Horsepower the driving force that forged human civilisation

PROGRESS: Horses helped humankind evolve culture, trade and communities.
PROGRESS: Horses helped humankind evolve culture, trade and communities.

With the Horses' Birthday traditionally set down for August 1 on the calendar, it is the perfect time to explore our relationship with these beautiful animals.

The notion of a birthday for all horses has its origins in the thoroughbred industry as a way of standardising ages for events like racing, and is closely linked to the equine breeding season.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Horses' Birthday falls on January 1.

But our connection with horses goes far beyond any commercial considerations, and it is fair to say that horses contributed significantly to the growth of entire human civilisations.

Horses first emerged in the Eocene era around 50 million years ago, a tiny, four-toed creature with padded feet and large canines known as Hyracotherium or eohippus which translates as The Dawn Horse.

There are few other monikers among living creatures which are so evocative, capturing a primordial epoch at the beginning of time, filled with dense, steaming tropical forests and predators ... so many predators, and when you are less than 50 centimetres tall, that's a substantial challenge to your survival.

As the millennia passed, horses adapted, forest gave way to grasslands, four toes became one, a feat of engineering which allows a delicate pedestal of flesh, sinew and bone to generate incredible speed and power.

In addition, their unique one-to-one respiration rate, that is one breath for one stride, is an evolutionary mechanism for evading those who would want to eat them.

And that is just the beginning of their anatomical cornucopia.

According to E. Gus Cothran writing for Encyclopaedia Britannica, in 2012 archaeological evidence from an area ranging from Ukraine to Khazakstan, indicates horses were domesticated 6000 years ago.

This is reinforced by a genetic study published in 2018 which narrowed the date and the geographic region to 5500 years and the Botai peoples of the Asian steppes as the source of the earliest evidence so far of horse husbandry.

However, horses had been part of the human psyche for much longer than that.

While the arguments surrounding ancestry and the origins of domestication rage on, few would dispute that regardless of the path they trod to get here, horses accompanied us on our journey from prehistory to the modern day, and, in many instances, humankind rode much of that way on their backs.

... horses contributed significantly to ... entire human civilisations.

Gloria Austin, founder of the Equine Heritage Institute highlights the significance of the horse as a true driver of human history, transitioning from food source to a mechanism for social and cultural evolution, as transportation, agricultural tool, weapon of war, instrument of trade, object of worship and much more.

"We have had 6,000 years of history with the horse and only 100 with the automobile," she says on her website.

One look at the images in a cave in southern France, the precise and almost loving way they have been drawn, immediately conveys just how important these animals were to our ancestors.

Down the centuries, the horse has continued to facilitate our metaphorical and physical progress, made all the more rapid by the combination of horse and wheel to create carriages, chariots and wagons.

As we move into what is now being called the Anthropocene epoch, horses are still very much an integral part of our lives and culture.

For some now they are often more friend than functional, but for others the horse is crucial to their very survival.

It seems that despite the astronomical advancements humankind has made, much of that success is inextricably linked to these magnificent beasts.

It is a debt we will never be able to repay.