According to Zoroastrianism, horse is one of the foremost animals belonging to the Gospand or beneficent category. Since early times Iranians had started taming horses and kept them in stables. Herodotus, while talking about Iranian education in the Achaemenian times had said that “The Persian children were taught to speak the truth, ride a horse and shoot a bow right from the age of five.”
There are five different words used for horse in the Avesta. The most common among them is aspa. The other words are aurvant, vastāra, yukhta and hita. Each of the name give an idea of the usages of horse in ancient times.
In the Avesta, the horse is shown to be an animal with amazing powers of strength, health, well-being and eyesight. The remarkable eyesight of the horse is described as being able to distinguish a hair and its type even in the darkest of the nights. Warriors, kings and devotees prayed for strength of their horses.
The use of chariot almost immediately followed the domestication of horse. In the Avesta the word for a warrior is rathaeshtār which means “one standing on a chariot”. The adjective aspāyaodha “fighting on horse-back” is exclusively used for Zarir, brother of King Vishtaspa. Even in those times, horses were made to wear horse-shoes, which were made of lead, but sometimes decorated with gold.
The gift of horses was symbolic of the gift of wealth. When compared with the special metals gold and silver, a horse was compared to silver whereas a camel was compared to gold. Yazads used to bestow their devotees with gifts of horses. Ashishwangh Yazad gives a gift of a thousand horses. Meher Yazad gifts good horses to those who are faithful to him.
In the Avesta a horse is regarded as the vehicle of Avan, Sarosh and Khorshed Yazads. Avan Yazad and Sarosh Yazad ride a chariot of four swift white horses. Tir Yazad assumes the form of a white horse having yellow ears and a golden caparison. In opposition the demon of drought Apaosha assumes the form of black, ugly and loathsome horse to fight Tir Yazad. This is the only instance where a demon is shown assuming the form of a hideous horse, otherwise the horse is always associated with good divine beings and heroes.
The word for horse was also used allegorically to indicate the ‘senses’ which are originally untamed like the horses and need to be tamed in order to be of any use. There could be no better metaphor for senses than a horse. Though both are very essential, left to themselves both are wild and need to be restrained. Both have the ability of harming the person who uses them without proper knowledge but immensely helps those who use it cautiously and wisely.
A classic example of the word horse used metaphorically comes in Gatha Ushtavaiti where prophet Zarathushtra asks Ahura Mazda for ten pregnant mares, a stallion and a camel as a reward for his exertions. Dr.I.J.S.Taraporewala was one of the first to point out that there was more significance to the words horse and camel than literally understood. He cited the Kathopanishad (I.3.3-6) where the Soul is called the Lord of the Chariot, the Body is the Chariot and Senses are the Horses. He suggested the same explanation – number ten, indicating the ten senses – five senses of perception and five senses of action and the stallion indicating the Mind.
Among Zoroastrians, several names are associated with horses. In fact no other animal is used so much for proper names as a horse. Some of these names are: Drvāspa “having a healthy horse”, Tehmāspa “having a strong horse”, Jāmāspa “having steady flow of horses”, Kersāspa “having a lean horse”, Vishtāspa “having several horses”, Dejāmāspa, “having abundant flow of horses” Haechataspa “having a trained horse”, Frināspa “having a loving horse”, Pourushaspa “having many horses”, Aurvat-aspa “having a swift horse”, Hitāspa “having a restrained horse”, Habāspa “having a good horse”, Raevat-aspa “having an illustrious horse”, Yukhtāspa “having a skilled horse”, Fraothat-aspa “having a foaming horse”, Āsu-aspa “having a fast horse”, Hazanghra-aspa “having thousands of horses” and Renjat-aspa “having agile horses”.
Apart from using horses for domestic and war purposes there were special swift running horses used for racing. These horses were specially made to run on race-courses. Chariot racing was an important royal sport. At different places, king Kaekhushru prays to different Yazads to help him to finish and win horse races.
Several stories connected with a horse abound in the Zoroastrian religion. One is about infant Zarathushtra saved from stampeding horses by a white stallion. The other is about prophet Zarathushtra healing the king’s favourite horse Aspe-sihā. Another one is from the Shahnameh about Kaekhushru being guided by a light near the ear (gush) of his horse (aspa) which helped him win a fortress and subsequently establish his claim over the throne.
In the Shahnameh there are various incidents of the bravery and presence of mind of Rakhsh – the powerful chestnut coloured horse of the great paladin Rustom. He was a very faithful horse and saved his master from certain death several times. The stories about Rustom finding him and later their brave escapades together form a significant portion of the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh also tells us about Behzad, the favourite horse of king Kaekhushru, which came down to him from his father Siyavakhs. Folklore also tells us about Shabdiz, the favourite horse of Sasanian King Khushru Purviz.