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The Origin, History, and Uses of Horses in Europe.

Last updated: December 6, 2022

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

We all know that horses are a big part of European history. But what about their origin? What is the true story behind these majestic animals? Did they always live in Europe, or did they come from somewhere else?

Horses aren’t native to Europe, according to most scholars. The earliest fossil discoveries of Eohippus, the ancestor to modern-day horse species, dated back around 54 million years ago and were found in the Americas, suggesting that this region may be where all equine ancestors came from.

Recently some academia suggested horses may be native to Europe, but this is not widely accepted. Still, no matter which side you’re on (North American vs. European), we can agree on one thing: these animals played an essential part in human history.

Picture of white horses in a field.
Ireland Countryside

The Origins of Horses

The origin of the horse has been a topic of interest for many years. It’s been widely accepted that horses first evolved in North America, where they then migrated to Europe. However, new evidence suggests that there may be an alternative theory about their origins.

This theory is based on discovering an ancient horse skull found in Central Asia, which would put them back to around 55 million years ago. The question now arises as to whether horses originated there and then migrated eastward over a land bridge connecting North America with Russia.

Another possibility is that North American horses are descendants of those who originally evolved in Europe but later moved south into North America when glaciers retreated during the end of the Pleistocene era some 12,000 years ago.

History of Horses in Europe: Origin and Evolution

The history of horses in Europe is an expansive and complicated subject. Horses have been a part of European culture since ancient times, but it wasn’t until around 4500 BC that they were domesticated for use as livestock or transportation.

The horse’s presence in Europe has influenced everything from religion to warfare throughout time. Horses are still used today for both work purposes and recreational activities such as racing, riding, or even pulling carriages through city streets!

The Domestication of Horses in Europe

The domestication of horses is a crucial point in the history of human development. And trying to find out when they were initially domesticated has been a long and arduous process, and the evidence continues to evolve.

It was once believed tribes in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan were the first to domesticate horses in 3500 BC. But French scientists disproved this theory, and now most think it more likely that horses were domesticated around 2000 BC.

The earliest location and period horses were first domesticated have evaded scientists. The most likely time frame is 2000 BC, and the location could be Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia, or Mongolia; there is no clear answer.

horse on the Irish plain

The Rise of the Horse in Europe

The horse has been an integral part of society in Europe. From the early Bronze Age, a time when horses were used as pack animals and to pull carts, to the Middle Ages when they were used for transportation across land, sea, and river.

From knights on horseback fighting each other in medieval battles to Irish travelers riding them through treacherous swamps, from World War II tanks charging into battle to present-day equestrians competing at Olympic events—horses have played a vital role throughout history.

Medieval horses:

Horses were an integral part of medieval life and warfare, with knights mounted on horseback being the most prestigious warriors during that time period. Andalusians and Friesian breeds were favored during this period.

Historians believe that over 600 years ago, more than one million warhorses had been bred for use by European armies. As firearms replaced cavalry as the dominant fighting unit in wars, many military commanders began using dragoons (soldiers who fought from horseback) instead of hussars (cavalrymen), knowing that they would be better suited to counter enemy forces armed with

Industrialization and the horse.

Horses transported people and goods, worked farms, and were an integral societal cog. And horses continued to play a significant role in society during the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Still, as industrial technology advanced, horses slowly became less critical to everyday life.

With the invention of the steam engine and the automobile in 1885, horses were soon completely phased out as an efficient source of transportation.

Picture of a woman riding a horse in a dressage competition.

Popular European horse riding activities

Horses have been a part of human history since their domestication thousands of years ago. They were used as useful work animals and transportation, but they are now used mainly as recreational animals in sporting events, pleasure riding, and racing.

Horse riding is one of the more popular sports in Europe, and there are a lot of different events that you can attend or participate in. The three equine events that dominate European culture are dressage, showjumping, and cross-country.

The first type of horse riding event is dressage. The goal of dressage is for the horse and rider as one unit, with no aids from outside sources, to perform a set pattern of moves; this includes paces such as walk, trot, and canter.

Dressage is a competitive equestrian sport and is scored by how well the rider executes precise movements in response to judges’ commands. There are three levels of competition – Training Level (T), Preliminary Level (P), and Grand Prix (GP).

Riders compete against each other within their own level but may also compete against riders in higher levels if they choose.

Next up is showjumping. Showjumping is a sport where horses and riders compete against each other over an obstacle course. It’s one of the most popular equestrian sports, with competitions happening all over the world.

There are many different levels of competition, from amateur to professional. The goal is to jump as many obstacles as possible in the shortest time without knocking down any rails or falling. The competitor that completes the course in the shortest time and with the least faults wins.

And finally, we have cross-country events; the sport of horse cross-country competition is a challenging and exciting event that requires both physical fitness and mental toughness. It’s also one of the most popular equestrian sports in Europe.

Cross-country courses vary, but they all have one thing in common – you have to jump obstacles. These obstacles can vary in height and width. There are three main types of obstacles that make up a cross-country course.

It is more technical and challenging than others horse riding competitions because it involves negotiating various types of obstacles. Successful cross-country participants must have an athletic and disciplined horse and a skilled rider.

Cross-country horse riding can be a stand-alone sport or a part of equine eventing.

Western riding is spreading.

Western-style horse riding is a lot different than English. The primary difference is Western and English riding use different types of saddles.

Western saddles were designed for working cowboys who spend long hours on horseback, while English saddles are for people who participate in dressage or fox hunting. Western horse riding is a popular equestrian discipline that typically involves horses bred for their speed and agility skills.

It originated from the United States but has now spread to many other countries around the world. Western disciplines include barrel racing, cutting (also known as ranch horse competitions), and roping.

Picture of an Irish Draft horse.
Irish Draught.

Horse breeds native to Europe

Horses native to Europe include the European Wild Horse and Welsh Mountain Ponies, which come from Wales and Ireland, respectively. The former is a large animal with short hair that can live up to 30 years of age.

It was hunted for its meat by humans centuries ago. Nowadays, they’re seen as endangered species because their population has dwindled so much over time due to human intervention.

These animals used to roam all over Britain in herds before being pushed out into just one location around Dartmoor National Park. Nowadays, you’ll only find them there or on Exmoor instead unless someone moves them offsite again for breeding purposes.

Some people think it’s the last remaining true wild horse species. The Welsh Mountain Pony is a smaller animal measuring up to 12 hands tall, with more rounded bodies and shorter hair, similar to an Arabian horse in color patterns due to cross-breeding with other breeds.

Are There Wild Horses in Europe?

Most people are familiar with the wild mustangs from North America, but there are also feral horses in Europe! Wild horses are not native to Europe. However, there are a few places you can find feral horses on the continent.

Feral horses have existed in Europe since at least 500 BC, and they are believed to be descendants of domesticated herds that escaped. Many people see the herds of feral horses as pests because they destroy farmers’ crops.

It’s not clear what the population of feral horses in Europe is, but it has been estimated to be around 200,000. The countries with the highest reported populations are Romania and Bulgaria.

The debate between conservationists and people who see them only as pests has led many countries to develop plans for their management (e.g., culling).

However, these policies vary per nation because some may want to protect feral horse populations while others would instead eliminate them altogether. This topic has been debated for a long time, but it seems as though there isn’t an easy answer.


Who first rode horses?

Humans have been riding horses for thousands of years, and we still can’t seem to agree on who first came up with the idea. It’s believed tribe members in northern Kazakhstan domesticated horses 5,500 years ago and started riding them around the same period.

What horse breeds originated from Northern Europe?

The Swedish Ardennes, Icelandic horse, and Norwegian Fjord are three popular horse breeds from Northern Europe. Many Northern European horse breeds are descended from medieval warhorses bred by Vikings during their raids on European countries.

Are there wild horses in the UK?

There are wild (feral) horses in the UK and they have been roaming the land for centuries. The horses live in small herds across England, Scotland and Wales. The best horse viewing spots include:
Toft Hill Nature Reserve near Cambridge; Exmoor National Park in Somerset County, England; New Forest National Park in Hampshire County, England ; Snowdonia Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Gwynedd County, Wales; Galloway Hills Regional Park, Scotland; Cairngorms National Park in Aberdeenshire and Moray Counties, Scotland