The History of Horses & Racing



Join Active Minds for a look at the history of horses including one of the most extraordinary examples of the breed--the thoroughbred racehorse. We will begin with horse domestication and their use in agriculture, the military, and other arenas and end with a review of some of the greatest racehorses and races of all time.

Key Lecture Points

  • Horses have played a pivotal role in the history of human society for thousands of years. The close relationship between man and horse has changed both species. People have created dozens of breeds in order to make horses faster, stronger, bigger or smaller. The way people travel, trade, play, work and go to war have all been shaped by the use of horses. Although horses no longer carry soldiers into battle or pull ploughs, the bond between humans and horses is still strong for companionship, recreation and sport.
  • The prehistoric horse species evolved in North America and from there crossed to Asia, Africa and Europe. About 12,000 years ago, horses became extinct in North and South America, but survived in Eurasia and Africa. Evidence of wild horses can be found in the Neolithic cave art of Southern France. The horse was first domesticated about 5,500 years ago on the Steppes of present day western Kazakhstan.
  • Since the earliest times, horses have played vital roles in war, transportation and agriculture. I ronically they were essential to the progress of the Age of Industrialization in the 19th century. From the Pony Express to pulling steam fire engines and streetcars to working in the mines and fighting in WWI, people depended on horses.
  • Men have been racing horses since the Ancient Greeks, but the professional sport of horseracing as we know it today, dates back to England and the reign of Queen Anne in the 18th century. The thoroughbred horses around the world today are all descended from 3 Arabians brought to England in the early 1700s.
  • Early British settlers brought horseracing to America, but it did not become an organized sport until after the Civil War. The most famous races in the US are the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes—the Triple Crown. Only 11 horses have been Triple Crown winners, the last one was Affirmed in 1978.
  • Major issues facing American horseracing today are how to address the high incidence of horse breakdowns and injuries and the need for better regulation of the use of equine painkillers.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe the role horses have played in human history to include war, commerce, and sport.
  • What are the major issues facing horseracing today?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think there is such a special bond between horses and humans?
  • Are you a horseracing fan? What do you enjoy most about the sport?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Langrish, Bob and Judith Dutson. Horse Breeds of North America (paperback). Storey Publishing, 2006. 204 pages. Photos and descriptions of 96 breeds.
    Click here to order
  • Nack, William. Secretariat. Hyperion Books, 2010. 455 pages. The story of Triple Crown champion Secretariat—the only non-human chosen as one of ESPN’s “50 Great Athletes of the Century.”
    Click here to order
  • Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend. (paperback) Random House Publishing Group, 2003. The underdog story of the horseracing icon, Seabiscuit.
    Click here to order