A Short History Lesson: The Domestication of the Horse

Horse standing in a green pasture

There are many hypotheses that exist surrounding the domestication of the horse.  The largest debate is whether the horse was first ridden or driven.  There are three sources of archaeological evidence for the domestication of horses. The first source is the change in skeletal features and the horses’ teeth.   The second is the changes in geographical locations of horses, especially areas where no wild horses had originally existed.   The final source is from dig sites containing artifacts, images, or evidence of human behavioral changes connected to horses.   In this article all three sources will be discussed in greater detail.


There are certain skeletal changes that occur within horses that can indicate human care or captivity.  Bones recovered dating to the 3500 BCE exhibit increased variability.  This difference is bone size is thought to reflect the evidence that these horses were under human care, because they were both larger and smaller than their wild counterparts.  The decreased size is theorized to indicate that these horses were penned and kept on a stricter diet.   The Botai culture adopted the skill of horseback riding sometime between the years 3500-3000 BCE, however there are still debates as to whether these horses were wild or domesticated as their skeletal structure remained similar to their wild cousins.  Evidence from Kazakhstan that dates to 3500 BCE suggests that the bits were used.  Bits and nosebands cause skeletal wear that suggests the regular use with control.  However this does not tell us if the wear was caused by riding or driving. 


The second source of tracing the domestication of the horse is their expansion geographically.  The first appearance of horse remains in human settlements were found frequently in dig sites dating to the 3500-3000 BCE in central Europe.  Later in the years of 2300-2100 BCE horses began to appear in the Mesopotamia region.  In the years after 2000 BCE horses became more and more prominent in the Near East as the connection with chariot warfare began.   In conjunction with the expansion of the chariot, horses further expanded into the East and China through the years 2000-1600 BCE.  Horses did not expand to the Americas until much, much later during the exploration of Spanish settlers. 


The final source of information about the domestication of horses is through archeological artifacts, images, and burial sites.  More than 500 years before the geographic expansion evidence the presence of horse bones and horse shaped tools were found in graves near the steppes in around 4200-4000 BCE.  Mounted raiding during this era could attribute to the artifacts found.  Among tools and horse shaped weapons, check pieces for bits were also found.  Later as the chariot warfare began additional artifacts of horse tack were discovered. 


But all this evidence still does not clear up whether the horse was first ridden or driven.  Though there is lots of artifact evidence that horses were first used to drive chariots.  There is only an indirect evidence that suggests that the Botai culture first rode horses.  This evidence is bit wear and skeletal structure differences of their horses to that of their wild cousins.  Most people would think it is obvious that horses were first ridden not driven but finding evidence to support this is difficult as the early riding tools would not survive as artifacts.  Also scientists theorize that bit wear on skeletal remains does not directly correlate with riding but could correlate to driving, leading, and plowing.  The evidence of horses being driven is much stronger. So SaddleOnline poses this questions to you the reader, what do you think came first horse riding or horse driving and why?  Feel free to discuss and comment here.