As a tattoo design, the horse spans many millennia and most continents. It is one of the most familiar symbols of early man. The horse, before it was tamed, was one of the staple food items of early hunters. Pictures of horses adorn the cave walls of France and date back over 40,000 years. Even then, we revered the horse for its strength, speed and stamina, to say nothing of its beauty and grace. Horses were one of the first animals to be worshipped and considered an important animal totem. Horses were first domesticated some ten thousand years ago, somewhere in the Middle East or vast plains of Eastern Europe. In no time at all, men had climbed on board for a ride that has not yet ended.
Where there were men and conflict, warriors on horseback were not far behind. And as humans bridged the gap between hunter/gatherers and early agrarian cultures, horses played an integral and crucial part. Whether horses were used as personal mounts to cross vast plains, deserts and steppes or to pull everything from plows, carts to chariots, horse were crucial to the cultures of early man. Horse represented power and wealth and have always been associated with Kings, Emperors, the Nobility, Aristocracy and upper classes. A man of means had to have a horse.
Gods and Horses have kept fast company from the beginning of history – if not before. Beautiful, elegant, loyal and intelligent, the Horse in ancient Greece was given not only wings but immortality. These divine beings were believed to be the offspring of the Four Winds, which would take on the forms of horses carrying Zeus in his chariot. A whole stable of divine steeds was available to gods and goddesses throughout the ancient Greek realm. Of all the divine Horses, Pegasus is the most famous. That winged steed was thought to carry the thunderbolts of Zeus across the sky.
The Horse has universally been revered for its beauty and strength. More than any other mortal creature it has been perceived as a beloved and trusted friend in difficult times. The unique qualities of its heart and mind became recognized as the best characteristics with which to wage both war and peace alike. A Horse will whinny with delight at the sight of its owner and greatly mourn its loss should that beloved rider perish. Because the Horse is able to recognize its owner, and appears to return their love, it also became a symbol of mutual respect. Its stamina, power, trustworthiness, and love of running wild became symbols of friendship and victory over hardship or oppression.
The Arabian is the oldest pure-bred horse in the world. Noah’s descendants are said to have tamed the first Arabian in 3000 BC. With the growth of Islam, this obedient and hardy animal became a great weapon of war, and contributed to the conquest of half of the European world. Little wonder that it became an emblem of fearlessness and loyalty, making it the supreme military resource for mighty emperors, including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Napoleon Bonaparte. Its powerful masculinity and rippling muscles made it a favourite of artists, particularly the great romantic painters. Today, the Arabian is a symbol of the nation of Yemen, the original desert breeders of this once wild creature.
In Europe, the Horse as symbol goes back to pre-Anglo Saxon times when it was a religious symbol as well as a synonym for the warrior. Twin horse gods, Stallion and Horse, were mythical brothers worshipped throughout ancient Britain. The famous White Horse of Uffington gives credence to the reverence and significance of the Horse during the Iron Age. It was carved into the hillside of the English landscape, measuring more than 100 metres in length, and believed to be more than three thousand years old. Some historians say it was the tribal symbol of local chieftains. The stylized image of the Horse also appeared on Celtic coins, during pre-Roman times.
The Celts of ancient Gaul and Britain were supreme horsemen who worshipped the Horse as the goddess Epona. The Romans adopted her as their own after they conquered these regions. Throughout the Roman Empire, shrines to the goddess were created in the stables of the Roman cavalry. She was on the war-standards they carried into battle. With Mars as their god of war, the Romans honoured and even sacrificed the Horse in religious rites. The colour of the Horse was also of great significance during those times. The white Horse was the emblem of peace, while the war Horse was red. A black Horse was the symbol of mourning.
The veneration of the Horse continued into the Christian era. After all, reference to the Horse appears in the Bible as a metaphor for the people “as ones in the wilderness that should not stumble”. Although overt worship of Horse deities was abandoned, subsequent evidence of massive hillside carvings of the Horse support the notion that it continued to be an important symbol for the English. Kings and queens of the realm kept stables of the finest breeds. They featured the Horse on their flags, on their coats of arms and on their soldiers’ shields.
In Medieval and Renaissance Europe the horse was closely associated with Royalty, the nobility and those of high rank. Today we cannot even imagine the image of the Knight in shining armour without his trusty steed. Horsemanship, jousting tournaments and the like were standard ways to judge a man’s character, ability and his worth as a soldier. And in fact the War Horse, was a crucial element to the landed and monied classes holding onto their rank and status. For centuries, the creme de la creme of European culture, should they have to sully themselves with the art of warfare, did so by joining the Calvary. In the armies of the day, the greatest prestige and honour was allotted to the mounted regiments. And every Emperor, King and General worth his salt went into battle mounted on the finest horse that money or love could buy. And should one’s luck turn bad on the day of battle, it was quite common for leaders, from Kings, to Vikings, to Celts, and even Chinese Warlords, to be buried with their most prized horses.
In Chinese mythology, the Horse was related to the Dragon and took its place in the imagination and folklore of the people. During its early history, China was threatened by the great horsemanship of surrounding barbarians, so the Horse became a military necessity if China was to stave off constant invasion. By the middle of the 7th century, during the Tang dynasty, the Chinese rulers acquired some 700,000 horses for the purposes of national security. As in other cultures, the Horse’s esthetic appeal made it a favorite symbol for some of the most powerful rulers of China. As an emblem of Power and Virtue, the Horse became a popular theme in lively ink drawings that can still be seen in galleries today.
The North American Indian, often portrayed in Hollywood movies as a stunning horseman, actually survived for many thousands of years without the company of Horses. When the wondrous creature arrived with the Spanish invaders, the Blackfoot saw it as a gift from the Creator, and it became a symbol of mobility and wealth. Today the wild horses of the West, or Mustangs, are potent symbols of the last remaining vestiges of the frontier. In places like Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico, the last of the true working cowboys – and cowgirls – still make their living on horseback. And in terms of symbols and the wild, wild West, it is nearly impossible to separate a cowboy from his trusty steed, the Western Cow Pony. We may have come a long ways from the days when horse rustlers were hanged, but not that far!
In the past, only the aristocracy of many cultures were permitted to ride a Horse, and women were expected to ride side-saddle to protect their modesty. Today, the Horse belongs to everybody, whether to ride or admire or lay a bet on. Stories abound of the Horse’s protectiveness, patience, and endurance during times when its owner faced hardship. It remains the symbol of the free spirit and intuitive intelligence.
Get inspired by some great images and tattoos in our Horse Tattoo Gallery