There is no written record establishing civilized man’s first use of the horse as a beast of burden, or as a means of military locomotion. The hieroglyphics on stone tablets and the monuments of the Egyptian kings do show that horses were a valuable part of the Egyptian army’s mobile forces more than 1,500 years before the birth of Christ.

It is assumed by most historians that the horse was used as a riding animal before he was used to pull a plow or wheeled vehicle, but it is a definite fact that horse-drawn chariots were employed in great numbers in war before cavalry came into common use. In the first home of the horse his usefulness was confined to war; camels and donkeys were the freight carriers, while oxen commonly pulled the wide-wheeled vehicles that plied the desert thoroughfares.

The psychological and physical effect the horse had on man soon became evident to the rulers of men. The higher the warrior could tower over the common foot soldier the more terrible his appearance to the man on the ground, and the deadlier his aim with lance and arrow.

Ramses II, surnamed The Great, was the most illustrious of all the kings of Egypt. At the age of 10 he took part in his father’s wars. After the death of that sovereign, the young prince, fired with military ambition, began to plan the conquest of the world. Ramses first brought into subjugation whichever of the neighboring nations had shown signs of rebellion against the domination of Egypt. Then dividing the country into 36 states, and appointing his brother Armais to the regency in his absence, he collected a vast army of 600,000 foot soldiers, 24,000 horses, and 27,000 war chariots, and set out on his campaign for the conquest of the nations. (Ridpath’s History of the World.)

There's no written record establishing civilized man's first use of the horse as a beast of burden, or as war horses.

For a country as arid as Egypt, all these horses, which must have been a minimum of 78,000 head, counting two horses to a war chariot, must have found slim forage during the campaign, which lasted nine years.

This drawing was made from details found in photographs of Egyptian sculpture and friezes found on Ramses’ tomb and other buildings restored from the ancient sands of Egypt. It shows Ramses the Great as he may have appeared at the beginning of his great conquest. The chariot is the imperial war chariot, as pictured by contemporary artists of the period, and the harness and rigging, if the artists were accurate in their portrayal, is correct. Notice the intricate, padded yokes on the withers that must be attached solidly to the pole. The ornamental collars and other padding look as though they afforded the chariot horses the maximum protection against the friction of the yoke saddles.

A dash across the hard-packed sand of the Egyptian desert must have been a thrilling experience for the warriors of the Pharaoh… and it must have taken no little amount of skill to stay on your feet at top speed… not to mention shooting arrows and throwing lances from this little vehicle that must have bounced and bobbed like a cork on a choppy sea.

The era of war chariots lasted for almost 2,000 years before more mobile cavalry finally displaced it.

Find Part 2 of “Horsemen Through Civilization” here.


This article was originally published in the January 1955 issue of Western Horseman as part 1 of the “Horsemen Through Civilization” series.

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