horse sweat was considered too gross to ride directly upon the beast.

In 1500 BCE, entirely metal bits were being used in Near East, including a new form of bit: the snaffle bit. This bit offers more control of the horse. It places pressure on the corners of the horse's mouth, rather than center. Some of these bits are jointed, while some are simply a solid bar.

From 1000 to 509 BCE lived a race of people known as the Etruscan Horsemen, whose entire lives revolved around horses. Unfortunately, the Romans destroyed all written records of these mysterious people, although a rich legacy of artwork remains.

The earlist horsehoes made by Romans, called 'hipposandals', and were tied on with leather. They were extremely heavy.

Around 800 BCE, another nomadic horse culture known as the Scythians arose. A number of Russian Steppe tribes conglomerated into a single nomadic horse people and invaded Near East. They featured composite bowfire from horseback, and were quite effective in battle. They performed the first recorded geldings, their wealth was measured in horses. They were obsessed with their horses, to the point of bringing horses to their graves, and decorating their tombs with fancy gold horse-centric artwork. They also, randomly, were the earliest recorded wearers of trousers.

Horseshoe legend: 925-988 AD. XXX IMH

Horses Pulling Stuff

Carts were being used by early man, pulled by other domestic animals before horses domesticated.

There is some evidence that early Cro Magnon man may have used horses as pack animals.

In 3000 BCE, there is evidence of vehicles with disk wheels drawn by equids.

In 2500 BCE in southern Mesopotamia, a 4 wheeled war wagon drawn by 4 equids was used.

In 1800 BCE, the 2-man war chariot invented.

In 1500 BCE in Egypt, the horseshoe-shaped wooden horse collar invented. This was profound, and ultimately, when this invention reached Europe in the middle ages, it revolutionized agriculture.

The building of good roads by the Romans made it possible to travel much more rapidly by horse and chariot.

With the fall of the Romans in 600 AD, the Middle Ages began, and lasted for more than 700 years. The Roman roads were no longer maintained, travel became dangerous, and the chariot fell from use.

The roads were in such poor repair, and travel by carriage was so difficult, that in all the years between 1350-1600, the number of vehicles being driven remained roughly constant.

When Anne of Bohemia married Richard II in 1382, she brought carriages from Kocs, Hungary. Kocs was renouned for its fine carriages, and the name of the place eventually became our word for 'coach'.

In addition, Anne brought with her the then-innovative sidesaddle, which has impacted the way women ride horses ever since.

Warring on Horseback

Horses are excellent in warfare. Fast and maneuverable, they allow you to charge the enemy quickly and beat hasty retreats. They are strong and heavy, and very little can withstand a direct hit from a charging knight with a lance. Warhorses need to be well trained, however, as being skittish when men are screaming and dying is a disadvantage in battle.

Over the years, technology improvements for horses profoundly affected warfare. Nations rose and fell by the horse.

In 1800 BCE, the war chariot invented around by Hittites. It carried two men (a driver and a fighter). This device allowed the Hittites to conquer Mesopotamia and Egypt.

In 1000 BCE, the first cavalry (mounted soldiers) appeared.

Around 700 BCE, cavalry became much more prominent, while the use of chariots declined. Saddles and stirrups were not yet used. Instead, severe bits were used to force control over the horse.

The Romans began their empire with infantry, shifted to cavalry by the end of their reign. They were forced to do this because enemies had cavalry, and they kept losing battles. Unfortunately, this was an enormous expense on an already burdened empire that had already begun to devalue their own currency, and so, indirectly, cavalry helped to put an end to the Roman empire.

In the 8th Century (700-799 AD) the stirrup was introduced to Europe from China. This invention allowed for much more deadly cavalry.

The Greathorse was introduced. This was a large (at the time), armored horse. Contrary to popular belief, the greathorse was not like a modern draft horse, rather more like modern warmbloods. XXX WHEN??

The greathorse profoundly impacted feudal system. Cost of greathorse was profound, and was one of the major expenses incurred by a knight. A completely outfitted greathorse might carry 400 pounds, including his armor, and the knight and all his armor and equipment.

The effectiveness of cavalry was demonstrated October 14th, 1066 AD. The Battle of Hastings was won by cavalry charging into shield wall and utterly decimating the enemy. The Bayeux tapestry depicts this.

Fun with Horses

Horse races have been a part of the entertainment scene since time immemorial. The Persians and Greeks were especially fond of horse races, and the custom was picked up by the Romans.

In the 2nd century BCE, the Circus Maximus arena was constructed for racing horses. It burned down in 200 AD, but was rebuilt and used for races until 549 AD. (XXX why did it stop being used??) XXX details of horse racing at Circus Maximus can be found in IMH

Hunting on horseback has probably been practiced since horses were first ridden. On horseback, a man can travel much faster, possibly catching up with the beasts he's hunting.

In 1066 AD, William the Conquerer brought stag hunting to Britain. With this new custom, came the phrase 'Ty a Hillaut' from Normandy, meaning that deer have been roused. This term was later Anglicized to 'Tally ho'.

Tournaments developed in Middle Ages as a way for knight to stay in good fighting form. Tournaments remained long after mounted knight was obselete as a source of glory and entertainment.

One form of tournament was known as the pas d'armes. One individual would send messages to many kingdoms, proclaiming that challengers would be met at a particular time and place. The locals hosting the tournament were known as 'tenants', while the visitors were known as 'venants'.

Some of the rules of pas d'armes were as follows. The tenants would erect 2 shields: one for war and one for peace. The challenger would touch 'peace' for a blunt lance, or 'war' for a pointed lance. Credentials were required and closely examined to ensure noble blood, as no peasants were allowed to play. There were also sword or axe fights, and mounted and unmounted combat. Venants were treated well: the term used for this was 'ce que vouldrex', meaning "whatever you like".

A knight's jousting horse was treated well (as well it should: it was extremely expensive). It typically recieved a tent for stall, special groom travelled with the knight. The horse was draped in heraldic cloth, called a caparison. The horse wore a metal face shield, known as a chanfron. The horse ambled during joust for smooth ride/better aim.

XXX some details on tournament equipment in IMH.


The heavy horse was originally imported from northern Germanic tribes. XXX WHEN??

Early horses were not used in agriculture: the ox was considered the better beast for the plow, and was used exclusively. There were many real disadvantages to using a horse to work the farm.

The first, and main, problem with horses was that early man (even the Romans and the Greeks) used simple harnesses designed for oxes for horses. Once the horse started to pull using these harnesses, the neck straps pressed on their throats, strangling the horse.

On the other hand, horses pull with the same force as an ox, but go faster, which means that more land can be ploughed, and more crops can be harvested.

Finally, with the introduction of the shoulder collar (a padded, rigid collar acting as a harness), horses were able to pull the ploughs, and the world was never the same. The horse collar was invented in the east, and brought to Europe in 800AD.

Other problems with horses were aplenty (particularly when compared to oxen), which slowed their adoption. Horses need to eat oats, which needed to be grown specially. Horses need good shelter in winter months. Horses need to have iron shoes on their hooves, lest rocks from the field hurt their feet.

The feudal system mitigated some of these problems by allowing peasant farmers to use horses that were owned by and cared for by their lords. Thus, the cost was not prohibitive.

Horses were slow to adopt. Their yield impact wasn't noticed, while the problems were (similar to adoption of tractor in modern days -- in the end everybody did it, but early adoption was scattered and slow).


WEBSITE: -- Horses and History: The Dog May Be Man's Best Friend, but It Was the Horse that Built Civilization, Melinda Maidens -- XXX description

WEBSITE: - Legacy of the Horse: A Chronological Journey Through the History of Humans and the Horse -- the International Museum of the Horse -- XXX description

Jean Gimpel - The Medieval Machine (1976, Penguin Books) -- this is a wonderful book about the industrial revolution in the medieval era. As content for fantasy campaigns goes, it is nice, because it talks about not-well-known uses of machines that transformed society, like water power for ironwork, etc.

WEBSITE: -- USDA Promotes the Eating of Horse & Goat Meat -- XXX description

Barclay, Harold -The Role of the Horse in Man's Culture (1980, J.A. Allen & Co.)

Budiansky, Stephen -The Nature of Horses (1997, Free Press)

Chevenix-Trench, Charles - A History of Horsemanship (1980, Doubleday)

Clutton-Brock, Juliet - Horse Power (1992, Harvard U. Press)

Davis, R.H.C. - The Medieval Warhorse (1989, Thames and Hudson)

Dent, Anthony - Horses in Shakespeare's England (1987, J.A. Allen & Co.)

Dixon Karen, and Pat Southern - The Roman Cavalry (1992, Barnes & Noble)

Gianoli, Luigi - Horses and Horsemanship through the Ages (1969, Crown Publishers, Inc.)

Hyland, Ann - Equus: the Horse in the Roman World (1990, Yale University Press)

Hyland, Ann - The Medieval Warhorse (1994, Grange Books)

Keegan, John - A History of Warfare (1993, Knopf)

Kelly, Lawrence - War before Civilization (1996, Oxford University Press)

Kenrick, Vivienne - Horses in Japan (1964, J.A. Allen & Co.)

Maslow, Jonathan - Sacred Horses (1994, Random House, Inc.)

White, Lynn Jr. - Medieval Technology and Social Change (1964, Oxford University Press)