Last week we looked at ancient empires and the role the horse played in their expansion. Ancient empires had a size limit determined by the horse. If the outer limits of the empire were more than 14 days ride it was difficult to maintain control and thus the edges were claimed by other peoples – shrinking the empire. This helps explain why American empires were significantly smaller than Old World empires. They did not have horses, but travelled by foot. Once the horse was introduced to American cultures their territories expanded exponentially.
One key example of an empire greatly expanded by the horse was that of Genghis Khan. Khan is recorded to have said, “Conquering the world on horseback is easy”. But what if the fleet, noble horses we know and love were significantly slower animals? How would that have changed the shape of Genghis Khan’s empire?
Born in 1162, Genghis Khan consolidated the tribes of Mongolia and stretched his empire to Eastern Europe.[i] History tells us of the fast and intimidating Mongol horse used by Khan to subdue sedentary people groups. However, if the horse was a slower animal one must assume they would not be selected for use in raiding and battle. If warriors still chose to use horses for war it would likely be to carry weapons and transport supplies. A slower horse would not have the agility needed to intimidate the enemy neither would it have the element of surprise that speed provides. If the horse was a slower animal than the one we know, Khan would have conquered less territory and would have done so at a slower pace leading to a smaller empire.
After Genghis Khan’s empire was established he implemented, “the world’s first long-distance postal transmission system.”[ii] Imperial messengers rode days without stopping and changed horses at high speeds. The system was implemented in 1224 and was not discontinued until the 1950s according to organizers of The Mongol Derby (a modern-day horse race that retraces the traditional routes established by Khan). But what if instead of functioning as race horses, equines instead were slow and plodding? We can assume that they would not be used to deliver urgent messages across great distances. Instead perhaps the Mongols would have employed the foot messenger system used by ancient American peoples.
If the horse was a significantly slower animal, then Genghis Khan’s ancient empire would have looked drastically different. Instead, the speed, agility, and loyalty of the Mongol horse created a vast empire and maintained that empire by providing a quick mode of communication between Khan and the outer reaches of his domain.
Header Image Credit: Uchral Sanjaadorj
[i] Bawden, Charles R. “Genghis Khan.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Aug. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Genghis-Khan.
[ii] Mitic, Igor. “Mongol Derby.” The Adventurists, www.theadventurists.com/adventures/mongol-derby/#7.