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7 Uses of Horses Throughout History & Their Domestication

For thousands of years, man and horse have shared a special bond. Humans have had many uses of horses throughout history, from transportation, war, food, companionship, work, and sport. However, what are horses used for in today’s age?

Horses are mostly used for riding and transportation. The most common use in the western world is for pleasure riding and horse sports such as racing, jumping, and showing. However, in less economically developed regions of the world, horses are still commonly used to transports goods.

Horses have been mankind’s companions while providing us with entrainment from the exhilaration of racing to the elegance of showing.

Domestication of the Horse

Horses were first domesticated around 3500 BC, near the steppes of southern Russia and Kazakhstan. At about 2300 BC, horses were brought to the ancient Near East, and by 2000 BC, they were used to pull carts, chariots, wagons, and riding.

The domestication of horses was one of the most important discoveries by early societies, changing the dynamic of civilization. Thanks to horses, people could travel farther than they ever had before, reaching new lands and carrying large sums of supplies.

They allowed humans to hunt like never before, with speed and endurance. Trading routes expanded as people rode long distances, spreading goods from all over. Humans benefited from owning horses, and they became a symbol of prestige and importance.

Here are the 7 Uses of Horses Throughout History

1. War

For thousands of years, soldiers have ridden horses into war. Even to the end of WWII, horses were bravely charging into battlefields, pulling heavy artillery and hauling wagons full of supplies.

The use of horses in warfare led to the development of the saddle, stirrups, and even the horse collar. The invention of the saddle, followed by the stirrup’s use, gave soldiers stability and balance when riding in battle. If a soldier was struck during a battle, they were less likely to fall off due to the support of riding with stirrups.

Early War Horses

Shortly after the domestication of horses, they were introduced into war, giving soldiers a whole new advantage. Horses were first used for war throughout Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean before becoming a part of European warfare.

Pulling chariots into battle, horses gave the advantage of speed and endurance. As time went on, soldiers rode horses into battle, and they pulled supplies and equipment. With the use of horses, armies could communicate faster than ever, changing the nature of war.

Horses being ridden into a battle being used for war

War Horses in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, knights would ride on their trusty steeds into battle. Wearing heavy armor, knights required a fierce and strong horse that they could trust in warfare.

There were two main war horses during the Middle Ages, destriers and chargers. Destriers were highly-trained war horses that were ridden exclusively by knights and were worth top dollar. They were always stallions, with their natural aggression stimulated to make them fierce fighters.

Chargers, on the other hand, were more commonly sought after for war horses. They were more affordable and accessible than the coveted destriers. Though they were thought to be less prestigious, they were still well trained, with all chargers being stallions.

It was not uncommon during the Middle Ages for horses to be used to only transport common soldiers to battle. Traveling hundreds of miles to reach the war, horses could transport armies much faster than they could go on foot.

In 1511, Henry II and his army traveled over 400 miles besieging the French countryside on their way to battle in six weeks, something that would not have been possible without horses.

Also, read our guide on the 7 common war horse breeds used throughout history to learn more about the horses used in war.

War Horses of the 18th and 19th Centuries

During the 18th and 19th centuries, calvaries proved to be important assets to winning battles. Mounted warfare tactics were key in many significant victories.

In the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon led his army into many battles aboard his trusty Arabian stallion, Marengo. His cavalry, oftentimes on Arabians and Barbs, proved to be highly effective against marching infantry. If a battalion was in formation, they could easily be broken up by a well-led cavalry charge.

During the American Civil War, horses were key to many victories. Horses served many jobs during the war, including battle mounts, hauling artillery and wounded soldiers, and transporting supplies.

Both sides had cavalry, with men in the Confederate army having to provide their own horses. On the other hand, the Union provided their men with horses, which on many occasions were Morgans. The strong presence of the well-trained Union cavalry was fundamental in their victory of the war.

Horse Were Widely Used in World War I & World War II

Though the invention of cars, tanks, and airplanes was huge for warfare, horses were still used in WW1 and WW2. During both wars, horses were commonly a source of transportation and were still used in the calvary.

In WW1, trucks and tanks would often break down, so horses were commonly brought in to haul equipment. Horses were also useful, as they were able to go places vehicles could not. They were a source of morale for soldiers, lifting their spirits during the hardships of wartime.

In WW2, the Polish army used a mounted infantry to defend against armies of Nazi Germany during a 1939 invasion. Both Germans and the Soviet Union maintained calvaries during the war, with the British army and American army even briefly using calvaries.

A common myth from WW2 is that the German army was mostly mechanized. However, the German army was heavily reliant on horses and used up to 2.75 million horses to transport roughly 80% of their supplies.

2. Agriculture and Work

Thanks to their power and endurance, horses have been vital in helping humans in agriculture. The invention of the collar harness was revolutionary in the world of agriculture. Even today, some farmers still use horses to work their land.

Horses were able to pull plows and other farming equipment at a rate people couldn’t achieve independently. They allowed humans to expand their endeavors in agriculture, giving people the ability to work more land. Not only did they work the land, but they also transport produce to markets.

Shortly after the domestication of horses, they were out to work in agriculture. They proved to be successful, and people bred heavier, stronger horse breeds to work the fields.

Clydesdale horses ploughing a field, being used for agriculture

Horses were faster and more efficient than oxen, which led them to be the top choice for plowing land for hundreds of years. In 1920, there were over 25 million horses and mules in America, with most of them working on farmland.

In addition to farm work, horses have also held many other jobs. They have worked down in mines, hauling precious cargo back to the surface. Their strength and intelligence have led them to herding cattle, pulling milk trucks and fire trucks, and working as police mounts.

3. Companionship

Perhaps the most meaningful of all, horses have given companionship to humans for thousands of years. People have kept horses as prized possessions, creating strong bonds with these extraordinary creatures.

All over the world, people have highly regarded horses for their beauty and abilities and their companionship. People have kept horses as part of their families, treating them like royalty. The ancient Bedouin tribes would even keep their Arabian horses in their tents, as they considered them their most treasured possessions.

4. Leisure and Sport

Horses have long been a symbol of wealth and power. People have kept horses as a form of leisure and sport as a way to provide entertainment.

For hundreds of years, people have bred the finest of horses to carry on champion pedigrees. Racing was one of the first ways people sought horses as a form of entertainment and sport.

Countries all over the world have raced horses in harness and under saddle. During the 1700s, under Queen Anne’s rule, horse racing became a professional sport in England.

As people rode horses for pleasure, they also had the desire to showcase their mounts’ beauty and talent. For centuries, people have brought their best horses to compete at shows. They have shown horses in a variety of different divisions to best exhibit their talents.

5. Transportation

After domestication, horses allowed people to go where they had never gone before. Thanks to their power and stamina, people could travel much farther in a shorter amount of time.

People now had the ability to communicate and spread news like never before. With the invention of carts and wagons, people were able to move and transport supplies and their belongings.

Draft horses being used to pull a carriage, means of transport

For hundreds of years, horses were the primary form of transportation. Cities were once full of carriages and wagons, transporting people and goods across towns.

Horses were the backbone of transportation in many countries, from moving pilgrims in wagons across the American frontier to pulling European royalty in fine carriages. 

Also, click the links to find out how much a horse can pull and what the biggest horse breeds are.

6. Food and Products

Though it is not a pleasant part of history, humans have been known to eat horse meat. In some cultures, eating horses is very taboo, but others consider horse meat a delicacy.

Horse meat has been consumed by people well before horses were domesticated. European and Asian countries most commonly eat it. However, controversy has long followed suit as many cultures and religions find it to be wrong.

Horse hooves have also been a source for making different products. Collagen found in hooves can be broken down to create the means necessary to produce glue and gelatin. Though not as common now, horse hooves are still found in these goods today.

Hair from tails has been used to create violin bows and paintbrushes, as the hairs are sturdy yet smooth. Horse milk is another horse product that has been a traditional beverage in Mongolia and some European countries.

7. Therapy and Support

Using horses for therapy and emotional support is relatively new in equine history. Though riding horses is considered therapeutic, the use of equine-assisted therapy as we know it today was first introduced in Scandinavia in 1946 after an outbreak of poliomyelitis.

Therapeutic riding was then introduced to the United States and Canada in the 1960s. Since then, it has been a way to help those with physical and mental disabilities and PTSD.

The ability of horses to help humans has led to the development of equines as support animals. In the early 2000s, miniature horses were trained as seeing-eye guides for the blind.

Minis have even recently gone on to become emotional support animals. Humans have found horses to have the physical and emotional capabilities to help us both physically and mentally. 

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