horse and horsemanship in Georgia
As one wise man has said: the dog is indeed the best friend of a man, but the horse is what created a civilization. The horse and horsemanship helped to protect various nations from the threat of extinction. Georgians were no exception. If not for the sword and the horse, the Georgian people would probably have never survived to present day. The history of Georgia, which dates back to 3000 years, is a never-ending battle for freedom and independence. Wedged between the competing interests of multiple Empires - Roman and Byzantine, Ottoman, Persian and, Russian, the Georgians were forced to fight; they were warriors. From ancient times, those who bred horses were highly respected, and good breeders were always needed and well regarded by the various Georgian kings. Although a lucrative position, it was also politically risky, because breeders were responsible for providing the king with a strong and reliable cavalry. The fact that Georgian ancestors paid special attention to horsemanship is proven by the discovery of horse decorations, the figures of the horse riders and other objects. According to the archeological data, the horse, as an animal utilized in the warfare coach as well as transportation, entered the lifestyle of the tribes living on the Georgian territory in the late Middle Bronze Age, or 15th century BCE.
The horse was rarely used in agriculture. It was during this time that the process of including horses in burials had started in Georgia. The Tabals, Georgian tribes that lived during the 1st century BCE, were famous for having the best kinds of horses. Horse skeletons were also discovered in the ancient burials. As it turns out, the ancient horses had thin legs and small hoofs.
The Georgian horsemen were frequently called the centaurs. A centaur is half human and half horse creature in the Ancient Greek mythology. The most famous of the centaurs was Hironius, the teacher of Achilles and Jason. The same Jason who sailed to Colchis, the ancient part of Western Georgia, in order to obtain the Golden Fleece. The Greek Apollonius Rhodios wrote in Argonautika: “They went on the ship, and sailed toward the field of Ares, situated at the bank of the river, with the view on the entire city... The Colchis would hold various athletic competitions and horsebackriding spectacles here, commemorating their heroes and kings.”
Georgian kings and statesmen would send horses as a very precious gift to the kings and noblemen of their allies and patron countries. In 141 AD, during the reign of Parsman, King of Iberia (Eastern Georgia), an invitation was extended from Rome to participate in a riding contest in honor of Mars. The king, along with his son Radamist, and a small group of Georgians were proud to accept the invitation and the chance to exhibit their skills. At the conclusion of the contest, Emperor Antonius Pius was so impressed by their performance that he ordered a statue of Parsman to be built. So began Georgia’s international reputation as a center of expert horsemanship.
As time passed, the equestrian skills first demonstrated by King Parsman and his cavalry grew in scope and richness.
In 1857, impressed by the techniques of the Georgian horsemen, Czar Alexander the 2nd declared an order, which mandated that his private convoy, would be made up of men from the Caucasus region, especially Georgia. It would be called, “the private convoy –the private guard of the Caucasian Escadron.” The first twenty members of this army were young men from Tbilisi and Kutaisi, no more than 25 years of age.
In 1893 the Georgian trick riders from the western part of Georgia, Guria went to the United States where for more than 30 years they performed under the name of “Russian Cossacks” in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as well as other American circuses and shows. They won widespread recognition and significantly influenced cowboys. Dee Brown, the noted western historian wrote, “Trick riding came to rodeo by way of a troupe of Cossack daredevils imported by the 101 Ranch. Intrigued by the Cossacks stunts on their galloping horses, western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo. Colorful costumes seem to be a necessary part of trick riding, and it is quite possible that the outlandish western garb which has invaded rodeo area can be blamed directly on Cossacks and trick riders.” Out of all the international performers, the Georgian riders’ performance was perhaps the most popular feature of the Wild West show. Only Indians and cowboys enjoyed similar popularity. Their trick riding style called dzhigitovka (a Turkic word taken to mean skilful and courageous rider) or jiriti in Georgian. The Georgians have left an indelible mark on the development of American show business, of which Buffalo Bill is considered to be the pioneer.
From the beginning of the 20th century the Georgian officers from the Czar’s army successfully participated in various competitions held in Russia and Europe. In 1912, Count Chavchavadze took part in the Olympic Games held in Stockholm, Sweden. The same year, the first time in the history of the Russian Empire, Konstantine Avalishvili won the Liverpool Grand Prize in the steeplechase competition, one of the most complicated horse racing events.
Many travelers and researchers have written about the mameluks of Egypt and Iraq. Mameluks were a warrior caste dominant in Egypt and influential in the Middle East in medieval centuries. Even Napoleon Bonaparte was amazed by their military upbringing. “Two mameluks were certainly better than three Frenchmen. Hundred mameluks are worth hundred Frenchmen. Three hundred Frenchmen often won over 300 mameluks and one thousand Frenchmen were often better than 1 500 mameluks,” said the Emperor. In his opinion, French military men were only better than the mameluks by their organizational skills and their discipline. The main nucleus of the mameluks was comprised of the Georgian, Circassian and other Caucasian peoples that were sold at the slave markets. Due to their personal qualities, many Georgian slaves sold in the Muslim world were soon freed from slavery and many of them would become a big feudal pasha or a sultan. Many pashas of Georgian descent had contributed to the strengthening of Iraq. Among them were Suleiman Abu Lail, Daud Pasha, etc.
Eighty percent of Georgia is mountainous. That is why throughout centuries, a new kind of a horse was bred, which would survive well in the difficulties of the precipitous area. This is a small bodied, tight, well-built local horse. It was developed from an old Georgian type of a horse, which was bred in Georgia during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. It was used for warfare as well as nomadic animal farming. This horse is ideal for work in swamps and mountains. It stands out with its vigilance, boldness and strength.
The patron saint of Georgia, Saint George, is usually depicted riding a horse. This is the only example in history where a saint is slaying a real person – the Byzantine emperor Diocletian instead of a mythical dragon.
Historically Georgia not only had a well developed agriculture, but horse breeding as well. This fact is proven by the Georgian literary-scientific work of the Middle Ages about horsebreeding or various remarks on herds of horses by the historians.
Horse and horsemanship was a mandatory spectacle during church holidays and other public rituals. For example, it was common to sacrifice a horse for a deceased person in the mountainous region of Georgia. During the weeping ceremony, a well decorated horse put at the head of the corpse. This kind of a horse was called the “soul horse.”
The Georgians paid a special attention to the military upbringing as an opportunity of developing the stamina and courage at the battlefield. Such kind of training started in the early childhood.
Georgian women didn’t fall behind Georgian men. As one Italian missionary had commented, “They know how to horseback ride, carrying falcons on their hands as well as bow and arrow.” Another missionary wrote: “It is not hard to believe that Georgian women are indeed amazons since they horsebackride like men and they are quite skilled at using the weapons.”
Georgian kings often trained their army themselves. One of these trainings performed by the Georgian king Irakli is documented in the text kept at the Manuscript Institute.
King Irakli was a great rider and swordsman himself. He fought ferociously and never left his horse till the very last minutes of his life. His contemporary, King Friedrich the Second of Prussia, had said: “I’m the one in Europe, and the Georgian king is the one in Asia.”
Today the horse does not have the same importance. But only 100 years ago famous Georgian poet Vaja Pshavela wrote about the importance of the horse in following way:
“What good will money bring to a man,
He has to have a good horse!”