You’d think horses became important when people started to ride. But actually the horse reshaped civilization long before the first cavalry charge or mounted messenger. During the centuries following 2000 B.C.E., warriors of China, India, the Fertile Crescent, and other lands began riding chariots: light-weight, two-wheeled buggies pulled by teams of horses. The chariot allowed an archer and his driver to move at the speed of a horse, scattering hapless infantrymen before thundering charges. Faster-moving armies could cover more territory, so empires replaced the little kingdoms of the early Bronze Age. Chariots also led to a feudal structure in many kingdoms, where kings outsourced the high costs of charioteers and their gear to regional lords, who fielded armies of chariots — just as Medieval Europe’s feudal dukes and barons later fielded armies of armored knights.
So why didn’t these Bronze Age warriors just ride their horses? They didn’t have a saddle stable enough to serve as a fighting seat. Falling off the horse, at the feet of your enemy, is not a good idea, and stable saddles didn’t come along until after 1000 B.C. It’s also possible few in the civilized world even realized horseback riding was practical during the Bronze Age. Barbarians on the steppes had been doing it for thousands of years, but to the lords of the urban lands, it may have seemed more a dangerous stunt than a mode of transportation. After all, before a horse gets “broken” — trained to be ridden — it goes crazy when anyone tries to sit on its back. So it’s often the rider who gets broken.
Cavalry and horseback transport didn’t reach the civilized world until long after the age of the chariot lords — during the centuries after 1000 B.C.
© 2011, 2015, 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.