Hoofprints Through History

Jim Wofford reflects on a few of the countless instances when horses have been an intrinsic part of human history.

If you wait long enough, history will repeat itself. Although until recently women were considered too weak and feeble to ride in the Olympics, they had history on their side. It wasn’t all that long ago that Elizabeth I (played here by Cate Blanchett in a movie) was riding at the head of her troops, ready for combat. That was an honorable tradition started more than 1,000 years earlier by Queen Boadicea of the Celts. Driving a chariot, Boadicea led her soldiers into battle with the Roman Empire around 60 AD. History reports that Boadicea was defeated in that battle and subsequently committed suicide. I mention this to help you maintain a little perspective the next time your competition plans don’t work out. Fast forward to the 21st century: In 2018, female combat veterans from both political parties are running for high office. You’ve come a long way, baby, to get back to where you were a long time ago. © www.alamy.com

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …”

Most of us have read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about the historical ride that Paul Revere took on “the eighteenth of April, seventy five,” to alert the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord that British soldiers were coming.

I suppose we can’t measure the historical impact of men on horseback strictly by the distance they covered. Revere rode only about 30 miles, although it was the middle of the night and most of it was on unlit back roads and country lanes. Still, we are the beneficiaries of Revere’s endeavor.

I read this poem the other day and got to thinking about men riding on horseback to change history. Most of my columns here in Practical Horseman are aimed at improving your riding skills, but occasionally I write about other aspects of the horse world. History is another of my interests, and I thought that for a while I would combine my historical reading and rumination and my lifelong fascination with horses.

Early Hoofprints

This is quite a big topic, and over the next few months I plan to write several columns about horses and mankind throughout history. Historian John Moore said, “Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse alongside.” It goes without saying that I can only highlight some selected examples from millennia of human/equine partnership. Once I started thinking about horses and history, I was spoiled for choice. I had to leave out far more than I included.

For starters, of course, it wasn’t just men who rode to change history; there were plenty of women who featured as well. Boadicea, Queen of the Celts in 60 AD, personally led her troops into battle against the Roman Empire, although she and her two daughters did it from a horse-drawn chariot rather than a saddle. One account says that she was unsuccessful and committed suicide as a result of her defeat. I suppose this puts failure at your most recent competition in perspective.

In 1429, Joan of Arc led her troops to victory at the Siege of Orléans, which is quite an achievement for a woman who was 17 at the time. In the few portraits I have seen of her, she is riding astride a powerful gray horse. She was no figurehead; history reports that, although wounded during the final battle for Orléans, she returned and led her troops to victory. Her courage was truly God-given, as Joan was motivated by religious visions. These visions eventually led to her downfall, and in 1431 she was burned at the stake. There were 70 charges against her, including witchcraft, heresy, and—horror of horrors—wearing men’s clothing. One of her remarks has come down to us: “I am not afraid,” she said, “I was born to do this.” I occasionally think of it when I see one of our new cross-country stars fearlessly galloping at a high rate of speed toward some huge obstacle. While that is a good motto for an eventer, it helps if your advisor is a celestial being.

Fast forward to 1588, and another female figure rode out to change history. In anticipation of the Spanish Invasion, Elizabeth I gave a famous speech to her army at Tilbury, east of London and close by the mouth of the River Thames. Historians have carefully noted her wardrobe: She was dressed in white velvet, wearing a cuirass (armor that protected the front of her torso) and—most importantly for our purposes—she was mounted on a gray gelding. The white velvet would have coordinated nicely with her steed. (Even back then, accessorizing was an important detail when planning one’s competitive attire.) By all accounts, she gave a stem-winder of a speech, saying, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.”

It would take approximately three and a half centuries before the International Olympic Committee would take Elizabeth I’s words to heart. German dressage rider Liselott Linsenhoff and British show-jumping rider Pat Smythe would break through the IOC’s glass ceiling in 1956, and in 1964 U.S. eventer Lana Du Pont would finally achieve full equality for female equestrian athletes. Their cause was helped along by the fact that all three of these athletes won medals in their first Olympics. It only took the IOC 370 years to notice that, while some athletes might have the body of a weak, feeble woman, they could have the hearts and stomachs of kings—and could horseback as well as any man. Given the IOC’s usual reaction to change, this is fairly rapid, by their measurements.

Horses are gonna be horses. It is oddly comforting to know that Mongolian horses take the same jaundiced view of humans now, during the annual Mongol Derby, that they did during the time of Genghis Khan nearly 1,000 years ago. Derby rider Anthony Strange, shown here suffering an involuntary dismount at the start of the 2016 Mongol Derby, is not taking much comfort from his mount. However—no blood, no foul, and Andrew went on to remount and successfully complete the longest (and certainly the most difficult) horse race in the world. The annual Mongol Derby course traverses 1,000 kilometers (more than 600 miles) across the steppes of Mongolia and celebrates the postal system developed by Genghis Khan. Using mounted “arrow messengers,” he quickly sent and received instructions and reports from the far reaches of a vast empire. This would not be the last system of mounted couriers used to connect a far-flung empire, as I will illustrate in my next column. © Laurence Squire

Emergence of the Mongols

But it is also a historical fact that most of mankind’s early development involved men on horseback. The late 10th Duke of Beaufort (owner of Badminton House, site of the Badminton Horse Trials) once remarked that unsound men on unsound horses have done the majority of the world’s work. One of the most interesting eras of men on horseback is that of the Mongol hordes, initially led by Genghis Khan (Great Ruler). Born as Temüjin in the 1160s, he dedicated the early part of his military career to uniting the Mongol tribes, who usually spent their time warring with one another. (His career bears an eerie similarity to a more recent period in the history of the U.S., and I will return to that in some of my next columns.)

By 1206, Temüjin had finally united the Mongol nation and was declared Genghis Khan. From that point until his death in 1227, he conquered one of the largest empires ever seen, one that stretched from present-day India to Russia and from Hungary to China. Modern historians casually remark that Temüjin united the warring tribes and set out to conquer the world. We should pause for a moment and consider the qualities of a man who could convince suspicious, prideful chieftains to support his vision of a great warring nation, built on vast, mobile armies capable of controlling unheard-of distances.

An Empire Based on Horses

Any nomadic, horse-powered society will display certain characteristics. Its members will be decentralized, highly mobile and fiercely independent. The life of each tribe will center on horses, a convenient means of wealth storage that also provides transport, food and drink. While Temüjin had outstanding leadership qualities, much of his success was built on the backs of Mongol horses, which were (and remain) capable of thriving in the most difficult conditions. On long, taxing marches, a Mongol warrior would open a small vein in his horse’s neck and drink the blood as a source of liquid and nourishment, either whole or mixed with water. A traditional gift to travelers, fermented mare’s milk is still offered to modern travelers in Central Asia as refreshment. This delicacy is not on my personal bucket list.

One of the first Western observers to write about the Mongol horses, Giovanni Da Pian Del Carpini (later Archbishop of Serbia) remarked in about 1245 that they were “not very great in stature, but exceedingly strong, and maintained with little provender.” Mongol horses weren’t the only tough ones around. Pope Innocent IV sent Giovanni, who was about 50 years old at the time, on a diplomatic mission to the Mongols. According to his diary, Giovanni and a companion covered 3,000 miles in 106 days. Tough men on tough horses.

The Mongol horses of that era were capable of incredible feats of endurance. Never fed grains, they foraged for themselves year-round, eating snow for water during the harsh Mongolian winters, and could carry nearly their own weight for days at a time. When hitched to a cart, four Mongolian horses were capable of hauling more than 2 tons for 10 miles a day. Short and stocky, they averaged 12 to 15 hands and usually about 600 pounds with a large head and thick legs.

If the Mongols reckoned their wealth in the number of horses they owned, then Genghis Khan’s men were rich indeed. Each warrior brought five or six horses with him on campaigns, switching horses throughout the day to prevent any one horse from becoming unduly fatigued.

Mongol armies covered 60 to 100 miles per day, an unheard-of pace for the time. Their speed and mobility were major factors in their battlefield success, as were their uncanny accuracy with the bow and arrows that each man carried and their ability to shoot their arrows at the gallop while hiding under their horses’ necks. (They would not be the only nomadic culture to perfect this battlefield skill.)

Genghis Khan remarked, “It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse: It is dismounting and governing that is hard.” In order to control their vast empire for hundreds of years, Genghis Khan and his descendants instituted a system of mounted couriers (called “arrow messengers”) who were part of a yam, or messenger service. These arrow messengers would take a message and ride, as swift and straight as an arrow, to the next station, where another rider would be waiting. This system allowed for rapid communication over a vast empire, an empire that would last for centuries—thanks to the Mongolian horse.

I hinted earlier that Genghis Khan’s success was not an isolated example. History has several instances of new empires being founded on horseback around the world, and in my next column I will trace the subsequent emergence of empires in the New World. 

This article was published in the November 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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