Review of The Horse in Human History by Pita Kelekna Cambridge University Press

The Horse in Human History. Pita Kelekna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780521516594

Pita Kelekna provides a masterful statement regarding current archeological, anthropological, and historical understanding of the increasing complexity of early equestrian cultures and of the worldwide rise of importance of the horse economically, socially, and politically. In a consistently lucid and fluid narrative, she crystallizes points of consensus and of contention among equestrian scholars, and in doing so equips the reader with an accurate measure of the major issues and debates regarding equine evolution, when, where, and why both horse domestication and riding first occurred as well as the manner in which these two practices spread, and of the changes ushered in on horseback not only in terms of transportation, but in those of communication and technology as well.

For the world historian, a study of human-equine relations provides a fertile theme for understanding the increasing complexity of cultural exchanges between nomadic and urban societies.  Equestrian routes were established on the Eurasian steppes, where horse domestication probably originated in the fourth millennium BC, specifically in the Pontic-Caspian region, and opened a conduit between East and West.  As these routes developed, the horse became increasingly integral to nearly all aspects of the societies that adopted it, revolutionizing transportation, concepts of status, and warfare technology to increasingly profound degrees. Furthermore, empire expansion came to rely increasingly not only on the adoption, but more importantly on the perfection of horse technology. Perhaps most dramatically this was illustrated when Europeans made landfall in the Americas and re-introduced the horse (the animal having gone extinct in the Western hemisphere in the early Holocene).  In the Americas, horseless societies were conquered by 16th century mounted warriors and colonizers, and when many indigenous nations eventually became horse nations, their ways of life were also inevitably and significantly changed. The Horse in Human History studies all these areas and provides a well-researched case that convincingly demonstrates the need for world historians to closely examine the equine dimension in our study of the human past.

One would not expect that the horse needs to remain continually foregrounded in the text in order to serve Kelekna’s thesis: context is everything, and the historical stage must be constructed in a solid enough manner to understand the way(s) in which the horse has been integral to a particular historical juncture or era. However, the context/thesis ratio may at times swing too heavily in favor of the former at the expense of the later.

For instance, the material concerning the second and third crusades, and specifically the overviews of Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and Barbaroosa, does not seem to necessarily help illuminate the equestrian role in their endeavors other than the general notion that horses were present on the battlefields. Though Kelekna summarizes the role of the horse in the Crusades at the end of her section on the Fourth Crusade, “For the first time protracted military invasion with cavalry was conducted over long distance by sea [. . .] Crusader ships crammed with tens of thousands of war horses, riders, and their equipment spanned the entire breadth of the Mediterranean [. . .],” we receive very little in terms of equestrian specifics in the preceding thirteen pages. In fact, it is primarily in her treatment of the First Crusade that we see anything in this regard, and it is summarized from a 1994 work by equestrian historian Ann Hyland: “Once the animals were on board, the entrance hatches were caulked to make them watertight. Later vessels accommodated 30 to 60 horses. On long distance voyages, frequent landings were necessary for airings and to load fresh water on board. A horse normally consumed four gallons of water a day. Confinement in the hot, humid, restricted space below deck greatly increased this intake,” and there follows a few further equine synopses primarily from Hyland.  But these two sets of details parenthesize over a dozen pages of Crusade history in which the horse is scarcely, if at all, seen.  This issue of proportional balance between context and equine specific explorations weakens the second half of the book.

That said, the inclusion of substantial context will likely assist the general reader, and it does make the book more attractive for adoption in either world history surveys or in more specialized world history courses as well.

Reviewed by Paul Jentz, North Hennepin Community College
Edited by Jodi R.B. Eastberg

(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal,  Spring, 2011. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]

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