Worldbuilding with Horses: Preindustrial Revolution

Worldbuilding with horses can do really interesting things to your infrastructure, your geography, and your culture. It can also have profound effects on the ability of a culture (whether tribal unit or full-on nation state) to grow and expand.

I happened across this gem when I was researching a story (yes, we research our fantasy; don’t you?). Russell Chamberlin in The Emperor: Charlemagne talks about a major technological advance in the eighth century C.E., and it had a great deal to do with horses:

…some time during the early years of the king’s reign the Franks evolved finally into a race of horsemen. And the same kind of horse bred for strength and stamina on the battlefield was ideal for working the farm. Equipped with the newly evolved horse-collar, which meant that the animal thrust with its shoulders instead of pulling with its neck (and so suffering slow strangulation), the horse worked at least 50 percent more efficiently than the oxen and, despite its relative appearance of slenderness, could work for a good two hours a day longer. The ox would survive side by side as a beast of burden with the horse, if for no better reason than that an old ox made better eating than an old horse. But the relative value of the two is shown by the fact that a measure of ploughland came to be recognized as that which could be worked by two oxen or one horse in a given period. In terms of agricultural output, yet another boost had been given to food production (p. 104 of the hardcover edition).

Think about this. The horse collar has no gears or levers or blinky lights, but it is technology. It’s a tool that renders a specific task easier and more efficient–namely, using horses to pull various forms of human equipment, including the plow. More land plowed means more and better food for the population, which means the population can grow, which means the tribe/demesne/country can (and under many circumstances will have to) expand. It also means bigger and better surpluses, which can be stored against lean years, or traded for items that the populace need or want.

Horses are trickier to keep than oxen–fussier about what they can eat, and more opinionated to train and handle–and that has to be factored in. But as the example of the Carolingian era shows, it’s worth it. Get your horses plowing your fields, and you’ll see bigger returns.

So what about the statement that the same animal used for war can also be used to plow fields? Doesn’t this run counter to the view of the horse as the expensive darling of the aristocracy? Well, in a way, yes–but here’s where we need to filter out all the centuries of chivalry (both actual and mythical) and look at the situation through the eyes of a Frank in the eighth century.

Frankish culture is not, at this point, a horse culture. Knighthood hasn’t flowered yet, though the seeds are being planted. Charlemagne isn’t Charlemagne, the noble, white-bearded Emperor with his twelve Paladins, either. That Charlemagne is the creation of later centuries, after knighthood and chivalry had become an institution.

The real Charlemagne was a fascinating figure in his own right, but when he was at home, his name was Carl (which simply meant “Man” in his native language), he had rather a messy family life, and he was known to be obsessive about taking baths (versus the common view of the “Dark Ages” as the age of rampant dirt). He was not an absolute ruler; he was more the head of a large and obstreperous, fluid, frequently rebellious mob of warlords and landholders, who might or might not be relied on to do what the king ordered. Administrative genius and tireless organizer that he was, he pulled the loose federation of Franks and an expanding pool of allies and defeated enemies into an empire–but like most historical empires, it broke into pieces after he died. Those pieces were much larger than they had been before, and became nations that we still recognize today: France, Germany, Italy.

One thing that made all this possible was the horse. The horse in war, for speed and force, and the horse on the farm, for increased crop yields. But was the same horse really carrying his owner/trainer/owner’s sworn man to war during the fighting season, then heading home and plowing the fields?

In the case of smaller or poorer holdings, it’s not unlikely. War could break out at any time, of course, but for the most part, it was a seasonal sport: late spring, over the summer, into the fall, when the weather was more or less cooperative and travel was, in general, less difficult. Winter was for holing up, licking wounds, repairing damage to people and places or things, and getting ready for the next war. The war horse could plow the fields in the fall for the winter wheat, and plow the rest in the spring; good way to get him toned up for the march and the fight.

The idea of the war horse as a distinct class of horse would evolve as society became richer, holdings got bigger and more productive, and wealth expanded to the point that a holder could afford to buy or breed specialists. This still happens by the way. The Warmblood Verbands of Europe (notably Germany) were founded after World War II by  farmers looking for new markets for the horses that were no longer needed for cavalry mounts or coach horses.

Before the tractor or the factory farm, the horses that did not go to the army or the transport industry would work in the fields. These days the horses will be rated and evaluated and then either kept on the farm for breeding (after passing various tests of performance and quality) or sold for various levels of riding and driving. A few may even still be plowing fields.

Even the “Noblest Horse in Europe,” the Lipizzaner of the Hapsburg emperors, is still used for agricultural purposes in parts of eastern Europe. This smallish, sturdy, very strong breed is probably fairly similar to the kind of horses the Franks would have used for plowing fields and for riding to war. Compare this statue of Charlemagne from the ninth century (during or soon after his lifetime)

with this guy:

They were probably about the same size. Charlemagne was a really tall man by the standards of his era: well over six feet tall. So the dangling legs are not an exaggeration.

Notice something else in the statue, too. No stirrups. There’s some debate as to when the stirrup made it into western Europe, but there’s also pretty clear evidence that that occurred sometime in the eighth century. It wasn’t universal by the ninth, this statue would seem to indicate, but it’s generally accepted that while Charlemagne may not have had armies of horsemen with stirrups at the start of his reign, he had them by the time he was crowned Emperor in the year 800.

Stirrups were another technological advance that made the age of knighthood possible, and changed the face of warfare. They’re a deceptively simple little device: a loop of metal, wood, leather, or cord, attached to a saddle by a strap. Here’s Mr. Chamberlin again on what happens when you add a stirrup to a war horse’s saddle:

It is an astonishing fact of history that, though cavalry had been used for centuries in both the civilized and the barbarian worlds, and though some variation of the stirrup had in fact appeared in widely distant places at widely distant periods, it did not become universally adopted until taken up by the Franks in the early eighth century. Without the stirrup, the horseman can function only as an archer or, to a limited extent, a swordsman and spearman. With the stirrup, horse and man are transformed into one immense projectile with the weight of the charging beast transmitted down the heavy lance which the horseman could now wield, bracing himself against the stirrup for the impact. Had he attempted such a manoeuvre without a stirrup, he would simply be swept off the back of his mount at the moment of impact…. In addition, the horseman could, by standing in the stirrup, raise himself in the saddle to strike with his sword down on his left-hand, or blind, side (p. 114).

Chamberlin goes on to observe that the next military development of similar importance would be aircraft, though I would be inclined to make at least a glancing reference to gunpowder. I would also wonder about other parts of the world than the West (Chamberlin shows his age here, with his Western-centric view of history). Even allowing for these limitations, however, I agree with Chamberlin that the cultural changes were equally significant, with the warrior on horseback rising to the top of the social order.

As long as we’re staying in the Western context, the old Roman equites, the mounted class, were comparable to our middle class. Patricians were distinguished by their political position and high military rank rather than by their horses. Greek cavalry were regarded as part of the army in general, rather than as the noblest of the noble. It took the horse culture of the Western Middle Ages to transform the mounted warrior into the knight of song and story. What made it happen? The stirrup is a very likely answer, for the reasons Chamberlin describes.*

When we’re building worlds, it can help a great deal to study turning points of our own history–to see what those points were, and what came of them. For horse cultures, the eighth century in the West was key. It would take over a millennium before the horse was superseded by the mechanized cavalry–and that took a major technological revolution of its own.

*Which also has me wondering about the samarai culture of Japan. How much of a horse culture was it, and would the technology of the stirrup have had anything to do with it as well?


For more precise details about the subjects mentioned in this blog, check out Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Questions answered, terms defined, and links, many links, to further investigations. With copious illustrations. Just $4.99 in all the popular formats (including Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-reader) from the Book View Cafe e-bookstore.

Or if you’d like to see some of the ways in which horses can be portrayed in fiction, try A Wind in Cairo, the magical story of a prince, a Turk, and an Arabian stallion; or Lord of the Two Lands, the tale of Alexander the Great (and his horse Boukephalas) in Egypt. For further historical delights, try The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades and its prequel, Alamut.




Worldbuilding with Horses: Preindustrial Revolution — 13 Comments

  1. According to a brief perusal of Secrets of the Samurai, it seems that stirrups had been in use since before the Japanese came from the mainland to the islands, (triangular ones with toe-caps). They had the same type of ponies that the Mongols did, but the horses weren’t used as extensively in warfare as they were in Europe. Oxen were the preferred farming animals, and horses were mounts or pack animals.

  2. Oh, that’s an interesting statue. The position of the head and the lifted fore leg makes me wonder, was it supposed to depict a horse moving at a rack, like an Icelandic horse?

    I’ve seen claims that prior to good roads and comfortable carriages, trotting wasn’t really a prized gait, it was pacing or the rack.

  3. Wow! I’d never dreamed that warhorses plowed fields in the off season. What a brilliant use of resources!

    I should have known better, though. Single-use tools/objects/animals must be a fairly modern invention. Earlier people didn’t have that luxury.

  4. Lynnette, it already exists. Check out White Mare’s Daughter. It is unfortunately out of print, but I hope Judy will release an ebook soon!

  5. Beth, thank you. 🙂

    And thank you, Lynette. White Mare’s Daughter, Lady of Horses, Daughter of Lir. Based on David Anthony’s work. And The Shepherd Kings takes it into Egypt. Also “The God of Chariots” in my Novelettes/Novellas section here.

    Deb, yes. Maximum use of available resources.

    Linda, I hadn’t thought about that, and it’s possible it’s just a convention to keep the statue from falling over, but then again…

    Cara, thank you. It wasn’t a horse culture, then; rather a culture that used horses. Wasn’t it the samurai’s sword that distinguished him? Or swords, rather?

  6. Don’t forget the time factor too.
    If you plough the same amount of land with your horse+collar as you plough with your oxen, but it takes you less time, that’s time freed up to do other things like discover new technologies, produce great art, tell wild stories or make war on other people.
    I write fiction with historical settings and I try to avoid horsey details. Your blog posts provide great insights, so thanks!

  7. …and speaking research, I was working one of my horses (the boingy white guy in the photo, in fact) in a TTEAM body wrap, like so:

    And was reflecting that when he lowered his head and powered forward, if he’d been pulling anything he would have had some issues with his wind as the neck wrap tightened. I was using a soft fleece strip that had plenty of give, so he wasn’t in any discomfort, but turn that into a more rigid leather strap and attach a plow or cart and it would have been a different story.

    Whoever invented the horse collar was a genius. A rigid oval around the neck allows attachment of the harness, and takes the pressure directly off the neck (including the base of the windpipe). I wonder if the inventor was thinking about the ox yoke, which existed all the way back to Biblical times, but which wouldn’t work for the way a horse is built and moves?

  8. Judith — it’s been a while since I read up on this, but IIRC, the samurai class was initially associated with the bow and the spear. Swords ended up being deeply important to it, of course, but that was a later development.

  9. Thanks, Judith!

    I don’t remember where, but I had heard that the invention of the improved horse collar was a definite milestone in terms of agricultural history, and also had an influence on the development and history of human slavery, too.

    How much in general, I wonder, did the non-existence of the horse in pre-Columbian Americas retard the development of those societies.

  10. I have seen several references to stirrups being a critically important innovation. (I first saw it all the way back in the old “Connections” TV series.) What I have never seen though is discussion of a saddle tree in conjunction with the stirrup.

    Stirrups on a bareback pad are not especially helpful! The whole pad unit wants to roll if much weight is put on one side. So I suspect the saddle tree’s improved stability is very important to stirrups, but have not seen a comparative timeline on saddle construction to stirrup use.