Horses of a Different Color: Equines in the Ancient World

“I create thee, Oh Arabian. To thy forelock, I bind Victory in battle. On thy back, I set a rich spoil and a Treasure in thy loins. I establish thee as one of the Glories of the Earth… I give thee flight without wings.” — Bedouin legend

So, I’m sure people who know me IRL came out of my pets entry wiping their brows and saying, “Whoosh! I can’t believe we made it out of an animal post with only a tacked-on Incitatus joke, and no other mention of horses!” Welp, folks, you spoke too soon because you know that if I had that much to say about cats, you know that I have a whole blog entry’s-worth to tell you about horses.

[Buckle up, Virginia. I carried around this monstrosity constantly from ages 7-13…]

In my defense, the domestication of horses is one of those seismic shifts in human civilization alongside of the discovery of the wheel and agricultural. While we domesticated sheep, goats, and cows/oxen first, horses fundamentally changed our perceptions of transportation, warfare, and wealth in such earth-shattering ways that the last major cavalry charge occurred against Panzer tanks, and most of you still associate horseback riding with that snooty bitch Becky you went to high school with.

[Wait, am I Becky in this example?…]

Though as big as horse domestication was for much of humanity, we don’t have an entirely agreed-upon date for when and how it actually occurred. Archeological evidence of chariot burials from 2000s BC provide a concrete latest-possible domestication date, but most archeologists and anthropologists agree that we likely rode horses before we hitched them to chariots, so usually the date is pushed back to the 3500s BC. This is in line with the physical records of ancient quasi-nomadic peoples like the Botai in northern Kazakhstan, whose remains included horses and dogs, but none of the other early domestic animals.

Pure wild horses (the ancestors of the modern horse) don’t exist today, what you see in many parts of the world are feral descendants of the domestic horse. The takhi, more commonly known as Przewalski’s horse, is actually a slightly different animal with a different chromosome count than the domestic horse (although they are genetically close enough they can successfully breed). It is the only truly wild horse in the world, and it remains critically endangered. It actually went extinct in the wild in the 1960s, but has been carefully reintroduced from captivity in its native Mongolia. The only other distinct wild horse we have known in modern times is the Tarpan, which was still prevalent in the 17th and 18th century Europe, but was entirely extinct even in captivity by 1909. There is a modern “Tarpan” that has been bred by geneticist, the wonderfully named Heck Horse, but it isn’t a true descendant of the original animal.

[Przewalski’s horse]
[A Heck Horse, bred to have the Tarpan’s distinctive “grulla” color.]

Archeologists tend to break down the domestic horse’s ancestors into three wild types: the warmblood “Forest horse,” the proto-“Draft” type, and the “Eastern” type. That last one is still often called the “Oriental” type, but since I think particularly Western academia should continue to move away from such a historically loaded term wherever possible, I’m making up my own substitute. Particularly since the three types are primarily bound by a geography that places the Forest and Draft horses to Northern Europe and Asia in overlapping genetics, and the Eastern type more isolated (at least initially) in the Middle East and Central Asia. So, confusion between the types by doing away with antiquated language is really minimal. For our purposes, you can really break the early domestic horse into two types: a stockier, heavy type in the north, and a lighter, daintier type in the southeast. Originally all horses were relatively small, so height is less of a factor.

For the area of the ancient world we’ve been concerning ourselves with primarily, the Mediterranean and Western/Southeast Asia, the Eastern type is the horse of the hour. Because of the cultural importance horses held to many ethnic groups in this part of the world, we have a pretty good idea of what these ancient Eastern horses looked like. Because we still have them: the Arabian, the Barb, and the Akhal-Teke.

[The Arabian, you know, from Saudi Arabia.]
[The Barb, native to North Africa.]
[Akhal-Teke, the national horse of Turkmenistan.]

These are the desert-type horses that the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Persians, and the Indo-Aryans used in their chariots. Their more nomadic neighbors, the Bedouins, the Assyrians, the Scythians, the Thracians, and the Numidians, in turn, would develop agile cavalries. Horses became a status of wealth in both types of culture. Chariots were the vehicles of the nobility and monarchies; nomadic chieftains gained power by the size of the horse cavalries they could field and the purity of their horses’ bloodlines.

[Ramses II in an Egyptian horse chariot — note the Arabian-like dished heads and high tail carriage of his horses.]
[While their armies did use horse cavalries, the Indo-Aryan princes of the Mahabharata used chariots to advertise their status.]
[Assyrian horse archers]
[A statue of an “Amazon” in a Scythian cap and trousers — Scythian women were known as horse warriors as well. She’s demonstrating the “Parthian shot” over her horse’s tail.]

Horse tack varied from culture to culture during this period. Usually a rider would at least use a blanket, if not a saddle. Bridles and bits haven’t changed much since their invention. Originally a piece of bone or metal, the more intricate bits are still the ones most prevalently used today: the snaffle bit, which is two interlocking pieces; and the curb bit, which is one piece that hangs long to leverage control of a horse’s mouth. Today, “English” riding, say, anything you see at the Olympics, would generally use a snaffle bit, and a rodeo rider, aka “Western” riding is a place you’re more likely to see a curb bit. But as you can see in the painting below, these Bedouin Arabians also seem to be fitted with a curb, so both styles cross cultures.

[Scythian horse blanket. Oh, and those are human scalps hanging from it 🙂 ]
[Ancient bronze snaffle bit, which looks almost identical to an iron one you’d use today.]
[Bedouin horses with what appears to be some kind of curb bit.]

While recognizing horse hooves needed protection, horseshoes as we think of them were a slow-gestating idea. Nailed metal horseshoes aren’t in the record until the fifth century AD, where the Gallic peoples of France and Germany seem to have invented them. Prior to this, ancient people wrapped their horses’ hooves in leather for protection, eventually resulting in the soleae Sparteae, an early hoof boot. The Romanized Celts of the mid 1st century AD would come up with the delightfully monikered hipposandal, which was a cup of metal that would enclose the hoof and be affixed with straps or an upper boot. Mostly these were used for draft horses to give them greater traction in pulling heavy loads, as the hipposandals could have metal studs driven into their bottoms or grooves carved in them.


The Greeks and the Romans were not considered great horse people by their many neighbors. Mainly they were horse people by necessity rather than inclination, i.e., their enemies had powerful chariot and horseback cavalries, and if they wanted to not have rings literally ridden around them on the battlefield, they’d have to figure some things out. For the Greeks, this was in part due to their native horse stock not being particularly impressive, and it wouldn’t be until their horses were improved with Eastern horses that any meaningful Greek horse culture could evolve.

Like their epic counterparts in India, the Homeric heroes would have been charioteers rather than riders, their light chariots being pulled by horses who probably would have been too small to ride even if they had wanted to. Let the image of mighty Achilles dragging the body of Hector about with glorified Shetland ponies percolate in your mind for a couple of minutes…

[I’ll wait…]

Anyway, by the time Alexander the Great had conquered the West, the Greeks had a respectable cavalry. Alex’s Macedonians were also probably better horsemen than the mainland Attic Greeks, having a greater access to better horses from places like Thessaly and Thrace. Alexander’s favorite horse, Bucephalus, was supposedly a Thessalian horse. Bucephalus was famous for only allowing Alexander to ride him (with a saddle, one groom could ride him bareback), and for getting a city (Alexandria Bucephalus) named after him when he died.

[Alex’s taming of the ferocious Bucephalus as a young boy was one the omens that supposedly heralded his future greatness.]

The Romans long farmed (ha) out the cavalry duties in their legions to the auxilia, the foreign-born mercenaries who served along the native Latin legionaries. Auxilia soldiers were recruited by Rome for the specific military talents of their various people, leaving the legionaries to focus on things more in their wheelhouse. Rome’s cavalry was divided into a heavy and light cavalry: the heavy cavalry made up of Gallic and German horseman and their stockier northern mounts, and the light cavalry typically staffed by horsemen from Thrace and the Scythian tribes.

[The funerary marker of a Thracian auxiliary]

One of the most skilled of the Germanic horse tribes were the Batavi, a warrior clan from Germania Inferior (the modern Netherlands). The Batavi would end up forming the backbone of Octavius’ elite personal imperial German horse guard, so much so that they were often simply called the Numerus Batavorum, the Batavi Corps. Even when later emperors would morph the corps into the Equites Singulares Augusti, Batavi riders would still make up an important contingent within the unit. Pretty good for a tribe so far flung that they don’t even get a mention in Julius’ Gallic commentaries.

Speaking of Caesar though, Julius was famous for having a war charger with what is often translated as toes. Suetonius describes this as each of the animal’s hooves were cloven in five “almost like a man’s hands.” Julius was supposedly told that the man who owned this horse would rule the world, and therefore he always took exceptional care of it. Echoing (no doubt deliberately) Alexander, it was said Julius was the first to ride this horse and afterwards no one else could ride it but him.

[Trying to imagine what this horse’s feet could have possibly looked like, the best I can come up with is a prehistoric horse like Eohippus, which did in fact have cloven “toes.”]

Now, this such a weird anecdote that my readers know I couldn’t help dropping references to it in my books. But considering that Suetonius and others claim that Julius regularly rode this horse, I had trouble believing an animal with this much of a hoof deformity wouldn’t go almost continuously lame, so the novelist in me came up with a compromise. Rather than a split hoof, I describe this horse as having claws (toes) growing out of its fetlock, sort of like another prehistoric horse, Megahippus.

[Check out the extra digits around Megahippus’ main hoof.]

Either way you slice it, this was one strange horse. But as I also say in Daughter of Eagles, it is exactly the sort of horse that creates legends. Just like its master.

Outside of the army, horses had pretty much always been a status symbol in Ancient Rome. The eques, the social class below the senatorial class, was literally named for its members’ original ability to afford a horse that allowed them to avoid serving as mere infantry in the royal Roman army.

[One can argue that Incitatus was an eques that was promoted to the senatorial class…]

Aside from the wealthy and Caligula’s political aspirations for his best bud, the Romans were avid horse racers and loved chariot racing as a sport as much as they avoided it in their military. Julius rebuilt and expanded the Circus Maximus, which would serve as the main racing arena for most of imperial history. While there is some evidence of biga (two-horse chariot) racing in Rome, particularly as a way to train younger charioteers, quadriga (four-horse chariots) were really where the action was at. The chariots would be released from a spring-loaded gate to lap around the Circus, and the charioteers would attempt to crash their opponents into the spinae (poles) in the middle of the track, when not trying to, you know, win the race. 

Unlike their equally enthusiastic Greek counterparts, Roman charioteers didn’t hold the reins of their horses in their hands, but instead, the reins were wrapped around their waist. This presumably upped the ante on the excitement and danger of the race since the charioteer was unable to let go of the reins in an emergency. However, all of the drivers wore basic helmets and other protective gear, as well as carried a falx, a knife to cut themselves loose. Not that that’s always easy to do when you’re the Hector to your horses’ Achilles.

[There’s that metaphor again…]

Originally, the charioteers were divided into four factions (although there would be more later): the Blue, the Greens, the Whites, and the Reds. The Blues and Greens would become the more prestigious factions over time, but faction support would transcend class lines much as it does in sports today. Rivalries were fierce and fandoms were intense. Each color could field up to three chariots per race, so charioteers could collaborate with one another to take out rival factions and generally cause mayhem. Fans would come to the Circus to throw curse amulets at their rival faction’s drivers as much as to cheer on their color. One diehard Red fan threw himself on the funeral pyre of a particularly beloved Red charioteer. Betting was obviously rampant, but for the plebs, at least seats at the races were free. 

[A driver for the Greens. Note the still small size of the horses.]

Also like today, winning charioteers became major celebrities and could be “traded” to other factions. Celebrated horses became huge stars as well, but as you might imagine, the life expectancy of chariot horses was as low as their drivers. Though Gaius Appuleius Diocles (early 2nd century AD), probably the most famous charioteer of all time, managed to retire at the age of 42, having won 1,462 out of 4,257 races, and earning 35,863,120 sesterces over the course of his career. That’s about $15 billion dollars.

[Making him the highest-paid athlete of all time. By a lot.]

So, as you can see, horses were a big deal in the ancient world. Even among supposedly less horsey people like the Romans, horses were venerated more often than we sometimes give them credit for. Many of these super-violent Roman chariot races grew out of the Equirria, sacred races run in honor of Mars, whose own chariot was pulled by a quadriga of four white horses. The Greeks worshiped horses through their supposed creator, Poseidon (especially in horse-crazy Thrace), and an ancient cult of Demeter worshiped her as a black-headed mare, whose priestesses were called “foals.” The Batavi, along with other Gallo-Germans, revered Epona, their goddess of horses, donkeys, and mules. Hindu belief even has a horse-headed god, Hayagriva (an avatar of Vishnu), brought into the Indian subcontinent by — who else? — the Indo-Aryans of the Mahabharata. In fact, perhaps the biggest twist of all isn’t that the horse was so well-regarded by the ancient world, but rather that those masters of a million gods, the Egyptians, somehow managed to avoid having a horse deity when everyone else did. One last surprise from the wily Egyptians.

[Hayagriva — in a dream I’ve definitely had…]

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