This overview examines the impact of horsepower on Old World society over the last 6,000 years. Analysis of man’s symbiosis with the domesticated horse necessarily takes the reader to regions remote from urban centers and pays special attention to mobile elements of nomadic society, too often deemed marginal or transitory. The discussion first grapples with the question of horse domestication on the steppes c. 4000 BC, a topic long fraught with bitter controversy. With the recent dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, Russian scholarship became more accessible, and rapport has grown warmer between western and eastern researchers. In light of new evidence and new interpretations, our discussion will attempt to summarize at a high level the salient points of scholarly debate: the general location at which initial horse domestication took place; the manner in which domestication was accomplished; and way in which the horse underwent the transition from being a food-providing animal to its transport role in pack, draft, and riding.
By examining early Indo-European migrations and those of later ethnic groups, we will note both the important adaptations that enabled intrepid agro-pastoralists to traverse the hostile continental interior and the momentous impact of mobile equestrianism on cultures beyond the steppes. While it is true that mobile horsemen relentlessly harassed the imperial armies of sedentary states, it is also true that their far-ranging routes across forbidding steppes, deserts, and mountains afforded rapid transport of distant trade goods, both essential and exotic. With trade went cultural exchange: adoption of different cultigens, implementation of new technologies, introduction of foreign inventions, dissemination of ideas, diffusion of religions, the spread of science and art. The history of the horse explores this dual reality: on the one hand, in battle the destructiveness of the warhorse, yet on the other, in the wake of conquest, the constructiveness of horsepower in greatly extending the scale and complexity of civilization. The politico-military and economic importance of the horse will thus be examined in the rise of the Hittite, Achaemenid, Chinese, Arab, and Mongol empires.
Sino-Platonic Papers, No.190 (2009)