I saw this horse on two different visits one week to Wizard Beach on Isla Bastimentos, an island in Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Drawn to the salty taste of the surf, the horse would wade into the water and then mostly stand still, letting the occasional wave slap its face. After maybe half an hour it would then return to the beach and slip silently back into the jungle.
It was a captivating scene: the vibrantly colored Caribbean Sea, the jungle-green backdrop, the horse maintaining such focus on its salty bath. Its life didn’t seem that bad. Certainly it was less stressful than many of its ancestors would have known, given that for much of human history horses have been instruments of war. Since before 3000 BC they’ve been ridden in battle, and a training manual for chariot horses, written in Hittite, was in existence as early as 1350 BC. Not until much later, however, did the paired stirrup come onto the scene, revolutionizing yet again the tactics of war. The English travel writer Colin Thubron, in his book Shadow of the Silk Road, explains its spread and significance:
The heavy stirrup was a Chinese brainchild as early as the fourth century AD, it seems, and as it travelled westward, stabilising its rider in battle, it made possible the heavily armoured and expensively mounted knight. To this simple invention some have attributed the onset of the whole feudal age in Europe; and seven centuries later the same era came to an end as its castles were pounded into submission by the Chinese invention of gunpowder. The birth and death of Europe’s Middle Ages, you might fancy, came along the Silk Road from the east.
Yes, this beach-loving Panamanian horse had it pretty good, as did the rest of us on the island. We had put our shirts and stirrups aside, none of us could read Hittite, and the history of war felt rather remote.