It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.  
What is essential is invisible to the eye…
People have forgotten this truth… But you mustn’t forget it.
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

Antoine de St.-Exupéry, The Little Prince (1943), chapter XXI.

The domestication of the horse – and more specifically taming horses so that they could be ridden – arguably did as much to transform the course of human civilization as any other development in the last six thousand years. Riding horses fundamentally altered our perception of the relationship between time and space, enabling travel at otherwise unachievable speeds over vast distances. In the era before the combustion engine, horses served as our primary source of muscle power and as the earliest agents of globalization, not to mention making possible new types of violence. Historically, they have been our trusted partners in work and war, sport and recreation. Increasingly, through various forms of equine-assisted therapy and learning, they have taken on the role of enabling humans to heal from trauma and counteract the stress and alienation inflicted by modern life, showing us the path toward reclaiming our connections to nature and to our truest selves, as well as providing a compelling model of social and emotional intelligence and of how to exercise what Linda Kohanov refers to as nonpredatory power. At the same time, modern equine advocates and enlightened owners and trainers are more and more committed to redressing the damage humans have inflicted over centuries of indifference to the horse’s nature as a sentient being, recognizing, as the French writer Antoine de St.-Exupéry reminds us, that we are responsible, forever, for what we have tamed.  Perhaps it is only now, in our current age, that horses can begin to demonstrate their full potential and capacity to tame us.

Yet despite the horse’s importance in human history and evolving role in contemporary culture, the details of where, when, why and how domestication occurred remain shrouded in uncertainty. Although horses were among the last of our modern domesticated species to be successfully tamed, not much definitive evidence about the process exists, leading to considerable controversy among scholars. Anthropologists, archeologists, paleolinguists and, more recently, experts in interpreting ancient DNA have all tried to decipher the meager clues available but so far no clear consensus has emerged. For many years, the most popular theory pointed to the Botai people, a group of hunters who occupied permanent settlements on the steppes of northern Kazakhstan between 3700 and 3000 BCE. Findings from Botai archeological sites, including signs of corral postholes and remnants of mare’s milk extracted from pottery shards, as well as a plethora of equine bones and teeth, the latter seeming to show signs of bit wear, have together been thought to provide the earliest available proof of horses being domesticated and ridden. Further study, however, has challenged the attribution of changes in the Botai horses’ molars to abrasion caused by bit use, while recent DNA analysis has demonstrated that the Botai horses show no relation to modern domestic horses. While the absence of proof regarding bit use proves little, since a bit is not required in order to ride a horse, the DNA evidence indicates that as far as domestication is concerned, the specialized Botai culture, in which hunters may have ridden horses primarily to hunt other horses, was a dead end. By the beginning of the 3rd century BCE the Botai had disappeared, leaving no lasting legacy.

In search of a more likely location for the domestication of the ancestors of the modern horse, researchers have turned their attention instead to a region known as the Pontic-Caspian steppe, an area of open grasslands interspersed with river valleys occupying what is now southern Russia and Ukraine. Among the authorities who have worked extensively in this area, David Anthony (emeritus professor of Anthropology at Hartwick College) presents perhaps the most comprehensive – and convincing – overview of the available evidence. His magisterial work The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2007), along with some of his more recently published articles and conference papers, have served as the primary reference sources for She Who Rides Horses. 

As Anthony points out, herds of wild horses, once abundant throughout Europe, by about 8,000 BCE had mostly disappeared due to human hunting and climate change, except for the open grasslands extending north and east of the Black Sea – the Pontic Caspian steppe. Here they continued to survive and even flourish. Among the most common of the wild grazing animals roaming the grasslands and supremely adapted to the harsh environment, horses provided a prime source of prey for humans and other large predators alike. Even so, according to the archeological record, by sometime before the beginning of the 5th millennium BCE, the people occupying the area, particularly the territory between the Volga and Don rivers, no longer depended solely on their traditional practices of hunting, fishing and gathering. Instead, they had begun to raise domesticated cattle, goats and sheep, most likely acquired through trade with neighbors to the west and south. Initially, as indicated by the DNA evidence, livestock were not kept as dairy animals but rather as a reserve supply of meat and other secondary products such as wool, and for sacrificial purposes, as revealed by the presence of their bones not only in trash heaps but in the burial sites of individuals (predominantly adult males) who evidently held high standing in their communities.

As such, Anthony argues, herds of cattle, goats and sheep likely came to represent important signifiers of wealth and status, both for individuals and for larger family groups or clans. Significantly, around 4800 BCE equine bones also began to appear for the first time not only in trash heaps co-mingled with the remains of wild and domestic animals alike, but in elite human burials as well. The other ritually slaughtered animal bones found in these graves belonged exclusively to domestic species – no wild animals were included – indication, according to Anthony, of an important shift in how the ancient hunter-herder-gatherers of the Pontic-Caspian steppe understood their interactions with and relationship to horses. 

Further evidence from the same area suggests that over the next fifteen hundred years (c. 4800 BCE – c. 3300 BCE), as the steppe climate became even more inhospitable, a new lifestyle emerged, involving wheeled vehicles and herds of livestock too numerous to have been managed except from horseback, as well as increasingly structured and complex social relations. As Anthony points out, unlike the surplus crops of agricultural communities, cattle, sheep and goats, could be easily stolen, as could domesticated horses. According to Anthony, this in turn would have necessitated the emergence of a warrior elite, headed by a clan chief, tasked with defending the livestock, undertaking raids and exacting revenge. As wealth accumulated in the form of larger and larger herds, family alliances among fathers, sons and brothers would have been increasingly important, as well as ties to neighboring groups, likely cemented through patron-client obligations involving gift exchanges, ritual feasting and religious celebrations, along with the arrangement of strategic exogenous marriages. 

By 3300 BCE, Anthony tells us, a culture with just these characteristics – known by scholars as the Yamnaya – had become well-established in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Comprised of mounted nomadic pastoralists able to subsist almost exclusively on the secondary products produced by their immense herds of cattle, sheep, goats – and horses, the Yamnaya demonstrated unique burial customs and close male kinship ties (as revealed through DNA analysis) that would have been characteristic of a hierarchical, patrilineal, patrilocal social order. In addition to the genes for red hair and blue eyes, as well as a mutation that allowed many of them to consume dairy products into adulthood, the Yamnaya most likely also possessed a common language and cosmology identified by linguists as Proto-Indo-European (the progenitor of the Indo-European language family). As the title of Anthony’s book suggests, these nomadic herders subsequently had a significant impact on much of Eurasia through the spread of language, as well as cultural and religious beliefs, social structures and various technologies and practices, including riding horseback.

In order for all of this to have been possible, sometime between 4800 and 3300 BCE, someone living in the Volga-Don region of the Pontic-Caspian steppe must have conceived of the idea of riding a horse. More remarkably, there must have been a horse willing to cooperate. Recent DNA studies have revealed that the progenitors of all modern horses can be traced to the area between the Volga and Don rivers around 2200 BCE and comprised a diverse group of around eighty mares, likely born wild and incorporated into domesticated herds over time, but possibly only a single stallion. Significantly, these horses possessed genetic changes that likely made them more docile, as well as better able to bear the burden of a rider1. Is it possible that the Yamnaya – or their recent ancestors – were selectively breeding horses whom they’d been able to tame in order to reproduce just these traits? As Anthony reminds us, domestication was a process rather than a single event, so that while all the genetic qualities associated with the modern horse might not have been present until near the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, the ancestors of the ancestors of the modern horse must have begun the journey toward a new relationship with humans many generations prior. 

Like their modern descendants, these earliest candidates for domestication were herd animals, with nervous systems wired for social connection in order to survive. They had evolved to form life-long bonds, living in closely-tied family groups, in which a stallion provided protection while an older, experienced mare with knowledge of where to find forage, water and shelter, offered direction. Although likely not structured into a rigid pecking order (as often imagined), as with modern feral bands, the herd would have recognized this mare as a leader whom they could willingly follow. Their collective ability to detect and communicate the possibility of danger in their surroundings, the result of highly attuned senses including the capacity to perceive and interpret emotional energy, meant the whole herd played a role in keeping one another safe.

This same emotional acuity may have contributed to ancestral horses being as inquisitive as their modern counterparts as well. Herein lies another important clue as to how and why they allowed themselves to be tamed: as social animals who were also curious, the ancestors of modern horses might well have been willing to approach and interact with friendly, nonthreatening humans. In discussing how the domestication of horses occurred, both Stephen Budiansky, author of Covenant of the Wild (Yale University Press, 1999) and Meg Daley Olmert, author of Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond (Da Capo Press, 2009) speculate that this must indeed have been the case. Both authors point to horses’ tendency to form long-lasting relationships reinforced through mutual grooming, their inclination to follow a reliable leader, and their ability to perceive and interpret emotional energy as fundamental qualities favoring domestication. Olmert, in particular, emphasizes the role of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter responsible for reducing anxiety and facilitating feelings of calm and connection. Produced through soothing social contact, oxytocin promotes trust, communication and cooperation, providing the basis for the creation of strong emotional bonds. This influence would have worked both ways; as mammals, humans experience the same oxytocin effect. Thus we can imagine that naturally curious ancestral horses who encountered humans with kind hearts and gentle hands would have been able to begin to establish a mutually satisfying and beneficial relationship. When horses discovered that humans were not necessarily predators but instead could be trusted to lead and to protect, driving off threats and otherwise aiding in survival, they might conceivably have been willing to trade freedom in the wild in return for the greater safety and sense of well-being that came from associating with humans. 

Certainly from an evolutionary standpoint, it was a good strategy. Most scholars agree that for horses, the alternative to domestication would most likely have been extinction. From the human perspective, taming and domesticating wild horses, rather than simply continuing to hunt them, was also a good strategy. Horses were hardier than other livestock and therefore better able to withstand the steppe winters, which grew colder and snowier after 4200 BCE. Breeding and raising them would have provided a more reliable source of meat than relying on the uncertain survival of cattle, especially given the increasingly harsh environmental conditions. But was this advantage enough to go to the trouble of overcoming wild horses’ highly developed flight instincts, as well as their powerful capacity to defend themselves when cornered and threatened? If additional motivation were required, the fact that a single mounted herder with a good dog could manage more than twice as many livestock – including horses – than someone on foot could well have proved sufficient. Even so, for humans as for the horses, the draw of interspecies connection must also have been a primary factor in order for the whole enterprise of domestication to succeed. Relationship – and the trust it implies – would have been critical in order for humans to be interested in taming horses and for horses to be willing to take the monumental step of allowing humans to ride them. 

As the title of Budiansky’s work makes clear, domestication is a mutual endeavor involving an ongoing covenant – a vow – the sort of heartfelt promise that solemnizes a committed partnership. While throughout humans’ association with horses, we have failed repeatedly to live up to our side of the contract, horses as a species have remained true to theirs. If we are to redress the imbalance and restore the relationship, not just with horses but with all of nature (of which we are a part), we must begin by remembering our half of the covenant and then endeavor to fulfill it. When we whose lives have been touched by these magnificent creatures understand what it truly means to be responsible, forever, for what we have tamed, it will be because we have allowed horses to teach us what is essential: how to see with the eyes of the heart and create ties without the use of a rope.

 1See Orlando, et. al., “The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes,” Nature, Oct. 20, 2021, and Anthony, D., “Yamnaya culture and the invention of nomadic pastoralism in the Eurasian steppes,” unpublished conference paper, 2018.