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.
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.