Horses impact humans

The impact of the horse upon humans

Because horses provided humans with rapid, effective transport, the impact that the horse had on humans over time was far reaching and related to almost every aspect of human society. In America, it is said that the west was won from the back of a horse. In reality, nearly everything that has been won since riding horses became widespread was won from the back of a horse. Horses contributed to the spread of ideas and technologies, and cultures built up around horses. Today, in developed countries, there are extensive social constructs built around horses—riding, showing, training, and marketing—and the horse is considered a sign of elite social status, to some extent.

The transportation of ideas

Horses provided rapid transportation; rapid transportation changed everything. Humans could ride horses or harness them to wagons and chariots. This increase in humans’ ability to transport themselves (and to do so rapidly) changed many things about society. Ideas and technologies spread much faster in societies with domesticated horses than in societies without horses. Perhaps the most compelling example of this is the concept of zero. Mayans were the first culture to have an actual zero—one that occupied a place on a number line. This concept of zero was very useful in making accurate calendars. However, the Mayans had no horses and their zero did not spread any farther than Mesoamerica and Central America. Five hundred years later, the Hindu concept of zero spread rapidly across Eurasia, on the backs on horses (Kelekna, 2008).

Metallurgy originated earlier, progressed much more rapidly, and became much more widespread in societies with horses (such as those on the Eurasian steppe) than those without, because horses could be used to transport metals long distances, from where they were mined to where they would be worked into metal objects. Supporting this theory is the fact that metallurgy appeared in Peru in about 1500 BC, perhaps helped by the use of the then-domesticated llama—Peruvians, too, were only able to start working metal when they had a domesticate to do the heavy work for them. The horse helped spread useful metalworking technologies far and wide (Kelekna, 2008).

In fact, horses provided early humans with such extensive benefits that they rapidly became a symbol of status. In rock art from Bronze-age pastoral people of Eurasia, people are shown riding, hunting, and engaging in warfare. In these scenes, people on horses are the dominant ones in the picture: they are doing the hunting and bringing back prey or defeating foes (Franchetti, 2008). Although, obviously, this was in part due to the advantages that horses provided in warfare, it may also have been in part due to the fact that a person with a horse could get more stuff and more ideas and technologies than a person without a horse. These days, the guy with the newest computer has a significant status symbol. Thousands of years ago, a similar status symbol was, of course, a different new technology—maybe one that only could be acquired from far away, on the back of a horse.

Horses contributed to the spread of many more ideas, inventions, and technologies than the ones discussed here, including (most notably) religions and languages. Even today, the religions and languages that are most widespread are the ones that originated in Eurasia and not in the Americas, perhaps largely because early people in Eurasia had horses and early people in the Americas did not (Kelekna, 2008). Without the horse to transport ideas, modern society would not have developed as it has. The rapid transport that the horse provided has made us humans what we are today.


Creating cultures

Some cultures were built up around horses. Even today, nomadic Mongolian herders have a culture built around horses. They race horses and drink fermented mares’ milk and have complicated rituals surrounding these activities. They share intimate relationships with the mares that they milk, because mares must be milked 6-8 times each day, because they will not let their milk down all at once, unlike a cow, which can be milked just twice a day. In addition, the foals must be restrained right next to the mares while the mares are milked, to encourage milk let-down. Therefore, the herders must spend a lot of time with the mares, both the men (who restrain the foals) and the women (who do the actual milking) (Fijn, 2010). This facilitates a strong bond between horses and their herders.

Part of the reason that horses were so important to ancient people of Mongolia is that they allowed wartime victories and the acquisition of territory. The famous mongol Ghengis Khan, more accurately spelled Chinggis Khaan, achieved his vast successes on the back of a horse. Soldiers survived entirely off of their horses, riding for months and drawing and drinking horse blood or drinking fermented mare’s milk. The horses did not need additional food carried for them, because they could consume forage (mainly grass), available wherever the soldiers journeyed. Even during the winter horses do not starve, because they (unlike cattle) will paw snow away to find the dead grass below (Fijn, 2010).

Nomadic Mongolian herders have long has a culture centered around horses. Archaeological evidence, found at a dig site at Pazyryk and estimated to date back about 2400 years, indicates that many management and treatment techniques have not changed a lot during that time—ancient nomads had horses, which they rode, in addition to cattle, yaks, goats, and sheep and relied nearly entirely on those animals for sustenance, as modern Mongolian nomads do (Fijn, 2010). Bridles, surprisingly, have not changed much, based upon examinations of bridles found in the same dig site and bridles used today. Management of horses’ manes and tails also is quite similar, with manes cut in a certain, characteristic way and tails tied up (Fijn, 2010).

The Mongolians feel a religious connection to their horses, and horses are very involved in funeral ceremonies, figuratively carrying the deceased to the afterlife. Ancient cultures sacrificed horses for burials, a practice that has not continued into modern times. However, horses are still a prominent feature of funeral processions. Overall, Mongolian horse culture, past and present, is similar to the Eveny reindeer culture (Fijn, 2010). The nomadic, Mongolian, herder culture would not exist in any recognizable form without horses.


Spotted throughout history

Appaloosa-colored horses (or polka-dotted ones—distinct from the pinto horses, which looks as if they have had white spilled on them) are prevalent in today’s world. Although they never had a specific, large impact on humans at any one given time, their pattern, which is controlled by a single gene, the lp gene, is seen in several modern breeds of horses and has existed since long before horses were domesticated. Appaloosa horses have been impacting humans right along with their less-loudly-marked relatives, since domestication first occurred. Modern appaloosa-spotted horses include the America Appaloosa developed by the Nez Perce people of North America and restored by the Appaloosa Horse Club, founded in 1938 (, the Pony of the Americas, developed in the United States in the last 60 years by combining Appaloosa, Shetland pony, and Quarter Horse bloodlines (, and the Knabstrupper (, developed in Denmark in the early 1800s.

The lp gene, which is responsible for the spotting patterns that all appaloosa-marked horses share, has existed since before horses were domesticated, although recent selection is what has made it so prevalent in today’s world. Scientists theorized, based upon the famous cave paintings called “The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle,” found in France and dated to about 25,000 years ago, that appaloosa markings had existed at least 25,000 years ago, because the Pech-Merle paintings depict a horse with a pattern very similar to what is called the “leopard” pattern in appaloosas today.

Here are some horses with today’s appaloosa markings:

Photo Credit: Carrie Kroehler

Photo Credit: Carrie Kroehler

And these are the Pech Merle cave paintings:

A recent genetic analysis of horse remains dated, using C14 dating, to about 9000 B. C. to 3500 B. C. (all pre-domestic) and detected the lp complex in six individuals out of the 31 sampled, in four Pleistocene  samples from Western Europe and  two Copper Age samples from Eastern Europe. This indicates that there were indeed leopard-spotted horses long ago. The leopard spots may have helped to provide camouflage for horses (against a snowy background, a leopard spotted horse would blend in well) (Pruvost et al., 2011).

It can be difficult to trace appaloosa horses (without genetic analyses like the one done by Pruvost et al., because their remains just look like horse remains. However, we do know that appaloosa horses came into prominence in Europe in the beginning of the 19th century and around a century later in North America.

Horses were introduced to the Americas in the 1500s by the Spanish. By the 1800s, many Native American tribes had adopted a horse culture (Clutton-Brock, 2012). These horses must have included some carrying the lp gene and appaloosa markings, because the Nez Perce tribe of the American west, known for its many horses, had a small proportion of appaloosa-colored horses (Brown, 1967). However, it is unclear whether they ever selected for appaloosa markings. Interest in appaloosa markings experienced a resurgence in the 1930s, when the Appaloosa Horse Club was founded. There are now over 700,000 registered Appaloosa Horses ( The Knabstrupper originated as a breed in 1812 in Denmark and is much more popular in Europe than in the United States. It was popular in the 1800s, but decreased in numbers by 1900 and was only saved by the incorporation of imported American Appaloosa blood in the 1900s (

Appaloosa markings have been around since long before the horse was domesticated and have been selected for in nature and by people. Perhaps, since people prize appaloosa markings today in our modern contexts (horse shows and breed associations), they could have prized appaloosa markings long ago as well, preserving and breeding appaloosa-marked horses. Somehow, appaloosa markings survived and made it to the modern world. Although appaloosa-spotted horses have not impacted humans specifically, they have been along for the domestication ride, so to speak, along with all other horses. The lp gene has survived and persisted for thousands of years. We can only expect that it will continue to do so.

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