Unique study of the historical role of the horse in non-European societies

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Susanna Hedenborg
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


Peter Mitchell Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492 444 pages, hardcover, ill. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015 ISBN 978-0-19-870383-9

Peter Mitchell
Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492
444 pages, hardcover, ill.
Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015
ISBN 978-0-19-870383-9

Horses have long been part of human life, and numerous representations in traditional and modern art reveal the horse’s significance. Yet, horses have had different roles in the human world. Initially horses were hunted, and later on they were used for mobility. It is difficult to date exactly when humans started to use horses for the latter but archaeological evidence shows that humans used horses for riding and as draught animals from at least 4000 BC onwards. Even though the long history of the horse as a biological creature and of the human–horse relationships are described in Horse nations. The worldwide impact of the horse on Indigenous Societies Post 1492, the aim of the book is more interesting; professor Peter Mitchell presents a comparative study of horses’ roles in North and South America, Southern Africa and Australasia since 1492. Wide ranges of previous research as well as other sources are used (artifacts from archaeology, anthropological material and documents). The perspective is unique. There are previous studies on the role of the horse for different areas (not least about the horse in America), yet a synthesis based on intercontinental comparisons has been lacking.

Except for pointing to how horses were used by different human groups, Mitchell demonstrates how the relationship between horses and humans has an impact on how different cultures evolve. Using the horse as a focal point, the author successfully takes the reader through knowledge areas as horses’ roles for subsistence, technological and ecological change, power hierarchies and belief systems as well as power relations between groups of humans and humans and animals. Mitchell also points to that horses (unlike tools like ploughs or fire arms) are of special interest for researchers studying continuity and change, as horses have agency and reproduce. Mitchell demonstrates why horses must be seen as agents of change as they are not environmentally neutral. The dispersal of horses led to ecological disruption in many areas: horses competed with other animals for grazing; horses were able to disperse exotic plants; and horses gave humans the possibility to hunt large game. Mitchell also discusses why horses were not dispersed to all indigenous areas – keeping horses was dependent of time, space (the space had to be unattractive to Europeans that could provide them with secure places), sufficient pasture and water. In addition, equine diseases made horse-keeping difficult.

Mitchell analyses varieties as well as similarities in cultures that have developed in relation to the horse. Profound similarities can be found in artifacts resulting from the fact that people had horses and rode them, such as saddles, reins, bridles, and stirrups. Other similarities seem to be connected to the preferences for how horses were mounted and broken. In addition, the importance of the horse was in many areas proved by the sacrifices of horses and that horses are found in human mythology. Horses also gained its owners political and economic power and gave mobility to its rider. There are, however, surprisingly few examples of power relations between men and women in relation to the horse. More information is presented on the fact that mobility was important in power relations between humans and humans and animals as horses were used for hunting or for trade and raiding and taking care of live-stock.

The book is also of great interest as it demonstrates how Europeans and different groups of indigenous people interacted in connection to the dispersal of horses. Colonial impact is undeniably destructive (not least in relation to how mortal diseases were spread), yet Mitchell demonstrates how indigenous people to a certain extent were able to resist, change and adapt to new situations, and that interaction lead to a process in which both indigenous and European societies changed.

For the reader of idrottsforum.org it is maybe a disappointment that the role of sport in the interaction between different groups of people or humans and horses is not covered. It may however, be seen as a call for more research or a possibility to write a synthesis using the horse human relationship. The book is, however, highly interesting for historians or others interested in understanding continuity and change and not the least researchers interested in colonial impact and interaction between Europeans and indigenous people.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg 2016

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