Horses are one of the most multifaceted domestic animals in the world; they can be found everywhere from race tracks and equestrian courses to farm fields and riding clubs. However, despite their prominence, their origin as a tamed species remains the topic of competing theories.
Today, there remain several hypotheses regarding key chapters in horse domestication, but here are a few broad strokes that many horse historians consider to have merit.
Many historians trace human/horse interaction to the Paleolithic era — namely in Eurasia, where wild horses became a frequent presence in early cave art (they were depicted more than any other animal). Bone remains suggest that horses were first used as a source of meat, and overhunting soon became one of several variables contributing to many horse species’ extinction.
These factors, while devastating to wild horses at large, were generally ineffective to Equus caballus, the primary ancestor to modern horses, which continued to thrive “on the steppe of what is today Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan.”
Though their exemption to the aforementioned die-off remains a point of contention, Equus caballus became the centerpiece of early horse domestication (around 5,000 BC). As a work animal, the species, while comparatively more powerful and aggressive, was coveted over other livestock for its adaptability and resilience during harsh winter months. Specifically, horses were found to be easier to feed thanks to their ability to “break through ice and snow with their hooves to reach winter grass to feed themselves.”
Of course, horses’ value only increased as they became used for riding, a development that came soon after their initial domestication. The benefits of horse riding became quickly apparent, leading to their adoption as a norm in primitive transport.
Evidence suggests horses became used in other parts of the world, beyond their center of distribution, around 3500-3000 BC. Most zoologists consider this period as the earliest instance of widespread horse domestication.
In tandem with other advancements like chariots and covered wagons, domestic horse expansion introduced and revolutionized concepts like faraway travel, unique war strategy, and long distance trade. Though many of these concepts have, themselves, changed over time since their inception, the domestic horse remains a staple of mankind’s ambition and innovation.