Horse Is Domesticated Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

People in Turkistan domesticated the horse, which became a valuable source of labor and transport in Central Asia and much of Europe and later played a crucial role in the military forces of the Greeks and Romans.

Summary of Event

Strangely enough, the horse was among the last important animals to be tamed. Although it is not possible to pinpoint when horses were first domesticated, a reasonably close estimate can be made. As long ago as the Solutrean period of the Old Stone Age, perhaps nearly twenty thousand years ago, European wild horses were hunted so eagerly as big game that they were apparently brought to extinction in parts of Europe. There is no evidence that any efforts were then made to tame these animals despite their appearance in primitive statuary and cave paintings.

For tens of thousands of years, the homeland of the true horse was the north European plains and the western Asiatic steppes. Other forms of equids were distributed throughout the grasslands of Asia and Africa, but because there was no significant overlapping of their ranges, distinct species evolved; the hemionids, such as the onager, inhabited southwest Asia, the true asses lived in north Africa, and the zebras claimed east and south Africa.

Two types of wild horses survived in the Old World. One of these, known as Przewalski’s horse, evolved in Mongolia (where wild survivors may still exist) but spread into southwest Asia and eastern European grasslands after the retreat of the last of the Pleistocene ice. Przewalski’s horse is a heavily built animal with sturdy short legs; its head is large and mulish in appearance, and it stands about thirteen hands high.

The other type of horse, the tarpan, evolved in south Russia, although it was known archaeologically and historically to central Sweden and the North Sea coast. It survived in the Ukraine until the mid-nineteenth century. Generally smaller than the Mongolian wild horse, the tarpan had a stiff upright mane and a dark stripe extending from mane to tail on its mouse-gray body. It was systematically hunted to extinction by Ukrainians because wild stallions enticed domesticated mares away from the farms.

Present-day evidence strongly suggests that tarpan stock was the principal contributor to the modern domesticated horse, although some authorities consider Przewalski’s horse to be the dominant strain. Because these two horse ranges overlapped in eastern Europe and Turkistan, it is possible that the modern horse is descended from a mixture of the two. Genetic studies, however, have established that Przewalski’s horse has a different chromosome number (2n = 66) from all types of modern horses (2n = 64). This fact strengthens the claim for the tarpan contribution being the greater of the two. This question cannot be resolved because the tarpan is extinct and its chromosome number cannot be determined. All present-day Mongolian ponies have come from the West. There is still debate whether the heavy Western European draft horse was derived from tarpan stock or from some yet undiscovered large type of horse. A heavy-boned Pleistocene horse has been found in glacial deposits in Western Europe, but it is known neither archaeologically nor historically. Horse bones do not show any singular osteological changes concomitant with domestication as do the horns of sheep, goats, and cattle.

Although the first historical writings that mention horses as being usefully employed by humans date from about 2000 b.c.e., it seems safe to infer that the horse had already been domesticated for at least two millennia by that time. After 2000 b.c.e., there are numerous literary references to the horse in addition to various representations in statuary and paintings. An educated guess for the beginnings of horse domestication is about 4000 b.c.e.

On the basis of the distribution of the true horse six thousand years ago, it appears that the area in which domestication was first tried was Turkistan in Central Asia. Perhaps around 3000 b.c.e., small numbers of domesticated horses diffused to eastern and north-central Europe. About the same time, the same type of horse appeared in the Iranian plateau, and it appeared a little later in Bronze Age cultures of the Near East.


Since its domestication, the horse has served humankind as a means of transportation and as a source of labor, during both war and peacetime. The first application of the horse as an aid to humankind was in the dubious role of chariot puller. The chariot, developed from the two-wheeled cart originally drawn by cattle, had obvious strategic value in giving greater mobility to a single warrior. When this vehicle was introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos in 1788 b.c.e., the accompanying horses were almost certainly of Asian origin but of tarpan ancestry. They were rather large in size but delicate in head and body build and bay or black in color. These animals were the progenitors of the Nubian horse, the strain from which the Barb of Morocco was derived and whose genes may still be viable in some modern thoroughbreds, hunters, remounts, and plow horses. The chariot was in use in Greece in 1000 b.c.e. but survived in Julius Caesar’s Rome mainly for ceremonial occasions and for races.

Riding astride the horse may have begun in Turkistan before 3000 b.c.e. Cavalry, an integral part of the Greek fighting force by 800 b.c.e., became a dominant force in the Roman fighting machine. Continuing through feudal times in Europe until the beginning of World War II, the development of several new breeds of horses was influenced by military needs.

As a source of labor, horses have contributed greatly to improving the quality of human life; however, many scholars believe that the horse’s greatest influence on history has been in warfare. Classic events such as the Battle of Poitiers in 732 c.e. when Charles Martel defeated the Saracen invaders, and the Siege of Tenochtitlán by the Spaniards in 1521, may well have been changed by the presence of horses.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Horse Power: A History of the Horse and the Donkey in Human Societies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Clutton-Brock focuses on the history of horse and donkey, focusing on their roles and influence after domestication. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clutton-Brock, Juliet. A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals. 2d ed. New York: Natural History Museum and Cambridge University Press, 1999. An examination of domesticated animals, including the horse, from early times. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, Elwyn Hartley. Horses: Their Role in the History of Man. London: Willow Books, 1987. An examination of how horses have affected human beings throughout history. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kust, Matthew J. Man and Horse in History. New York: Advent Books, 1983. Kust traces the history of the domestic horse and its interactions with humans. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mason, Ian L., ed. Evolution of Domesticated Animals. New York: Longman, 1984. A collection of essays tracing the development of various domestic animals, including the horse. Bibliography and indexes.

Categories: History