History began with Horsemanship

Greek bronze statuette (late 2nd-1st Century BC)Though it may seem obvious that writing/reading is a basic skill of civilization, horsemanship has fewer advocates as a cultural practice …

Yet we live in a world of paradox, and our partnership with horses should not be dismissed too lightly by the world they helped to create.

Author’s note: Research for ‘The Legend of the Great Horse’ trilogy led me to greater appreciation for the role of horses in human history …

Civilization developed slowly … discovering, inventing, destroying, re-discovering, re-inventing. Always building from what has gone before.

Eclipsed by Shadow - cover image coin Today we stand on a ladder of human progress. We may retreat a step–or fall off completely. History shows mankind’s progress is not steady or certain. Basic ideas which create a society can be lost.

What should be retained and what should be let go?

A plea for tradition

As we discard old ways in favor of new, we should recognize the importance of keeping the foundational skills that developed civilized humanity. Mankind has tried countless ideas that have failed … yet some specialized human activities have brought success to a wide range of cultures throughout history.

The Test of Time

History is not a clear guide, so nothing can be claimed absolutely. Cycles are not uniform: time-spans differ; some cultures persist while others vanish.

Yet even as we move into a new era of powerful, immersive technology, our society retains many activities that have been shared across successful cultures, such as honoring the dead, music, dance, agriculture. Perhaps these are threads that create the conditions of social interaction; perhaps they continue to exist in our societies because human culture needs them to survive.

Horsemanship, though recently less common, is one complex thread of human activity, one as old as writing. There are strong echoes between horsemanship and literary endeavors, two foundational civilizing arts.

Both horsemanship and writing involve education that opens doors to new experience. They share a mindset. The horseman craves the order and efficiency of a book. Yes there is passion, and whimsy, but quiet concentration is a goal for both. Informed comment is respected in both fields.

Without making claims, and taking a generalized (therefore mostly useless) stance, and accounting for generalities or patterns, it is interesting to notice some things.

Both writing and horsemanship began almost simultaneously at the beginning of civilization … in their unique history, there are other connections:

  • Both developed slowly and flowered at the very beginning of the city-state societies that formed early civilization.
  • Both have been virtually universal across dominant cultures.
  • Both are highly adaptable and incorporate developing technology and materials.
  • Both flourish or decline with the rise and fall of human society.
  • Both have renewed themselves in society throughout history.
  • Both are a combination of art and science.
  • Both have many levels of expertise and support a lifetime of learning.
  • Both reach their highest expression in successful societies.

And what may be their most important aspect …

  • Through teaching empathy, both develop human consciousness.

Horse pulling Plow (1939) USAWriting & Horsemanship: Twin harbingers of civilized culture throughout history

Though it may seem obvious that writing/reading is a basic skill of civilization, horsemanship has fewer advocates as a cultural practice.

Of course a pen is nothing like a bridle. Yet even if the relationship between writing and horsemanship is not clear in a material sense, they share a profound place in human culture. We live in a world of paradox, and our partnership with horses is sometimes dismissed too lightly by a world made by ancestors who revered the animal.

A Crossroads in Human History?

Unfortunately another similarity between writing/reading and horsemanship is that both are under commercial pressure … and both face a certain detachment by the broader public.

It is unthinkable–but not impossible–that a preoccupation with market-based solutions could influence us to let go of the ancient arts and sciences that helped form human consciousness and modern society.

Commerce has led many cultures down a blind alley.

If modern society puts the cart before the horse and cuts the reins … are we sure of ourselves, making this decision, or are we simply reacting without understanding? Our horses have seen us lose ourselves before; writing has recorded it.

Image Credits

Greek Bronze statuette (c. Late 2nd-1st Century BC), © User: niborean / Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons ‘Wikipedia Loves Art’ project / CC-BY-SA-2.5

German Grobe, “Farmer with Horse & Cart” / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / PD-Art

The History of Civilization, tweeted

“History is a Tale of Horses” … Tomorrow begins a new series of short posts tracing the chronological history of horsemanship. The series will be published daily on both Facebook and Twitter as short ‘tweet’-sized posts.

“History is a Tale of Horses”

Announcing a new series of short posts tracing the chronological history of horsemanship. The series will be published daily on both Facebook and Twitter as short ‘tweet’-sized posts.

The series will trace earliest horsemanship up to the modern era, completing just before the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London … as part of the countdown to publication of Book #3 of The Legend of the Great Horse trilogy next Summer (June 21, 2012).

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Why I Write about Horses

It can be hard to write about horses and not be misunderstood. Most people seem decided about horses one way or another (mostly another), and conventional “wisdom” I’ve known tends to dismiss horses and their activities as outdated and obsolete.

The misunderstanding is understandable: we humans have always been a few flakes short of a bale when it comes to our equine partner … the writ-large story of horsemanship is one of human ignorance staggering toward a cooperative path it wants nothing of, until some innovation in cavalry tops the ridge and a new way is more or less happily accepted (mostly much less).

When I tell people I’m writing a fiction adventure about horses in history, reactions vary. Some smile in a rush of good feelings and memories (these we call ‘horsepeople’), some are intrigued; other’s eyes dart away with a short nod and change of subject, or peer at me curiously trying to grasp why a grown man would spend time writing about ‘horsies.’

Horse Talk

Well, I don’t write about ‘horsies’ — no author does — but about an animal, a force, that has been an essential partner in civilization. I write to honor the intangible spirit in horses which sparks humanity’s creative impulses, a spirit which has served as mankind’s inner guide by providing a concrete image of noble humility, courage and selfless service. Discussions about horses deal in ideas that created the cultures we live in and have succeeded. Horse talk is really about humanity.

We can speak about horses in bold terms and not be embarrassed: it is hard to find expressive terms to describe how close and longstanding man’s partnership with the horse truly is. History has moved to the sound of hoofbeats since prehistoric man enshrined horses on cave walls, and celebration of our partnership has ennobled mankind throughout recorded time.

Is the great ride over?

Is mankind ready to dismount and proceed into the terrifying future alone? This is a graver decision than the attention it is given.

Yes, we have machines to replace buggies and hoofed cavalry … but perhaps we should consider the lessons of the countless cultures that rested upon the status quo of their horsemanship–and were overridden by newly-discovered potential in the horse.

Today horsemanship’s ancient roles of youth development, leadership training and community-fostering deserve examination, and there are exciting new roles to explore in horse-powered ‘green’ commerce, recreation, and healing so relevant to our crowded future.

It may even be that the ancients were correct in believing the horse was a gift of the Creator, and the future belongs to horsemen as much as did the past.

My answer to skeptics? Horse talk is more than it seems.

How to Hunt a Horse

Sneaking around is the rule for horse-hunters… and it ain’t easy. As anyone who has spent time with horses knows, our silent partner is quite alert to potential lions in the flower-pots. The horse’s creed is “he who quickly runs away, lives to run another day,” and he instinctively knows his survival depends upon a good headstart.

Mostly, you don’t.  Horses are prey in the wild, but few predators dare confrontation with a healthy equine. You could call horses “extreme” prey.

stubbs, horse frightened by lion, 1770

The opening historical scene of Eclipsed by Shadow is set in prehistoric times, highlighting the earliest relationship between man and horse: hunter and hunted.

It was not our most enjoyable association, casting humans in the shabby role of trickster … and leaving the horses not too happy either.

The horse has few natural predators

Lions and wolf packs are the only major predators with horse on the menu, and they mostly avoid contact. As a horse’s kick can crush an adult lion’s skull — something we could call a ‘game-changer’ — the horse’s enemies remain on the lookout for immature, elderly or sick equines.

If hooves are the danger in horse-hunting, getting close to the animal is the difficulty. A horse may not have the sprinting take-off of a gazelle, but with a short headstart no predator on earth can catch him.

The horse’s anatomy is a balance between power and swiftness: his heavy body is balanced on thin, well-leveraged limbs that take a few strides to reach full speed but allow him to gallop for miles. The horse simply outclasses all predators at any real distance.

So sneaking around is the rule for horse-hunters … and it ain’t easy. As anyone who has spent time with horses knows, our silent partner is quite alert to potential lions in the flower-pots. The horse instinctively knows his survival depends upon a good headstart.
Copyright © 2010  John Allen Royce, Jr.

Little Horse on the Prairie

The horse is prey and never forgets it: his motto is to ‘run away to live another day.’

The horse is prey and never forgets it: his motto is to ‘run away to live another day.’

Wild stallion Lazarus and part of his band in West Warm Springs HMA, OR | Bureau of Land Management, Office of Public Affairs / Wikimedia / Public DomainHorses are built for speed over distance, and with a good headstart he is safe from his natural predators.

The only hole in the equine’s survival program is the time it takes to reach top speed. To solve this problem horses come “fully-loaded” with highly advanced bio-technology to detect predators.


The Super-Human Horse

An equine’s sense of hearing and smell rivals that of a dog, with additions of swiveling ears and a canyon of a nose that sifts the wind with every breath. Their eyesight is much different than our own, featuring extreme motion-detection ability and a field of vision of almost 360 degrees, with only a few blank spots right behind and in front (which is why you never walk up behind a horse, and why jumping is such a challenge).

Equine abilities extend beyond the human experience. A horse’s legs serve as a sounding board to feel ground vibration, and can even recognize a person by their walk. Horses also have an amazing “photographic” memory and are able to see well at night.

Horses don’t see the world as humans see it

As you ride, the horse has mapped out the robin in the hedge 100 yards away, noted a freshly-painted mailbox and the spot where a dog barked seven years ago … even as feels the rumble of a distant train and responds to your cues.

We don’t share the outlook of horses, the same mind or same senses–we hardly share the same world. Yet somehow, implausibly, a close partnership was made … and is still kept.

Photo: Bureau of Land Management / Wikimedia / Public Domain

Copyright © 2010  John Allen Royce, Jr.

The Great Horse “Incitatus”

chariot-racing-coinA new review by Mara Dabrishus of the blog Whitebrook Farm mentions Incitatus, a famed Roman chariot-racing stallion favored by the third Emperor Caligula (24-41 AD) to the point of obsession.

The book passage mentioning Incitatus comes during a visit to the strange library of Mrs. Bridgestone, an eccentric woman who has made a collection of evidence about the “Legend of the Great Horse.”

Meagan was stopped before a crumbling box mounted on a low pedestal. The object was corroded and gray from age.

“It doesn’t look it, I know, but that is said to be the remains of the manger of the Roman Emperor Caligula’s favorite race horse, Incitatus. Caligula had a stable of marble and gold built for the stallion, complete with furnishings and servants. Though horses are strict vegetarians, Incitatus was fed mice dipped in butter and marinated squid.” Mrs. Bridgestone added more quietly, “Of course, the man was considered dangerously insane.” [pg 48, Eclipsed by Shadow (pbk)]

Incitatus was said to have never lost a race, and was showered with gifts and honors by the Supreme Leader of Rome. The stallion was given a stable of marble and a manger of ivory, and is said to have been been fed an extreme diet of delicacies (though he reputedly ate only from his bowl of barley mixed with gold flakes.) Dignitaries were “invited” to dine with Incitatus, whose palatial home was furnished with fine art.

Troops were stationed in the neighborhood of Incitatus‘ marble stables before a race to ensure the stallion’s rest, and the Emperor was said to have conducted a long household debate as to whether to marry the horse to secure his dynasty.  In a final insult to the Senate, Caligula planned to make Incitatus a consul of Rome.

After Caligula’s timely death from assassination, Incitatus was reportedly down-graded to a stall in a regular stable without complaint (and probably much relief). Unfortunately Caligula’s corruption was an omen. Rome was able to rid itself of the megalomaniac leader, but never could return to the citizen government of the Republic and escape the insanity of absolute rule.