Imagine a world in which horses of all colors,
shapes, and sizes roamed the world, some barely larger than a small dog. That
world no longer exists, but once it was real.
Today's horses represent just one
tiny twig on an immense family tree that spans millions of years. All the other
branches of the horse family, known as Equidae, are now extinct. The earliest
known horses evolved 55 million years ago and for much of this time, multiple
horse species lived at the same time, often side by side.
million years ago, up to a dozen species of horses roamed the Great Plains of
North America. These relatives of the modern horse came in many shapes and
sizes. Some lived in the forest, while others preferred open grassland.
earliest horses had three or four functional toes. But over millions of years of
evolution, many horses lost their side toes and developed a single hoof. Only
horses with single-toed hooves survive today, but the remains of tiny vestigial
toes can still be found on the bones above their hoofs.
majority of horse species evolved in North America. From there, they
occasionally walked to other continents. Horses spread around the world at three
million years ago, three-toed horses called anchitheres crossed to Asia and
continued to Europe and Africa.
million years ago, three-toed horses called hipparions spread from North America
around the globe.
million years ago, hoofed Equus, the ancestor of living horses, spread to
several continents including South America.
family (Equidae) today is quite small. All horse breeds, from slim thoroughbred
racehorses to stocky plow horses to tiny ponies, belong to a single species,
Equus caballus. All surviving branches of the horse family tree are also
members of Equus, which now consists of only seven living species. Other equids
include donkeys, asses, and zebras.
few horses are found in the wild-the great majority live among people. We feed
and shelter horses, put them to work and control their breeding. Horses have
been domesticated for a very long time, perhaps more than 5,000 years.
animal can match the contributions that horses have made to human civilization.
What makes horses such good partners for people? Horses cannot learn the way
people do; training horses involves working with their natural instincts, not
trying to change them. But fortunately for us, most of the qualities that make
horses helpful to humans were already present in wild horses. Their bodies are
powerful, living machines that can work all day, powered only by grass. And
their big brains give them both the ability to understand subtle commands and the
motivation to obey them.
The need to
avoid being alone is a powerful instinct for horses. In the wild, horses evolved
in constant danger from predators such as wolves and mountain lions. They seek
safety in numbers by living in herds. Young horses, or foals, always travel with
their mothers in a family group guarded by a male horse, the lead stallion. Even
young males, who must fight other stallions for the right to lead a family,
often band together with other bachelor stallions.
often pair off and form close partnerships with other members of their herd. But
if they can't find a horse to partner with, they sometimes befriend another
animal like a goat or housecat. This instinct also helps them bond with humans.
spend a lot of time scratching each other's backs with their teeth. This
grooming strengthens social bonds, reduces tension, and increases trust. Similar
grooming can help a human gain a horse's trust as well. Research shows that
brushing the neck and back can lower a horse's heart rate by 11 to 14 percent--a
clear sign of relaxation.
in well-structured groups with clear followers and leaders. Without any human
training, horses will line up behind a lead mare according to their rank in the
herd, usually with a stallion guarding the rear. By controlling the movement of
horses with ropes and fences, humans can establish their dominance.
the horse will submit to being led around by a thin rope, or no rope at all,
even though the horse is the stronger animal. One reason this works is that
horses instinctively submit to a more dominant individual that controls their
movements. Dominance relationships are very important among horses. In fact, a
faster horse will sometimes lose a race to a slower horse that expresses
dominance through its body language. For people, the key to working with horses
is to make it clear who is in charge. If you act unsure, the horse may ignore
relationship between horses and humans has changed us both. People have remade
horses, creating dozens of breeds in our efforts to make horses faster,
stronger, bigger, or smaller. But horses have also changed us. The ways we
travel, trade, play, work, and fight wars have all been profoundly shaped by our
use of horses. Horses are built for power. Their muscular bodies are heavier in
front than in back, making them well balanced to pull heavy loads. Yet they can
also be agile and quick—fit to carry out difficult tasks, and run at incredible
than a thousand years, people have called on the power of horses. Horses have cleared forests, plowed land, herded cattle, and
driven machines. Over time, horses bred for different jobs have become heavier,
stronger, or more flexible. As people have shaped horses, horses and humans
working together have shaped the world in remarkable ways.
For most of
human history, there was no faster way to travel over land than on a horse. When
it comes to transporting people and their possessions, horses have two important
advantages: they can run very fast and very far. Their speed and endurance are
amazing for a creature so large, making them the ideal animals to carry people
and goods around the world.
offer other advantages as well. Since they eat grass, horses can go almost
anywhere that humans can, eating as they go. And unlike cows and camels, which
must sit and rest to digest food, a horse's digestive system allows it to graze
and walk all day. Horses changed history by carrying people, goods, and ideas
well-trained horse is a magnificent athlete. Most horses, no matter what breed,
can trot for many hours without resting. A fit quarter horse can sprint a
quarter-mile in less than 21 seconds, and a talented thoroughbred can jump a
fence more than seven feet tall.
sports make the most of these skills, while also pushing human athletes to
perfect their horsemanship. In sporting events, people and horses must cooperate
brilliantly to succeed.
longer carry soldiers into battle (in most places, anyhow) or pull plows and stage coaches as they once
did. But our long relationship with these majestic animals has not ended. Horses
are still part of our lives. Today, however, they are used less for work, travel,
and warfare--and more for companionship and recreation.
In the past
century, the number of horses in the United States and Canada dropped
dramatically--and then climbed again. With more than 58 million horses in the
world today, the enduring bond between horses and humans will remain strong for
many years to come. Today, all wild horses need human help to survive. As people
made more and more demands on the land for livestock and human use, horse
Consider the case of the mustangs. The mustang population
dropped from about two million in 1900 to just 17,300 in 1971. That year, the
U.S. Congress passed a law protecting mustangs. The law stated, "Congress finds
and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the
historic and pioneer spirit of the West." About 30,000 mustangs remain on public
spring of 2006, the thoroughbred colt Barbaro was the talk of the racing world.
Undefeated going into the Kentucky Derby, America's most prized race, Barbaro
won that contest by over six lengths. But then, just a few weeks later, in the
Preakness Stakes, he stumbled--no one knows why--and broke his right hind leg in
more than 20 places. Even with the best possible medical treatment, including
six surgeries, Barbaro could not be saved. Despite the many impressive medical
advances now used to treat injured horses, it is still usually impossible to
save a horse with a broken leg. If a horse is unable to stand and is in
constant pain, the only humane option is often euthanasia.
bodies are prone to injury, and racing stresses limbs to the limit. To make
matters worse, racehorses are bred for speed, not bulk. Their long, thin,
lightweight leg bones can withstand the impact of hooves slamming into the
ground, if they land cleanly. But if they don't land cleanly, those legs can twist and break.
Unlike humans, horses rarely recover from broken legs.
Lack of exercise can
damage the tissue connecting the hoof to the leg, a painful illness called
laminitis. That's what ended Barbaro's recovery. Fortunately, however, some new
strategies offer hope of preventing such injuries before they occur.
thundering hooves of a thoroughbred strike the track with incredible force. If a
horse is fatigued or lands on a rock, its legs can twist and snap. To reduce the
risk of injury, some racetracks have installed synthetic surfaces that cushion
the impact and prevent missteps. At the first synthetic racetrack in the U.S.,
Kentucky's Turfway Park, catastrophic injuries dropped from 16 to three in the
first year. Today all major racetracks in California are required to use
deeply woven into the way we think about ourselves and our world. Horses are no
longer the engine of our economy, but they remain part of our lives in stories,
books, and films. Whether imagining a knight in shining armor, a dusty cowboy, or
a fairy tale princess, it is hard to imagine a hero without also imagining a
horse. That's why we find horses in so many movies. Horses are more than just part of our history. They have become part of
who we are.
of heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears.
- Arabian proverb
is a thing of beauty... none will tire of looking at him as long as he displays
himself in his splendor.
- Ancient Greek historian Xenophon (c. 430-350 BC)
thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
- The Bible, Book of Job, 39: 19
use the wisdom of an old horse. Release the old horses and follow them, and
thereby reach the right road.
- Guan Zhong, Chinese politician and scholar (725-645 BC)
forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.
- Scottish politician R.B. Cunninghame-Graham in a letter to U.S. President
Theodore Roosevelt (1917)
wild horses, we'll ride them some day
- English rock group The Rolling Stones, "Wild Horses" (1971).