Horses were first domesticated as draft animals on the Eurasian Steppes in the Near East between 4500 and 2500 B.C. It was at this time the people of that area adopted a nomadic way of life. They had already domesticated dogs, cows, sheep, and goats, but they needed a larger animal to carry their belongings. The horse became their sole livelihood -- he provided transportation, milk, meat and skins. By 1000 B.C., domestication had spread through Europe, Asia and North Africa.

There were four primeval types of horses which were domesticated at different times and places. These are divided into size groups -- two are horse, two are pony.


Pony I developed in Northwest Europe. He was approximately 12 hands tall, had very thick skin, was brown or bay in color, and was "waterproof". His direct descendant is the Shetland Pony.


Pony II developed in North Eurasia. He was heavier in build than Pony I and was "frostproof". He was dun or cream color and had the dorsal stripe and bars on the legs associated with the "dun factor". He was the forefather of Przswalski's Horse.


Horse III developed in central Asia and west into Europe. He had a long, narrow, Roman head, a long neck, long ears, slab sides and a sparse tail and mane. He was "drought proof". He was the forefather of the Andalusian.


Horse IV developed in the western area of Asia. He was about 12 hands, was "heat proof" and provided the "quality" in today's breeds - he was fineboned, had a high-set tail and abundant mane and tail. He was the forefather of the Arabian.

All breeds are crosses or descendants of these four basic groups. Ponies are crosses of Pony I and Pony II. Draft horses are Pony II and Horse III. Light horses are Horse III and Horse IV.

The physical characteristics of groups and breeds were originally determined by climate. In cold areas, horses were considered "cold blooded" -- compact and calmer, with thicker bodies, thicker skin and more hair. In hot areas, horses were "hot blooded" -- they had larger, rangier bodies, thinner skin, and were flightier.

The horse was first domesticated for milk and meat. He moved up in status to a pack animal, and was later promoted to a riding animal. It was the introduction of horse trading that brought about the development of the various horse breeds.

The first record of riding came from Persia in the third millennium B.C. By 1580 B.C. this trend had spread to Egypt, and 250 years later it was found in Greece. In fact, the first horse training book, the Kikkuli Text, was written in 1360 B.C.

The founder of modern horsemanship was a Greek by the name of Xenophon (430 B.C.). He was the son of a man of the equestrian class in Athens. As a youth, he served in the Peloponnesian Wars under Cyrus, son of Darius II. When the Greeks were defeated, he elected to lead the retreat from the Tigris River to the Black Sea. He then retired to a country estate near Corinth, Greece. He had learned much from his associations with Armenian and Persian horsemen during his career in the Greek army.

From the Persians he learned "leg up" mounting -- a groundsman would help the rider mount the horse by holding the rider's leg and boosting him up. From the Armenians, he learned to tie pieces of cloth onto his horses' feet to protect them from ice and rocks. After his retirement, Xenophon wrote the definitive book on horsemanship, which is still used, in modern form, by trainers today.

In the 1400's, body armor was invented in Persia. Its use quickly spread to the north and west, where the Europeans seized on the idea and developed the suits of armor used during the Middle Ages. Since soldiers were then too heavy to move effectively on their own, horses were needed to carry this extra poundage into battle, and the European charger was developed. The Andalusian is the modern descendant.

Meanwhile in everyday Europe, the farmer and his wife needed a horse that could carry them to and from the local market at a comfortable pace. Since the roads were little more than pounded strips of dirt, they needed a riding horse. As the roads improved, harness breeds with a "hard trot" were developed.

During the reign of England's King James I (1603-1625), Arabian horses were imported and crossed with native light horse breeds. King Charles II (1660-1685) imported the so-called Royal Mares. Between 1689 and 1728, the most famous Arabians were imported.

The Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Barb are the foundation sires of Thoroughbred horses. Justin Morgan, the foundation sire of the Morgan horse breed, was a descendant of the Byerly Turk. Eclipse, one of the sire lines of modern Thoroughbreds, was descended from the Darley Arabian, as was Blaze, the foundation sire of the Hackney. Messenger, the progenitor of the American Standardbred and the American Saddlebred, was also descended from the Darley Arabian.

This article was kindly provided by Michelle Staples, Staples Stables


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Updated: October 2005.