The Thrill of the Chase

Part of the Horse exhibition.

stone carving
Ashurbanipal spearing a lion. Assyrian stone carving from Nineveh, c645 B.C.
The Granger Collection, New York

In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, hunting on horseback has long been a favorite pastime of the ruling classes. During the Middle Ages, young noblemen were encouraged to learn skills such as tracking down game and shooting while riding as preparation for war.

Other animals sometimes helped with the chase, including hounds, hawks, falcons, and even big cats. Horses had to be trained to work calmly side by side with these hunting partners and to follow in swift pursuit when hunting parties spotted their prey.

Big Game

Hunting on horseback is an ancient sport. Stone carvings from ruins in the Middle East show that horses were used in royal lion hunts more than 2,600 years ago. In the fourth century AD, Iranian kings kept game parks where hunters on horseback stalked dangerous beasts such as bears, leopards, and wild boars. It took strength, speed, and courage to hunt large animals like these, so hunters selected their horses with care.

Hot On The Trail

In the 1700s, British aristocrats made foxhunting into a popular sport. A master on horseback leads the chase, helped by a team of assistants and a pack of hounds. To follow the hounds cross-country, horses must jump over hedges, fences, and streams. Traditional foxhunts are now banned in most parts of Great Britain, though they are still held in other parts of the world.

Decorative Vessel

In Central Asia, India, and the Middle East, hunters once used trained cats such as lynxes and cheetahs as hunting assistants. These predators learned to ride behind the hunter on the horse's rump, as shown on an ornamental vessel from Iran in the exhibition. When game was spotted, the cat leaped down and went in for the kill.


Royal hunts were once carefully planned to ensure success for the king and his court. Hunters on horseback fanned out and surrounded an area where game was plentiful, then slowly closed in on their prey. A decorative tile on exhibit from Iran shows two mounted hunters cornering and killing a deer.