War Horses.

by Brian Griffith.

War Horses

At first, the prehistoric tribes of Eurasia hunted wild horses as if they were big deer. It must have been hard, because these animals were almost perfectly evolved for flight. So it’s a rather astounding accomplishment that certain unknown people managed to approach these creatures, and actually win enough trust to climb on and ride. Maybe people caught baby colts while hunting. Otherwise, the feat of befriending horses would be about as difficult as trying to ride wild antelopes or zebras. Zebras just won’t have it. When people try to catch them, they unfailingly dodge any lassos. If anyone manages to lay hands on a zebra, it bites the offender and won’t let go. The Roman historian Cassius Dio described zebras as “horses of the sun resembling tigers.” They’re beautiful, but people gave up trying to tame them. The horses of Inner Asia were not so different, and it probably took enormous patience for people to win their trust. Wild horses had to be persuaded to let people touch them and finally climb onto their backs. Once that was accomplished, the benefits for humans were enormous. But what did the horses gain? Clearly they got no better grass than they had in the wild. If horses ended up accepting bonds with humans, what could their benefit be besides an acquired taste for human companionship?

The horse bones around ancient campsites suggest domestication when the volumes of bones grow unnaturally large. Domestication could have happened first in Arabia, or maybe the steppes of Kazakhstan and Ukraine. At Petropavlovsk, in northern Kazakhstan, bones from over 100,000 horses surround a settlement from about 4500 BCE. Maybe the locals there herded horses the way African pastoralists herded cows. The early Central Asian nomads drank horse milk and bled horses to make blood pudding. That way they got a fairly balanced diet from their horses for years without killing them. But horses were vastly harder to control than sheep or cows. And it turned out that horses were most useful, not as objects of herding, but as a means of herding other animals. People on horseback could manage many times more sheep, goats, or cows than they could on foot. They could run circles around other animals, either to hunt or herd them.

The first horse riders probably didn’t take their right to ride for granted. If the first Native American horsemen are any indication, early riders treated their mounts as esteemed friends rather than slaves. It probably took centuries for horse riders to grow presumptuous, like the Victorian Englishman who explained, “If there is anything in the world of nature that seems clear, it is that man has an authentic right to require reasonable service from the horse” (Budiansky, 1992, 4).

People on horseback could travel about five times faster than on foot. As the legendary Cheyenne prophet Sweet Medicine reportedly predicted, “This animal will carry you on his back and help you in many ways. Those far hills that seem only a blue vision in the distance take many days to reach now, but with this animal you can get there in a short time” (Burns, 1996, Episode 1). Riders could travel 100 miles in a day and be back the next night. Possibly no one would know where they went, what they did, or what they found there. This was intoxicating.

Horse riding vastly extended people’s reach across the world. The possibilities multiplied for finding resources and carrying them away. Across Eurasia, traditional boundaries between tribes collapsed, because they were based on the limits of feasible travel by foot. To raid one’s enemies and get away with the loot suddenly got a lot easier. The bio-technology of horse-riding allowed both large-scale herding and long-distance poaching. It was the most devastating improvement in the means of war before gunpowder. But all this potential took time to unfold. It took thousands of years for horse armies to develop from primitive raiding parties into the all-conquering hordes of Genghis Khan. But some political implications appeared from the start. Just as horses enabled riders to control larger numbers of animals, so they enabled mounted warriors to control larger numbers of people. And if wealth could be gained by keeping ever-larger herds of animals, then far greater wealth could be amassed by milking flocks of humans for tribute. That, after all, was what empires were for.

To make horses into allies in human aggression required a difficult sort of training. These animals had evolved for flight from danger, and the trainers needed to overcome this instinct. They had to get horses to stop running from enemies, and instead to charge them. It wasn’t really a matter of teaching horses aggression, but more of rewarding them for calmness toward danger. Otherwise, horses in battle would naturally throw their riders and stampede from the field. According to an old Hittite text named the Kikkuli (master horse trainer), from Turkey about 1,300 BCE, war horses were first trained by joining hunting expeditions. There, the horses practiced chasing bulls, boars, or even lions. The horses had to get in close as their riders finished off enraged beasts. Once they got used to that, the horses might be calm enough to serve in the king’s chariot corps. Some warlords, like those of the Assyrians or Scythians, assumed that they must overcome the horses’ fears by force. The riders used bits and whips to “break” the animals to full submission. That’s generally how these warlords controlled their people as well, and the cooperation they got was basically minimal. A Sufi story presents the appeals of such war horses to the king of spirits:

“If you could see us forced into their battles with bridles in our mouths, girdles girding our loins, saddles on our backs and cinches around our bellies; how they dress us in coats of mail and arm us with weapons; and how they stab us with spurs and drive us on to face their enemies. If you could see how their weapons pierce us over and over again until we die or, if lucky, we limp homeward wounded and covered in blood—cry over us, our King, and pour forth your mercy on this, our sorrow! We need your help …” (Laytner and Bridge, 2005, 23)

Other trainers such as Xenophon (300s BCE) urged developing trust through kindness and good care. One tactic Xenophon advised was having riders run on foot to jump over ditches or barriers, and then urging the horses to follow their example. As all the best horse soldiers learned, the degree of bonding was primary. There were no stirrups till Central Asians invented them around 300 BCE, and even after that soldiers had to fight without holding the reins, because they needed both hands for a lance or a bow. If that was to work, the horse and rider had to build a certain psychological unity. Naturally, the horse-men became the subjects of centaur legends. And the mythic centaurs gained an appropriate reputation for drunken, rapacious violence. Horses who bonded with their riders seemed to represent their riders’ intentions, and were deemed noble or barbaric according their riders’ qualities. In Japanese, the character for “idiot” incorporates the character for “horse,” perhaps because horse-riding enemies like the Mongol horde seemed to be packs of idiots.

Over time, the warlords on horseback developed a whole folklore concerning their own heroic role. In a spirit of self-congratulation they applied the imagery of mastering horses to the “art” of ruling their subjects, and especially their women. As Coral Lansbury puts it, the master’s horses were “broken to the bit … subdued and held by straps so they can be mounted and flogged more easily, and they always end as grateful victims, trained to enjoy the whip and straps, proud to provide pleasure for their masters” (1985, 99). All this has something to do with why women in the lands conquered by horse armies commonly covered their heads on going out, lest they be seen by the “evil eye” of the warlord’s riders, who commonly “gave free rein to their unbridled desires.”

For several thousand years the best horse armies were the terrors of the world. The nomadic people who mastered fighting on horseback repeatedly conquered the civilizations of farming people from China to Europe. For example, it was mounted “barbariansˮ from Inner Asia who overran most of the Roman Empire and established almost all the ruling dynasties of medieval Europe. These nobles were horse warriors, ruling over the farming peasants, who they regarded as an inferior servile race. The lords practiced jousting to prepare their men and horses for war to keep their kingdoms under control. These knights were remarkably effective in crushing almost every peasant rebellion for over a thousand years. Down to the 1500s, members of the nobility were ashamed to walk on foot like villagers. The Spanish custom transferred to the New World, where “caballerosˮ (men on horseback) were the dominant people and “zapatistasˮ (those who went on foot) were the powerless commoners. It was the same in Ghana, where the Mossi nobles reserved horses for the ruling clans and claimed that horses were the inventers of commerce, money, and beer. Horse armies were the scourges of Asia so many times that biblical imagery repeatedly pictured the ultimate apocalypse as a host of grim riders, sowing destruction on a fallen world. Zachariah envisioned four chariots, with red, black, white, and dappled horses, charging forth to execute judgment (6:1–7). The book of Revelation has its white horse of the Lord, the red horse of blood, the black horse of famine, and the pale horse of plague. All of them seem to be war horses, and this was how ancient people pictured the ultimate disaster.


Based on a portion of Animal Wars: A Story of Our Beastly Relations


Budiansky, Stephan (1992) The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Burns, Ken (1996) The West, Episode 1, “The People,” and Episode 5, “The Grandest Enterprise Under God,” Insignia Films.

Lansbury, Coral (1985) The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Laytner, Rabbi Annson, and Bridge, Rabbi Dan, translators. (2005) The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity: A Modern Adaption of an Ancient Animal Rights Tale. Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY.




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