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Dr. Sandra Olsen

An archaeozoologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History who has studied equine domestication at Botai, Kazakhstan.

1 -    What is the single greatest change you have witnessed in the equestrian world during your life time?

The expansion of equine related therapy for both physical and mental impairments.   This demonstrates how the roles of horses in relation to humans are always changing.


2 -    Do you ride?

Not as often as I like, but I love riding Kazakh horses across the steppe when I have the opportunity. It helps me feel the connection with the earliest riders.


3 -    Do you own a horse?

No, I travel too much, so I am limited to cats!


4 -    Who is your favourite horse in history?

Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s horse.  The fact that his legend has been recounted so many times and that his name lives on illustrate the close bond between this famous empire-builder and his mount.


5 -    Who do you think was the most influential equestrian human in history and why?

Genghis Khan, but unfortunately it was a negative impact.  By annihilating so many cities along the Silk Road and decimating so many advanced populations, we have no idea how many innovations were delayed or never occurred. 


6 -    What was your greatest equestrian influence from books or cinema when you were young?

My Friend Flicka on television and for films it was National Velvet, of  course.


7 -    What equestrian book would you recommend today and why?

Pita Kelekna’s  The Horse in Human History, because it is a nice summary of the roles of the horse through time that includes current research.


8 -    How did you initially become interested in your specific equestrian specialty?

You could say I came at it through the backdoor, as an archaeologist, by studying Ice Age horse bones from a Paleolithic hunt site in France, Solutre, that was used for 20,000 years.  From there I became interested in the questions of when and where horses were first domesticated.


9 -    What prompted you to enter that field?

My career specialty is Zooarchaeology, which means that I study animal remains from the sites of ancient peoples.   My goal is to better understand the relationship between the animals whose bones I identify and the humans responsible for their collection.  With horses, this is an endless endeavor, since horses have served so many diverse roles in human society.


10 -    Did someone encourage your decision or inspire you?

My single biggest inspiration was Mary Littauer, and I know I am not alone in that regard.  Mary was a unique person who devoted her life to the study of horses in ancient history.  She was the most knowledgeable person in the field and a critical thinker, but what we all loved most was that she shared her experience, her knowledge, her library and her home with scholars from around the world.   I was blessed to have her as my mentor and dear friend.  I miss her every day and wish that I could still ask her questions. Her legacy is that she trained and inspired so many, and left behind numerous great publications.


11 -  When did you begin your research, investigation, work?

1985, at the Paleolithic horse hunting site of Solutre, France (32,000-12,000 BCE).  From there I moved on to Kazakhstan, to focus on the inception of horse domestication in 1993.


12 -    What do you think is your most important discovery, achievement or insight regarding your equestrian work?

I believe that my work on the inception of horse domestication is my most important discovery. It has been an ongoing research problem for which I have accumulated many forms of data until the weight of that information has finally convinced even the skeptical that we have the earliest evidence known to date for horse domestication.  That is in the Copper Age Botai culture, in north-central Kazakhstan, which dates to around 3500 BCE.


13 -    What modern technology, techniques and media have you found most helpful?

In archaeology, today we use many high tech methods borrowed from other fields, including biochemistry, geochemistry, geophysics, and medicine.  The biochemists on our team recently discovered residues of mare’s milk in our pottery - an important discovery published in Science in March, 2009.We are just starting to use 3-D laser imaging of ancient horse skulls to compare them with those of modern breeds in order to see what changes have occurred through time and to see if we can identify the beginnings of modern breeds.   I also use scanning electron microscopy extensively on ancient horse bones to record how the bones were made into useful tools, effigies, and ornaments.  


14 -    What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?

For me, starting a new project with a question that I have to try to solve. Archaeology is detective work, much like CSI, (Crime Scene Investigation, an American television show) with a VERY cold case!  You might think that reaching the solution would be the most fulfilling, but I usually just let out a big sigh and then start looking for a new problem to solve.  Once I have found one, I am energized again.


15 -    What’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?

That it has taken so many years for my colleagues to understand my argument for early horse domestication.   It seems that even in science, people are looking for something that can be boiled down to a single sound bite.   My project has had a holistic approach, involving a team of scientists from many disciplines and several lines of evidence, but that is difficult even for my academic colleagues to grasp.


16 -    How do you explain the gulf between academic equestrian investigation and the average horse owner?

We academics are often, though not always, short on practical experience, so I honestly see the deficit as being more on our side than on the side of the average horse owner. I am constantly asking lots of questions of people with far more experience as equestrians than I possess.  It never fails to turn up something new for me. If there is a gulf, it certainly is not because the average horse owner is aloof or inaccessible.   Every time I reach out, I am rewarded with a very warm reception and an exciting dialogue.


17 -    What equestrian subjects are in need of more research and investigation?

Top of my list is how, when, where and why breeds began.   Most breeds were developed for a fairly restricted purpose, usually related to the specific work they were expected to perform, whether it was pulling a chariot, carriage, or wagon, or for riding, or industrial purposes.  In some cases, like the Shetland pony, developed to have strength and short withers height to pull loads of coal from mines, we know the answers to these questions, but for many breeds, their history is less well understood.  


18 -    Which part of the equestrian world would you like to see reformed and why?

Racing on tracks.   Artificial tracks should be mandatory, since they greatly reduce injuries. But, also, breeders need to be more responsible.  The original domesticated horse was only 14 hands and had very thick metapodials (cannon bones), so fractures would have been extremely rare.   Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, have very delicate cannon bones relative to their body size and withers height.   The strain on their feet in racing on a track is more than their skeletons can bear.  It is inhumane to continue this practice.


19 -    How do you traditionally deliver your findings or message and how would you ideally like to do so?

My findings are presented in several ways, through scientific publications in journals, popular articles in magazines and newspapers, in museum exhibits, in distance learning programs in public schools, various equine-related websites, on radio, in television documentaries, and even in other writers’ children’s novels.   I consider it is very important that scholars get the information out to everyone, rather than living in an ivory tower world of academics.  I feel fairly good about my outreach to the public via many kinds of media.  I also realize that the popularity of my subject has made that possible.  For me, the feedback that I get from experienced equestrians who read or see information about my research has contributed vastly to improving my ongoing work.  In other words, it has been a very symbiotic relationship that keeps on giving in both directions.


20 -    What intellectual, technical or ethical advances would you like to see in the horse world?

Intellectually, I would like to see even greater communication between the scientists and the average horse owner. I see great strides are being made today, but believe we need to do even more.   With  so many media outlets, it is easier than ever.  In terms of technology, I believe we are also making major improvements in veterinary medicine, but the future looks bright for more applications of the medical techniques used on humans to be translated into better care for equines.  Ethically, there are three issues that stand out in my mind and that need to be addressed: racing, the inhumane capture methods used on mustangs, and the exportation and subsequent cruel means of slaughtering old or infirm horses from our country outside our federal jurisdiction.


21 -    Do you foresee any difficulties for the horse world in the immediate future?

In the developed countries, it is getting more and more difficult for average citizens to afford to keep horses.  The mounting costs of stabling, feeding, and administering veterinary care to horses is making it hard for regular individuals to keep just one or a few horses.  Since horses are not used in work as much as in the past, justifying the expense associated with their upkeep gets more difficult for many families, who are struggling to save for retirement or college for their children.


22 -    What is the greatest challenge facing the horse world in the long term?

The biggest challenge is to keep changing the roles horses play in human society to make them as relevant as they have been in the past, however, this should be done in humane ways.  So, although they have been used in the past for hard labor and warfare, we are using them more today for recreation and equine related therapies.  This is a positive way forward in my mind.  However, if we do not find new ways to employ horses in our  society, their numbers will surely plummet in the future.


23 -     What books, magazines, websites, etc. can people read and review to learn more about your work?

Sandra Olsen’s Web pages:



S. L. Olsen, S. Grant, A. Choyke, and L. Bartosiewicz, (eds.) 2006: Horses and Humans: The Evolution of the Human-Equine Relationship. BAR, International Series 1560, Oxford, (375pp).

S.L. Olsen (ed.) 1996, reprinted in 2003 in paperback: Horses Through Time. Roberts Rinehart, Boulder, Colorado, (222pp).



Outram, Alan K.;  Natalie A. Stear; Robin Bendrey; Sandra Olsen; Alexei Kasparov; Victor Zaibert; Nick Thorpe;  and Richard P. Evershed  2009.  The earliest horse harnessing and milking, Science, 6 March: Vol. 323. no. 5919, pp. 1332 – 1335.

Olsen, S.L. 2008. Hoofprints. Natural History 117(4): 26-32.

F. Allard, D. Erdenebaatar, S. Olsen, A. Caralla, and E. Maggiore 2007. Ritual and horses in Bronze Age and present-day Mongolia: Some preliminary observations from Khanuy Valley. In Laura Popova, Charles Hartley, and Adam Smith (eds.), Social Orders and Social Landscapes: Proceedings of the 2005 University of Chicago Conference on Eurasian Archaeology. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Olsen, S.L. 2006.  Early horse domestication on the Eurasian steppe. In M. A. Zeder, D.G. Bradley, E. Emshwiller, and B. D. Smith, Documenting Domestication: New Genetic and Archaeological Paradigms. Berkeley: University of California Press: 245-269.

Olsen, S. L. 2006.  Introduction. In S.L. Olsen, S. Grant, A.M. Choyke and L. Bartosiewicz (eds.), Horses and Humans: The Evolution of Human-Equine Relationships. Oxford: BAR International Series 1560:1-10.

Olsen, S.L. 2006.  Early horse domestication: Weighing the evidence. In S.L. Olsen, S. Grant, A.M. Choyke and L. Bartosiewicz (eds.), Horses and Humans: The Evolution of Human-Equine Relationships. Oxford: BAR, International Series 1560: 81-113.

Olsen, S.L., B. Bradley, D. Maki, and A. Outram 2006.  Community organisation among Copper Age sedentary horse pastoralists of Kazakhstan. In D. Peterson, L.M. Popova, and A.T. Smith (eds.), Beyond the Steppe and Sown: Proceedings of the 2002 University of Chicago Conference on Eurasian Archaeology, Colloquia Pontica 13. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers: 89-111.

Olsen, S.L. 2003. The exploitation of horses at Botai, Kazakhstan. In M. Levine, C. Renfrew and K. Boyle (eds.), Prehistoric Steppe Adaptation and the Horse. McDonald Institute Monographs. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 83-104.


24 -    Any final thoughts?

I would just like to reiterate how grateful I am to all the equestrians who have patiently endured my endless questions and probing and who have provided me with much needed information.  It is impossible for me to credit all of them in my publications, but without them, my research would definitely not have progressed to the level at which it is today.

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