Even with all of the anthropological studies and discoveries that have been made throughout history, many details of horse domestication remain unknown. One of the most fascinating aspects about the domestication of the horse for me is the mystery surrounding exactly when, where, and how it first happened. It would have been a very challenging process with a lot of unknowns and surprises. For example, it is really difficult to imagine being the person who decided to milk a horse. How did they tame the “beast” to enable such close contact and intimate handling?
Deciding to climb onto the horse would have been a whole other challenge and brave feat. We can be almost certain that there were a great many injuries involved, for the humans naturally, and quite possibly for the horses as well.
How was the horse controlled? What did the very first halters/bridles actually look like? Were such things even used in the very beginning? Or was a rope simply placed along the front of the horse’s neck to provide something for the rider to hold onto, hoping for the best? When was it decided that a “bit” should be placed into the horse’s mouth and that that would provide a greater degree of control?
How was the horse tamed enough to let a human onto its back? It must have been a wild ride!
We’ve come a long way
Not to downplay the status of the dog as “man’s best friend”, companion, guide, et cetera, but given its adaptability to a wide range of functions in the fields of technology, transportation, and warfare, it’s historical prominence in religious ceremonies, and it’s modern-day role as companion, athlete, and therapy animal, the horse may arguably be the most successful human-animal relationship in history (Olsen, 2017).
It is truly fascinating to think about all of the ways horses influenced the industrialization of modern society and the roles it played in agriculture and city-building, as well as to consider how numerous breeds of draft horses nearly went extinct when they were displaced by the invention of the steam-engine and other fuel-powered technologies.
In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of the use of drafts horse for agricultural labour. The magazine Modern Farmer dedicated its December 2015 issue to the renaissance of “equined-fueled agriculture” profiling horses that harvest seaweed in Prince Edward Island, comparing “Horsepower” to “Horse Power” and so much more!
When James Watt patented his low-pressure steam engine in 1775, one of his acts of genius was to create a measure known as a “horse-power,” and to define it as precisely 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute. He had derived this figure by experimenting with “strong” dray horses. He developed this measure, still the standard for estimating power, because his engines often replaced horses as prime movers in manufacturing processes. One of his first customers was a Nottingham cotton manufacturer who wanted a Watt engine to replace the 8 to 10 horses that powered his mill. London brewers who used horses as power sources in their breweries also adopted Watt’s steam engine. Consumers like these needed to know how many horses an engine would replace in order to judge its economic value (Tarr & McShane, 2008).
In the documentary, Martin Clunes: Heavy Horsepower, the actor decides it’s time for his young Clydesdales to begin their training to learn how to pull a carriage. He documents the progress of Ronnie and Bruce and takes the viewer on a journey to see how working horses are used around the world today.
One can’t help but wonder, with rising fuel costs, an increasing transition to alternative energy sources, and an increased demand and need for more sustainable farming systems, will we see a larger scale return to horse-powered agriculture in the near future?
Of course, using horses in agriculture won’t be practical in all instances. There are local bylaws and space restrictions to consider, as well as the costs of maintaining the horses. But if conditions permit, using horses for even just some tasks could be beneficial on many levels, environmental, psychological, and, according to Andrew Amelinckx (2015) in article in Modern Farmer, economical as well.
The initial costs are in favor of the draft horse. According to farmer Stephen Leslie, who is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century, you will often see a team of trained grade, or even purebred, draft horses being sold in the range of $2,000 to $3,000. The average price for newer used four-wheel drive tractors, ranging from 40 to 99 horsepower on tractorhouse.com, was $28,506… Although it’s not an easy side-by-side comparison to make, the per-hour cost also seems to be in favor of the horse (Amelinckx, 2015).
Transitioning back to horse-powered farm operations on a large scale would have a number of challenges, which is why this is most likely to gain momentum on a smaller scale, whether for financial benefit or a desire to return to a more natural, sustainable way of farming.
Amelinkx, A. (2015). Horsepower VS. Horse Power: Which Wins? Modern Farmer. Issue 10. Winter 2015-16.
Olsen, S. (2017, Febuary 17). Group 1 – Question 5 [Online discussion]. Message posted to https://courselink.uoguelph.ca/d2l/le/449467/discussions/threads/1997732/View
Sibley, A. (Director). (2013). Martin Clunes: Heavy Horsepower [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/80108302
Tarr, J.A. & McShane, C. (2008). The Horse as an Urban Technology. Journal of Urban Technology, 15(1), 5-17.