Horses Are Special Too!

History of the Horse


Horses have been one of the most useful animals for thousands of years. Horses once provided the fastest and surest way to travel on land. Hunters on horseback chased animals and killed them for food or for sport. Soldiers charged into battle on sturdy war horses. The pioneers used horses when they settled the American West in the days of stagecoaches, covered wagons, and the pony express.

The horse is not as important as a means of transportation as it once was. In most countries, the iron horse (train) and the horseless carriage (automobile) have replaced the horse almost entirely. But people still use horses for recreation, sport, and work. Children and adults ride horses for fun and exercise. Large crowds thrill to the excitement of horse races. Horses perform in circuses, rodeos, carnivals, parades, and horse shows. They help ranchers round up great herds of cattle, and they may be used to pull plows and do other farm work.

The horse is well-suited for working and running. For example, its wide nostrils help it breathe easily. Horses have a good sense of smell, sharp ears, and keen eyes. They have strong teeth, but they eat only grain and plants, never meat. Long, muscular legs give horses the strength to pull heavy loads or to run at fast speeds. Horses also use their legs as their chief weapons. The kick of a horse can seriously injure a human being or an animal.

Horses are eager to please their owners or trainers. Most horses have good memories and can easily be trained to obey commands. A horse may learn to come when its owner whistles. A circus horse takes "bows" when its trainer touches its front legs with a whip. Horses can learn to respond to even the slightest signals. People who watch an expert rider on a well-trained horse often cannot see these signs. For example, the horse moves forward when the rider's legs are pressed lightly against the horse's side.  It turns at a touch of the reins against its neck. The quick obedience of the horse has helped make it one of our most valuable animals.

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People have improved the natural qualities of the horse by breeding various kinds of horses. For example, horse raisers can breed the fast horse with a strong horse to produce an animal that has both speed and power.

There are more than 150 breeds and types of horses and ponies. The breeds vary greatly in size, strength, speed, and other characteristics. The smallest breed is the Flabella, which grows only 30 inches high. Flabella's were originally bred in Argentina and are kept as pets. The largest breed of horse is the shire, which was originally developed in England.  Shires may measure more than 68 inches high. They may weigh more than 2,000 pounds.

Shires and other large breeds, such as the Belgian, Clydesdale, and Percheron, are the strongest horses. They can pull loads that weigh more than a short ton. The two fastest breeds are the quarter horse and the thoroughbred, which are often bred and trained for racing. The quarter horse can run 1/4 of a mile in about 20 seconds. But the thoroughbred can run longer distances faster. It can cover a mile in about 1.5 minutes.

The various breeds of horses are commonly divided into three main groups: (1) light horses, (2) heavy horses, and (3) ponies. Light horses have small bones and thin legs. Most weigh less than 1,300 pounds. Heavy horses have large bones and thick, sturdy legs. Some weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Ponies are small horses that stand less than 58 inches high.  Most ponies weigh less than 800 pounds.

Each of the three main groups of horses has many breeds. However, a single breed may include horses of more than one type. For example, certain kinds of Hackneys are classified as light horses, and other kinds are considered ponies. In addition to light horses, heavy horses, and ponies, there are also a few kinds of wild horses.

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IconOrigins of the Horse

Scientists believe the earliest ancestor of the horse was a small animal about 10 to 20 inches high. They call this animal Eohippus (dawn horse) or Hyracotherium. It lived about 55 million years ago in what is now North America and Europe.

These prehistoric horses had ached backs and snout like noses. They looked more like racing dogs, such as greyhounds or whippets, than like the straight-backed, long-faced modern horse. They had four toes on their front feet and three toes on their hind feet. Each toe ended in a separate small hoof. Large, tough pads similar to those of a dog's foot kept the toes off the ground. These pads bore the animal's weight.

The next important ancestor of the modern horse was Mesohippus. It lived about 35 million years ago. It averaged about 20 inches in height and had long, slender legs. Each foot had three toes, of which the middle toe was longest. About 30 million years ago, it gave way to a new horse like creature, Miohippus. This animal stood from 24 to 28 inches tall, and its middle toe was longer and stronger than that of its ancestors. Horse like animals continued to develop and Merychippus (ruminant or cud-chewing horse) appeared about 26 million years ago. It grew about 40 inches high. Like Miohippus, it had three toes on each foot. The side toes were almost useless, but the center toe grew longer and stronger. It ended in a large, curved hoof and bore all the animal's weight.

By about 3 million years ago, horses probably looked somewhat like modern horses. They grew larger than their ancestors. The side toes on their feet became short bones along the legs, leaving the strong center toe with its hoof to support the animals. The teeth also changed, becoming better fitted for eating grass. Scientists group these horses, along with the modern domestic horse, under the name Equus.

No one knows where horses originated. Fossils show that during the Ice Age horses lived on every continent except Australia. Great herds wandered throughout North and South America. Then, for some unknown reason, they disappeared from the Western Hemisphere.

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IconPeople Tamed the Horse

Primitive people hunted horses and ate their meat. No one knows who first tamed horses and trained them for riding. Scientific discoveries at the ancient city of Susa in southwestern Asia show that people rode horse over 5,000 years ago.

Stone tablets show that the Hittites trained horses for sport and war about 1400 B.C. The Assyrians, about 800 B.C., hunted lions in two-wheeled chariots drawn by a pair of horses. Tapestries show early Persians playing a kind of polo. The early Greeks and Romans were expert riders and used horses for racing and other sports. Greek and Roman soldiers rode horses in battle. The Greeks wrote about horsemanship as early as 400 B.C. We still follow their principles of riding.

In 1066, William the Conqueror used mounted knights to invade England. The English then began to breed large, powerful war horses that could carry a man wearing a heavy suit of armor. During the 1300's, after armies began using gunpowder, swift, light steeds replaced the large mounts of the knights as war horses.

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IconHorses in Early America

The first European colonists found no horses in North America. Christopher Columbus had brought horses with him on his second voyage to the New World. But most American Indians did not know about horses until Spanish conquerors brought them to Mexico in 1519. Horses that the Spanish explorers left behind probably became the ancestors of the American wild horses.

The Indians, especially the tribes of the western plains, began to use horses about 1600. Indians rode horses to hunt buffalo and used them in battle.

Horses played an important part in the development and exploration of North America. The pioneers who settled the West rode horses and used them to pull their covered wagons. Mounted soldiers fought in the Revolutionary War and in the Civil War.

Horses pulled trains on several short railroads until the steam locomotive replaced them about 1830. They also pulled horsecars (streetcars) in cities before electricity was used. Stagecoaches and the pony express served as the fastest means of communication until the telegraph linked the East and West coasts in 1861.

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IconHorses in the 1900's

With the development of railroads, tractors, trucks, and automobiles, horses became less useful. Horse-drawn milk wagons and garbage wagons were replaced by trucks.  During World War II (1939-1945), the U.S. Army gave up cavalry horses.

The number of horses on the United States farms declined steadily as more and more farmers began to use machinery. American farmers owned about 20 million farm horses in 1910. By the mid-1970's, there were only about 9 million horses in the United States. But, though the use of horses for heavy work declined, their importance in sport and recreation increased.

Several million wild horses roamed parts of the American West during the 1800's. The number declined to less the 20,000 by the early 1970's. Many people feared that the wild horses were becoming extinct, especially because the horses were being hunted for their meat. Manufacturers used the meat in making pet food. In 1971, the United States Congress passed a law that protects American wild horses.

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