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Horse article, below....

If you're interested in Equestrian studies, check out Lake Erie College, which is known for this. You can find them at www.lec.edu.

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Horses, Nature's Most Majestic Creature

By Cathy Richey, the Cathy Factor


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.

Some 10 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.

The 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.

The majority of horse species evolved in North America. From there, they occasionally walked to other continents. Horses spread around the world at three different times.

  • About 20 million years ago, three-toed horses called anchitheres crossed to Asia and continued to Europe and Africa.

  • About 11 million years ago, three-toed horses called hipparions spread from North America around the globe.

  • About three million years ago, hoofed Equus, the ancestor of living horses, spread to several continents including South America.

The horse 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.

Today, very 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.

No other 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.

Horses 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.

Horses 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.

Horses live 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.

Eventually, 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 your commands.

The close 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 speed.

For more 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.

Horses 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 between civilizations.

A 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.

Equestrian 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.

Horses no 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 numbers dwindled.

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 land today.

In the 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.

Fatigued 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.

The 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 synthetic surfaces.

Horses are 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.


Horse Quotes

The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears.
- Arabian proverb

A horse 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)

Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
- The Bible, Book of Job, 39: 19

We can 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)

God 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, wild horses, we'll ride them some day
- English rock group The Rolling Stones, "Wild Horses" (1971).


About Cathy: She and her Doberman Trooper conduct research into all kinds of topics and produce articles like the one you see here. To contact Cathy, write to thecathyfactor@yahoo.com. Get the facts from Cathy, and let the Cathy Factor give you an edge.

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