The full detail of the history of the equidae family dates back nearly 55 million years to the appropriately named hyracotherium, or dawn horse. Though small compared to the modern horse, hyracotherium underwent a chain of changes that transformed it into the majestic creature we know today. However, despite millions of years of evolutionary history, their rise to prominence as creatures of true merit only occurred sometime within the last three thousand to four thousand years. During that time, horses sat at the peak of their history, but that reign as revered mammals quickly diluted as the modern age, ripe with technology, introduced far more effective measures than the horse. With that era of their history at its end, horses have now become recreational tools, most commonly implemented as racers on closed tracks.
The horse has four major evolutions within its distinguished history: from hyracotherium to mesohippus, mesohippus to epihippus, epihippus to hipparion, and hipparion to equus. Pieces of horse evolution do exist between those primary areas, but those listed represent the most noticeable change from one place in evolution to the next. As horses developed, they gradually increased in size and developed feet more appropriate for travel in rocky terrain. This proved to be a necessity for the horse’s survival because their habitat changed from primarily woodlands and forests to plains and mountains. A third change featured in the development of horses was the alteration of jaw structure. As hyracotherium developed into the modern equus, its jaw grew to support more molars; one constant in the evolution of horses is their continuance to thrive on a diet of plants.
The modern horse developed about one million years ago, so their practical implementation by humans also dates back to prehistory. Domestication of the horse arguably began sometime between 5000 and 7000 years ago with the primary use either for driving livestock or personal transportation. These two uses could easily have been simultaneously implemented, although debate continues to exist over both when horses were domesticated and the purpose behind their initial domestication. What remains certain is this: the domestication of horses led to widespread use and innovation in agriculture, transportation, warfare, and entertainment.
Of the four primary uses of horses throughout history, the earliest were without a doubt agriculture and transportation. Without steam-powered technology, older civilizations relied heavily on manual labor for agriculture. With the adoption of horses into society, that work became simplified. Fitted with agricultural tools, horses were used to till fields. Based on the difficulty of the work, multiple horses could be fitted to the same device. The use of horses for agricultural duties was prominent in most societies where the creatures were available until the industrial revolution when steam power became standard. The ability of horses nonetheless continued to influence the advancing agricultural world as the term “horsepower,” used to express the efficiency of work, derives from the horse’s ability to perform tasks such as tilling a field. The ability of many engines is measured in horsepower.
The earliest period during which horses were used as a form of transportation was near the end of prehistory, with great use among Asian societies, as well as with the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Roman Empire, and other great empires of that time. Use was mainly restricted for important political figures (kings and other leaders) or during religious/cultural ceremonies. The use of chariots developed at the end of prehistory as changes were made to forms of transportation, such as wagons which are still used, though very rarely, today. As humans began to adapt to the nature of horses and become more familiar with them, directly riding on horseback took over the roles of horse-drawn vehicles, although for carrying multiple individuals, a chariot or wagon was always more appropriate. The ability of people to effectively ride on the backs of horses as well as the development of horseshoes in around 400-800 made directly riding on horses more popular, which led to its use in wars. As time progressed, and the social climate of the modern world, Europe specifically, changed, horses became objects that defined the class of individuals. By the eleventh century, horses were a popular form of
transportation, though entirely exclusive to those with fortune. The division between social classes was great, and ownership of horses helped to draw the line. Especially in high profile cities like renaissance France and Italy, those with a prestigious family history or a great fortune flaunted their mares. However, the relation between ownership of horses and social class in Europe faded moving into the eighteenth century when the most practical use of horses reverted to wartime purposes.
The first use of horses as instruments of war emerged during the last thousand years BC, but use was initially infrequent due to difficulties with effectively mounting armed soldiers onto horses. Still, the uses of horses militarily didn’t disappear. Although mounting soldiers on horses failed to gain much headway due to technical difficulty, the use of chariots as battle transportation rose; though more reliable that mounted soldiers, the use of chariots was never extensively used, and it never regained its footing at any point in history. However, mounted cavalry made their comeback starting somewhere around 500 BC in Roman armies.
The trend eventually spread to other civilizations until it became a pivotal strategic aspect of warfare. The use of horses for war developed throughout history as horse breeding allowed for more battle-ready steeds and riders were capable of possessing a larger inventory as they rode as well as more protective armor. War use continued for over one thousand years, moving into World War I. However, armed cavalry truly fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century, around the end of the Civil War in America. This goes without saying horses weren’t completely eliminated from war. They continued to be used in World War I, but served mainly as a reminder of status rather than battle-ready steeds ready to be deployed at any moment. After all, by that point in history, just as with steam engines and horses in agriculture, technological advances in weapons of war put horses in a position where their effectiveness was limited. In the military department, modern horses primarily serve as transports for men during ceremonies (ie. the funeral of a high ranking official).
Recreational use of horses came into being alongside the development of the chariot. Chariot races were popular among Romans, but the primary use of horses and chariots was never purely for recreation. The most commercial use of horses for entertainment purposes began in the Middle Ages with jousting. The event, as a characteristic of the period, obviously ended with the period, but the excitement associated with medieval joust has translated into the modern day with renaissance fairs and reenactments. Equestrianism represents the majority use of the horse in modern societies. Although in existence since men first domesticated horses, the practice of actually racing them was mostly second to use for agriculture and war. Until suitable horse replacements were found in both of those areas, the only remaining use for horses became recreation (although they do continue to be in use for travel in some areas). Many competitions are made more interesting through betting based on the reputation of a horse and its rider. The popularity of horse racing has had a footing in the media, the famous Seabiscuit having several media portrayals. Though horseback racing is mainly ignored except by enthusiasts, some people continue to raise and breed horses independently.