(ANIMAL FACTS/HORSES) Has there ever been a more influential animal on human development than the horse? This Chinese New Year, more than a billion people will say goodbye to the Year of the Snake and will welcome the Year of the Horse. To commemorate the Year of the Horse in the Chinese calendar, we celebrate the horse and explore three ways this special species has influenced our world.

1. Exploration

From Lewis and Clark to the conquistadors, the horse was vital to any would be explorer. Photo: equitrekking.com
From Lewis and Clark to the conquistadors, the horse was vital to all explorers. Photo: equitrekking.com

To say that the horse was vital to exploration is an understatement. The horse was to the explorer what the ship is to the seafarer. Before the advent of the locomotive and other mechanical ways of transportation, the fastest way to get around was by horseback. Because of their speed, endurance, and their unique digestive systems, horses were the perfect animal to carry men and material from point A to point B.

In fact, Meriweather Lewis explained the importance of the horse to his and William Clark’s expedition to the Pacific when he wrote to President Jefferson: “The circumstance of the Snake Indians possessing large quantities of horses, is much in our favour, as by means of horses, the transportation of our baggage will be rendered easy and expeditious over land, from the Missouri, to the Columbia river.”

John Moore, an 18th century historian wrote,

“Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism, we will find the hoof print of the horse beside it.”

 

2. Warfare

War Horse, British Cavalry horses charging into battle
The British Cavalry charges into battle during World War I, as depicted in DreamWorks Pictures’ War Horse.

Perhaps the biggest way horses have shaped our world may be through their important role in warfare.

For example, when the Spanish landed on the new world, they brought with them guns, germs, and horses. To the indigenous people who had never seen a human mounted on an animal before, the sight of the Europeans mounted on these majestic animals was akin to psychological shock and awe. In 1532 with just 168 conquistadors—of which 62 were on horseback—the Spanish managed to defeat an Incan army comprised of 80,000 foot soldiers and bring an end to the Incan empire.

Genghis Khan is purported to have said, “It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse.” This stands true for the Spanish and the many empires that came before and after their conquest.

 

3. Communication & Trade

Before the telegraph, the Pony Express connected California with the rest of the Union. Photo: Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Before the telegraph, the Pony Express connected California with the rest of the Union. Photo: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Today the Internet allows for information, trade, and ideas to flow at breakneck speed. But before the telegraph and the locomotive, the horse was the fastest on-land way for different cultures to engage in trade and exchange ideas and information. A perfect example of this was the Pony Express in the United States.

Before the telegraph put the mail service out of business, the Pony Express proved to be the most reliable method of relaying communication  between both coasts of the U.S. Despite an arduous and hazardous 2,000-mile trek, mail deliveries took an average of ten days to arrive. Only one mail delivery was ever lost.

In the old world, the horse, along with mules and camels, were instrumental in the success of the Silk Road trade rout, which connected Asia with Europe. The horse was, in essence, the four-legged Internet of their time.

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