domestication of horses

A History of the Domestication of Horses

How the Mutually Beneficial Coexistence of Horses and Humans Prevented Extinction

Horses have been a constant companion to mankind for over six thousand years, although, over the years, the nature of the relationship has changed. From originally being seen as primarily a source of food, the domestication of horses saved them from extinction and contributed to the development of civilization.

Today, horses are mostly considered to be a companion for leisure pursuits or sporting activities. They are bred for specific purposes, such as the carriage-pulling horses at Tally-Ho, and live more peaceful lives, using only a fraction of their power and receiving top-notch care.

There is no doubt the horse-human relationship has been mutually beneficial over time. Human history would look significantly different if horses hadn’t been used to further agriculture and food production, travel large distances to promote settlement, help us build railroads and cities, and perform a crucial role in warfare.  As for horses, they may not even exist anymore if it were not for domestication.

Horses have been around, in some form, for 55 million years, so when did things change from them being wild animals roaming the same plains as buffalo to being the gentle, willing partners we know today?

Read on for a horse domestication timeline and more information about how the domestication of horses not only benefitted humans but kept horses alive when other species became extinct.

A Horse Domestication Timeline

To understand what led to the domestication of wild horses, it is useful to start with a quick overview of the evolution and migration of horses across the globe. 

55 Million Years Ago

The first equids roamed the forests of North America over 55 million years ago. Due to limited food, they were the size of a small dog. Over the next 35 million years, the species evolved along with the changing climate and living conditions: they became larger, which enabled them to increase their speed and more successfully outrun their predators; their jaw shape and teeth changed to allow them to take advantage of increasing grasslands for grazing; and they developed the ability to lock their knees while standing which reduced the amount of energy it took for them to stand.

4 Million Years Ago

The family tree of the Equus genus (which includes horses, donkeys and zebras) was vast, but by four million years ago, many of the species had died off. The ancestors of what we know as the ‘horse’ can be traced back to this time period in North America. Equus eventually spread from North America into Asia and Eastern Europe, moving back and forth via the Bering Land Bridge (the frozen land linking what is now the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea).

11,500 Years Ago

At the end of the last ice age, horses went extinct in North America, alongside other species, such as the Mammoth, thanks to a combination of extreme weather, lack of forage and overhunting from humans. They would not return until 1494, on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas.

However, wild horse populations survived in Asia and Eastern Europe and although some evidence of human-horse relationships has been found from up to 12,000 years ago, likely, horses were likely primarily viewed as food.

Earliest Evidence of Horse Domestication

By nature, the horse was an ideal species to become domesticated: they could survive on various food, reproduce easily and enjoy social interaction.  Stephen Budiansky, in his book “The Nature of Horses” (page 11), states that “It was animals who discovered the mutual compatibility of our species, and it was they who chose to act upon this discovery… [it was] a long, slow process of mutual adaptation, of “coevolution,” in which those animals that began to hang around the first permanent human settlements gained more than they lost.  Some were killed and eaten, but for every cow or sheep or horse killed, many more flourished on the crops they robbed from our fields and the incidental protection they gained from other predators in the proximity of human habitations.”

6,000 Years Ago

The first sign that horses were considered to be something other than food was 6,000 years ago in what is now Kazakhstan. Archaeological evidence gathered from this area shows that although wild horses were primarily kept and bred as food, some were tamed to be ridden, allowing the Botai people access to wider hunting grounds. 

A research paper published in 2021 by Ludevic Orlando and colleagues used ancient horse genomes to determine that herders in the Vogla and Don regions (of what is now Russia) were the first to begin breeding horses to encourage specific traits, such as stronger backs and a more docile personality, both of which made them ideal for riding.

It would take another 2,000 years for these horses, the Equus Ferus Caballus, to spread across Europe and Asia, replacing other horse species and becoming the direct ascendant of all modern breeds of horses.

Impact of Domestication

The domestication and breeding of horses marks a huge change in human history, as it allowed us to:

  • Travel further and expand settlement;
  • Herd livestock and promote agriculture;
  • Develop communications across vast expanses of land;
  • Trade goods and services and develop economies; and
  • Influence a country’s borders through raids and wars.

Working horses also helped to transform many industries. Read our blog “A history of how work horses have helped humans over the ages” for more information.

Socially, the horse was seen as a symbol of nobility and power, was often depicted as a heroic warrior next to his human companion, and to this day, is still revered for his god-like beauty and grace.

Did Domestication Keep Horses Alive?

If horses had not migrated to Eastern Europe before the end of the last ice age, where they were eventually domesticated, it’s unlikely horses would exist today at all, as there are NO true wild horse species alive today. 

  • One of the last wild horse species, the Tapan, died out in the late 19th century.
  • The Prezewalski’s species still exist in very small numbers, but only after they were re-introduced from captive-bred horses after the wild population died out.
  • American Mustangs, while considered wild, are all descendants of domesticated horses that were likely escaped or released centuries ago.

It is fair to deduce that the selective breeding of horses for optimum features and health, combined with a mutually beneficial relationship with their human carers, kept domesticated horses alive while their wild counterparts succumbed.

How Domestication of Horses is Beneficial to our Equine Friends

Domestication, while beneficial to humans in so many ways, has also meant that modern horses have come to rely on humans for not just their survival as a species but also their day-to-day comfort.

Dr. Sid Gustafson says that “horses require friends, forage and locomotion … for their best health, learning and performance”. This means horses need:

  • Space and freedom to move around which is vital for their digestive and respiratory systems as well as joint, muscle and hoof health.
  • Appropriate, plentiful and high-quality food and water.
  • The company of other horses and human companions.

Modern domesticated horses are reliant on humans to supply all of these things. However, a horse that is comfortable, secure and healthy will be a willing learner and able to adopt required traits – whether it is speed, accuracy, or the ability to pull carriages.

Tally-Ho Respects and Nurtures our Equine Partners

We at Tally-Ho Carriage Tours are glad that thanks to the domestication of horses thousands of years ago, this incredible species is still around to live and work alongside us today.

We are very aware of our responsibility to care for our horses, who, without us, wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild.

We give our horses companionship, forage and locomotion, as well as health care and all the other things they need to feel happy and satisfied. Our on-site training ensures new skills are taught with patience and compassion, and nothing is ever forced upon our equine friends.

We love our horses – we enjoy talking about them, and we’d love you to meet them. Join us for one of our ‘Behind the Scenes Experiences,’ where you get to meet our horses face to face.

Contact us for more information about these and our other available tours.