The Story Of... Horses
Domesticated in central Asia around five thousand years ago,
the horse was instrumental to the development of Eurasian civilization.
Unlike most other large mammals, it was not farmed for its meat, milk
or hides. Instead, the horse was harnessed solely for its incredible
strength – to pull plows, vehicles, and most significantly, to carry
Without horses, the evolution of complex European economies and trading
networks would have been unthinkable. Most significantly, the horse
transformed the art of war. From the earliest horse-drawn chariots
of the Hittite empire, to the bareback cavalrymen of Attila the Hun,
the warhorse has become synonymous with Eurasian military success.
ascended to power on the backs of horses
Spanish horses were instrumental in the conquest of the New World.
Neither the Aztec nor the Inca had ever seen humans riding animals
before; the psychological impact of mounted troops was tremendous.
Hernan De Soto, comrade of Pizarro, famously rode his horse right
into the Inca Emperor's throne room. Eyewitnesses later recalled:
"The captain advanced so close that the horse's nostrils stirred the fringe on the Inca's
forehead. But the Inca remained still, he never moved."
Spanish conquistadors like de Soto were inheritors of some of the
finest riding techniques in the whole of Eurasia. The jineta
riding style, unique to Spanish cattle-ranchers, emphasized spontaneity,
speed, balance in the saddle and maneuverability. Bull-fighting, a
pastime which grew out of Spanish ranching, also helped riders and
their horses improve their techniques of forceful advance and swift
The conquistadors who sailed to the New World had grown up on ranches
and farms. They had ridden horses since their youth, and brought their
finest animals with them. The consequences for the peoples of the
New World were catastrophic.
On the morning of November 16, 1532, a surprise charge of just 37
Spanish horses, concealed in the Inca town of Cajamarca, unleashed
an orgy of bloodshed. Europeans had known for centuries that foot
soldiers stood a good chance against cavalry if they stood firm and
repelled the outnumbered mounted troops. But the Inca had no experience
of this, nor could they have read about others' experiences, since
they were geographically isolated and had no written records from
which to learn. Instead, they panicked and tried to flee, allowing
the outnumbered conquistadors to run through them with great speed
||The Conquistadors mastery of the horse allowed for a swift defeat of the Inca empire
But the great irony of the conquistadors' victory was that, until
about 10,000 years ago, the horse's wild ancestor had flourished throughout
the Americas. The plains of North America had in fact been the natural
homeland of the Equus species, some of which migrated across
a narrow land passage to the plains of central Asia.
Then, between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, the species vanished from
the Americas – it is believed, through a combination of over-hunting
and climatic change. The submersion of the Bering Strait meant no
subsequent, reverse migration could occur from central Asia, and the
horse remained absent from the Americas until its reintroduction by
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