When I was in university I took a biological anthropology class, and while in that stuffy classroom learning about monkeys and prehensile tails, I also learned something interesting about horse riders.
My professor mentioned, on a different day than the art of brachiation, that it’s easy for a pathologist to tell which people, lying dead on a cold slab, rode horses from a young age and which didn’t.
My ears perked at this. Would a pathologist really be able to tell that I started riding at five during my autopsy? Should one be required, that is, which I never hoped for until this moment.
Apparently, the leg bones of those who start riding at a young age are soft enough to bow slightly from sitting astride fat ponies for hours on end. Of course, we don’t look like a bow-legged spaghetti cowboy, but without the skin, muscle and the “smidge” of fat, young riders are indeed bow-legged.
Anyway, the reason I bring up this bizarre and slightly morbid fact is because this is how scientists have determined how long humans have been riding horses.
The short answer to that query:
Quite a while.
The long answer:
I found a peer-reviewed journal article entitled “First Bioanthropological Evidence of Yamnaya Horsemanship” in the Science Advances journal written in March of 2023. It’s an interesting read discussing the very thing I learned in my biological anthropology class.
The 14-page article starts with the fact that archaeologists and archaeozoologists have been able to ascertain that horses were likely domesticated in the second half of the fourth millennium, which is around 3500 BCE or approximately 5500 years ago.
They were able to deduce this due to traces of horse milk found on shards of broken pots, the unearthing of what is believed to be ancient paddock fencing and the discovery of some really old horse manure.
The trouble in determining when someone first decided to pop on a horse for a ride is the inability to find any form of riding equipment as it would have been made from natural materials and worked its way back into the ecosystem, which isn’t helpful. The same holds true for discovering when horses were first used for pulling and carrying loads, as that equipment would have disintegrated as well.
You might then think, well, how about cave drawings and stuff of that nature? Turns out there are Mesopotamian depictions dating back to 2000 BCE, or around 4000 years ago, looking as though humans were riding horses, though it’s hard to tell from the images, which is fair enough.
Now, during the Old Babylonian period (1894–1595 BCE), there are not only images but also literary references that prove horses were ridden, and we know horses were pulling chariots some 4000 years ago. We just don’t know exactly when someone bravely jumped on a horse for the first time.
When it comes to skeletons it is, apparently, easier to find intact human skeletons than horse skeletons. Human remains tend to be better preserved due to having a “proper” burial, at least when discussing the Yamnaya people (3200 to 2500 BCE), while horse bones were often scattered about.
With horse skeletons out of the picture and any form of riding equipment melting back into the earth, the only thing left to look at is human bones. Five Yamnaya skeletons were found in graves dating back some 5000 years and the skeletons showed signs of “horsemanship syndrome” indicating that the individuals frequently rode horses.
And so, it’s believed, for now, that humans have been riding for about 5000 years.
Horsemanship syndrome is the pattern of biomechanical stresses riders have that involve changes in the thigh bones, pelvis and lower spine.
When we ride a horse, especially bareback, we balance ourselves with our legs, obviously, in order to stay on. This creates continuous and sometimes forceful contractions of the lower body and thigh muscles.
In regular life, these same muscles may be used continuously but not with the same intense workload as when we ride and it’s this intense workload on the muscles that create distinctive marks on our bones.
The bending and traction stress on the femur bone is caused by the mechanics of staying on a horse and mainly develops during adolescence. There are also stress marks on the pelvic bone from where the tendon and muscles attach. Changes in the lumbar region occur because of the repetitive vertical impact we riders receive when sitting in an upright position with a forward curve in the spine.
Horsemanship syndrome is the only sign pointing to when people first rode horses. Though, it turns out that if 5000 years ago, you were a barrel maker or a basket weaver you too may bear some of the same skeletal wear and tear as riders.
So Much to Say
I could stay down this rabbit hole indefinitely, so I shall surface now to prevent getting lost. What I will say is that I’m leaving out an incredible amount of information, such as the different temperaments between Przewalski’s horses, Yamnaya horses and today’s horses. I’ve completely ignored the theory behind what the Yamnaya people may have used their horses for and their style of riding. And, other than this sentence, I haven’t even hinted at how the Yamnaya language and horses have likely shaped the entire Indo-European language family.
This is a fascinating topic to which I’ll return.