Horse history celebrated by new exhibition

In travel, conflict and agriculture, horses have helped humans for over 5,000 years. Now, an exhibition is celebrating that relationship – as technology brings it to an end.

Back in Victorian England, anxious city officials did some sums and came up with a worrying prediction: the city of London was crammed full of horses, they realised, and the numbers were growing so fast that the streets were in serious danger of being buried under a colossal mountain of horse-droppings, which were being ‘produced’ faster than street cleaners could sweep them up again.

That, of course, was before the invention of the car. These days, most people living in modern towns and cities will hardly ever see a horse except on the television. Mounted police still occasionally patrol the streets, and horse-riding cavalrymen ride in processions, but the age when horses threatened to overwhelm city streets is long past.

The ancient relationship between humans and horses seems finally to be over. If so, it means the end of an extraordinary 5,000 year bond between two species – one which will soon be explored in a unique exhibition at the British Museum covering millennia of horsey history, from the first domesticated animals to the racing thoroughbreds of today.

At first, horses were kept like cows, for their meat and milk. But, over the years, they were bred to become faster and stronger. Around 2,000 BC, military types discovered the advantages of going into battle on horse-drawn chariots. Archers on horseback were the next big innovation – deadly against slower foot-soldiers. Mongol horse-archers used this technique to conquer half the world during the 13th century AD.

In the West, meanwhile, the development of the stirrup around 500 AD led to the rise of heavily armoured mounted knights, who dominated battlefields and created a whole culture of chivalry and romance.

Unsurprisingly, warriors have always held their horses in high regard. Mongols lived off their horses, living on blood from stallions and milk from mares, and softening raw meat by leaving to ‘marinate’ under their saddles as they rode. Horse-gods like Epona, in ancient Europe, or Hayagriva, in India, were worshipped for thousands of years.

But many horses have suffered terribly under human masters. Huge numbers, for example, have been killed in wars – as many as eight million in World War I alone.

Companions or slaves

Should we mourn the disappearance of horses from everyday life? The companionship between horse and human has been a profound and meaningful experience for millions – one which most young people today will never know.

On the other hand, life for horses has often been hard and cruel. Animal rights activists say it is wrong for one species to exploit the labour of another species, for humans to use horses like slaves for work and war.

You Decide

  1. In some countries, like France, for example, horse-meat sometimes ends up on the menu. Is that wrong? If so, why?
  2. Should horses and other intelligent animals have the same rights as people?


  1. Create a poem, song or work of art based around mankind’s relationship with the horse.
  2. Which animal do you think most deserves to be called ‘man’s best friend’? What about ‘man’s worst enemy’? In pairs, decide on two candidates and put together a presentation explaining why your chosen species deserve the title.

Some People Say...

“Keeping horses is as bad as keeping slaves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How do we know all this about the history of horses?
One clue lies in archaeological evidence of bit wear on the teeth of ancient horse skeletons. Horses have also been found buried near towns and villages, with their chariots, or even next to their human masters.
So how did horses become domesticated, and used for riding?
It’s possible that, when adult horses were used for meat, their foals were kept as pets, then tamed by the humans that looked after them. They might have also beenbred selectively, to be faster, larger or stronger.
Aren’t horses still eaten in some countries, though?
That’s right, although it’s frowned upon in lots of places, too. In central Europe it’s eaten widely, while in Japan raw horse meat is calledsakura, which means cherry blossom, after its pink colour.

Word Watch

Technically speaking, a thoroughbred is a particular breed of Arab stallion and English mares, widely used in horse-racing. Sometimes, though, it may be used to refer to any well-bred racehorse.
The name for someone from Mongolia, a large, sparsely populated country in central Asia. The Mongol Empire, under legendary ruler Genghis Khan, stretched from China to Europe and from Siberia to the Persian Gulf.
A medieval system of manners and culture, based on heroic warfare, courteous behaviour and knightly sports such as jousting.
A male horse who has not been castrated, and is therefore able to breed. A castrated male horse is called a gelding.
A mare is a female horse over four years old. A younger female horse is called a filly.
Bred selectively
Selective breeding means picking animals with certain characteristics, like being faster, stronger or larger, and having them mate, to produce offspring with certain characteristics.

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