The Horse That Hollywood Never Knew: The Nisean Warhorse in History

by Beverley Davis

    A noted horsewoman and historical researcher, Beverley Davis recently submitted this article on one of the most famous horses in history, the Nisean, a breed that traces its origins back to the late Neolithic Period. Much prized by kings and generals, for millenia the breed was a major asset in war and as a prize of war. Because of changes in stature and breeding fashions, the horse changed substantually over time and has seldom been seen in modern film or media productions. Usually the modern day equivalent for film makers replaces the Nisean with the Arabian, Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse. Today the horse most similar to the Nisean in descent, although very different in size and structure, is probably the elegant Marwari breed of India.

Over three thousand years ago in the lands of ancient Persia, where Caspian tigers hunted at night and Asiatic lions hunted by day, a new breed of horse evolved. He was tall and swift, and color adorned his sides. The ancient Greeks called him the Nisean after the town Nisa where he was bred; the Chinese called him the Tien Ma-Heavenly Horse or Soulon-Vegetarian dragon.  He was the most valuable horse in the ancient world, and he was regarded as the most beautiful horse alive. Some were spotted like a leopard or as golden as a newly minted coin. Others were red and blue roan with darker color in the roan, what Spanish Mustang people call blue and red corn.  The Assyrians hunted lions from the Nisean's back, while the Northern Chinese pursued the Siberian tiger. His image was carved into cliffs from Bulgaria to China and one Japanese emperor even had an image made of himself made killing a lion from the back of the Nisean. Legend has it that he danced on the mountains and was a descendant of immortal dragons. His arrival changed history.

Map of ancient Medopotamia

I. The First Horsemen

Human beings and horses have had a long and sometimes not so pleasant association with one another. 40,000 years ago Cro-Magnons painted images of the horses on cave walls, and archeological finds in France and the Americas indicate that people sometimes hunted the horse in a less than humane manner, driving them over cliffs, and in the case of the Americas, into extinction. Two Spotted Horses" At Peche-Merle, Alexander Marshack who wrote the book, The Roots of Civilization, in 1972 used infrared photography on the famous "two spotted horses" to show that the horses, spots, and hand prints were not created at the same time. In fact, "The sequence," he states, "suggests a long term, periodic, and variable ritual use of the wall and horse."

Dr. J. P. Mallory in his work on development of the Indo-European Language noted that during the Pleistocene Age horses had been hunted extensively throughout Europe. But after the Ice Age, horse remains became extremely rare as the indigenous wild horse was being eaten into extinction. In Spain, France and Germany, the remains became so rare that at one site in Danubian Germany, out of 5,000 bones, only seventeen belonged to horses. And while it looked as if the horse in Europe and Asia would suffer the same fate as its kin in the Americas, something remarkable happened in what is now southern Russia. Sometime around 4000 B.C., someone discovered that the horse could be ridden, and the world has not been the same since.

Dr. David Anthony and Dorcas Brown of Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York have been working in southern Russia and Kazakhstan looking into the origins of horseback riding and its impact on society. Their organization, the Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies, located at Hartwick College, New York, has uncovered some very interesting finds that include among others:

1. The skull of a horse from Kazakhstan with bit wear on its teeth dating to 3500 B.C.

2. Bronze Age chariots from the Russian steppes that might actually be older than the ones in the Near East-long thought to be their place of origin.

Model of late Bronze Age chariot

3. Human bones with a horse skull in place of its own skull lending credence to certain Asian Indian myths. These first horsemen belonged to the Indo-European family and were ancestors of the Celts, Scythians and related Indo-Iranian tribes. The lived on the grassy steppes of Southern Russian and ranged from the Ukraine to Siberia. At present, it is believed that their horses were small, tough and shaggy animals that were hardy enough to survive on little food and the coldest Siberian winters.

If one surviving breed today could be said to favor them, the Mongolian pony would come closest. Sometime around 2000 B.C., Indo-European horsemen in chariots driven by well-bred animals literally burst on the scene and quickly conquered those unmounted civilizations with whom  they came into contact.

The Hittites, Mittani and Kassites became the chief powers in the Middle East, driving what are described as Arabian- like horses, some of them pinto-colored (black/white or brown/white.) The Phoenicians acquired horses at this time and may have been the dreaded Hyksos that conquered Egypt and introduced the first horses to Africa. When the Egyptians regained control of their lands, they were also driving chariots and trading with the Mittani and Kassites for fresh horses.

The Luristan culture has left behind some exquisite artwork that depicts fine-muzzled horses that could easily be mistaken for modern Arabians. It would appear at this time that the domesticated horse came in three types, the shaggy Tarpan like steppe pony (Mongolian), A Mongolian stallion in 2009. the Arabian like chariot horse (Mittani horse), and the Celtic gaited pony. It might seem odd that these steppe ponies weren't quickly bred into extinction, but they had one major advantage over the nicer looking chariot horses. The Celtic ponies were often gaited--a valuable asset for mounted horsemen without stirrups. The Celtics were moving out of Central Asia at this time and favored these small horses for their gaits. They promoted the breeding of those horses that could do the four beat, lateral gait. Today in Spain and Iceland, the descendants of these smooth riding animals still exist. There are even several unique breeds in India that are also remnants of these first horses to carry humans.

However, something truly unique happened sometime after 1500 B.C. This change may have occurred in the mountain valleys of Armenia, or east of the Caspian Sea on the then sweeping grasslands of the Nisa plains, but this is difficult to say after all these centuries: a horse was bred that was bigger than the Luristan horse to the south or the steppe pony to the north. It came in all the colors of the Luristan horse and a new one, spots. In America, we call this the appaloosa pattern. An added bonus was that many of the breed were gaited, making it the premier riding horse of Central Asia.

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