Exploring ‘The 5,500-Year Journey’ With Horses

A horsewoman embarks on a cross-country trip with her horses, from Paris to Florence, to better understand the horse-human connection.

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Christa Lesté-Lasserre and her horses, Sabrina (left) and Solstice, will be traveling from outside Paris, France, to Florence, Italy, over several months in fall 2022 and spring 2023
Christa Lesté-Lasserre and her horses, Sabrina (left) and Solstice, will be traveling from outside Paris, France, to Florence, Italy, over several months in fall 2022 and spring 2023. In the meantime Christa will be writing about horse health, welfare, and the horse-human relationship with input from equine veterinarians and researchers. | Courtesy Christa Lesté-Lasserre

How well do I know my horse? Sure, I know him, but do I really know him? Yes, of course, I know Solstice is a big black Warmblood gelding. I know he has champion bloodlines and would have made an impressive dressage horse under a different rider. I know he’s simultaneously goofy and majestic, curious and endearing, cautious and powerful.

And I know he was born on a brisk April morning on a farm north of Paris, France. I know that because I was there. I saw that sweet newborn foal all wet and adorable in the straw, being nuzzled by his mother, Sabrina, my mare whom I’d bought a few years earlier in Germany.

Solstice has been my equine sunshine for his entire 12 years of life, and I could go on and on   describing him. Measurements, important dates, strengths, weaknesses, fears, preferences, best pasture pals, and more. But in the end, do I really know him?

Busyness Makes Us Bad Listeners

I have a feeling Solstice knows me a whole lot better than I know him. Why? Because, like pretty much any horse, Solstice is a master at observation. He watches me. He pays attention to my body language. He picks up on my subtle cues—the ones I mean to make and the ones I don’t. And he just spends a lot of our time together listening—whether it’s to what I say with my voice or what I say with all the rest of me.

And what am I doing? Most of the time, I’m hurrying. I’m carving out precious time to rush out through traffic to the stables, do a little grooming/groundwork/riding, clean up poop and hair, and rush back home—sometimes through traffic again—to get dinner ready and take care of my family.

During all that, I haven’t taken the time to listen. How on earth am I ever going to get to really know my horse if I never let him talk?

To be fair, I don’t think I’m the only horse owner who feels this way. Many of us have much to improve about the way we “listen” to our horses. That’s not a criticism or a judgment; it’s just reality.

That might have something to do with our modern lives: Today’s fast-paced life affords humans little quality time to spend with horses. We spend countless hours sitting in front of computers and other screens. We drive 10 or 20 miles just to get to our horses, responding to calls and messages along the way. As a species in general, we’re overbusy, unhealthy, anxious, and depressed. And we often arrive at the barn with so much on our minds that we don’t disconnect long enough to switch over to our horses’ worlds.

6,000 Years of Partnership With Horses

What a stark contrast to the scene that certainly unfolded five or six millennia ago, back at the dawn of the horse-human relationship.

I like to think it was a Botai woman, leading a rustic little mare into a milking pen out in the western Eurasian steppes. Or maybe it was well before that, a Cro-Magnon man aiming a spear at a bay-spotted stallion in thick snow in modern-day France. Whoever they were and whenever it was, I wish I could have been there. I wish I could witness that moment when, for the very first time, a horse and a human looked each other in the eye.

Two intelligent species were no longer just observing each other, no longer wary of each other but, finally, for the first time, seeing each other. Connecting. Feeling. Creating—if only for a flashing moment—the first-ever horse-human bond.

The Botai were likely the first to domesticate horses by capturing pregnant mares in the flatlands of modern-day Kazakhstan. They built fences next to their huts and provided food, shelter, and water for these horses. They touched them; they haltered them; they milked them; and, when the animals died, they buried them.

In the centuries that followed, other scattered populations throughout the world did the same. Some even created bits and harnesses and started riding and driving horses, and they started selectively breeding them. Generation after generation, horse herders chose the individuals that were not only the most fit for the work but also the easiest to catch, easiest to train, and most suited for the domestic environment they lived in.

Over the next five millennia and up until the 20th century, horses became partners to humans, sharing the grueling tasks of farming side by side with their owners, transporting them across town and to the next city, enduring the hardship of wars and surviving—sometimes dying—alongside the soldiers who trusted them with their lives. Even people who couldn’t afford to own horses could still see them, smell them, work with them, and travel with them on a daily basis.

Horses and people came to depend on each other. If you think about it, it’s almost as if humans and horses actually domesticated each other.

‘Partners’ Living Separate Lives

But for all that, here we are today, often scrambling to experience our lives at the barn and away—and never living either life fully. It doesn’t seem to be where evolution was going with the whole domestication thing all those years ago.

Is it possible that maybe domesticated horses and humans aren’t meant to be apart? Are we depriving ourselves of an essential connection with our partner species? And are we even depriving them of such a connection with humans, as well?

Certainly, many modern horses live good, healthy lives with good welfare. They eat well, have optimal turnout, and spend ample time with other horses. So “deprive” might be a strong word.

Still, we know horses’ heart rates drop around humans they know and like, suggesting they feel more relaxed and secure. And, likewise, people seem to benefit from just being around horses. Researchers have yet to determine the reason, but it might explain why equine-assisted therapy is becoming so popular.

Fall 2022: My ‘5,500-Year’ Journey

I want to know my horses better. At the very minimum, I want to know them at least as well as they know me.

I want to delve into this connection that’s apparently 5,500 years in the making. I want to know what it is to really share my daily life with my horses while doing what both species evolved to do: move.

That’s why I’ve embarked on a unique horse-human adventure. This fall and next spring, I’m taking Solstice and Sabrina on a walking trip through countrysides, vineyards, villages, and picturesque medieval towns between the outskirts of Paris, France, and Florence, Italy. We’ll travel a few hours a day, most days a week, and have plenty of time to eat, rest, play, and—in my case—work.

Importantly, I’ll be writing about my experience, with input  from a  panel of scientific experts in welfare, nutrition, hoof care, safety, physical fitness, and—especially—the horse-human bond.

This trip is in no way a step back in time. On the contrary, it’s an exploration of what the horse-human relationship during a cross-country journey could be in 2022—leaning on the technology and scientific knowledge we’ve amassed over the past several millennia.

I hope our journey will better characterize the horse-human relationship, support both human and equine welfare, and contribute to a healthier planet and a greater understanding of who we all are—humans and animals alike.


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Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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