Wrestling with time (with the help of horses)

For the nations that made use of the horse as a fast means of transportation, time and space took on a new meaning. Speed determined the time that one needed to traverse a certain distance, and distances themselves were calculated differently than in the past. Things that used to seem far away were now closer, and what was once a day's march became the ride of a few hours. The predatory Huns had the advantage of speed on their side. Their sudden coming and going left their opponents no time to defend themselves. A new way of reckoning time was established. Plans and strategies followed a new beat – the tempo of the horse. These might have been the years when riders realized that, minute for minute, one could achieve more on horseback than on foot - the siren call of efficiency!


Photo by Hardy Holte

But for a lot of people something else changed as well during that revolution in the way we moved - the sense of how quickly or slowly time is passing. Chronologists believe that this feeling is closely connected with the speed with which a person moves. The faster we travel, the more quickly time seems to fly by. Of course, this is not true for the person chomping at the bit for time to pass and checking his watch every other minute. Impatience can make an hour seem like an eternity. Still, the ticking of our inner clock is not determined by our own rhythm alone. A critical role is played by the nature and quantity of impressions that a person receives. A non-stimulating, boring environment gives us the feeling that time is creeping, but a flood of new stimuli makes our clock tick much faster. Our sense of time, emphasizes Hede Helfrich of the University of Regensburg's Psychological Institute, is determined by the attention and concentration that a person pays to each moment. He adds that the intensity of attention is itself influenced by cultural circumstances like the local pace of life. In a comparison with five other nationalities (Italian, English, American, Indo¬nesian and Taiwanese), the Japanese turned out to be the fastest walkers, have the most precise watches and the quickest mailmen. The Indonesians came in last in the cultural comparison, and the USA took second place.

If they hadn't tasted speed on the back of a horse, humanity would probably lie centuries, perhaps even millennia behind where it is today. Horses have moved entire peoples, religions, culture and diseases, and have brought power and riches. Today's borders were drawn by the riders of old. The invasion of the Huns in the fourth century B.C. set off an enormous wave of migration among the Germanic tribes which eventually led to the downfall of the Roman empire. Who knows how far the Goths and the Vandals would have made it on their way through Europe if they had been forced to travel on foot or in ox carts! Maybe they never would have set out and maybe they never would have encountered the Roman Empire; in fact, the Roman Empire itself might not have existed! And could there have been a Mongol Empire, or Napoleon advancing all the way to Moscow? Could large cities ever have developed and blossomed if the horse family (horses, mules, onagers and donkeys) hadn't been there to transport provisions for the inhabitants?

And it is impossible to overestimate the value of the information that mounted couriers conveyed for their rulers. In the sixth century B.C. messengers of the Persian king Darius I, ruler of the first empire in the history of the world, could cover a distance of 2,600 kilometers in eight days. «There is not mortal creature that is faster than these Persian messengers,» reported the Greek historian Herodotes. Such speedy delivery, of course, would have been impossible if Darius had not also built an extensive, well-kept road system.

Alexander the Great and after him the Romans adopted this method of sending messages. The state road system of the Romans covered a total length of over 80,000 km. It made that enormous empire governable by enabling the rapid movement of troops and news. The tightly organized courier service of the Mongols, too, quickly conveyed important information from the far reaches of the empire to the hands of its ruler, so that he could dispatch his troops at the first sign of unrest. The rapid westward thrust of the Mongols has been given the blame for the spread of the plague that killed a third of the population of the Western world in the fourteenth century B.C. The Black Death is caused by a bacterium, Yersina pestis, that to this day is native to the Far East. It is spread by fleas that live on rats.

Without the help of the horse, world history would have taken a completely different twist. Man has done few things that have altered his fate as much as when he began to manipulate time by going faster. «The history of man can be described as an endless race with time,» remarks the speed theorist Paul Virilio. «First it was a means of survival by escaping from predators, but soon the race was driven by a hunger for power.» And he says that speed is the hidden side of prosperity. «There are no riches and no power without speed.»


Helfrich-Hölter, H. (1996). Psychology of time from a cross-cultural perspective. In H. Helfrich-Hölter (Ed.), Time and mind (pp. 105-120), Seattle: Hogrefe & Huber Publishing.

Livine, R. (1998). A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life. New York: Basic Books.

Virilio, P. (1993). Revolutionen der Geschwindigkeit. Aus dem Französischen von Marianne Karbe. Berlin: Merve-Verlag.