Model of gold chariot drawn by four horses abreast, with a driver and a figure wearing a long robe in the cab

Horses and human history

By Nigel Tallis, Exhibition Curator, The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

Publication date: 22 May 2012

A free exhibition, opening on 24 May 2012 at the British Museum will celebrate the epic story of the horse – a journey of 5,000 years that has revolutionised human history. 

Nigel Tallis gives us a preview of what to expect.

Horses and human history

For 5,000 years the horse has been an ever-present ally in war and peace. Civilisations have risen and fallen on their backs and evidence of the horse's use is everywhere to be seen. Yet somehow, following the increasing pace of mechanisation in the 1930s, we have so quickly forgotten how indebted we are to the domestication of this animal.

Before the development of the steam locomotive in the early 1800s, the only way to travel on land faster than human pace was by horse. Since travel is one of the defining features of human development, so the history of the horse is the history of civilisation itself.

The upcoming exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot (opening 24 May) explores how horses have helped to shape our history for thousands of years.

Model of gold chariot drawn by four horses abreast, with a driver and a figure wearing a long robe in the cab
Gold model of chariot and four horses (part of the Oxus Treasure). Tajikistan, Achaemenid period, 5–4th century BC.  

Horses were first domesticated in around 3500 BC, probably on the steppes of southern Russia and Kazakhstan, and introduced to the ancient Near East in about 2300 BC. Before this time, people used donkeys as draught animals and beasts of burden. The adoption of the horse was one of the single most important discoveries for early human societies. Horses and other animals were used to pull wheeled vehicles, chariots, carts and wagons and horses were increasingly used for riding in the Near East from at least c. 2000 BC onwards.

Horses were used in war, in hunting and as a means of transport. They were animals of high prestige and importance and are widely represented in ancient art, often with great insight and empathy.

The exhibition looks at how and why Middle Eastern horses, especially Arabians, were especially sought after and introduced into Britain for selective breeding between the 17th and 18th centuries, and shows how the vast majority of modern Thoroughbred racehorses are descended from just three celebrity stallions.

Paintings, including famous works by George Stubbs and William Powell Frith, prints, silverware and memorabilia explore horses in British society, especially in recreation and competition, from race meetings through to modern Olympic equestrian events.

So, how indebted are we to the horse?

We hope that this exhibition will help remind us of the long and fruitful alliance between humans and horses.

Video

Exhibition curator Nigel Tallis introduces The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. A free exhibition at the British Museum until 20 September 2012.