The History of Equestrianism

Equestrianism is the art of horseback riding. It is a skill that includes driving, vaulting, and basic riding. Horses can be used in a variety of ways, from transportation to racing to working purposes, so equestrianism covers all of these exercises and competitive sports. It is done through the creation of different riding styles, disciplines, and various activities.

Horses have been ridden by humans for thousands of years. Some of the earliest evidence in the history of equestrianism dates back to 3500 BC, where remains from Central Asia indicate the domestication of horses for riding purposes. There are wear marks on the teeth of the horse jawbone that are reflective of using a hard bit, along with several tools that are reminiscent of the same equestrianism tools that we use today. 

We know for certain that humans were riding horses for work purposes and for transportation by 2500 BC. They would also be used for hunting even while some cultures would hunt the horses for their food needs.

Some of the world’s greatest empires were built on the backs of horses. Couriers made it possible for ancient journeys of 2,000 miles to be completed in just one week during the Persian Empire. Messenger systems that were used in ancient times were replicated in the development stages of the United States with the Pony Express.

In many ways, horses have been able to free us from the struggles of difficult circumstances. They are able to take on the heavy work so that we can focus more on the development of culture and society. Yet in that desire to develop culture, human civilizations discovered that different ideas could create conflict. To resolve those conflicts, horses were discovered to be able to serve other purposes. 

A First Purpose: Horses Being Ridden for War

The earliest evidence of horses being used as working animals thanks to chariot burials and cave paintings. In these ancient civilizations, the chariots were often used for war purposes. Large horses were then used for cavalry. This gave soldiers an advantage on the battlefield, often playing vital roles in some of the most documented battles throughout human history.

It would not be until after World War I when war horses would begin to be phased out of battle plans. This means horses served humans in this capacity for nearly 4,500 years.

Most of this history of equestrianism takes place in Europe and Asia because of how the Ice Age formed. There is archaeological evidence that horses were also native to North America at one time, but died out during the Ice Age. Horses would not return to the Americas until 1493, during the second voyage of Christopher Columbus.

The idea that native tribes hunted horses to extinction is not one that is based in fact. What we do know is that once the benefits of horses in war were discovered, selective breeding practices began to take place. The goal was to make the horses bigger, stronger, and calmer. This would lead to the foundation of numerous breeds, including large-breed horses like Clydesdales and Shires.

Horse Racing and the History of Equestrianism

Humans have almost always seemed to have the desire to go fast. Before high speed automobiles, that meant riding a horse that had a lot of speed. Although there was most certainly an aspect of fun to ancient horse racing, there was also a practical purpose. By racing the horses, they would know which ones were the fastest and most durable for other practical needs.

Various forms of horse racing have occurred throughout history. Harness racing, chariot racing, and pari-mutuel racing for gambling purposes have all been common throughout the world’s major civilizations.

Over time, several additional horse racing options entered into the history of equestrianism in addition to the most popular races.

  • Endurance Riding. This sport requires a horse to race over a lengthy distance, often between 20-100 miles, and events are held in a variety of environmental conditions.
  • Breed Racing. Many races are available which focus on a specific breed. Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and American Quarter Horse races tend to be the most common today, but breed comparison racing has been taking place for almost as long as people have been riding horses.
  • Steeplechasing. This type of race in a reflection of the traditions of hunting horses. The horse in a steeplechase is required to jump over obstacles and is still a popular racing format in Europe.

These competitions have also lead to other forms of equestrianism competition over the years. From show jumping to dressage to equitation, both light and heavy breeds are given the opportunity to show off their skills in a variety of disciplines. Many events still occur on an annual event and equestrianism is also a featured sport in the Olympic games, as well as other international competitions.

Riding Styles and How They Have Changed the History of Equestrianism

Before modern technologies, horses were one of the most valuable possessions someone could. The horse was a primary method of transportation, a helper in the fields, and could serve in several other ways as well. If a horse fell ill, that meant days of lost work and potentially weeks of not being able to travel anywhere.

When we look at riding styles in terms of equestrianism, there are two primary styles that are considered.

  1. English riding.
  2. Western riding.

English riding is considered to be the traditional form of horse riding that has always existed in some form. Some may call it the “proper” way to ride a horse. In this riding style, being able to communicate commands to the horse is essential to a successful ride. This is because the rider controls every move through the legs and the reins. The saddle is light, has no horn, and the stirrups and simple and small.

Western riding started to develop during the later portions of the Colonial Era in North America. As ranchers and farmers began to work the land and raise livestock, it became necessary to develop a riding style that would allow for long-term riding. Some early Western riders would sometimes be in the saddle all day without a dismount.

Western saddles are more rugged when compared to English saddles and have an added weight. This allows the saddle to handle a tougher workload. A horn is on the saddle as well, developed as a tool for wrangling livestock from the horse. By attaching the rope to the horn, a rider can use the strength of the horse and their own strength combined instead of relying only on their strength.

Because of the demands that each riding style happens to have, there are different dress options that are offered for these riding styles. English-style dress tends to focus on “traditional” clothing, presenting a very formal appearance that harkens back to the times when only the wealthy and most powerful could afford a horse.

Western riding tends to focus on a rugged style of dress. Leather chaps, a work shirt, and a western hat are common items found in western wear.

Rider Injuries and the History of Equestrianism

The handling and riding of horses has always brought about a number of health risks. When riding a horse, the average person will have their head 12+ feet above the ground. A fast horse can easily travel at a speed of 40 miles per hour. If something unforeseen occurs at top speed, then the threat of a serious injury becomes very real.

Even when looking at modern riding techniques, studies from Germany, Australia, and the US show that riding a horse is even more dangerous than riding a bicycle. 50,000 riders visit emergency rooms in the United States every year because of their horse riding activities, which translates to 1 rider out of every 600 experiencing an injury at some point during the year.

Up to 20% of people who choose to ride horses on a regular basis will experience, on average, a serious enough injury that requires surgery, hospitalization, or may cause a long-term disability.

Throughout history, the most common injury in equestrianism is falling off of a horse. This is followed by injuries that occur due to the behaviors of the horse, which may include biting and kicking.

In Conclusion

Horseback riding may have seen many changes over the years as knowledge has increased and technologies have evolved, but in some ways, we are still riding horses the same way that our ancient ancestors once rode horses. By understanding our history and how it as affected equestrianism culture and style, it becomes possible to be a better-informed rider.

This knowledge may produce more appreciation for riding horses, but it also allows for more insight into what the relationship between horse and rider happens to be. Whether it is for farm work, for a long ride, or for going to war, the elements of equestrianism have combined to provide us with strong and long-lasting relationships that will never really separate a rider from their horse.