We know from cave paintings, archaeology, and National Geographic specials, that the earliest interactions between horses and humans were not as symbiotic as they are today. Certainly not from the horse’s perspective anyway, as early man saw them as little more than a source of food. It appears that early man saw pretty much anything as a source of food, as there is evidence that they hunted and ate everything from lizards, to tree bark, to woolly rhinos. In fact, the latest theory on what happened to the Neanderthals is that the Homo Sapiens walked into Europe and ate them too. So the oldest branches of the equine family tree were seen as little more than yet another table at the all-you-can-eat buffet of planet earth.
It makes me wonder what ever possessed the first human to decide to hop on for a ride, as opposed to firing up the barbeque. I supposed that it’s possible that it was a hunting expedition gone wrong. Glork and his brother Klak were out hunting one day, ran out of stone spears, and tried to tackle a horse and wrestle it to the ground. Once they saw how fun it was, they started jumping of the backs of all kinds of prey to see how long they could stay on – like some kind of stone-age rodeo. Eight seconds on an angry mastodon would have been quite an accomplishment.
What seems more likely to me, is that there was gambling and alcohol involved. Scholars will tell you, that reason and self-awareness is what separated humans from other creatures around them. And I figure that after about fifteen seconds of thinking, our ancestors realized that there were some things that they’d rather not think about – and alcohol was invented. So my theory, is that Glork and Klak after a night of binge drinking to escape their self-awareness, had suppressed their reason enough that they started making stupid bets about who could ride which animals for how long. Drunk guys challenging each other to do stupid things is as central to our humanity as reason and self-awareness, and I believe that many of history’s greatest moments were really a result of this kind of “drunk talk”. For example:
“Chris! Dude! We should totally try to sail around the world!”
“No seriously, Genghis, I’m going to build a wall so stinking big that you’ll be able to see it from space!”
“Y’know that Helen of Troy is pretty hot; I’m going to call her.”
“Wanna bet I can convince that little Italian guy to paint a mural all over this whole ceiling?”
“Hey Napoleon! You can’t run an army, you’re too short to conquer the top shelf of the cupboard!”
And so forth. I’ve been to the Kennedy Space Centre and seen some of the hardware, and I’m telling you, Neil Armstrong must have been hammered drunk to get into that thing – and I bet he only went to the moon because Buzz Aldren said that he was too chicken to do it.
But whatever the motivation, if you were randomly trying to ride various fauna, the horse is a pretty logical choice. I mean, what are you going to ride? A stegosaurus? Goats are too small – a guy riding a goat impresses nobody. Cattle are too bony. Tigers are too bitey – although everybody would be impressed by a guy riding a tiger (especially after it ate your buddy’s goat). I can’t think of another animal so well suited to being ridden. It’s a nice comfortable, non- carnivore, without horns – what else do you really need? It would be nice if they were a little less flighty – but the trade-off would be to make them more fighty.
Whatever the motivation, once they got the hang of steering and stopping, it wouldn’t have taken Glork and Klack long to realize that little girls would be more than happy to spend a large portion of their parents’ clams to have the experience, and the first riding school would have been founded. Soon to be followed by the first farrier, the first vet, and the first equine nutritionist telling everyone that the grass the horses had been grazing on for 100,000 years just isn’t good enough.
What is clear, is that the domestication of the horse was a huge step forward in our development. Imagine suddenly being able to travel at 3X the speed, carry 3X the weight, and drag 3X as much stuff around. Not to mention the fact that if the hunt goes poorly, you could eat your mount. It certainly ranks up there with the invention of the wheel and cable TV. How differently things might have turned out if the Neanderthals had been the ones to harness the horse – look who had the horses on Planet of the Apes.
So here’s a toast to Glork and Klack, whoever they were, and whatever their motivation – and here’s to all the countless steeds that carried their riders off to hunt and to war, hauled our loads and our ploughs, and have been a fine companion to boot. Cheers!