(c) Lynne GlazerTwice in the past week or so I’ve happened into conversations about how horses and humans had to have coevolved–that is, the two species have changed each other through their association.

Usually when I hear about coevolution of humans and animals, it’s in reference to dogs. Wolves came in to the fireside, the story goes, and humans fed them and got their services in return as hunters and guardians. There’s a strain of thought that says it goes further than that: that human cooperation is modeled on the pack structure of the canid. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but for a writer it’s an interesting thought experiment.

So what about horses? Dogs live in the house or tent or cave with the human; they’re interacting constantly, and affecting each other directly. Dogs are also much smaller, more portable, and easier to maintain in a subsistence society. Horses need a lot of land, a lot of fodder, and a lot of maintenance compared to dogs. That’s not something that everyone can manage. All social levels may associate with dogs, but horses have tended to gravitate more toward the privileged classes.

That’s one reason, I think, why the idea of bonding with a horse has tended to wander around outside the mainstream. Fewer people know horses than know dogs; and even those who know horses may be too busy using them as work animals or status symbols to notice that they have their own distinctive intelligence. The dog by the fireside is making his personality known early and often. The horse in the barn or the pasture, pulled in to work and then put back out again, may not be able to get a word in edgewise.

But bonding isn’t all there is to coevolution. Coevolution is mutual change. Through their interactions, the two organisms alter the way they grow, look, act, or function.

And that’s where it can be argued that of all animals that humans have associated with, the horse has had the strongest influence. Dogs have long been helpers, guardians, herd managers–but horses, prior to the invention of mechanized transport, gave humans a level of mobility that they had never had before. The horse, ridden or driven or brought along as a pack animal, expanded humans’ range tremendously; it gave them the ability to mount much larger migrations, extend their trade to much more distant areas, and carry many more goods and treasures.

It also made war a much more efficent and effective operation. The charioteer or the mounted warrior could travel faster and farther, and carry more and deadlier weapons. It’s hard to deny, based on what evidence we have, that the horse kicked the history of violence up a good number of notches.

Which is ironic in its way, because while horses can be extremely aggressive toward each other, as a species they thrive on cooperation. Stallions fight to defend their herds. Mares fight to protect their young and each other, and to get a larger share of available food. But for the most part, they cooperate. They band together against predators, they follow their senior members to food and water. “Aunties” and fathers (yes, stallions are good fathers) help raise the young.

I think that cooperative streak is what led the horse to tolerate domestication in the first place. The link above gets all dewy-eyed about a girl and a stallion, but I’m much more inclined toward the view that the first ridden horse was an old broodmare who had been climbed all over by the stallion and her offspring; an adventurous human, probably young and fairly lightweight, would hardly faze her. Stallions on the other hand do Not like things on their backs–because those things would, in nature, be either another stallion in a fight, or a mountain lion looking for dinner.

Whatever actually happened, or when or where, there is no possible doubt that it happened. Horses became one of the most important animal partners of the human species, and human history changed. The next change that would have that much effect on humans would be the rise of mechanical technology–and that one would render the horse obsolete.

Or would it?

Horses are still important in remote parts of the world; they can go where mechanical transport can’t, and can carry equipment and supplies as well as humans. But that’s a serious comedown from the time when the main mode of transport was the horse.

Still, in spite of his having been superseded almost completely by machines, the horse is nowhere near extinct. He’s moved noticeably in the direction of the dog, which also has receded in importance as a working animal–but which continues to be a popular and cherished companion.

The horse as companion animal can’t be a new concept, but it has become a  great deal  more prominent since he stopped being the main source of transport. Larger numbers of humans are realizing that the horse is an intelligent creature, generally well disposed toward humans, and willing to accept them as herd members if they come at it in the right way. There’s still plenty of use and abuse, and far too many horses misused or mistreated, but more humans also seem to be trying harder to see the horse’s side of things.

Humans and horses, in short, are still coevolving. While horses’ effect on the larger course of human history is probably over, their effect on individual humans is, if anything, stronger than ever.




Coevolution — 27 Comments

  1. It’s instructive to look at toys, to see what really attracts us to horses. I am thinking here of the My Little Pony toys; adored by little girls everywhere. They have long manes and tails, and big eyes, and they are very very unthreatening.

  2. Some of the books on horses and coevolution talk about how people could have thought to ride anything that big or that potentially dangerous. It would have to be someone very adventurous, and probably they tried to ride all kinds of animals, but horses were the ones that stuck. Because their backs are shaped just right to sit on (versus, say, donkeys, who don’t have quite the same shape and aren’t quite as big–they’ve become riding and use animals, too, but not on the same scale). But then who figured out about driving them? And why not, say, zebras? It must be something about the way their brains are wired, and the way they form connections–somehow, with humans, it just works.

    Though with true wild ones, it must have taken a lot of patience. Considering how much work it is to tame a Mustang–and they’re feral, not genuine wild animals.

  3. Yes, but it’s also instructive to watch the Mongol portions of the documentary Babies. All the domesticated animals in all the segments tend to wander in and out of interactions with humans, but the Mongol horses were surprisingly tolerant of babies and toddlers wandering about. I happened to see some travel shows set in Mongolia soon after that, and my impression was similar. Mongols are very practical about their horses, but there’s also a certain… lack of separation between them and their horses, or their area and their horses’ area, or their lives and their horses’ lives. (Though there’s a very strong separation between Inside and Outside, even when the yurt threshold isn’t closed off.)

  4. So the horses don’t go Inside?

    I’m trying to figure out whether this tolerance is bred in or coevolved, or if there’s something fundamental in horses that made it happen from the beginning.

  5. Well, I’ll speculate about the reasons for horses not going Inside…

    for a horse not conditioned to stall use, Inside could be crowded, dark and scary, even if the human part of the herd goes in and out, along with the dogs and small creatures. But the equine’s own sense of territory probably has something to do with it, along with strong conditioning that eventually leads toward coevolution that Inside is not where a horse wants to be.

    I had a Shetland who was curious about Inside, and would stick his head inside a door to watch TV. However, he never offered to go the rest of the way Inside. That said, he was on pasture 24/7 and grew up Outside, not in a stall. A stall-raised baby might be different. I have no idea if Miss Mocha (Stall Princess extraordinaire) would want to invite herself Inside if given the chance, though I could see her cautiously extending head and neck to look Inside. Think about what it takes to train a young horse to go inside a trailer–I’m thinking that there might be something coevolved or hard-wired that keeps horses from marching Inside.

    Of course, the presence or absence of food Inside might also be a factor!

  6. But what if Inside is a yurt or tent? Would that make such a difference? I’ve never had a stall-raised baby and hope I never do (except as a rehab, poor thing), but if someone around here has, what has been your experience with this?

    Horses do observe territory–they’re highly territorial animals. If Inside is included in their territory, as in a stall or trailer, I don’t see why they wouldn’t come in. The only reason I haven’t asked my horses is that i’m afraid they’d go through the floor. They come to the back door for carrots, and think that’s just fine.

  7. There’s a fascinating book, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language which talks about the earliest evidence for the domestication of the horse (among many other things), and the author suggests that it’s possible that only one stallion was ever domesticated; all the rest are the offspring of that one.

  8. I’ve had that on my wishlist–I’ve followed David Anthony’s work since quite early on. He’s the one who proposed the broodmare theory.

    Now I really want to read the book.

    He’s got some remarkably practical, real-world thoughts on the horse-domestication issue. Such as, you can argue in theoretical/cultural terms all you want, but if you find evidence of mares’ milk in the pots, there is no way the horses were wild herds simply hunted for meat. You can’t milk a mare unless she’s Really in favor of the procedure:

  9. Mocha is a stall-raised baby, as were her siblings and the offspring of another mare. Stall-raised as in born inside, spent inside time in a big foaling stall, turned out as much as possible when weather permitted (consider that March in Oregon is wet and cold; one of the babies in the barn was born during a very cold spell and needed a heat lamp during her first hours. She grew up just fine and energetic).

    Knowing Mocha’s mindset and her level of comfort with humans and small dark places, I would think that a yurt or tent would have many of the same issues as a house–narrow entrance, darker inside than outside, lots of activity and stuff going back and forth.

    Oh! Another thought. In an indoor arena, especially past the 45 parallel, you get drastically different light patterns from the sun shining through whatever setup the arena has for natural light. Horses can and will spook at the lines and patterns of sunlight on a darker arena floor. It might well be that the contrast between dark and light would be enough to discourage a horse from willingly and casually entering a small, dark tent or yurt, unless expressly trained and invited.

    On domestication–I’m with you about the old broodie for early domestication. Just add in old broodie with an itchy winter coat who’s discovered that these strange two-leggeds are capable of administering right fine itches in the Bestest Spots Ever. I figure that once horses understood that humans were capable of effectively scratching the Itchy Spots, they were all for domestication. One old-timey cowboy horse whisperer out in Central Oregon (now passed away, I think, but his daughter carries on the tradition) used an 8-foot bamboo pole to start out domesticating feral horses–get them accustomed to the feel of the pole scratching their withers and touching other spots, then work his way up until he could replace pole with hands and fingers.

  10. Human cooperation is based on the primate model of fluid shifting alliances and power rankings, not on the strictly hierarchical and fixed canine model, nor on the spoke-hub feline one.

    Several cultures (Inuit, Northern Amerindian) used dogs for transportation because horses were either absent or impractical, as Scott found out to his cost. Also, although it’s true that the horse altered several human habits wherever it was present (what technology didn’t?) many cultures — Aztecs, Mayans, Maori — waged highly sophisticated organized warfare without horses.

    Horses were far smaller at the start of their domestication — the size of destriers and dray horses was a result of intensive, highly focused breeding. And they were rather inefficient mounts until the various refinements were introduced (stirrups in particular).

  11. African animals in general were not domestiated heavily – hence, I think, the lack of ridden/driven zebras (my very limited experience says they’re equids and behave like equids) – but cattle (mostly draft, but also ridden), goats (draft), reindeer (mostly draft)… humans attempted to domesticate everything, but horses just seem to have taken to it much better.

    (Also, they might not be efficient to feed, but they don’t need to spend time lieing down redigesting, which makes it easier to plan journeys.)

    What really makes a difference is that horses, like dogs, give the impression that hanging out with humans is really good fun. Even when they have a chance to go off and do horse things, a happy horse that has its needs met will go and see what weird stuff the human is coming up with – there’s a sense of play that’s well-developed in adult horses that cows, for instance, don’t seem to share at all.

  12. Athena, in order to be bred, a mare must tolerate the stallion’s heavy weight on her back. No tolerate, no baby. Babies especially colts climb all over their mothers, sometimes with bruising force. They get desensitized to weight on their backs. Whereas stallions in the wild only get such a thing when it’s a predator or an enemy stallion. You could nitpick that their offspring might also do this, but I can tell you from experience that even a desensitized stallion is much crankier about what happens on his back than his mother or sister. He has solid surivival-related reason to be.

    For the rest, there is debate about primate/canid interactions, and the argument is that primates other than humans lack a certain level of what I guess one would call altruism. I don’t take a stand on this. There’s too much flogging of personal agendas in these sorts of discussions, and a bit too much self-projection–on all sides. It’s hard to be objective when you’re talking about, essentially, yourself.

    And for sure there have been many advanced horseless cultures. But they’re all extinct or were overcome by the horse cultures.

  13. Joyce, I love the Itchy Spots theory. 🙂 I actually tamed a feral colt–he had been mishandled at birth, basically attacked and wrestled to the ground whenever the humans wanted anything, and he was beyond skittish. I could not get near his head to cut off the halter that was growing into it. (Put on him at birth and left there.) I got there by scritchies, from the butt and back forward.

    He turned into a lovely horse. But oy, those first few months.

  14. The two closest relatives of humans, bonobos and chimpanzees, clearly exhibit both empathy and altruism. It would also be patently silly to argue that apes don’t have these attributes — but canids do.

    “There’s too much flogging of personal agendas in these sorts of discussions, and a bit too much self-projection–on all sides. It’s hard to be objective when you’re talking about, essentially, yourself.”

    Is this explicitly addressed to me?

  15. I have won over many a jaded schoolie by scratching in the right spots. Mocha went from a standoffish professional horse to a friendly ammy horse once she figured out that this crazy woman that spent a lot of time with her also spent time finding the Good Spots.

    One of those jaded schoolies was a tough-minded, Impressive-bred, former two-time Western Pleasure World Champion who tended to be a bit of a bully toward new handlers. As my trainer G said about him–
    “he was a mean stallion, and he’s a tough gelding.” Smart horse with the mind of a trickster (along the lines of a Lipizzan for the tricks he would play under saddle, especially when he felt good. There’s plenty of barn stories about him). But oh, when you got him put together (a bit of a challenge since he was big and long-backed), his jog and lope were epic to ride. G told me that I was one of the few who could get his World Champion jog and lope out of him–and he won his Championships on his jog and lope. Couldn’t do it without a soft, butter-like lower back.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of imprinting stuff focuses on touch and rubbing–and scratching. Horsey attitudes sure change fast with the scratching. I’ve seen the schoolies change from bored to “Oh! It’s you!” simply through a well-placed scratch.

    (and face brushing–I continue to be amazed at how many people don’t get how much horses like gentle face brushing)

  16. Regarding horses in the yurt, or rather the lack thereof—perhaps it’s something pretty basic, which is, you can’t house/yurt-train a horse. Horses eliminate where they are, which makes sense for an animal designed to be constantly moving. Dogs, on the other hand, prefer life in a den, and will not eliminate in the den if they can avoid doing so. I would imagine that any Mongol would dislike having 20 pounds of manure and a few gallons of pee dumped on the yurt floor at frequent intervals.

  17. Athena- I read Judy’s comment as a general one, directed at everyone, and at no one :).

    Nancy – good point! I wonder how the Bedouins dealt with that issue?

    And judy, you know your arab lore – is it true that prized arabs were brought in the tent?

  18. Athena, I was talking about the scholars/scientists/whatever you want to call them who develop these theories to pursue their own agendas. I’m presenting ideas here as “things people come up with that are useful for writers who write about horses.” I don’t agree with the canid thing, either, but it’s out there. It could be useful for someone in their worldbuilding.

    And sometimes, you know, theories we scoff at end up being true. I’m not going to say “never” to this one, even if I personally think it’s a stretch. Dogs have a sweet deal in wealthier societies, and they sure have trained their humans to cater to their every whim (she says while her dog snoozes on her foot, chillin’ in the A/C while the horses tough it out Outside).

    Nancy, that makes sense to me. Our culture keeps horses Outside, too–but asks them to live in tiny stalls and travel in trailers. We push their natural claustrophobia awfully far.

    raithen, that’s the legend: horses in the Bedouin tent. I would think they’d be trained to poop outside. Or would have someone delegated to scoop it as it landed.

    That’s the sort of thing a worldbuilder worries about.

  19. Just wanted to add my voice to the recommendation of “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language”. Very interesting. I believe I actually came across David Anthony in the first place from reading “White Mare’s Daughter” and have followed his work closely since then. I actually emailed him at one point to get a hold of some articles that couldn’t be found in Sweden and that I needed for a paper, and he was very helpful.

    I do think the sort of practical approach to testing what would and wouldn’t have been likely in terms of horse domestication that he has been using is extremely interesting, though of course it also needs to be backed up with archaeology and other evidence.

    Its always interesting to see horses discussed within fields like, for example, archaeology. I had some interesting questions to field from my professors and fellow students when I presented my paper, not the least on horse size. You still get quite a few knowledgeable people within the field who assume that prior to 1000 BC there’s no way they were riding horses because they were too small for it to be practical.

  20. Linda, how small were they, really? The stallion with the alleged bit wear was about 14.2. Was that huge for the time?

    My impression is that Lipizzaner-sized horses have been the standard for a long time (14.2-15.2), that we breed them excessively large now but in the old days, 14-15 hands was pretty much the norm. With variations of course in climates like that of Iceland and Norway and the Shetland Isles, where smaller was more efficient.

    And for sure full-sized Nordic men were riding sub-14-hand Icelandics. Still are as far as I know.

    I’m all for the short guys. My stallion is the same size as the prehistoric one. 🙂

  21. Roman horses were, IIRC, in the 13-13.2hh range (think modern-day Camargue horse – also ridden by adults!) while Germanic horses were smaller. I’ve seen figures (graves) of 11-12hh, so they were basically used to ride up to battle and hopefully home again; but the fighting happened on foot.

  22. The horses on the friezes at the Parthenon seem to be very small — the riders feet hang well down below their bellies.

  23. Supposedly the Parthenon friezes are Artistic License–to make the riders look more important. Anybody know any facts on actual sizes of horses in the period? That’s very late compared to some of what we’re talking about, but 13hh would fit a slightly over 5ft Greek man about like the horses in the friezes.

    The mare buried with Hatshepsut’s architect was in the 13hh range as I recall. But the stallion in central Asia was 14.2. Was he considered to be very large, then?

    So, when did horses start to get larger? What stock were people using to up the size? They were headed for 15 hands by the Middle Ages. Old-style Baroques are right around 15 hands.


  24. Vacation preparations and assorted chaos made me totally forget about this until today, sorry!

    The four horses buried at Dendra that were the ones I primarily looked at four my paper have been estimated to the following heights:

    One at around 139 cm, male and probably 17-19 years old.
    One at around 140 cm, male and probably 13-15 years old.
    One at 125-130 cm, male and probably around 15 years old.
    One at 130-135 cm, male and 15-17 years old.

    My recollection of the other Bronze Age finds from Greece are that they’re all in this range, with 140 cm probably being the upper end.

    Icelandic horses and Camargue horses are probably pretty good references for the size for much of the Bronze Age.

    Looking through my notes, I see I have one from one of Ann Hyland’s books that puts Roman cavalry mounts at 130-150 cm, so it seems that by then you had started to see an increase in size, but that quite small horses (by our standards) were still in use.

    In fact, there may even be some slight evidence for breeding for a larger size in the horses from Dendra; the two I listed first are somewhat more recent than the two final horses, though it could just be whatever they had on hand for this kind of sacrifice at the time.