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The historical significance of mounting the horse

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, History, Transport, War, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about the horse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.

Horseman, picture, image, illustration

A horseman from the Steppes

Darius, king of the mighty Persian empire, had decided to conquer Greece. He led his great army, so huge, according to writers of the time, that it drank the rivers dry, across Asia – but before invading Greece he decided to subdue the Scythians.

A tribe of nomadic horsemen, the Scythians lived in the steppelands of southern Russia: Darius’ aim was to prevent them attacking him from the north. He crossed the Danube by a bridge built of boats and informed the commander of the Danube bridge that the campaign should take him no longer than 60 days.

But the Scythians, mounted on their small, swift horses, led the Persians on and on, through prairies, across rivers, into woods and out again. Always they were just on the horizon. From time to time, the Scythians would sweep down as though to engage in battle, shooting a rain of arrows from their saddles, with deadly, three-edged heads. Then, in the instant before contact, they would wheel away again, shooting more arrows over the rumps of the retreating horses, to regroup for a fresh onslaught.

To Darius, still relying, like most other generals of his time, on foot-soldiers and chariots, it was a strange war. There were no battles to be fought because the enemy would not stand and fight, no cities to be captured and plundered because the Scythians lived in tents which they pitched wherever they liked, and little food or water, for the Scythians burned the pasture and filled in the wells.

Finally, in despair, Darius turned and, leaving behind his sick and wounded and some braying asses to deceive the Scythians, led his weary troops back to the Danube.

But who were these Scythians who seemed almost part of the horses they rode, seldom dismounting to eat and drink, even sleeping on their horses? They were nomads, one of the tribes who lived in the steppelands, a band of country more than 5,000 kilometres long, stretching from Hungary deep into Siberia; grazing land, ideal for horses.

It was here that great herds of horses roamed in ancient times, here that the horse was first tamed and ridden, and from here that wave after wave of fierce horsemen, the Scythians and others like them, swept across Europe and Asia – plundering, looting, destroying whole civilisations, and altering the course of history.

Early man hunted horses, as they hunted other animals, for food and skins. They drew pictures of horses on the walls of their caves, in the hope that this would bring them luck in the hunt.

The horse was easy to kill. When frightened, it fled in blind panic. All that was necessary was to drive the herd to the edge of a cliff and the stampeding horses would hurl themselves over to their deaths. This is what happened at Solutré, in France, where skeletons of more than 20,000 horses have been found at the foot of the cliffs there.

About 9,000 years ago, when people began to settle down and farm the land, they kept herds of animals for food instead of hunting them. As yet, however, they lacked the skill to capture and tame the horse, which had a wild, unmanageable temperament. Horses still ran free and wild on the steppes.

Other animals related to the horse, asses and onagers, were used for pulling carts and chariots in the Middle East, but the horse seems to have been unknown in the then civilised parts of the world. No evidence of herds of horses was ever found there.

It was the people of the stepelands, the Scythians and people like them, who first began to tame horses and keep herds of them to provide meat and hides. When they came into contact with more advanced peoples, who had invented the wheel and used asses and onagers to pull chariots, the steppe people discovered that their horses were far superior to asses and onagers for pulling chariots.

About 2000 BC the first wave of these horse-owning people began to move out of the steppelands, perhaps driven by bad harvests or increasing population to seek new pastures. Their horses and chariots were far better war weapons than anything the people of the civilised countries possessed and these rough, cruel invaders were able to conquer large areas and establish themselves as ruling overlords. We call them the Aryans, or Indo-Europeans.

Some swept down into Greece and established their chief city at Mycenae. Others moved down into Asia Minor, capturing and rebuilding Troy, which became Helen’s Troy and was later destroyed by their cousins, the Mycenaean Greeks, during the Trojan War. Others went on into Asia and founded the mighty Hittite empire, while still others took the horse on into India.

The Hyksos, a tribe who learned to use horses and chariots like the invaders, were able to conquer and rule Egypt until an uprising threw them out. But the Egyptians themselves became great horse and chariot owners.

Pharaoh Rameses II named his great chariot “Victory-in-Thebes”, while chariots were mentioned in polite letters. “With thee may it be well, with thy wives and thy sons, thy house and thy warriors, thy chariots and in thy land may it be well,” went one letter to a Pharaoh from a brother monarch.

Back in the steppelands, however, the people were learning a new skill – how to ride horses. New and larger breeds of horses were being bred which could easily carry warriors. About 1000 BC the art of riding swept like wildfire across the steppes and the most expert horsemen of all were the Scythians, who lived mainly on horse meat and mare’s milk. Some nomadic horsemen, if food was scarce, would open a vein in the horse’s neck and drink its blood.

The Scythians wore trousers, not long robes like settled men, tucking the trousers into long, soft boots. They took the scalps of fallen enemies and made them into drinking cups.

When a king died, his body was embalmed and laid to rest with all his best possessions: his cupbearer, cook, messenger, lackey and one of his wives were killed and buried with him. His best horses, richly caparisoned, were killed and arranged in the tomb with him. A year later, 50 young men and 50 horses would be killed, stuffed and mounted around the king’s tomb to guard it.

The Scythians were marauders and plunderers, who joined the Assyrians in conquering Asia, and plundered their way through Palestine right to the borders of Egypt, where they were bought off by the pharaoh. They made a fearsome name for themselves.

After 1000 BC wave after wave of these mounted nomads poured out of the steppelands, bringing chaos and destruction. It was a shattering experience for the civilised peoples, who had to learn to ride, or be overwhelmed.

From time to time, through the centuries, another wave of these horse-owning nomads would pour out of the steppes. The Roman empire lasted for 500 years, but it was finally destroyed by hordes of mounted Huns from the steppes and horse-riding Germanic tribesmen. Law and order vanished for centuries.

The Mongols, superb horsemen like the Scythians and Huns, often raided China; so the emperor built the Great Wall to keep them out, but it failed.

In the 13th century the Mongol horsemen were led by a warrior named Genghis Khan, whose army was made up entirely of horsemen. They invaded China, conquered it and ruled it for 100 years. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols conquered every country they invaded. But they were the last of the great hordes of nomadic horsemen to sweep out of the steppes and destroy the great civilisations of the world.

For several more centuries mounted warriors formed the most important part of any army and horse power was essential for transport and communications, and for heavy farm work.

Today, machines have taken over the work once done by horses and now horses are used, not as weapons of war and a source of energy, but mainly for sport and entertainment.

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