by Michael Sones
A beautiful horse and a competent rider are a delight to watch. They seem to function almost as one. The horse epitomizes the beauty of the domesticated ungulates. Ungulate is the term used for mammals which gradually developed hooves from claws during the course of evolution and are also typically characterized by living on the land, a mainly herbivorous diet, and, generally, are fairly swift. Other ungulates are pigs, camels, rhinocerous, deer, cows, antelopes and giraffes.
All ungulates have good hearing, very good vision, and a good sense of smell. The modern horse, Equus caballus, is a member of the genus Equidae as are the three species of zebra and the two asses. Horses have been domesticated for about 6000 years-probably largely as a result of evolved traits within them such as adaptability, intelligence, sociability, curiousity, and a capacity to be submissive which encouraged them into contact with humans. Also, relatively uniquely for large, hoofed herbivores they are without potentially dangerous horns or antlers.
At the dawn of the horse in the Eocene era (54-38 million years ago) it is believed they looked like small dogs. When the bones of Eohippus, Dawn Horse, were first found in 1838-9 scientists believed that they were the bones of ancient monkeys. The word ‘Eohippus’ was composed from two Greek words, Eos (dawn) and hippos (horse). Originally sizes would have ranged from 10-20 inches in height at the shoulder. This is fully grown. They also had short, stubby tails, not like the long tailed horses of today. Their feet were similar to those of a dog, each front one with four toes, and each back one with three, and they had pads on them.
The next evolutionary stage was during the Oligocene epoch (37-26 million years ago) with first Mesohippus. They looked drastically different, more like a small horse of today than the previous dog-like Eohippus. They had an average height of 24 inches, longer legs, and had a more rigid back than the Eohippus. Other changes included larger teeth, farther back eyes and a gap between the front teeth. Next came the Merychippus. The tooth structure of this horse had evolved so it was easy to eat grass. They appeared in many different shapes and sizes, and grew to about 40-42 inches in height, and had the long jaw and far back eyes that characterize the horse of today. This occurred about 24 million years ago.
Then another change occurred to the horse during the Miocene epoch (25-7 million years ago). One of many of the descendants produced by the Merychippus was the Pliohippus which evolved from 10 to five million years ago eventually evolving into the genus Equus about a million years ago. Pliohippus had one toe (its hoof), and is practically the same as Equus in every other way.
When humans first encountered the horse, it is believed that they hunted them as they would hunt any other game. Horses became extinct in North America about 8500 years ago and both the end of the Ice Age and over-hunting may very well have contributed to this as it seems to have done to the extinction of the mammoth, the mastodon, the giant elk and various other species of megafauna.
In Western Europe horses were painted on cave walls (Chauvet cave) in France or carved in ivory (Vogelherd) at least 30,000 years ago and Cro-Magnon man readily used the horse as a motif in his painting, sculpture, and implements. While the domestication of the horse is usually considered to have begun about 6,000 years ago there is an engraving of a horse in rock from La Marche in France. It dates from the Magdalenian period (15,000-10,000 BC) and is notable because of what looks like a halter on its head.
It is thought that the domestication of the horse probably first occurred around Dereivka (in the modern Ukraine) around 6,000 years ago. Archaeological sites reveal that up to 50 percent of the protein eaten by these peoples was obtained from horsemeat which were probably being hunted rather than raised as livestock. Much as the car has done in our century so did the horse transform transportation and warfare in the ancient steppes. An early Bronze Age rock carving in central Asia shows horses being ridden and men in chariots being pulled. By 2000 BC the chariot was a terrifying weapon of war. Horses in the ancient world were also ridden into battle. A horse can gallop at 70 kilometres per hour over a sustained period and an ancient charging cavalry must have been a formidable sight.
Use of the horse spread to Greece and it was used to inspire the armies. Before 600 B.C horses were being used to play polo (initially by the Persians, but the idea obviously expanded to new areas). The Romans were the first civilisation to use horses to their full potential. They were used to carry goods on trade routes eventually causing the first traffic congestion. By 45 B.C Rome had banned all vehicles from the city, and some other cities only permitted them at night. They were also used for the public entertainment, with chariot shows being set up and the horses being taught tricks.
Specialist breeding began to occur with horses being bred for size, colour and other different features. Horses played a prominent part in the Middle Ages and were used both in work and warfare. Through cross breeding, different builds of horses emerged. There are more than 150 different breeds of horses today.
Horses were reintroduced to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors who relied upon them heavily in their conquest of New Spain and their war with the Aztecs.Bernal Diaz’ book, The Conquest of New Spain makes for fascinating reading with much detail about how the Spanish used their horses in battle. The Spanish established Jamaican horse farms from which explorers would purchase horses for their expeditions.
In the time of the ‘Wild West’ horses were used for riding across plains and deserts, pulling stagecoaches, and, of course, herding cattle.
By the early 1900’s the use of horses had declined dramatically due to the introduction of the “horseless carriage.” In 1915 in the US there were more than 15 million horses, but by 1955 there were only about 3 million.
Horses have also had a tremendous impact on the arts, with many artists being in fascinated by the beauty and magnificence of the horse. Horses appear in many paintings and sculptures and some of the earliest works of art are of horses.