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Who Tamed The Horse?

Updated on August 26, 2009

We can trace the ancestors of the horse back millions of years. But who first tamed the horse, the animal that we know? It is impossible to say. We know that prehistoric man used the horse as one of his chief sources of food. This was probably long before he thought of using the horse for riding.

The earliest pictures and carvings of horses were made by European cave men about 15,000 years ago. The horse in these pictures is very much like today's Mongolian pony. In these pictures and carvings there are marks that suggest a bridle, so perhaps the horse was already tamed!

It is probable however, that the wandering tribes in central Asia were the first to tame the horse, and from there the horse came to Europe and Asia Minor. We know there were horses in Babylonia as long ago as 3,000 B.C.

Because the horse was tamed before historic records began, it is very difficult to trace the origin of any of the modern breeds. The oldest and purest breed of saddle horse is the Arabian. They have been bred for at least fifteen centuries! They are small horses, their legs are slender, and their feet are small. Their backs are short and strong.

When Julius Caesar invaded England he found horses there. In his time, they were probably small, hardy animals. Later on, during the days of the knights, horses were bred chiefly for size and strength, and used as war horses. Then when gunpowder was invented, speed became more important than strength or size, so faster horses were bred.

As horse racing became more widespread, horses from the Arabs, Turks, and Persians were brought into England. Our modern thoroughbred horse is descended from these combinations.

A thoroughbred, by the way, is any horse eligible to be registered in the General Stud Book. It was begun in England in 1791 and traces the pedigree of horses, going back to about 1690!

Photographs courtesy of

The History of Horseriding

No one knows what nation or tribe made the first methodical study of horsemanship, but our earliest written record is from the Greek historian Xenophon, who lived about 400 B.C. He advocated understanding and confidence between horse and rider. A famous frieze of figures on the Parthenon in Athens, by the sculptor Phidias, shows that although the Greeks rode on saddlecloths without stirrups, they rode with a bent knee on balance and not on grip. Their highly trained horses could execute many difficult movements.

The Romans, who conquered the Greeks, are said to have managed their mounts with force and brutality rather than with understanding. Under their influence the art of horsemanship, or equitation, declined.

In medieval times, with the invention and use of armor, the basic balanced position of the rider over the horse's center of gravity and the use of the flexible, bent knee disappeared in Europe. However, the Arabs, who did not wear armor and continued to use the bent knee, conquered Spain and took their riding masters and horses with them. Thus the classical seat, based on the position of the rider in harmony with his horse, was preserved. It was rediscovered in Spain by Italian riding masters, who in 1562 imported a number of horses and riders into Italy. From there they went northward to Germany, France, and Austria. Interest in perfecting the science and art of equitation soon became widespread on the Continent. The English, however, were primarily interested in riding to hounds, or hunting. They were quite content to continue throwing their weight back in the saddle with their legs thrust forward, as their ancestors had done.

Early in the 20th century an Italian cavalry rider named Federico Caprilli, after making a close study of how a riderless horse moves when it wants to go fast, introduced the forward seat. Caprilli reasoned that the best way for cavalry to cross rough or open country and to clear natural obstacles at high speed was to allow the horse to extend its head and neck and throw its weight on forehand. Furthermore, the horse would be helped if the rider put his own weight forward over the displaced center of gravity of the horse. At about the same time an American jockey named Tod Sloane discovered the same principle and assumed what was called the monkey seat in flat racing.

Caprilli's method proved practical, and for the next 20 years, Italian riders were foremost in cross-country riding and in international jumping competitions. However, in the late 1930s, as the courses over the high stadium jumps became more difficult, a Mexican team under General Humberto Mariles began to take top honors. The Mexican team used a more classical seat, which put the rider deep in the saddle until the moment when the horse took off for the jump. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army sent a team of men under Colonel Harry Chamberlain to Europe to study the different methods of horsemanship on the Continent. As a result of their study they developed the American balance seat. This seat is held to be the most flexible of all, since with only slight changes in stirrup length the rider can take advantage of the basic principles of both the classical and forward seats.

The application of the basic principles of good horsemanship will undoubtedly be modified in future years. The principles themselves, however, will remain unchanged, based as they are on the premise that the best horseman is he who can get the most out of a given horse with a minimum of effort from his horse and himself.


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    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile image

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      7 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      Interesting stuff! I particularly enjoyed the balanced seating of the rider information from its apparent beginnings. Well done!

    • Destrier profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Rural Australia

      Google it.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      this gives a lot of fact not the kind that i need so please i need more information john

    • Destrier profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Rural Australia

      Thanks so much, that would be greatly appreciated. Yes owning a horse is expensive and from talking to friends that have lots of horses it's a complete love affair, blind to expense. Whilst my daughters would love to own their own horse, for the time being the Colt that we have here in agistment is perfect. They can feel like they own him without all the expense and still love him endlessly.

    • frogdropping profile image


      9 years ago

      Destrier - what a very succint way of putting a simple fact. They are incredibly time intesive and can lighten your bank account.

      I shall try and plant your articles here and there - they need to be seen :)

    • Destrier profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Rural Australia

      Thanks for your feedback frogdropping!

      The thing I believe is the problem is that those who think they can afford it, will often lack the long term commitment. And those who think they have the commitment, will sadly lack the finances.

      I don't own a horse (in a financial sense). But I do have access to them on a regular basis.

    • frogdropping profile image


      9 years ago

      Destrier - what an interesting and well written article. Well researched too.

      It's odd that despite the length of time that we've been associated with horses, the length of time, we still get it wrong. I spotted a question asked on the internet recently whereby the questioner was asking about the costs of keeping a horse.

      She went on to ask a whole heap of other very basic stuff. The part that bothered me though was the fact that she was buying one. With no real knowledge as to what she was doing or taking on.

      As per my opinion of such things, I suggested that she didn't bother buying one.

      Actually that's going off topic a bit.

      My point is that some people still ride badly, treat their horses badly, paying little or no attention to the needs of their animals. The Roman way isn't a lot different to what I've seen many times over.

      Your last line is the one that all potential owners should have a very profound understanding of.

      Really great hub.


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