Horse News

The First 1 Percent

By as posted on The Slate

Horses may be the source of humans’ oldest social stratifications

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Mitt Romney’s Oldenburg mare, Rafalca, is competing in London for Olympic dressage. Stephen Colbert has declared “competitive horse prancing” his Sport of the Summer, pointedly mocking the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for looking like a 1 percent aristocrat. After all, though Rafalca’s price is undisclosed, when the Romneys bought the horse in 2006, dressage prospects of her caliber cost as much as, if not more than, an average American home. Her annual overhead of more than $77,000 is double that of the average American family’s. No wonder the elite equestriennes gracing this month’s Town & Country are all billionaire princesses. Even at sub-Olympian levels, the animals are expensive.

(Full disclosure: I own a horse, but I am not a billionaire princess.)

The association between horses and wealth was forged millennia ago. In fact, the first people known to celebrate hierarchies of power, whose inequalities of wealth were integral to their society and culture—the people you could call the first 1 percent—were the first people to ride horses.

Horse domestication occurred before written history and left few clear archaeological remains. Based on Sumerian seals with the earliest known depictions of people on horseback, riding has traditionally been dated to the Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C., in Mesopotamia.

But new evidence is pushing the origins of horse domestication deeper into the past and farther to the north, on the steppes between Kazakhstan and Ukraine, where wild horses were plentiful after the end of the last Ice Age. Excavations in Botai, Kazakhstan, during the 1990s unearthed an amazing 300,000 horse bones (and a few dogs). The researchers also found horse-fat residue on pottery. They concluded that the Botai people were sedentary pastoralists, much like modern-day ranchers, who lived in permanent settlements and herded horses for mares’ milk as early as 3500 B.C. People were riding the animals, too: The researchers found horse teeth that had been ground down by bits, the bars placed in horses’ mouths that make it possible to control them while on horseback.

The Botai people were not alone. Horseback riding also appeared around the same time on the steppes near the Dnieper River in what is now Ukraine and the on the Volga River in southern Russia, among Copper Age people who had recently switched from hunting and gathering to herding cattle and sheep.

The very first mount, however, probably appeared many centuries earlier. Genetic studies suggest modern horses may have just one founding father. It might have been an unusually docile stallion, perhaps an orphaned foal raised among people.

Research published in May suggests that domesticated horses were taken from that first homeland, wherever it was, into new areas. But these horses couldn’t supply enough offspring for everyone, at least in the beginning, so wild mares were captured for riding and for breeding with early domesticated stallions to satisfy the demand. Modern horses have as many as 77 ancestral mothers.

Horse sense was critical for exploiting this new resource, and it would have been hard to come by. Like their modern descendants, ancient horses were big—standing more than 5 feet tall and weighing up to 800 pounds—powerful and skittish animals whose first instinct was to run. People aren’t born knowing how to handle or ride them, and doing it wrong can maim or kill you. Doing it right takes observation, experimentation, practice, and a lot of work.

(I observed the challenge an introduction to horses can pose while I was working in Ukraine. Since the 2000s, there has been a fad among the nouveau riche to present one another with gift horses—even though none of the recipients know how to ride. At the stable where I boarded, a poor little rich mare, expensively maintained, was completely ignored by her owner after his first and only riding lesson taught him that the horse doesn’t do all the work.)

“Green plus green equals black and blue,” goes the old saying. Putting a beginner rider on an inexperienced horse can injure both of them. Many heads must have cracked back in 3500 B.C. during the steep-learning-curve phase of horse domestication. Like Ukraine’s involuntary horse owners today, not everyone in 3500 B.C. would have wanted to climb onto the explosive animals.

But those who did gained enormous advantages over everyone else. Pushing other people around was easier from horseback. So was long-distance travel for trading and raiding. The early horse riders weren’t Huns, gathered in vast armies (although the Huns did make lethal use of horses in the 300s A.D.). They were probably more like gangs. And just a few horsemen can wreak havoc on a pedestrian village.

Several weeks’ ride to the west of the Dneiper River is the Danube Basin, where a multitude of culturally sophisticated—but horseless—agricultural societies had been thriving since Mediterranean farmers herding cattle and sheep migrated northeast 8,000 years ago. Collectively termed Old Europe, they had split into a variety of related but distinct cultures by 4000 B.C.

The Old Europeans boasted dazzling copper craftsmanship and painted pottery rich with symbols of animals, dancers, abstract whorls, meanders, snakes, and watching eyes. These people helpfully left us scale models of their two-story houses and a multitude of female figurines testifying to the worship of a goddess deity.

They were completely unprepared when Dnieper steppe people penetrated the Danube Basin as early as 4200 B.C. Within a few hundred years, 600 villages were burned and abandoned in what has been called “a catastrophe of colossal scope.” Anthropologist David Anthony argues in his 2007 book, The Horse, The Wheel and Language, that the marauders arrived on horseback, pushing the first riding date even deeper into the past, perhaps as early as 4500 B.C. on the Volga River.

Anthony also argues that the first horse riders were the mysterious speakers of proto-Indo-European, the mother tongue of many of the world’s languages, including English. Scholars have been looking for the source of those original speakers since the 18th century, when they discovered the similarities among Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.

The Danube invaders, like prehistoric Bain Capital-ists, rewarded themselves handsomely for their plunder. Old European copper and fine pottery had great value back in the steppe, as did rustled livestock. Some of the primordial Indo-European myths are about cattle raiding. In addition to wealth, successful raiders and warriors won “fame everlasting” and the honor of starring in their own epic poem. These tales were declaimed by bards at feasts for so many centuries that some endured into historical times, in ancient texts like the Iliad and Rig Veda.

It’s hard to believe today, but naked self-aggrandizement was a new development. We know this in part from graves, which reflect a person’s station in life. For nearly all of prehistory, the graves that have been found were communal and equal. No person stood out. (There are a few exceptions, such as a man and two children buried with thousands of ivory beads near Moscow 24,000 years ago.)

Old Europe didn’t leave many graves, but nearly all of those were collective.  Inequalities in life surely existed: Some dwellings had finer pottery and tools than others, for instance. A collection of sumptuous gold burials in Varna, Bulgaria, from about 4300 B.C. demonstrated inequalities in the possession of precious metal. But necessities like land, timber, and labor were evidently freely shared.

The last of the Old European cultures built giant towns on the west bank of the Dnieper River around 3500 B.C., apparently in defense against the horse riders. The towns contained up to 7,000 people—more than any settlements on Earth at the time. But all of the dwellings were the same size. If there were social inequalities, they were downplayed. One theory holds that the Old European goddess religion frowned on displays of personal wealth.

East of the Dnieper, in the steppes, the horse riders’ society evidently demanded the opposite. Flaunting wealth—measured in the quantity of baubles and the size of herds of cattle, sheep, and horses—became de rigueur.

Rich chiefs were buried in individual graves, marked with earthen mounds called kurgans and filled with polished stone maces shaped like horse heads, ornaments of tusk and bone, and Old European pottery and copper. (The steppe people had no demand for the Old Europeans’ goddess figurines. Their gods were male.)

The giant towns didn’t prevent Old Europe’s eventual extinction. Bronze Age kurgan makers carried their culture and their Indo-European dialects across Europe and as far as China and India, where rich men were buried alongside horse and cattle sacrifices. Even their wives were sacrificed, in the earliest known examples of the patriarchal practice of suttee.

Anthony speculates that the earliest chiefs kept large herds of livestock to build status by giving away meat at feasts, where the heroic poems were recited and much beer and mead were drunk. They may also have loaned out livestock when someone from the 99 percent needed it for survival, creating one of the earliest forms of debtor relations.

Still, he sees a big difference between the 1 percent then and now. “Then, they were supposed to give it away and be generous in proportion to their wealth. Feasting and gift-giving were the paths to power. Now, it’s not done that way.”

Actually, that is how it’s done, except today’s 1 percent invite only one another to parties and give their gifts to super PACs. And they still display their wealth with ostentatiously expensive hobbies. But even if horses are the original source of social stratification, please, don’t hold it against them.

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26 replies »

    • Well, it IS very difficult to be competent and perform dressage (note the age of the equines) at the levels of the Olympics.

      And everyone knows that this equine discipline had it’s genesis through the military’s admiration and pride of the accomplished equine mount.

      I wish Rafalka and all the connections the best…go Team USA.

      There is a rider competing for Japan that is 71 years old. I think that is remarkable.


  1. I concur that R.T. is well versed, apparently knows history quite well, and has a solid grasp on the political front. Interesting read. Thanks.


  2. This is not my work gang…it is the artistry of Mary Marcio and she alone.

    I do love and immerse myself in the history of our equine companions hence the sharing here, but again, I am only sharing what Ms. Marcio has written.


  3. The sad part about the commentary of the news media.. is that this animal has acquired a level of learning that has taken years and a lot of patience on the horse and master . and then to make fun of this just goes to show you how ignorant our news media is.. and FYI..riding is a wonderful way to not only strengthen your muscles..but the motion does help those with muscular problems. . that a lot of us do not have to face only wish this horse would win.. and kidos to Anne for bringing , not only the problems of MS to light, but her own battle with this disease…and as for this idiot news guy.. lets see you do it..


  4. I am by no means a sports fan and do not watch such activities on television but I do believe that it speaks to the majesty of the HORSE that it is the ONLY non-human participant in the Olympics.

    Take a second and ponder that; the horse is the only animal that is actually a competitor in our human Olympics…that, my friends, speaks volumes as to the unique place our equine companions hold in our history and even contemporary society.


    • It certainly does! As a dressage rider myself – at MUCH lower levels! – I think I find so much satisfaction in dressage because it’s a true partnership. If the horse isn’t really into the work too, he won’t give a performance that truly makes a rider feel like both of them are flying. It’s great for both of us/


  5. Its wonderful that ancient peoples looked out for one another, took care of others in their communities. We need more of that in our societies now.

    Rafalca is worth more than my house; Romneys spend more on her upkeep than I earn in five years. Must be nice to be their horse. Too bad they can’t spread it around to Habitat for Horses and other similar in-need horses. (They have four dressage horses, BTW.)


  6. While Romney is not my choice for a president, these attacks against dressage and 3 day event riding clearly demonstrate the total lack of substance in media reporting. I wonder if the people mocking dressage have any idea of the amount of work involved and the relationship that has to be developed between horse and rider. Attend the Rolex at Horse Park in Kentucky and you will notice the number of horses who have been donated or given to the rider by the TB farms. Dressage is not restricted to the wealthy and the US Olympic Team fundraises and my guess is none of these horses will meet the fate of slaughter. I wonder how much a Mercedes Benz costs these days? It is their horse and their money. I would do anything for my horses including 5,000 colic surgery for which I had to take a second job. Stop mocking the horse and admire the his skill. Understand the sport and its relationship to the Spanish School of riding before ctiticizing the sport. For those who are also questioning the benefits of therapeutic riding take the time to observe its effects on challenged children. I will bet that the Romneys would not be stuped by old Slaughter House Sue’s propaganda.


    • Dressage utilizes the natural movement of the horse. I am not sure what style you ride but part of our training requires us to ride without a bit, bridle or saddle. To the best of my knowledge my horse never was in pain. He lived like most of my horses lived well into his 30’s. We seem to have a different perspective but agree slaughter is wrong. Lets leave it at that.


    • Actually, dressage moves, even at high levels, are NOT unnatural movements. That’s the whole point. To train – gymnastacise – the horse so he is able to make the most out of his/her natural conformation. It teaches a horse how to carry a rider without getting hurt and strengthens the muscles needed for that. The horse’s back may LOOK like a natural place to ride, but actually the horses back was never intended to carry weight on top. The back is held up by the “ring of muscles” going under the abdomen – the back is held up from underneath. Strengthening those muscles does a LOT to allow a horse to carry a rider comfortably and injury free.

      There’s a LOT more to dressage than the Olympic levels.


  7. I don’t know about horses being “explosive”. As kids in Nova Scotia we persuaded local unbroken ponies to allow us to ride (and ancient horses would have been pony-sized); by first making friends, just hanging around while they were grazing, then we’d lean on them, put arms over their backs, make a makeshift bridle out of twine, which didn’t work – and gradually climb on with the help of a friend or a fence. They’d usually let us sit there, and eventually move off. No head control with no bits of course. We certainly got dumped fairly often, but we survived. I’m pretty sure this is the way North American Natives first rode horses too. Stallions would be an issue, and there were probably protective kicks and bites; but foals can be taken, fed by humans, raised to be quite tame. There’s no mention in the article of the goddess Epona, Celtic protector of horses, goddess of abundance, adopted by the Romans. I just think a lot of early horseback riding would have been kids having a fantastic time, any kids. As civilization developed of course, they became a war tool, but early in our history, we weren’t making that much war. Certainly not the Neanderthals.


  8. Geez…for the record, you probably won’t see this, but a rider from my barn. Robin Bruckman, qualified to participate in Dressage at the ParaOlympic games. She buys her own horses as youngsters and trains them herself. She has to raise funds and find sponsors. She suffered nerve damage to her lower legs after a fall (not from a horse) and has been participating at the International level dressage for several years. She gives lessons and teaches yoga as well as does some training, but she is doing what so many people are saying is beyond the ability of an ordinary person without Ann Romney’s wealth, and that is just is simply not sustained by the facts. Another of our top riders bought his horse for less than a $1,000 to save him from slaughter. That would be Boyd Martin. A syndicate came together to sponsor him and his horse at the Olympics. Boyd Martin is the rider who withdrew his horse after the cross country.

    There is no reason to believe these horses are being ridden hurt. The vets have been everywhere. The horses have been inspected prior to competition and throughout the competition. Vets stopped several horses during the Cross Country phase to check them, and if there was a doubt about the horse’s condition, the horse was taken by ambulance away from the competition. An Irish rider who has been caught doping twice before was banned altogether when his horse tested positive for a banned substance again. You are seeing veterinarians and the vet teams do what they are supposed to do.

    If a horse is trained and conditioned carefully and has good genetics, it is possible to increase the work load to avoid injury. That is why training is so important. There is a place for therapeutic veterinary drugs, but not to get the horse through a competition, and it looks like FEI is doing everything it can to make sure the animals are healthy.

    I think Stephen Colbert has humanized dressage for people who do not understand what it is. He has not been afraid to poke fun at himself, and by poking fun at the stereotypical images of dressage, he has helped to debunk them.

    And what a delight Jan Eberling has been. He’s got a bright, sunny disposition, but he is also very human admitting how nervous he was. The stories about Rafalca have underscored what we are saying about our horses—that she is so sensitive she knows when she has a fly on her back, and that she is a very sweet, sensitive horse, with whom Jan Eberling has a special bond. It’s been great to be able to watch the events of taped delay and see the athletes getting interviewed.

    Jan Eberling has spoken to the years and years of training and the importance of building a strong bond between the horse and the rider—which as know—does not happen over night. Also, most of the Dressage horses are in their prime in their teens, unlike their Quarter Horse Counterparts who are already lame.


    • We share the same perspective on dressage all I know is that the health of my horses always comes first and that goes for other riders I know. Remember we do not jump etc until the age of 7 when the knees are closed unlike some other equestrian sports.


    • And there is no reason to believe they have not been subjected to extremely unnatural extensions and contortions. I do not find a horse being forced to perform in this manner enjoyable in any way.


      • There is one reason to believe that they have not been subjected to these contortions and extensions you refer to, but you need to discover it first hand. Take some dressage lessons and see how it is done. Work with some trainers. I took dressage lessons, and though I only took them for a couple of years, all my teacher ever did was teach me how to use my seat, my legs, my visual focus, and which fingers to use when I squeezed the reins. Most of the moves you call unnatural, are moves the horse will make naturally when the rider learns what causes the horse to move in a particular manner, then learns to cue it with either the posture, the leg, and lastly the fingers. The rider has to trust the horse and the horse has to trust the rider—but more than anything else, they need to be able to read one another.

        What all these riders are saying about their horses is that it is all about the relationship. The riders, the owners, and commentators are talking about their horses sensitivity and generosity.


  9. I agree with your comments. I have heard some dressage horses end up with broken vertebrae, and when one sees the horse frothing, and lots of white in their eyes – not pretty at all. I lease an appendix horse who does love to “dance” – lateral moves, can canter in increasingly smaller circles, etc. She is extremely sensitive, and moves beautifully from my seat, and legs, collecting herself very naturally. . She has a light snaffle bit, and I always work with a loose rein….my 2 years of working with her has been to increasingly make her softer & softer….I would love to be able to ride her with no bridle at all – like Stacy Westfall, and some other natural riders have done . At any rate, I don’t show – we do “freestyle” fun (I have my mp3 player with music), and we always go light. I have a wonderful relationship with her, and we have great trust in each other. Sometimes, I just go to play with her, or take her for a light stroll bareback. This is what a real rewarding relationship is……and it is priceless.


  10. If the horses were in pain, the judge would know and they would be out of competition. That’s the thing about dressage – effortless movement. Of course it takes a lot of “strength” training to be able to do this. That’s why dressage horses are generally much older than horses in other sports. If dressage were as hard on them as you imagine, how would they be competing as top levels and such advanced ages? Show me a 25 year old reining or cutting or barrel racing horse. Even jumpers take much more punishment than dressage horses. And have many, many more injuries. You “heard.” That’s not much of a reason to condemn something you don’t know anything about.

    A person has to go through the many “levels” of dressage – all the while the horse and rider are getting stronger and more confident in each other. There have been some trends lately in “competitive” dressage that I don’t like or approve of – “cutting corners” in training which is NOT what Classical Dressage is about and indeed can lead to pain and injury for the horse. But this is not the goal nor the norm.


  11. I was happy to see any canidate have something good to say about any horse. but I guess if its a republican , it can only be bad.


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