Everything you need to know about the evolution, history, and origins of horses
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Over 2 million people in America own horses and over 7.1 million people in the country spend time with these animals every year. It’s safe to say that we love these animals over here.
But, many of us don’t know a lot about the history of the species. Today, we are going to talk you through the history of horses – from when they were first domesticated to how they are used today. We will share with you some fascinating facts about horses – including the record for the fastest ever horse and the story of the last remaining species of wild horses.
What Is A Horse?
Despite not playing a big part in most people’s lives anymore, we are sure that many of you can name at least 5 famous horses – Shadowfax, Black Beauty, Redrum, Shergar, and Seabiscuit may ring a bell.
Horses have been an unmissable feature in human history for over 5000 years. They made travel and agriculture possible. They have been ridden by saints, generals, and political leaders alike.
Horses have been used to drag plows, pull carts, and lead armies into battle. They have featured in ancient Greek epics, Shakespeare plays, and Michael Bay movies. Most horses have inspired some of the most iconic mythical beasts including the centaur and the unicorn. They have been painted, written about, and raced for longer than any of us have been alive.
But how much do you actually know about horses and what they are?
Horses are one-toed, hoofed mammals. They have 4 legs, 2 ears, a tail, and a long snout. They are believed to have evolved from an ancient one-toed creature called the Eohippus, as well as the creatures Mesohippus and Protohippus.
Horses have a long and rich history that dates back to over 50,000 years ago – long before humans were walking the earth.
Horses are hoofed and herbivorous
As we mentioned above, horses are one-toed, hoofed animals. They are herbivores and can be found living in nearly every country in the world.
Horses are happy to eat most types of foliage and roughage. They traditionally eat by grazing along the ground. However, working horses and horses that are ridden need to eat larger meals to stay healthy. These can include good-quality hay and fresh vegetables. They also need a regular source of salt.
Horses are notoriously partial to fresh apples and sugar cubes. They are quite adventurous and are happy to give most foods a try at least once – even if it’s not good for them – so keep an eye on your lunch bag.
Mammals of the family Equidae
Did you know that all horses are part of the same species?
It’s true! This is why we call different types of horses ‘Breeds’ instead of ‘Species’.
All horses are part of the Equidae family – also known as Equine. The word is also used to refer to anything horse-like or anything related to horses.
There are 6 species within the Equine family (the word Perissodactyla is sometimes used interchangeably with Equine) – Equus caballus (horses), Equus zebra and burchelli, and grevyi (zebras), and Equus asinus and hemionus (both are types of wild asses).
All breeds of horses belong to one species– ‘Equus caballus’
Many people find it confusing that all horses are actually one species despite the fact that all the breeds look so different.
Horses are like dogs, in that the same species have been bred to look drastically different all over the world. Again, like dogs, horse breeds were created because horses were working animals. Some horses needed to be fast so messages could be sent quickly while others needed to be strong so they could pull farm equipment around.
These different requirements led to 100s of horse breeds being created.
Horses have roamed the plant for over 50 million years
One of the earliest pieces of evidence of horses we have comes from the cave paintings in Lascaux Grotto, France. Here there is a cave painting that pictures a bull and a horse. Horse domestication is believed to have happened around 6000 years ago – but wild horses existed long before that.
As we have mentioned, the Eohippus, the Mesohippus, and the Protohippus are all believed to be ancestors of the modern horse. The earliest fossils we have of horse ancestors can be dated back to over 50 million years ago. They began with feet more like dogs but eventually evolved to have hoofs.
Form And Function Of The Horse
Over the last, 50 million years horses have been evolving into what they have become today. They have changed a lot over the years – going from animals with short legs, 5 toes and that were omnivores to long-legged, hoofed herbivores.
Now, we are going to take a closer look at the form of the modern horse. Like many animals of their size, it is quite difficult to tell the difference between male and female horses unless you know what to look for. In this section, we will be looking at the differences between the sexes and the life cycle of the horse.
A baby horse is called a foal
Horses go through 3 stages of adolescence – the foal, the yearling, and the two-year-old – before reaching maturity at 4 years old. When they reach the age of four they start to be referred to as stallions, geldings, and mares.
Horses are called foals from birth. Males are referred to as colts and females as fillies.
They are gestated for nearly 11 months and they can run almost immediately after being born.
Within the first year of their life horses do 80% of their growth – most of which happens in their legs.
Yearlings have small bodies and very long legs. It is in this second year that they really grow into their limbs. This happens in 5-6 growth spurts throughout the year.
Once horses reach this age their bones are fully formed and have fused enough for the horse to be safely ridden. They tend not to grow any taller or get any heavier once reaching this stage of their life.
A male horse is called a stallion
Let’s start by talking about male horses – they are known as stallions.
Horses reach maturity at 4 years of age and male horses are either called stallions or geldings from this point on.
Stallions are male horses that have not been castrated. They can have wild tempers and can be hard to control.
However, they do tend to be much stronger than Geldings and Mares. They have much more testosterone in their bodies – they have thicker necks and more muscular legs.
Some trainers prefer to race stallions as they can be put out to stud if they have a good career. Stallions and Geldings do not race together.
Geldings are male horses that have been gelded, also known as castrated. The name comes from the Old Norse Gelda, from the adjective gender which means barren.
As mentioned above, Stallions can be quite wild and temperamental, but they calm down if they have been castrated. Working horses and racing horses are often castrated to make them more manageable.
Geldings tend to be more patient and work better with children than Stallions.
A stallion used for breeding is called a stud
When a male horse shows desirable traits it can be put out to stud. This means that the owner allows their horse to breed with mares (often for a fee) to create a more impressive foal.
While breeding horses is not an exact science (breeding two successful racehorses does not guarantee you a sire who will be able to race), it is a very popular activity and there is a lot of money in the industry.
The female a mare
Once they reach the age of 4, female horses are referred to as mares. Once they have had a foal, female horses are referred to as dams.
From this age, mares are safe to ride and breed. They go into season roughly every 20 days from late spring to Autumn. They will gestate their foals for around 335 days.
Mares are thought to be calmer and more personable than Stallions. They were traditionally used for most working jobs because they were easier to train than the male horses. They are also used in every form of equine competition.
The Domestication Of Horses
Now that we know a little more about the biology of horses, let’s take a dive into the species’ history.
Now, we use horses in America to ride, race, and compete in other equine sports. There are a few horses around the country that still work. But not as many as 100 years ago when horses drew carriages for most members of society and they still worked on many farms.
Domesticating horses changed the course of human history. They made it possible to travel longer distances than had been thought possible at the time – they made empires possible. Let’s look at how humanity first discovered horses.
Modern horses were likely to have been domesticated in Central Asia, between 3000 and 4000 B.C.E
We don’t have an exact record of when horses were domesticated, but judging from the evidence left behind by ancient civilizations, scientists believe it happened sometime between 4000 B.C.E and 3000 B.C.E.
There are two ancient civilizations that scientists believe could have domesticated the first wild horses – the Botai people from what is now Kazakhstan and the Yamnaya people from Indo-Asia. It appears that these two completely unrelated civilizations developed horse domestication on their own.
It was only recently discovered that Botai people had existed and that much of their culture revolved around horses and riding them. Scientists were shocked because the settlement was very isolated and DNA evidence showed that they had never overlapped with the Yamnaya people.
The fact that this skill developed independently in two different places has left scientists baffled. Was there perhaps a society that rode horses even earlier that we don’t know about?
The Yamnaya people were able to spread their language and conquer new territories thanks to their ability to ride horses. After the Yamnaya were seen to have tamed horses, other civilizations followed quickly.
Horses were first kept for meat and milk
Before it was discovered that horses could be domesticated and ridden, the evidence shows that many ancient societies used the beasts for milk and meat.
Horses are believed to have come from Central Asia originally. Here they still eat horse meat and use a lot of horse milk in their cooking. The alcoholic drink Kumis is made from fermented mares’ milk.
It is believed that horses were kept in a similar way to how we keep sheep and cows now. The horses would be moved along with the nomadic pack. They were also used in trades and barters when new tribes were encountered. They were considered very valuable items.
This all changed after the Yamnaya domesticated horses and started traveling on them.
Horses became more domesticated and were used as forms of travel and companionship
We do not know why or how the Yamnaya first domesticated the horse. And we know even less about the Botai and how their relationship with horses changed.
What we do know is that the longer horses were domesticated the more uses the Yamnaya and other tribes they encountered found for horses. It is believed that they were first domesticated to make long distance travel possible and that they were valued companions while traveling through the Steppes.
After being used for travel, the Yamnaya began to use horses to pull carts and caravans. Later the horses were used to turn mills and pull plows. People also began to race horses for entertainment. A sport that is still popular across the world.
Przewalski is the only non-domesticated horse
If you are curious about what horses looked like before they were domesticated and bred for work – you will want to look at the Przewalski.
The Przewalski is the only breed of wild horses left in the world. Their scientific name is Equus ferus przewalskii. However, they were nearly driven to extinction in the 1960s as the breed was removed from the wild at the end of the 19th century and bred with domestic horses.
At the end of the 20th century, conservationists began to breed a herd of genuine Przewalski. They were later able to reintroduce the species to Mongolia. They were so successful that the Przewalski’s status was changed from “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered” in 2008.
It is believed that the Przewalski are the closest species to what the Yamnaya and the Brotai domesticated. They are smaller and stockier than most modern horse breeds. They have short spikey manes and fur that can grow very shaggy in the winter. Conservationists noted how surprisingly affectionate the Przewalski are with each other.
How Fast Are Horses?
One of the questions that we get asked most frequently is – how fast are horses?
The sad news is that there is no one answer to this question. There is a huge variation of speed between the breeds depending on what they have been bred for. Then within each breed, there is a nearly infinite variation of speeds as each horse is unique.
In this section, we are going to give you as many answers to this complex question as we can.
Horses have four movement patterns
If you have ever ridden a horse then you will be aware that horses have 4 different patterns of movement – walk, trot, canter, and galloping.
These patterns of movement are referred to as gaits. Each gait has a distinct pattern of leg movement. Until Eadweard Muybridge was able to catch these gaits on film and looked at each individual shot, humans had no idea how horses moved their legs or why moved the way they did.
Walk – 3-6 mph
This is the slowest of the movement patterns. A walk refers to how the way horses naturally walk and move around. It uses less energy than the other gaits and you will most often see horses walking when they are tired or too warm.
Only one foot is off the ground at a time and horses walk at an average of 4 miles per hour.
A horse’s walk is comparable to our own.
Trot – 8-10 mph
When horses trot, they raise one of their front legs and the opposite back leg into the air. Two feet are always off the ground. When the feet return to the ground the horse can jolt sideways. This is why you may see riders bouncing up and down while their horse is trotting.
A horse’s trot is comparable to a speed walk.
Canter – 14-18 mph
When you watch a horse canter or gallop for the first time, you might find it a little bit confusing. Sometimes it looks like they are floating over the ground. What is in fact happening is that the horse is pushing off on one foot, then slamming two feet down simultaneously, then lifting off the final foot.
It normally looks like – right hind, then left hind and right front together, followed by right hind.
A horse’s canter is comparable to a jog.
Gallop – 20+ mph
All the leg movements you see when the horse is cantering happens the same when they are galloping, it just happens much faster. So there are times when all 4 legs are off the ground at the same time.
A horse’s gallop is comparable to running.
The average horse speed and world records
It is hard to talk about average speeds for a species that varies as wildly as horses do. Some breeds have been bred for speed, power, and lightness on their feet. While others have been bred for strength, stamina, or temperament.
The fastest horse that the Guinness World Records team have recognized was Winning Brew, a Thoroughbred. He was recorded as running 43.97 mph.
However, many studies on horse performance and speed have recorded Quarter horses reaching 55 mph in a 440-yard race. While the average horse can gallop at around 27 mph, there is a huge difference in capability between the different breeds.
The Life Of The Horse
Like most species, wild and domesticated horses, have a very different life span and have a different range of health issues.
Domestic horses have no natural predators and mostly die of old age or because of illness or injury. Wild horses, on the other hand, may die because of lack of food, a predator, or from an injury that a domesticated horse could survive with ease.
When we refer to wild horses in this section, we are talking about horses that are not owned or who don’t live with people – we are not talking about wild Przewalski horses, which are a different species.
A domestic horse can live around 20-30 years
With the power of modern veterinary medicine and the care of an owner, domestic horses can live up to 30 years.
They are most likely to die because of disease, injury, or old age. There are many diseases that would have killed horses 100 years ago that we can now treat with ease.
In some parts of the world, it is not uncommon for racing horses to be put down if they get injured badly or they get a contagious disease. However, in many countries, it is illegal to put down a non-terminal horse.
Wild horses have a shorter lifespan
Life for wild horses is a lot harder. In fact, many of them don’t live past the age of 15.
Wild horses do not eat as well as domesticated horses. They are not given the same medical treatment including worming pills and vaccinations. They are often left by the herd if they are injured.
Wild horses are considered prey animals. Large animals like wolves, bears, and cougars will hunt horses. The predators of a horse will depend on which part of the world the horse lives in. There are not many human communities that hunt horses.
Wild horses are usually bred between April and June
As we mentioned earlier, domestic horses have a long breeding season. They first go into season in early March and will then go in and out of season until the end of September. This happens because humans have bred them to have a longer season – just as we have with chickens, cows, and sheep.
This is not the case for wild horses. They only go into season once or twice a year – between April and June. They carry for 11 months and then give birth. Giving birth earlier in the year would be very dangerous for the foals.
Throughout this article, we have talked about how horses are a unique species. Many people who don’t know much about the mammal’s struggle to understand that all horses are the same species – they are just different breeds of the same species.
When an animal, like the horse, is adopted by so many different civilizations, it is inevitable that many new different breeds will be created. The same has happened with both cats and dogs.
We are now going to learn more about the different breeds of horses and how they came about.
Because of domestication, horses can be found in almost every country
When people ask us why there are so many different breeds of horses we are always happy to tell them that the answer is very simple.
There are so many different breeds of horses because they have been adopted by many civilizations and have been bred all over the world. A horse that has been bred for Japan will not survive in South Africa. So, explorers, empires, and traders began breeding new types of horses.
Horses were useful to the early civilizations in so many ways. They need fast horses to send messages. They need strong horses to pull plows. And they need calm horses to ride into war.
Selectively breeding their horses to create new types of horses made all of this much easier for them.
One of the few places that do not currently have horses is the Antarctic – the only people living on the land are scientists who do not need horses (as snowmobiles work better in the conditions). But some explorers have previously brought the species to the south pole.
Around 350 different horse breeds
Horses originated from Central Asia, but they have since traveled to all corners of the globe. In the process, over 350 breeds of horses have been created.
Sciences believe that these are the 5 oldest living breeds of horses:
- The Icelandic Horse.
- The Caspian Horse.
- The Arabian.
- The Fjord Horse.
- The Akhal-Teke.
They do not believe that the first breed of horses still survives, but that they would be very similar to the Przewalski.
It is currently believed that the rarest breed of horse is The Galiceño – which are originally from South America.
Przewalski’s are the only surviving wild horse breed
We have briefly touched on the Przewalski before in this article. They are the only surviving breed of wild horses and are what scientists believe to be the closest living thing to the original horse.
They are a Mongolian breed and only live on the steppes of Central Europe. In Mongolian, they are called the Thiki. They are known to us as Przewalski’s Horse because the only written record of them comes from the notes of a Russian scientist called Przewalski.
It is believed he was the last person in the West to see these horses in the wild – until they were reintroduced at the start of the 21st century.
While there are horses that lived untamed, Przewalski horses are the only species of wild horse that have survived the industrialization of the world. They are endangered to due loss of habitat and breeding with domestic horses.
They are called horses but they are technically a different species – Equus Ferus Przewalski.
Many horses make excellent racehorses
As we mentioned, horses have been bred for many different reasons over the last 6000 years – from farm horses to warhorses.
The most common reason to breed and buy horses in the 21st century is for racing. In the USA alone, the industry is worth $5 billion dollars.
There are many different types of horse racing – including cross country and hurdles – and different breeds are more suited to one type of race. If you are looking for a fast horse then you will be interested in Thoroughbreds or Quarter horses. Trakehners and Hanoverians are best known for their ability to run and jump at speeds.
Horses are one of the most amazing species in the world. It is thanks to horses that we live in the world we do today.
Horses are a species that is made up of over 350 different breeds – each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. Each has had a unique use throughout history.
There are horses living in nearly every country across the world. It was thanks to horses that empires were able to exist. They made large-scale farming possible. And they made sending messages across the country possible too.
Horses have such an interesting and long history that we haven’t had time to cover it all today. Why not go out and find out more yourself?!