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How Were Horses Used as Transportation Throughout History?
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How Were Horses Used as Transportation Throughout History?

Modern transportation is dominated by cars, planes, and trains. Every day these are equipped with better, smarter technology that is constantly being woven more intimately throughout everyday life. With all of the scientific progress, it’s hard to imagine an era when humans didn’t have access to transportation that went much faster than 30 miles per hour. And yet, throughout human history, when they couldn’t trust their feet to get the job done, homo sapiens have trusted horses to get them from point A to point B more than any other creature.

However, just because they didn’t swap out their horses every few years for a new model doesn’t mean the way humans have ridden horses hasn’t changed over time. This article takes a quick trip through history, observing how horses have been instrumental in moving both humans and their stuff all over the world for thousands of years.

The Role of Horses Throughout History

Horses have been intimately involved in human history since the dawn of civilization, with signs of mankind’s four-legged friends being discovered in ancient cities that are nearly six thousand years old. From plowing fields to delivering messages, and moving goods and people, horses have stayed busy throughout a variety of different occupations.

However, while they appear often and in many different roles throughout history, their geographic influence was by no means ubiquitous at all times.

In some areas, such as ancient Rome, they were quite rare to find, as Romans tended to use other beasts of burden for hard labor. This meant they only needed horses specifically for things like travel, war, or the postal system. However, in places like the Eurasian steppe, where the Mongols or Huns originated from, the grass was in plenty — an important consideration for living transportation — and horses were part and parcel with life itself.

By the Middle Ages, better equipment and larger breeds led to horses finding a more important role in European society as well. Heavily armor-laden knights, in particular, are especially famous using them for transportation and battle.

The use of horses has certainly ebbed and flowed over time depending on when and where one might look. But perhaps the most incredible fact about the history of horses, at least as far as transportation is concerned, is that although their gear improved over time (more on that below), they continued to remain the top transportation option for millennia before the automobile came along and stole the show.

The Logistics

While horses have been around for a long time, riding horses remained a highly skillful craft until things like the stirrup (probably invented in the Asian steppes around the 2nd century B.C.), saddles (possibly originating as far back as the 3rd century B.C.), and other tack slowly made it much more accessible. The development of horseshoes, possibly by the Romans, also helped the endurance of the horses themselves as they went about their various labors.

Direct riding aside, the equine species was also instrumental in moving carts and wagons over the centuries as well. They shared these tasks to one degree or another with other draft animals like oxen and donkeys, depending on what part of the world they hailed from.

While they often shared laborious tasks, though, horses were used to pull many different transportation-focused contraptions over time, from the pharaoh’s chariot in ancient Egypt to Queen Victoria’s carriage in the 19th century. The various “Horse Eras” track their progress from a sign of status all the way through their excellence as a part of chariots, cavalry, agriculture, carriages, and finally leisure.

Remembering the Past

Nowadays, transportation is always evolving at breakneck speeds, with things like driverless cars estimated to be hitting the open roads in record numbers within the next decade. While hopping into a vehicle and having it drive from one place to another with little thought to the road may be convenient, it’s important not to forget the role that horses have played throughout history in helping humanity survive and ultimately create the technological era of the modern day. If it weren’t for centuries of sacrifices made by horses, self-driving cars would probably never have existed in the first place.

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  1. jst4horses
    Great Article. The well researched and documented book "Wild Horse Conspiracy" by Craig Downer, a former BIA Mustanger who now is building his mustang sanctuary sites..........is a great history of horses in America. People will be surprised that new bone evidence, carbon dated shows horses here at least 4,000 years before we have been taught. The Spanish, Russians, and Chinese and Japanese had both been trading along the Pacific Coasts, and they brought along horses, some of those ships sank, the horses swimming to land.................there are many things I researched as a teen and college student for papers, because I was very annoyed by the idiocy of saying Native Americans were "awed" by horses and horsemen two hundred years after the Spanish armies came and brought horses, and hundreds of years after the Russians, Chinese and Japanese brought horses, let alone a growing species of wild horses. I like to note also that in the Bible, King David was told NOT to get horses and chariots' and NOT to involve horses in human horror.............horses were NOT to be used for farming in ancient Judaic religious belief. Even cattle who were used for milk and meat could NOT be killed when no longer useful........the ox and buffalo that were used for labor, and the little burros and donkeys HAD TO HAVE one day a week off, to wander freely. Of course they had no freeways, or cars to kill them, but the animals just roamed freely on their God imposed day off. Icky old Victoria was the "lovely" person who got women to have teeth removed to have sunken cheeks, to have ribs removed to have tiny waists' and started the habit of using "stays" so tight many of the women died in childbirth because since the age of eleven or so their bodies were laced in so tight their ribs curved in and punctured the uterus......................she also was the one who decided horses needed to have their heads up high, and put in deadly neck reins that gave the horse no way to breath, and they often died right in the traces while being whipped to work. In movies there is a rule, THIRTY seconds is all a horse can run.....yet movies have made us think they can run mile after mile. Even well trained, young athletic horses DIE after running even a mile......That is why most races are LESS than a mile and only horses who have qualified can run the longer races (many also die or are sold for slaughter from lung and heart damage from those races).....and every horse has to have special care after races or they will spasm up and DIE. When I was teaching at the track to license horse handlers, I was teaching about this, and a young woman started sobbing. She had been at the beach, on a rented horse, just whipping it away with the stick the stable owner had given her, and the horse dropped dead. Gee, wonder why, often horses at the track or in show barns drop dead from over use of their hearts. HORSES in the wild run about a quarter mile, just a few feet more than a lion, or tiger or pack of wolves can run without THEIR hearts and lungs exploding............We always have to remind ourselves that HORSES were NOT there for humans to abuse and use for their benefit at the cost of the horses. The last of the ancient Viking free roaming nations (I always wonder why we call wandering jet setters jet setters, but those who work and care for their animals and lives hunter gatherers) have horses that trace back thousands of years. Their horses live free, just as those people live free. They follow grazing, and they PLANT food plants that can grow and thrive until they return so the humans also have something to eat when they come back around.........we have to see the horror humans are for horses. I recently was talking to some people who wanted to round up all the wild horses and put them in barns. Wild horses and free roaming burros LIKE being free. We went to extensive and expensive effort in the late sixties and early seventies to get the 1971 free roaming wild horse and burro lands.......for them, NOT for people who want to spend two big bucks a YEAR to graze "grassfed" beef that gets sold in foreign markets for thousands and thousands of dollars. ONE racehorse (look it up, at least two derby winners have been sold for sushi) from America sold in shadowy, often illegal clubs to rich jerks sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. ONE horse, weighting 1800 pounds, even if making only 1000 pounds of suishi, makes 150 sushi rolls sold at often $1,000 EACH .........it is time for us all to see the dark side, and do something about it.
  2. OlmanB
    Strange that Romans didn't use horses that widely. Nomads utilized them definitely more efficient. Thankfully, nowadays horses in postal services are rarities (I bet there are some in hard-to-reach areas). Today the only thing you have to worry about is a postal code (which is easy to find on https://postcodefinder.net/ ). Previously communication and delivery were a way harder, no doubt.

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