In technological, industrialised and mechanised nations the fall of horses is a familiar history verging on cliché. True, advances reduced our dependence on horse power. But the decline of horses is not the full story, or even the only story, about peoples’ relationship with horses today.
Horses rise, fall, and rise again with economies. They are expensive animals to keep. They can be made less expensive if we also use them for their milk, meat, hair and hide as well as their muscle, like Mongolian communities do, but those communities are exceptional for maximising their return from horses. Horse power for improved transport and food production comes at a cost – horses must be fed and cared for.
For this reason, horses are an investment beyond the reach of the poorest communities around the world. But the machines that could replace a horses’ economic role in households and farms are more expensive still and require a much greater investment. Horse ownership, therefore, is still a pragmatic advance, and evidence of growing household wealth, for most of the world’s rural communities.
In the early stages of economic development towards industrialisation and mechanisation, therefore, numbers of horses should rise, not fall, as household wealth improves and increasing numbers of people can invest in a horse. This is the relationship that most in the developing world have with horses.
As an economy develops, however, further improvements in household income and external investment facilitates the mechanisation of transport and food production. Horse numbers decline. This was the case in the early 20th century West and the reality in the world’s newest developed economies.
Industrialisation stimulates an equine renaissance. Horses are most expensive to keep when they offer no economic return. They become symbolic of status too. In the world’s most affluent nations, horse numbers rise again with growth in the pursuit of equestrian recreation and culture. This is the emergent relationship between horses and people in the world’s wealthiest nations.
Across the global economic divide the horses unite us, albeit for very different values. Ironically, owning a horse is an aspiration of the world’s poorest and wealthiest people.
The rise, fall and rise again of horses in communities is playing out now in nations around the globe as their economies grow and contract. This is my hypothesis and we will test it here using values of agricultural production, mechanisation, national wealth, investment and horse numbers over the coming weeks.