The Horse-Human Relationship: From Prehistory to Today

Last Updated on February 24, 2022 by Allison Price

Nearly 4 million years ago, equids were living alongside humans and they traveled the same routes in ancient Tanzanian territories. Experts believe that this coexistence was the beginning of a long, deep relationship between bispecies, which has played a crucial role in shaping our world today.

Sandra Olsen PhD, zooarchaeologist, professor at the University of Kansas, stated that horses have played many vital roles in societies over the centuries, including those related to diet and transportation.

Olsen discussed the history of horses and humans during her plenary lecture at 15 th Conference, International Society for Equitation Science, held August 19-21 in Guelph (Ontario, Canada).

She continued, “They have been valued throughout history for many reasons, including their milk and meat, as well as their power.” She continued, “And in modern times they’re valued for their companionship.” The horse’s perspective has improved the relationship.

Olsen said that evolution has not followed a steady and fluid path. The region, culture, resources and political environment of a country can have an impact on how horses relate to humans. Horses have also experienced lows and highs, as well as gaps in which evolution may have stopped in some regions and progressed in others.

She said that DNA evidence shows that modern-day riding horses are not derived from horses of Botai peoples, who were believed to have been the first domesticated horses. Copper Age Botai people existed more than 5,000 year ago in north Kazakhstan. Olsen stated that these people used horses mostly for milk and meat, but some were likely ridden to manage herds.

The Horse-Human Relationship

The DNA evidence suggests that the Botai horses are what gave rise to Przewalski’s Horse. Their husbandry knowledge, which appears to be superior to other regions around the world at the time, might not have continued into the next generations.

As evidenced by their art, it was also evident that some cultures had the ability to “read” the emotions of horses. Olsen stated that Paleolithic artists can sense a certain sensibility to horses’ facial expressions and body language in their art. This indicates that they were skilled observers who recognized the importance understanding animal behavior. She spoke specifically about a horse effigy with its mouth open, as though it were singing. Its eyes bulge and its ears are pricked. Its head is thrown back.”

This sensibility may have served a different purpose in Paleolithic time than it does today. Olsen stated that “recognizing horses’ expressions might have helped these humans better understand and make better hunters.”

Olsen stated that horses were a symbol of wealth and status in many historical periods. They often received significant attention from their handlers and owners to make them look elegant and attractive.

She said that they were decorated in many different ways. They trimmed their manes and made special tails. They also weaved beautiful feathers into their hair, and they decorated them to look spectacular.

This might also imply excellent care and welfare. However, even the best-intentioned owners might not have been able to provide ideal conditions for their horses due to a lack knowledge.

Olsen stated that better welfare for horses is long overdue. It depends on horses’ value, the culture’s economic, political, and also society’s compassion for animals. This has increased tremendously in the last 100 years.

She said that equine-assisted therapies and other methods of “valuing horses for all they can do” are likely to be the future of the horse-human relationship.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!