Bone Up on The Horse
Photo by Lisa Houlgrave, all rights reserved. Visit Lisa's website.
Over time, humans have preyed upon horses, domesticated them, bred them for work and play, and forged deep emotional and spiritual connections with them. Come discover the fascinating story of how humans have shaped the horse, and how the horse, in turn has shaped us.
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- Horses and Hunters
- Domesticating Horses
- The Nature of Horses
- How We Shaped Horses, How Horses Shaped Us
- An Enduring Bond
- Utah Connections
Long ago, our world was a differnt place populated by a variaty of horses ranging in color, shape and size--some only slightly larger than a small dog. Evolving over 55 million years, today's horses (Equus) represent only a tiny fraction of the vast number of horses which evoled and existed over millions of years. The earlies know horses (Phenacodontidae) developed around 55 million years ago. Many of their ancestors lived at the same time and even (on occasion) in the same places.
In North America around 10 MYA (Million Years Ago) , nearly a dozen species of horse roamed the rolling Great Plains. Some preferred the shaded forests while other, larger horses thrived in the open grassland.
As the North American woodlands gradually gave way to the open plains (~20 MYA), the smaller proto-horses (Hyracotherium) began to rapidly evolve away from the three toed configuration to one single, large toe on each foot. Additionally, as their diet changed from forest browsing to grassland grazing their teeth followed suite and eventually they began to grow in size. The larger horses like Dinohippus which evolbed during this period closely resembles the Equus we are familir with today. Horses and other ungulates (hooved animals) with an odd number of toes are classified as perissodactyls which includes the only other significant members of this classification, rhinoceroses and tapirs. Even toed ungulates are much more common. Classified as artiodactyle, this includes all ungulates with an even number of toes on each foot such as pigs, deer, sheep, goats and cattle. This makes today's horse more closely related to a tapir than a cow. In the picture above, you can see a size comparison between a modern day horse and an ancient horse.
On Your Toes
All mammels including humans and horses share a common ancestor with 5 toes. Over millions of years, horses ended up with one single large toe because their ancestors lost most of their side toes. The middle toe evolved into a single hoof, while the other toes shrank and ultimatly became useless and vestigial.
Why exactly did horses evolve to have only one toe? Hooves and long, light legs helped horses run farther and faster on the open prarie than their smalle, three-toed, forest-dwelling counterparts and ancestors. Their leg bones did not all grow longer at the same rate though--the bones of the foot grew larger and longer faster than the others moving the ankle up higher on the leg. These long, light legs helped horses run faster which on the open prarie with no place to hide is the difference between life and death.
Horses have a fascinating evolutionary advantage to grazing on grass in the open prarie. Their ancestors had short teeth that were well suited to grazing on soft leaves common in the forests of 50 MYA. However, grazing on grasses in the prarie is hard on the teeth for two big reasons. First, prarie grass contains small amounts of silica--the main ingredient in the production of glass. This silica wears away the teeth like sandpaper. Second, chomping on grass near the ground picks up gritty soil and sand that further wears away teeth. Grass-eating horses evolved long teeth that continuously grow as more is worn away. You can see exactly how this works in the image to the right.
Meet the Relatives
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. What's more, all surviving branches of the horse family tree are also members of this same genus Equus, which now consists of only seven living species. Other equids include donkeys, asses, and zebras.
The horse (Equus caballus) includes all domesticated horse breeds. Some scientists also consider the Asiatic wild horse, or Przewalski horse, to be a variety of Equus caballus, though it is often called a separate species, Equus przewalskii. Domestic horses are thought to have been bred from the European wild horse, or tarpan, extinct since 1919.
The donkey (Equus asinus) is a domesticated African ass native to eastern Africa.
The onager and kulan are varieties of the Asiatic ass (Equus hemionus), which has five subspecies in the Middle East and Asia.
The kiang (Equus kiang) is an Asian ass with three subspecies ranging from China to India.
The largest zebra, Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi) of eastern Africa, has the narrowest stripes.
Known for the "gridiron" stripes on its rump, the mountain zebra (Equus zebra) of southern Africa is endangered due to poaching and habitat loss.
Burchell's zebra (Equus burchelli) has wide stripes. It has several subspecies with distinctive patterns.
The quagga, a form of Burchell's zebra that is sometimes considered its own species, disappeared in the mid-1800s. It formerly lived in southeastern Africa.
Next of Kin
The only surviving branch of the horse family is the genus Equus, which includes zebras, asses, and donkeys along with the horse. But which living animals outside the horse family are the horse's closest relatives? Hint: You won't find them on a farm.
Here's another hint: Follow the feet. Horses belong to a group of mammals with an odd number of toes. That rules out mammals with two toes, or "cloven hooves," like goats, pigs, cows, deer, and camels.
So who are the other odd-toed, plant-eating animals? Most members of this group, known as perissodactyls, are extinct. But several species survive at present. They include rhinoceroses and tapirs, the horse's closest living relatives.
Horses are more closely related to extinct perissodactyls like this brontothere than they are to cows, pigs, and goats.
The beginning of the relationship bewteen horses and people began thousands of years ago. When and how? Nobody knows for sure, but we do know that ~40,000 years ago humans began to settle europe--a land where horses are known to have lived during the last Ice Age.
In Ice Age Europe, people were predators and horses were prey. Early hunting weapons and horse remains found in the area show that long before humans rode horses or used them as beasts of burden, they hunted these animals for food. Ancient images carved in bone or painted deep inside caves suggest that horses also played an important role in the rituals of prehistoric people, as they would in many cultures for centuries to come.
Roche de Solutre
The limestone ridges of central and southern France contain some of the oldest traces of human culture in Europe, dating back tens of thousands of years. Among the most intriguing of these landmarks is the Roche de Solutr, where thousands upon thousands of horse bones have been found, along with stone spear points and butchering tools. What happened here? Archaeologists think that generations of Ice Age hunters came to this spot to corner and kill horses over the course of more than 20,000 years.
Researchers once assumed Ice Age hunters slaughtered horses by forcing them to plunge from the top of the Roche de Solutr. But in fact, no horse remains have ever been found at the foot of this cliff. Instead, the bones were discovered on the southern side of the ridge, where the slope is more gradual. So how were the horses killed? Recent studies suggest hunters used the ridge as a barrier to trap the horses. Horses may have traveled past the Roche de Solutr during seasonal migrations. Hunters likely drove the horses toward a curve in the rock that served as a natural corral. Then others attacked the horses with spears from the cliff above.
Solutr was discovered in 1866 by a local geographer named Adrien Arcelin, who later wrote a popular novel describing what he thought had happened there. In one scene from the book, Ice Age hunters killed dozens of horses at once by driving them over the precipice at the western end of the Roche de Solutr. Horse hunts probably didn't happen this way, but the idea--made vivid by a number of drawings and paintings--persisted for years.
Tools, Teeth, and Bones
Prehistoric hunters may have used stone blades shaped like laurel leaves to cut horsemeat, and stone scrapers to prepare horsehides. Sharp burins may have helped people split the bones to make artifacts such as sewing needles.
Each summer and winter, the roots of a horse's teeth develop new layers of cementum, a bonelike material that keeps the teeth firmly attached to the jaw. By examining the layers through a microscope, scientists can often tell what time of year the animal died. Researchers studied a sample of teeth found at Solutr and found that most came from horses killed during the warm months of the year. One tooth shown on display was found together with a stone tool.
Based on the concentration of bones found at Solutr, researchers estimate that Ice Age people killed between 30,000 and 100,000 horses there in the course of some 20,000 years. But surprisingly, the hunters may not have eaten much of the meat--very few of the bones have the cut marks typically found on butchered animals. Perhaps the carcasses were simply too big to be fully used, and were left to rot after the choicest bits were devoured.
Breath of Life
This dramatic pair of horses was painted in Pech Merle Cave, in southern France, at least 16,000 years ago. Modern research suggests Ice Age artists formed these ghostly images by taking pigment in their mouths and blowing it out through a bone tube. The black spots may have little to do with the horses' coats, since they extend beyond the figures themselves.
Cave art is often found in deep recesses that are difficult to reach and impractical for use as everyday shelters. These areas may have been reserved instead for religious ceremonies, rites of passage, or the spiritual practices of a select few. Some researchers believe Ice Age people thought of underground caves as paths to a spirit world, and images on cave walls as spirit helpers--animals with a link to the beyond.
Horses appear often in European cave art--perhaps more often than any other animal. A lively engraving was discovered in 2000 in Cussac Cave, in southwestern France. The remains of at least five people were found on the floor of the same cave and have been dated to around 25,000 years ago.
Many layers of colorful images have been painted deep inside Tito Bustillo Cave, part of a network of natural tunnels in the cliffs near the northern coast of Spain. Around 14,000 years ago, a violet horse was drawn in delicate detail, by an artist who was clearly a careful observer.
Although the color is an unusual choice, the form and features of this horse seem lifelike. The painting suggests that the European wild horse roaming the area at the time had an erect mane, pale belly, and striping on the shoulders and legs--features that can still be found in wild horse populations today.
Ice Age paintings at Lascaux Cave suggest the European wild horse looked much like the Przewalski horse of Central Asia, with its sand-colored coat, pale stomach, and dark, stiff mane. The Przewalski horse is the only truly wild horse that has survived to the present day. All other so-called wild horses are actually descended from domestic ancestors.
Nature in Motion
The shadowy walls of Chauvet Cave, in southern France, are adorned with some of the world's oldest paintings, dating back some 33,000 years. In one underground chamber, horses, woolly rhinoceroses, and wild cattle seem to stampede around a curve in the rock, as if fleeing a predator.
The four horses in one painting look almost alike, but they actually show different behaviors. The second horse from the left has its ears flattened, a sign of aggression; the third horse has its ears perked, as if calm and attentive. A scene like this is unusual in a real herd, where horses take cues from each other and act as a group. Perhaps the artist meant to show the moods of a single horse at different moments in time.
Ice Age people may have used animal figures in rituals to ensure success in the hunt. In the engraving from Chauvet Cave above, rows of parallel lines may represent spears piercing the belly of a horse.
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.
Prehistoric remains show that at the end of the Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, wild horses died out in the Americas and dwindled in western Europe, for reasons that are not clear. But they thrived on the steppes of eastern Europe and Central Asia, where short grasses and shrubs grow on vast, dry stretches of land. Most scholars believe it was here that people domesticated the horse, forming a bond that has endured to the present day.
Ancient Krasnyi Yar
Some 5,000 years ago, a community of hunters known as the Botai people lived on the steppes of Central Asia. Were they among the first humans to breed horses and put them to use?
To find out more about the domestication of horses, archaeologists are studying the site of Krasnyi Yar in northern Kazakhstan, a country that borders Russia and China. Thousands of horse bones found at this site show that the people who settled here in the distant past lived near horse herds and ate large quantities of horsemeat. But were the horses domestic, or wild? Researchers are considering a wide array of evidence to decide, including bones, artifacts, and even chemicals in the soil.
Around 5,000 years ago, as many as 200 people lived in this village in northern Kazakhstan. More than 50 houses stood here, and fenced areas may have served as corrals.
The people who lived here grew no crops. Ninety percent of the bones they left behind are horse bones, showing they mainly ate horsemeat. A large settlement like this would have been difficult to feed on hunting alone. So archaeologists think it likely that the people of this village raised domestic horses for food.
Out of the Dust
At the Krasnyi Yar dig site in Kazakhstan, researchers are uncovering the remains of a village that was once home to the Botai people, whose lives depended on horses. The people and horses are now long gone. But by studying what they left behind, archaeologists hope to understand their relationship more clearly. What did they mean to each other? Were the horses at Krasnyi Yar domesticated?
By surveying this site with magnetic sensors, archaeologists have found traces of holes where posts once stood. Connect the dots, and these curving rows of postholes suggest fences. What were they for?
Researchers tested samples of soil from inside the fence and found them high in nitrogen and phosphates--the same chemicals found in soil enriched by manure. Horses were the only potential livestock at the site, so it is very likely that these fenced areas were horse corrals.
A tool shaped from a horse's jawbone was used to make leather ropes, or thongs. Strips of horsehide were pulled back and forth against the notch in the bone until they became flexible and smooth. Researchers have found many tools of this kind at Krasnyi Yar, showing that the villagers prepared lengths of rawhide--materials often used to make gear for horse control, such as bridles, whips, and lassos.
Up on the Roof
Archaeologists have uncovered the floor of a house at Krasnyi Yar. Under a microscope, soil from inside a Botai house looks very similar to manure. One explanation is that the Botai people spread horse dung on their roofs for insulation, as many Kazakh horse herders do today. After the people left, the roof caved in, leaving the dung on the floor.
Food and Drink
The first domestic horses were probably mainly kept as a source of food, rather than for work or for riding. Horse bones found at Krasnyi Yar are covered with cut marks, making it clear that the people who lived here butchered horses for meat. Their pottery contains evidence too. Biochemists are testing ceramics unearthed from the site to see if they contain tiny traces of milk fats--a sign that the Botai people milked their horses, as many Kazakh people do today.
Milking a Mare
Many people in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries milk horses, then ferment the milk to make a drink called koumiss. The milk is full of vitamins and helps complete a diet rich in meat.
From Hearding to Riding
No one knows exactly when people began raising, harnessing or riding horses, but evidence from archaeology and ancient art shows that all of these skills were well developed by 1500 BC.
c. 3500 BC
Horses are raised for meat in Kazakhstan.
c. 2000 BC
Horses pull chariots in eastern Russia and Kazakhstan.
Horseback riding becomes common in Afghanistan and Iran.
What is Domestication?
People have domesticated dozens of animals, from horses to honeybees. Many of these creatures belong to the same species as their closest wild relatives and have essentially the same genetic makeup. Yet they look and act in ways that are quite distinct. How does it happen?
When people domesticate animals, they control their behavior in many ways. For example, animals that are being domesticated no longer choose their own mates. Instead, people control their breeding. Individuals with traits that humans prefer are more likely to produce offspring and pass on their genes. In the course of several generations, both the body and behavior of the animal are transformed.
When animals are domesticated, the change can often be seen in the bones. In dogs and pigs, for example, the muzzle becomes shorter in relation to the rest of the skull. By contrast, early domestic horse bones look very much like wild ones. So archaeologists studying horse remains must use other clues to tell whether they are domestic or wild.
Bred to be Useful
When animals are domesticated, their bodies change. Many species become smaller than their wild ancestors. Some, including dogs and pigs, tend to have shorter snouts, floppier ears, and curlier tails. White markings may show up on the face, chest, or legs. Studies show these physical traits may be genetically linked to the gentle behavior people tend to seek in their livestock and pets.
Most domestic animals are naturally social. Their wild ancestors lived in groups, with individuals responding to each other--some led, others followed. In domestic animals, the tendency to submit to others is especially strong. Generations of breeding have encouraged them to let people take the lead.
Evolving Among Humans
In the wild, animals that are well adapted to their environment live long and reproduce, while others die young. In this way, nature "chooses" the traits that are passed on to the next generation. Biologist Charles Darwin called this process evolution by natural selection. Domestic animals also evolve, but people do the selecting. Humans seek out qualities like tameness, and help animals with those traits survive and bear young. Darwin called this evolution by artificial selection (also known as genetic engeneering).
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 brains give them both the ability to understand subtle commands and the motivation to obey them.
The Power of Instinct
Why can humans control horses at all, when horses are so much bigger and stronger than humans? Horses are creatures of instinct. But certain instincts work in our favor. The way horses naturally evolved to eat, mate, form family groups, and accept the authority of herd leaders makes them receptive to taking orders from humans as well.
Why do we ride horses, but not their close relatives, zebras? Male Grevy's zebras fight over territory, so they can't be kept in the same corral. Horses have no fixed territories, wandering constantly to graze, and fight less over turf. Zebras are also notorious for biting--in fact, zebras injure more zookeepers than tigers do.
One way to train horses is through brute force and intimidation. But some trainers instead appeal to a horse's natural instinct to follow a leader. For example, instead of beating a horse until it is afraid to disobey, a trainer might chase it away. Horses don't like being isolated from the herd, so the animal returns, seeking permission to end its banishment. From then on it accepts the human trainer as herd leader and follows instructions.
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. This strong desire to stick together can be useful when training horses to jump. Jumping can be frightening and dangerous for horses. So how do you get a young horse to jump over a fence for the first time? One way is to exploit the herd instinct: A young horse will follow an older horse over a fence to avoid being left behind.
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 others' 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.
Be the Pack Leader
Horses have a strong instinct to form groups in which some horses lead and others follow. A typical family group consists of one male, several females, and their offspring. The male stallion fights off predators and rival stallions, but the leader of day-to-day activities is usually a female. This lead mare decides where the group should go and punishes misbehavior. Every horse knows whether it is dominant or submissive to every other horse. If a new horse joins the group, it quickly sorts out where it stands.
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. The galleries that follow provide a glimpse into the countless ways that horses have transformed human societies around the world.
For more than 3,000 years, a warrior on horseback or horse-drawn chariot was the ultimate weapon. Time after time, from Asia to Europe to the Americas, the use of horses in war has changed the balance of power between civilizations. When people with horses clashed with those without, horses provided a huge advantage. When both sides had horses, battles turned on the strength and strategy of their mounted horsemen, or cavalry. Horses continued to define military tactics well into the 1900s, until they finally became outmoded by machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and other modern weapons.
For roughly a thousand years, from about the 800s to the late 1800s, warfare in Japan was dominated by an elite class of warriors known as the samurai. Horses were their special weapons: only samurai were allowed to ride horses in battle.
Like European knights, the samurai served a lord (daimyo). In 1600, after a long period of conflict among rival daimyo, the victorious Tokugawa Shogun discouraged armed warfare but maintained the samurai's traditional status. The sword and the horse remained symbols of their power.
European knights and Japanese samurai have some interesting similarities. Both groups rode horses and wore armor. Both came from a wealthy upper class. And both were trained to follow strict codes of moral behavior. In Europe, these ideals were called chivalry; the samurai code was called Bushido, "the way of the warrior." The rules of chivalry and Bushido both emphasize honor, self-control, loyalty, bravery, and military training.
The samurai warriors who ruled Japan until the late 1800s followed a strict code of behavior. Proper behavior was so important that a samurai would kill himself rather than accept dishonor. Most samurai carried a special sword called a wakizashi for this purpose.
In the late 1500s, the Japanese had more guns than any nation in Europe. Using guns, an army of peasants could be very powerful, threatening the social order. So in the 1600s, the samurai leaders, or shoguns, banned guns. With their traditional power secured, the samurai ruled in peace for 250 years.
Although horses evolved in North America, by the time Spanish soldiers invaded in the 1500s, horses had been extinct in the Americas for thousands of years. To the native peoples, the Spaniards' horses must have seemed like frightening monsters. The Spanish made the most of this advantage by spreading rumors that horses were magical beasts.
Horses were certainly not the only reason for the conquest of the Americas--disease, civil war and steel weapons were probably more important in the long run. But in early encounters, horses were an intimidating and unstoppable force. Hernn Corts, who led the conquest of what is now Mexico, is said to have claimed that, "Next to God, we owed our victory to the horses."
Slaughter on Horseback
In 1532, 168 Spanish soldiers, including 62 on horseback, faced off against the huge Inca empire at Cajamarca, in western South America. Although vastly outnumbered, the Spaniards launched a surprise attack on the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, who was surrounded by about 80,000 Inca soldiers. The Spanish charged into the crowd on horseback, their steel weapons easily cutting through the Incas' quilted armor. The massacre went on for hours until some 7,000 Incas lay dead. Yet through it all, the Spaniards could not reach Atahuallpa. He was held aloft on a litter by his subjects, and as they were killed, more rushed in to replace them. Finally the Spaniards toppled Atahuallpa's litter with their horses, and the one-sided battle was over.
After the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa, who until 1532 ruled the largest and most advanced empire in the Americas, Pizarro demanded the largest ransom in the history of the world. The Incas handed over enough gold to fill a large room, piled more than 8 feet (2.5 meters) high--but the Spaniards killed Atahuallpa anyway. Most of this treasure was melted down to make gold coins.
The Incas were not allowed to ride horses for centuries after the Spanish occupation began. The Spaniards wanted to keep the power of horses for themselves--and with good reason. When Native peoples acquired horses in Chile, Argentina, and the U.S. Great Plains, for example, they quickly became superior riders and used their horses to fight off the European invaders for years.
Riding Into Battles
Horses were probably first used to pull chariots in battle starting around 1500 BC. But it wasn't until around 900 BC that warriors themselves commonly fought on horseback. Among the first mounted archers and fighters were the Scythians, a group of nomadic Asian warriors who often raided the ancient Greeks.
For Greeks who had never before seen a person on horseback, the first sight of these riders racing toward them while firing volleys of arrows must have been truly terrifying. Some modern scholars wonder if early sightings of strangers on horseback might have inspired the Greek myths about the legendary half-man, half-horse beings called centaurs.
Fighting on foot against horses couldn't have been easy. The Greek soldier shown on this ancient Greek vase from 450 BC struggles against an Amazon warrior on horseback. Stories of these legendary women warriors might have been inspired by Scythian raiders, who frequently attacked the Greeks on horseback. In fact, recent archaeological discoveries indicate that some Scythian warriors were indeed female.
According to ancient Greek myth, soldiers from Greece laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years, but could not conquer it. Finally the Greeks pretended to give up. They departed, leaving behind a large wooden horse as a gift. The Trojans brought the horse inside their city walls and celebrated victory. That night, however, Greek soldiers hidden inside the giant horse crept out and unlocked the gates. The rest of the Greek army rushed in and destroyed the entire city.
A Tank on Legs
Horses were a huge advantage in battle. Riding on horseback made a soldier much bigger, faster,and stronger than a fighter on foot. But horses, like the warriors who rode them, needed armor to avoid injury. Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, knights and their horses wore steel armor. Such armor is heavy, often weighing more than 50 pounds (23 kilograms) for the horse, and as many for the rider.
European horses were bred to increase their size and strength just so they could carry knights into battle. While the horses of 500 years ago did not approach the size of modern horses, several large horse breeds today, such as the Percheron and shire horse, claim descent from the noble steeds used by ancient knights.
A knight in shining armor wouldn't get very far unless his horse was well protected, too. During the 1500s, the armor worn by horses in Europe rivaled that of the knights that rode them. The major elements of equine armor are listed below:
- Covered the horse's head and carried the rider's family crest or coat of arms
- Made up of overlapping plates, it protected the back of the horse's neck while still allowing it to move its head easily
- Protected the horse's hindquarters
- Protected the rider's waist from lances, spears and arrows
- Raist or flared outward to provide freedom of movement for the horse's legs
European knights had different horses for different purposes. The largest, grandest horses, reserved for battles, tournaments, and jousts, were called destriers or "great horses," as shown in the exhibit by an Albrecht Drer illustration. A large modern breed, the shire horse is said to have been bred from destriers. When a knight needed a faster horse that could change direction quickly in battle, he rode a courser. For everyday use, he rode a smaller, all-purpose rouncey. Destriers, coursers, and rounceys were descriptive categories, not distinct breeds.
Knights in shining armor were too heavy for most British horses, so large horses had to be imported from other European countries until at least the 1500s. Determined to increase the size of British horses, King Henry VIII decreed in 1535 that major landowners must keep at least two large mares, and in 1541 he banned stallions from grazing on public lands unless they met certain height requirements. The king may have had a vested interest in breeding strong horses, since his own waistline ballooned after an injury that the once-athletic monarch suffered while jousting.
Horses have long been associated with high status in Europe. The French, Spanish, and English words for gentleman--chevalier, caballero, and cavalier--all mean "horseman." The phrase "get off your high horse" may have once referred to the superior attitude of knights who looked down at common people from their tall horses. The phrase "come off it" supposedly refers to the same thing.
"There is no other beast which so befits a knight as a good horse... A brave man mounted on a good horse may do more in an hour of fighting than ten or maybe a hundred could have done afoot."
--Spanish knight Gutierre Diaz de Games, 1400s
Retreat of the Cavalry
The importance of horses in warfare dropped off over the centuries with each arrival of new, more deadly weapons. The development of powerful bows and arrows that could pierce horse armor, as well as the introduction of guns, meant that horses were no longer invincible. Even so, as recently as a hundred years ago, millions of horses were still used in battle.
The last hurrah came with World War I. At the beginning of that war, in 1914, cavalry charges, in which thousands of soldiers on horseback rode into battle together, were still seen as a major offensive tactic. But trench warfare, barbed wire, machine gun, and other modern developments effectively brought such charges to a dead halt. By the war's end, horses were still used behind the lines to transport guns and supplies, but their role in leading the attack had become a thing of the past.
Millions of horses died in World War I, even though by the end of the war their status had been reduced from leaders of the charge to a supporting role. The clash between old-fashioned ways of warfare and the newer technologies of death led to poignant sights like horses wearing gas masks, horses pulling guns larger than themselves, and horses lying dead next to heaps of mortar shells.
To protect against the poison gases used in World War I, both soldiers and horses wore gas masks. Horses' noses were covered but their eyes were not, since horses could tolerate the poisons better than humans.
The last cavalry charge made on horseback by the U.S. Army took place in 1942, when the United States fought the Japanese army in the Philippines. After that, the mounted cavalry was replaced by tanks.
World War I was a major turning point in the role of horses in battle. At the beginning of the war, a romantic view of battle still prevailed, as shown in a recruitment poster on exhibit.
By the end of World War I, horses had proved as vulnerable as humans to new military tactics and technologies. And, just like human soldiers, millions of horses died in the war.
Although cavalry charges are now a thing of the past, there are still places where a horse is more useful than a truck. In 2002, for example, during the war in Afghanistan, some U.S. Special Forces rode horses in areas where the rugged terrain and lack of fuel made automobiles impractical.
War Horse - UK National Army Museum
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 at top speed.
For more than 1,000 years, people have called on the power of horses to achieve their own ends. 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.
Heyday of the Horse
In Europe and in the Americas, the nineteenth century was the age of the machine. Mills and factories turned out goods by the ton. Bustling cities were linked by railroad and steamship. Yet without horses, this new world of industry could never have thrived.
In the 1800s, machines and horses often labored side by side. Many new inventions meant more work for horses, not less. In fact, horses worked at more varied jobs during the industrial era than at any other time. They pulled carriages, buses, and carts on streets and barges on canals. While steam engines pumped, horses kept the wheels of commerce turning. The age of the machine was also the heyday of the horse.
Fire Horses had to be Tough
Steam-powered fire engines were first introduced in the mid-1800s. Before that time, fire departments used hand-pumped engines that were light enough to be pulled by men. Steam engines were an improvement: they pumped water faster and never grew tired. Yet they also weighed three or four tons. So horses stepped in to haul the load--and became stars of the firefighting team.
Fire horses had demanding jobs. They had to gallop uphill on hot summer days and down icy streets in the winter. They needed to be quick, ready to rush to the harness at the sound of a bell--and to be calm, willing to stand and wait patiently while engines pumped, firefighters shouted, and flames roared.
Only the most highly qualified were picked to become fire horses, and many were trained in firefighting schools. A favorite breed of fire departments was the Percheron, a carriage horse known for its strength and serene disposition. Many Percherons are dapple gray, fading to white as they age, and engines were often drawn by handsomely matched teams.
With a quick-hitch harness, a fire horse could be ready to go in less than a minute. This network of leather straps hung from the firehouse ceiling. When the alarm rang, the horse rushed into place underneath. A firefighter released a switch, and the harness dropped down around the horse's body. With three snaps, the collar was closed and the reins were attached to the bit.
Horses Connected the West
From 1852 to 1918, Wells Fargo rushed customers’ important business by any means - steamship, railroad, and, where the railroads ended, by stagecoach. At first Wells Fargo contracted with independent stageline owners. Then in the great enterprise of building reliable transcontinental transportation, Wells Fargo came to own and operate the largest stagecoach empire in the world.
In 1857 Wells Fargo joined other express companies to form the Overland Mail Company, establishing regular twice-a-week mail service between St. Louis and San Francisco. (Until the stageline, communications east and west was twice a month by steamship.)
Wells Fargo got the route surveyed and shared in the financing. Nicknamed the “Butterfield Line” after its president, John Butterfield, it ran 2,757 miles through the Southwest via El Paso and Los Angeles and then up through California’s Central Valley to San Francisco.
Night and day the stage rolled on at a pace from 5 to 12 miles an hour, across vast, treeless plains, jagged mountain passes, scorching deserts, and rivers cursed with quicksand. The coached stopped only to change horses or let passengers slug down a cup of coffee with their beef jerky and biscuits. About 25 days later, it clattered into San Francisco!
In 1861 the Civil War forced overland staging to a central route across the Great Plains, through the Rocky Mountains, into the Great Basin, and over the Sierra. The Pony Express had proven that the nation’s mail could be carried swiftly across this rugged route.
Along this route mail, passengers and Wells Fargo’s express rode the stages of the Pioneer Stage Line from California to Virginia City, Nevada. The Overland Mail Company, by now under Wells Fargo’s control, ran coaches from Virginia City to Salt Lake City, Utah. There, mail and passengers connected with Ben Holladay’s Overland Express running through Denver, Colorado, and eastward to the Mississippi.
In 1866, Wells Fargo bought out Ben Holladay's expanding network and combined it with the Pioneer and the Overland Mail stagelines to create the largest stagecoach empire in the world. Stagecoaches carrying the Wells, Fargo & Co. name rolled from Nebraska to California via Denver and Salt Lake City. From Denver, coaches served the mining towns of the Rockies, and from Salt Lake City, they carried mail and passengers to Montana and Idaho.
Gold brought miners to the mountains of Montana and Idaho, and Wells Fargo's stagecoaches carried it out. W. H. "Shotgun" Taylor supervised the stage operations, and hired drivers who could handle a team of horses around mountain roads with calm grace.
In 1869 at Promontory, Utah, dignitaries hammered in a Golden Spike, which joined the rails of the Transcontinental Railroad — and endedWells Fargo’s overland stageline.
However, stagecoaches continued rolling wherever the railroads did not. Wells Fargo contracted with independent stageline operators to carry treasure boxes and express, even into the early 20th Century.
Whether in Sierra mountain towns, northern Minnesota villages, Pacific Northwest coastal farms, or west Texas ranches, stagecoaches carriedWells Fargo customers’ business wherever they lived and worked.
The Concord Coach
Built high and wide to handle the rough, rutted roads of a new country, the design of a classic American vehicle was perfected in Concord, New Hampshire. Carriage builder J. Stephens Abbot and master wheelwright Lewis Downing built the famed stagecoaches of Wells Fargo & Co.
The curved frame of the body gave it strength, and perhaps a little extra elbow room. Perfectly formed, fitted, and balanced wheels stood up to decades of drenching mountain storms and parching desert heat. The unique feature of these coaches was the suspension. Instead of steel springs, the coach body rested on leather “thoroughbraces,” made of strips of thick bullhide. This feature spared the horses from jarring and gave the stagecoach a (sometimes) gentle rocking motion, leading Mark Twain to call it, “An imposing cradle on wheels.” (Roughing It, 1870)
Concord Coaches weighed about 2,500 pounds, and cost $1,100 each, including leather and damask cloth interior.
Wells Fargo is fortunate to be able to display original Abbot-Downing Concord Coaches in the Wells Fargo History Museums and Exhibits across the country. Each coach was given a number by the Abbot-Downing factory and carries with it its own story.
In The City
Across Europe and North America, as industries grew and thousands of people moved from farms into cities, horses moved with them. Hard-working horse teams were the lifeblood of the city. They kept urban markets stocked with food and other supplies. Goods that arrived by steamship or rail were heaped onto carts at the loading dock. It took horses to wheel these goods through crowded streets to warehouses, markets, and homes.
For captains of industry eager to turn a profit, the horse was as good as a living machine. Experts measured maintenance costs, such as feed, shelter, and veterinary care, against output-pounds of freight moved or bushels of grain milled. For some tasks, they argued, horses were simply a better bargain than steam.
By the 1870s, more than 300 U.S. patents were issued for horse-powered machinery. One idea that had its day was the horse ferry. Like steamboats, horse ferries used paddle wheels. A horse walked on a treadmill mounted on the deck, which turned the paddle wheel by a series of gears.
For some horses, city life was bitter and short. Drivers sometimes beat their horses, neglected them, or forced them to pull more than they could bear. In time, horse abuse came to be seen as a major public problem. When the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) formed in New York City in 1866, protecting horses was one of its most urgent goals.
Did You Know?
- In 1900, around 130,000 horses worked in Manhattan--more than 10 times the number of taxicabs on the streets of New York City today.
- A typical city horse produced up to 45 pounds (20 kilograms) of manure and 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of urine a day.
- Many city horses died young, sometimes in the street. In Chicago in 1916, more than 9,000 horse carcasses were carted away.
Origin of "Horsepower"
When Scottish inventor James Watt developed a new kind of steam engine in the 1770s, he decided the best way to sell it was to compare it to the most familiar source of power at the time-the horse.
Based on experiments, Watt concluded that a draft horse was strong enough to lift 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute (150 kilograms 30 meters in one minute). Watt defined that quantity--33,000 "foot-pounds" in one minute--as one horsepower, although it would be difficult for a horse to exert that much power for a whole working day.
In the 1700s, horses helped lift water, stone, coal, and other materials by driving simple machines. A horse gin is an example: a horse turned a shaft attached to a cable, which wound or unwound to raise or lower a load.
Bred for Strength
Most horses are strong enough to pack or pull heavy loads. Their strength is part of their makeup. Horses have evolved by natural selection to have thick muscles, a large heart and powerful lungs.
Yet over the centuries, people have also bred some groups of horses to be even stronger. By bringing the heftiest or hardest-working horses together to mate, people have developed breeds that are especially suited for certain jobs--whether to haul fuel for industry or to pull a plow in the fields.
What is a Draft Horse?
A draft horse skeleton in the exhibition belonged to an unusually large horse raised in the United States. There are no records of its breed, but it clearly came from a line of horses that was bred over many generations to be massive and strong. Such breeds are known as draft horses because they are especially fit to draw or pull heavy loads.
The horse stands at rest, with the left leg locked at the kneecap. In a living horse, a group of ligaments called a stay apparatus helps the leg stay in place. Because of this structure, even the heaviest horse can remain standing for long hours without tiring.
The largest horse breeds have roots in northern Europe. During the Middle Ages, the horses of Belgium were especially famed for their strength and size, although they were probably much smaller than today's draft breeds.
Around 500 years ago, European horse breeders began bringing the largest, strongest animals together for breeding, often crossing local mares with stallions imported from abroad. Over many generations, their descendants became larger than any horses known before.
Today, loggers sometimes work with draft horse teams to thin small areas of forest. Unlike heavy machinery, a pair of horses can pull a log along a narrow trail without damaging trees and undergrowth nearby.
Did You Know?
- When this horse was alive, it weighed more than a ton: about 2,370 pounds (1,075 kilograms).
- The Clydesdale, a draft horse bred in Scotland, can eat up to 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of hay and 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) of grain a day.
What is a Shetland Pony?
The Shetland pony is one of the smallest horse breeds. The skeleton in the exhibition of this particular Shetland, named Highland Chieftain, was thought to be the smallest adult pony in Great Britain when it died more than 100 years ago.
This breed has lived for centuries on the windswept Shetland Islands, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Scotland. Shetland ponies were traditionally allowed to roam freely, and they probably became smaller as they adapted to their environment. It may have been easier for short, stocky animals to survive the harsh conditions on these remote, treeless islands.
In the 1800s, Shetland ponies were specially bred to work in underground coal mines. Strong, hardy, and small enough to enter narrow mine shafts, these "pit ponies" were well suited for their jobs.
Pit ponies literally lived underground. They were kept in stables inside the mine, where a caretaker fed and groomed them and a blacksmith repaired their shoes. During the day, each horse worked side by side with a driver, pulling carts full of coal from the areas where miners worked to the shaft to be lifted away.
Most Shetland ponies are gentle and easy-going. Many continue to work at petting zoos, fairs, and carnivals, where young children with no experience may be given a chance to ride.
Did You Know?
- People living on the Shetland Islands once used hair from their ponies' long manes and tails to make fishing line.
- The word pony is mainly used for small horse breeds with short legs and a stocky build. But informally--especially in sports--even a lean, long-legged horse may be called a pony.
In many societies around the world, horses are a marvelous luxury. The ability to ride can make even the most ordinary woman or man feel like royalty.
Some cultures have considered horses worthy of gods. In many faiths, they play a role in sacred rituals. Swift, strong and sometimes unruly, a spirited horse can be awe-inspiring. A running horse may be seen as an expression of freedom, a rearing horse as a symbol of power.
People of The Horse
The river and lake-filled landscape of eastern Siberia holds the record for the coldest temperatures in the Arctic. Yet for centuries, a people known as the Sakha have called this region home. Their neighbors once called them "the people of the horse." Through most of their history, the Sakha have lived as horse herders, using horses for food, clothing, and transportation, and as sacred symbols of fertility and wealth.
Today, many Sakha live away from their traditional pastures, in the modern city of Yakutsk. But in music, stories, food, and spiritual life, they continue to celebrate their close connection with the horse.
The Sakha milk their horses and ferment the milk to make koumiss, a drink that is rich in vitamins and mildly alcoholic. Koumiss is an important part of the Sakha diet, and at least nine different varieties are made, including a bubbly brew known as champagne koumiss.
To celebrate the renewal of life at the beginning of summer, the Sakha share koumiss, a drink made of fermented mare's milk. Traditionally, a container shaped like a horse's hoof is used to funnel milk into a leather bag, where it is churned with a stick and left to sit for many hours until it is fermented. During the festival, guests drink koumiss from carved wooden goblets with hoof-shaped feet.
At the summer solstice in late June, Sakha communities gather to pray, feast, sing, dance, perform dramas, and race horses in a festival honoring the height of light and life. Koumiss is tossed in four directions and fed to a bonfire as an offering to the spirits. Then goblets of koumiss are passed around and the drink is shared by all.
Sakha villagers share fermented mare's milk during an yhsakh ceremony in 1902. In 1992, this summer rite became a state festival in the part of the Russian Federation known as the Sakha Republic.
Sakha horses--known as the Yakut breed--have adapted remarkably well to life in the Arctic, where temperatures can drop below -58 F (-50 C). As winter approaches, they take on extra layers of fat and grow dense, shaggy coats. Their breathing slows down and their blood circulates faster. Yakut horses left to fend for themselves can withstand the cold without shelter.
A century ago, a wealthy Sakha woman might ride to a summer festival on a finely decorated saddle and carry a whip trimmed with silver.
The Sakha once used horsehair for sewing thread and as a fiber for fishnets. Many of these traditional arts faded in the mid-1900s, but some are being revived. A horsehair fly whisk in the exhibition was made in the 1990s and sold in the capital of the Sakha Republic, Yakutsk.
Power of the Plains
The Native and First Nations people of the North American Plains are known for their matchless horsemanship. In fact, horses shaped nearly every step of Plains life for some two centuries.
The Crow, Lakota, Blackfeet, and other Plains tribes first took up riding around 300 years ago, on horses captured by other tribes from Spanish herds in the American Southwest. In a short time, the people of the Plains learned to travel, hunt, and fight battles on horseback. In this new world of freedom and movement, the power of the horse was incomparable. A fine horse could make a great hunter or warrior, and many horses could make a rich man.
In the 1800s, the Crow people of the northern Plains kept some of the area's largest horse herds. The Crow traveled long distances to trade with allies, exchanging horses for other valuable goods. When a band moved camp, a wealthy Crow woman would adorn her horse head to tail with beautifully beaded buffalo or buckskin trappings. Women made their own saddles and bridles, though Spanish bits with dangling trim were traded from tribe to tribe.
In many Plains tribes, a family's wealth was measured in horses, and some owned more than 100 at a time. A man could win status by stealing a prized horse or a herd from an enemy. Anyone who achieved such a feat might record it with a painting on buffalo hide.
Horses once played a role in almost every aspect of Native life on the Plains, including courtship. A man who wanted to marry might give handsome horses to his sweetheart's family, or present a horse to the girl herself and ask her to elope. When courting, young men and women often rode double, as shown in this picture drawn by a Cheyenne artist in the late 1800s.
Horses and riders parade their finery each year at the Crow Fair, a five-day celebration of Crow culture. At a traditional event called a give-away, a man or woman may celebrate an achievement by giving away a spirited horse.
Shoshone-Bannock Indians Relay Races - YouTube
The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures - Journal of American History
People of the Horse - Document Download (Coming Soon)
A Gift for a God
In India, riding a horse was once an honor enjoyed only by foreign conquerors or rulers with fabulous wealth. Over the centuries, the horse has become a symbol of nobility and power.
Even in southern India, where living horses are rarely seen, images of horses are presented to gods as sacred offerings. Hundreds of horses shaped of clay or cement can be found at temples in rural Tamil Nadu. The people who made these majestic statues may travel on foot, but the gods will ride.
In the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, village potters create horse figures as offerings to Aiyanar and other local gods, who are said to patrol village borders and protect people from harm. Many village shrines contain hundreds of these votive horses, some standing more than 16 feet (5 meters) tall. This horse is trimmed with garlands, like the stone horses in grand Indian temples. The face on its chest is Yalli, a spirit who protects Aiyanar.
When Tamil potters make a large terra cotta horse, they start with a handful of earth from the floor of a shrine, then build the figure and fire it there. Today, temple horses are also made out of plaster or cement.
In the Vedic religion that flourished in northern India some 3,000 years ago, kings held a ritual involving the sacrifice of a horse. An illustration in the exhibit from the Hindu epic known as the Ramayana shows a scene from the ceremony: the king's favorite wife slays a stallion and then lies next to the corpse.
A Mark of Nobility
The class of noble warriors known as the Samurai arose more than 1,000 years ago as armed horsemen who fought for the warlords of Japan. But during the Edo period (1603-1867), Japan's rulers kept the country at peace. The Samurai left the battlefield and became teachers, doctors, and administrators.
In time, Samurai fighting skills were transformed into ceremonial arts. Once needed for war, the samurai's weapons, his armor, and his horse became symbols of rank and refinement.
Early Samurai warriors lived by a code of conduct known as "the way of the horse and bow." Each man had to act with honor while mastering the arts of war, including the difficult task of shooting a bow and arrow from the back of a galloping horse.
In the 1100s, the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo took a special interest in this skill and made it into a sacred ritual. Today, riders continue to perform the art of archery on horseback, or yabusame, at Shinto festivals in Japan.
In the Shinto religion of Japan, worshippers write prayers on wooden tablets known as ema, meaning "horse picture." This custom may have roots in ancient times, when horses were presented to Shinto shrines as living offerings to the gods.
In the 12th century, the Samurai Kiso no Yoshinaka reputedly had 10,000 horsemen in his command. These horses may have belonged to the Kiso breed, which was developed about 1,000 years ago in central Japan.
During the peace that reigned in Japan from the early 1600s to the mid-1800s, the Samurai's tools of war were transformed into decorative arts. A saddle in the exhibition trimmed with lacquer and gold recalled the victories of a mounted warrior but is lavish enough for a lord.
A woodblock print in the exhbition showed a springtime scene in which the legendary Samurai warrior Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106) rides from his home in Kyoto to a troubled region in northern Japan, while lower-ranking soldiers follow on foot.
Fit for a King
Horses are rare in some parts of Africa--in damp, tropical climates, they are often done in by disease. But the West African grasslands just south of the Sahara Desert are horse country. Around 1,000 years ago, powerful empires arose in this region. Their rulers traveled on horseback and commanded large armies with thundering cavalry.
Though these empires have faded, West African leaders still keep horses as tokens of status and authority. On formal occasions, many rulers dress their horses in lavish trappings and display their wealth as they ride.
Wide stretches of the country now known as Burkina Faso were once ruled by the Mossi, a West African people with a long tradition of horsemanship. According to legend, their empire was founded by a prince named Widiraogo, meaning "stallion," who arrived on a horse and conquered the land with his cavalry. Centuries ago, the Mossi battled their enemies on horseback. In the 1800s, they enriched their empire by breeding horses and trading them for cotton cloth, metal goods, and slaves.
Finely dressed Hausa and Fulani horsemen fight mock battles during a 2004 festival honoring of the emir of Kano, a Muslim ruler in northern Nigeria. The tradition dates back to a time when the emir was protected by cavalry, and regiments had to demonstrate their skills on command.
A Passion for Polo
Many sports that involve fine horsemanship have come down to us from royalty. Even today, they tend to be practiced by a privileged few. In Europe and North America, no sport is considered more dashing or aristocratic than polo.
Before polo was known in the West, men and women of the royal court in Persia and India played the game. In the 1800s, the English upper classes learned to play polo--and made it popular with the wealthy in many other parts of the world.
A polo player must ride with perfect control, while swinging a mallet to drive a ball toward a goal at the end of the field. Most fans agree that a player is only as good as his horse. Polo ponies work hard and tire quickly, so after each seven-minute playing period, the players switch to fresh horses. Buying and caring for a pool of highly skilled polo ponies is part of the expense of the game.
The polo equipment in the exhibit belongs to Argentine polo player Ignacio "Nacho" Figueras, a member of the Black Watch team of East Hampton, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida. Figueras also models clothing for the fashion industry, where polo has long served as a symbol of elegance and prestige.
In Persia, polo was once called the game of kings. Legend has it that when Alexander the Great was about to invade Persia in 334 BC, the Persian ruler sent him a polo mallet and ball and invited him to a game. "I am the stick," Alexander replied as he turned down the invitation. "The ball is the world."
The design for the modern polo shirt, a cotton-knit garment with a collar and buttoned placket, was originally developed for tennis and dates back to the 1920s. Like many other forms of clothing worn in equestrian sports, it has become an article of fashion, meant to evoke both leisure and traditional style.
Most polo players wear custom-made boots like the pair shown here. Kneepads protect a player's legs in this bruising, sometimes dangerous game.
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. By carrying people, goods, and ideas between civilizations, horses changed history.
Empire of the Horse
The vast Mongol empire, ruled by Genghis Khan and his descendants in the 1200s and 1300s, covered most of Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. Far larger than any empire built by the Greeks, Romans, or Russians, it stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean, making it the largest mass of connected land conquered by anyone in history, before or since.
Horses made possible the conquest of this immense empire--and also the successful management of it for more than 100 years. Outside of Mongolia, Genghis Khan's horsemen are thought of today as ruthless raiders who swept into cities to loot and pillage. But they did much more than destroy. They created an era of unprecedented travel, trade, and cultural exchange.
In Genghis Khan's army, every soldier traveled on horseback. This all-cavalry army was easily the most mobile military force in the world. The Mongols' horses could travel almost anywhere, grazing as they went, even if they had to kick through snow to reach grass. The Mongols themselves could also travel long distances without provisions. The Italian explorer Marco Polo described Mongols riding for 10 days at a stretch while living on dried milk and blood from their horses.
The feared Mongol horsemen not only conquered most of Asia, they created a vast trade network that linked previously isolated civilizations. The ancient Silk Road trade routes date back to well before the Mongol empire. But it wasn't until the Mongol army made them safe from bandits that the Silk Road blossomed, enabling caravans of camels and donkeys to carry goods, people, and ideas between Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Until about 1,000 years ago, almost all stringed instruments were plucked. All bowed instruments, from the European violin to the Mongolian horsehead fiddle, trace their origin to Central Asia, where the first bows strung with hair from horsetails were invented. The idea quickly spread via the Silk Road and other trade routes.
During the Han dynasty, the Chinese mounted an expedition to Ferghana, 2,000 miles west of the Chinese capital, Xian, to acquire superior horses. This expedition is credited with opening the eastern leg of the Silk Road. Ferghana horses were famous for sweating blood--a mystery now thought to be caused by parasites under their skin.
The Mongolian horsehead fiddle, or morin khuur, has a carved horsehead on the end and its two strings are made of hair from a horse's tail. In Mongolia, music, horses, and mysticism are all related: Horses carry people in the material world, and music carries people to the spiritual world. Musicians refer to the instrument as their steed, and they sometimes mimic the sound of hoofbeats and whinnies as they play.
Using a Mongol pass like the one in the exhibition, a visitor could travel all over the empire of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson. His immense transportation network included thousands of luxurious way-stations offering fresh horses for travelers along the Silk Road and other trade routes. Like a combination passport and credit card, the pass told everyone that the wearer was to be treated as a guest of the great Khan. The Italian explorer Marco Polo wrote, "The whole organization is so stupendous and so costly that it baffles speech and writing."
Horses are extremely fast--but they can't run at top speed for very long or they overheat. The only way to ride at a full gallop over long distances is to regularly switch to a fresh horse. For most of human history, this was the fastest way to transport people and parcels over land.
The fabled Pony Express of the American West is the most famous horse-based relay system, but it was not the first, the largest, or the most successful. Such relays date back nearly 4,000 years and were used widely in ancient Babylonia, Persia, China, Mongolia, Egypt, Italy, and France.
In 1860, there was no coast-to-coast railroad across America. The fastest way to get a letter across the country was still by horse-drawn stagecoach. This took 25 days or more--faster than sailing around South America, which took at least 45 days, but still pretty slow. So in April 1860, a new postal service called the Pony Express was born. With railroads handling the eastern leg and horsemen racing day and night from Missouri to California, the Pony Express could get a letter from coast to coast in just ten days for five dollars, later reduced to one dollar.
Of course, no single horse could carry mail day and night without rest. So a series of relay stations was spaced 16 kilometers (10 miles) apart, and riders passed a small bag of mail from horse to horse, like sprinters passing a baton. Some riders supposedly blew a horn before reaching each station, so a fresh horse would be waiting for them to jump onto the moment they arrived.
Within two minutes of arriving at a station, a Pony Express rider left on a fresh horse. To speed up the transfer, mail was carried on top of the saddle in a removable leather overlay, or mochila. At each station, the mochila was slapped onto the saddle of a waiting horse. Like many ranching terms, including lariat, lasso, chaps, and ranch, the term mochila comes from the Spanish language.
Having four legs, instead of two, makes it possible to move your feet in a variety of different patterns, or gaits. Humans can walk, skip and run; horses naturally walk, trot, canter and gallop. In addition, horses can be trained to a dozen other distinct gaits. Each gait is most efficient at a particular speed. The walk is best at slow speeds, but awkward at higher speeds. To move faster, a horse "switches gears" to the trot, and at top speed it shifts to the gallop.
Every gait has a distinctive pattern of leg movements-in some, only one foot leaves the ground at a time, while in others, multiple feet do. Because of the speed of gaits like the gallop or canter, for years people could only guess at these leg patterns. But in the 1870s, British photographer Eadweard Muybridge captured the horse midstride in a historic series of photographs, some of which are on display in the exhibition. The same photos can be seen in motion in a spinning zoetrope on exhibit.
When you look through the slots of the spinning cylinder, you can watch horses using three different gaits: the gallop, trot and walk. The images were taken in the 1870s by Eadweard Muybridge, who was famous for taking freeze-frame images of animals and people in motion. When you spin the wheel, the images seem to come to life.
Until the 1870s, no one was sure whether all the hooves of a trotting horse left the ground at the same time. Look closely at the fifth frame of this Eadweard Muybridge sequence and you can see that all four legs are indeed off the ground at once.
The legs of a trotting horse always move in pairs, with each leg mirroring the motion of the one diagonally opposite. In a gait called the pace, the motion of the legs is very similar to the trot, except the front and rear legs that move together are on the same side.
In the gait known as the gallop, all four feet leave the ground-but not when the legs are outstretched, as you might expect. In reality, the horse is airborne when its hind legs swing near the front legs, as shown in Muybridge's photos. A related gait, the canter, is similar to the gallop, except that two hooves land at the same time, so listeners hear three hoofbeats instead of four.
Before Muybridge's photos revealed the horse's true gaits, galloping horses were often portrayed flying through the air with all four legs outstretched--something that never actually happens.
When walking, the horse never gets all the way off the ground. This uses much less energy than the other gaits but limits how fast the horse can go.
Out on the Range
From the plains of western Canada to the pampas of Argentina, skilled ranch hands once traveled hundreds of miles across the open range to round up cattle and bring them to market. These men led grueling lives. They toiled in the sun, slept in the dust and spent most of their days on the back of a horse.
On the long, hard cattle drives of the 1800s, a cowhand's horse was his closest ally, trained to sprint, stop and turn on command and to trek across any terrain. The cowboys of North America favored the American quarter horse, bred to run short-distance races. South American ranch hands known as gauchos rode a tough breed descended from Spanish stock called the criollo.
In the 1800s, ranch hands known as gauchos, huasos or llaneros drove cattle from the open plains of South America to ranches and markets. Famed for their grit and love of freedom, these roving horsemen had tough jobs. As few as five cowhands might handle a thousand head of cattle at a time. Horses and riders faced the same dangers as they weathered storms, crossed violent rivers and skirted stampedes.
To help with the cattle drive, a cowhand's horse developed specialized skills. Argentine gauchos taught their horses to run shoulder to shoulder with massive steers and to use their strength to pull lassoed cattle for branding. Today, many riders still practice these moves at Argentine rodeos, ordomas.
To stop cattle in their tracks, Argentine gauchos carried bolas, hunting weapons used by the native people of the South American plains. Three lengths of rope were bound together, with balls attached to the ends. Holding onto one ball, a gaucho whirled the others around his head and then flung the bolas. The ropes whipped around an animal's legs so it fell to the ground.
During spring roundups on North America's Western Plains, cowboys brought cattle in from the open range so that ranchers could survey their stock and calves could be sorted and branded. Horses had to respond at the blink of an eye to help riders rope in strays.
In 1860, more than six times as many cattle as people lived in the U.S. state of Texas. The cowboy's job was to move this livestock to towns and cities where beef was in demand. When the first railroads stretched westward in the mid-1860s, new markets opened up, and the era of the great cattle drives began.
For about 30 years, cowboys on horseback drove millions of cattle from the Texas range to stockyards and railheads in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, or even farther to fresh rangelands that opened up in the north. A map in the exhibition shows the legendary trails they traveled, until changing markets, modern transport and barbed wire fences drew the age of the cowboy to a close.
Did You Know?
Between 1865 and 1890, U.S. cowboys drove more than 6 million head of longhorn cattle from the Texas range to ranches and railroad stations hundreds of miles to the north.
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 (402 meters) in less than 21 seconds, and a talented thoroughbred can jump a fence more than seven feet (2.1 meters) 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.
Daredevil athletes test their skill at riding and roping at sporting events like the Grand National Rodeo and the Calgary Stampede. Rodeos can be traced to a time when cowboys competed for fun after rounding up cattle each autumn and spring.
In the popular rodeo sport known as bronc riding, horse and human battle each other. The "bucking bronco" tries to throw the rider off, even as the rider fights for control. Bronc riding is based on a method for breaking horses where a cowboy rides by force until the horse is tamed. But in rodeo, the action is just a performance. Most bucking horses are specially bred for their jobs and may work as broncos for years.
Rodeo began as a form of popular entertainment and has roots in the traveling "Wild West" shows that first emerged in the late 1800s. Over time, these staged events developed into competitive sports.
Many rodeo contests--especially bronc riding--can be dangerous for both riders and their horses. Concerns for the safety and well-being of rodeo broncs and other animals have prompted a number of communities in North America to pass laws specifying how rodeo animals should be treated.
The debate over whether animals in rodeos are mistreated and abused has raged on for decades. For a fair depiction of this debate, please read the article listed below.
Are Rodeos a Form Culture or Cruelty - BBC News
Bred for Speed
The horse is one of the world's fastest land animals. A galloping horse can top 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour--a breathless pace compared to a person running on foot. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that almost everywhere horses are found, people love putting their speed to the test.
The finest racehorses have long legs and powerful muscles. These traits first evolved in the wild, where horses had to move fast to flee predators and travel far to find food. Eventually, horse breeders chose some of the longest, leanest horses to develop racing breeds that are especially sleek, slender, and swift.
Some horses are bred to race at a fast trot instead of a gallop, while pulling a driver in a lightweight cart called a sulky. A champion Standardbred Trotter, known as Lee Axworthy, was the first horse in racing history to trot a mile (1.6 kilometers) in less than two minutes. His skeleton shows the long, low lines of a typical American standardbred, the fastest of all trotting breeds.
Standardbreds are descended from thoroughbred racehorses and have a similar lean build, but with shorter legs and heavier bones. In the 1800s, breeders selected horses that could trot or pace a mile (1.6 kilometers) within the "standard" time of 2 minutes to develop the breed.
In a harness race against the clock, the standardbred racehorse Lee Axworthy trotted a mile (1.6 kilometers) in one minute, 58; seconds, for an average speed of just over 30 miles per hour. An ordinary horse gallops at about the same speed.
What Makes a Good Racehorse?
By taking bone samples from skeletons, scientists in Great Britain are studying the DNA of successful thoroughbreds, including the champion racehorse Eclipse, pictured here. Born in 1764, this sensational stallion never lost a race. But most researchers agree that genetics are just a small part of what makes a champion. The environment in which a horse is raised, its food, training, and the jockey who rides it can make all the difference in its success.
The most illustrious racehorses in sports today are thoroughbreds--strong, long-legged, sensitive animals famed for their beauty as well as their speed. Thoroughbred horses are bred to carry a jockey and race at a gallop. The breed was founded in England in the 1700s, after three legendary stallions were brought to Europe from North Africa and the Near East. All thoroughbreds--winners and losers--are descended from these "foundation sires." They are known as the Darley Arabian, Godolphin Barb, and Byerley Turk.
Sport of Kings
The most celebrated horse races today are thoroughbred races, where jockeys ride at top speed around a flat course. Only horses of the thoroughbred breed can enter these intense competitions.
Thoroughbred racing began around 300 years ago in England, where the idea of breeding a superior racehorse was a passion of royalty. Since that time, the sport has taken hold in many other regions, including the Americas, Australia, East Asia, and the Middle East. Now anyone can come to the track and be a part of the "sport of kings." And even an ordinary racing fan who bets on a favorite horse can win or lose a royal sum in a single day.
The most coveted horseracing prize in the United States is the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. To take home the Triple Crown, a horse must win three races for three-year-old thoroughbreds that take place just a few weeks apart: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. A horse must be very talented--or incredibly lucky--to finish first in all three. Only 11 horses have been named Triple Crown champions since the first winner, Sir Barton, in 1919.
Thoroughbred racehorses are descended from the Arabian breed, famed for its grace, spirit, and endurance. Centuries ago, Bedouin breeders began raising Arabian horses in the deserts of the Middle East. According to one story that has been passed down, God created the Arabian horse from a handful of wind. In Arab tradition, mares are more prized than stallions, and many poets have sung the praises of these "daughters of the wind."
In 1948, a bay colt named Citation seized the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, one of the highest achievements in U.S. equine sports. After performing this difficult feat, Citation went on to win 13 more races in a row. "My horse could beat anything with hair on it," trainer Jimmy Jones once said of this legendary thoroughbred. By 1951, when he ran his last race, Citation had earned $1,085,760 in prizes, and newspapers declared him the first equine millionaire.
From the Horse's Mouth
Many common expressions in the English language come from horseracing:
When a jockey is sure his horse is about to cross the finish line first, he may lower his hands and let up on the reins to win hands down.
A racehorse that is unfamiliar to racing fans is a dark horse.
The part of a racecourse between the last turn and the finish line is the homestretch.
A racing fan with an inside tip on a likely winner may say it came straight from the horse's mouth.
The Chariot Race
In ancient Greece, one of the most gripping--and dangerous--athletic events for both horses and men was the chariot race, a sport that dates back at least to 700 BC. Spectators gathered to watch as horse teams pulled drivers in two-wheeled carts around a track with hairpin turns at each end.
Chariot races were held in a specially built arena, or hippodrome, with posts marking the turning points. As many as 10 chariots raced at a time, each pulled by two- or four-horse teams.
Horse-drawn chariot races were among the most spectacular contests held during the Great Panathenaea. In one form of chariot race, warriors had to leap from a moving chariot, run beside it, and then leap back in. The winner of a four-horse chariot race was awarded 140 ceramic pots full of olive oil, a particularly extravagant prize.
One of the oldest existing works on the care and training of horses was written by the Greek historian Xenophon in 350 BC. Xenophon offered tips for mounting a horse, controlling its movements, and even fighting on horseback--at a time in Greek history when saddles and stirrups were still unknown. Like many modern horse trainers, Xenophon also taught that riders should treat their horses with understanding. In dealing with a horse, he wrote, "The one best precept--the golden rule--is never to approach him angrily."
Horses became part of the Olympic Games in 684 BC, when four-horse chariot races were held in the hippodrome at Olympia. At today's Olympics, horses and riders display their skill in jumping, dressage, and cross-country competitions.
Ogden Chariot Racing - YouTube
Dressage vs Wester - YouTube
Battle for the Ball
Horses and riders sprint, shove, and spin around when playing a fast-paced game of polo. By swinging a mallet, each player tries to drive a ball over the goal of the opposite team.
The horses used in polo are often called ponies, but they can belong to any breed, large or small. A well-trained polo pony will gallop at the touch of a spur and hold a straight course while the rider leans out to swing the mallet. Quick turns, hard knocks, and collisions are common. The fray is exhausting, so every few minutes, fresh horses are brought into the game.
Polo ponies are trained from an early age to muscle other horses aside when following the ball. Even at a gallop, they can lean on opponents to drive them away. A well-trained horse responds instantly to a polo player's signals, makes appropriate moves on its own, and even anticipates play.
British officers first learned to play polo in the mid-1800s in India, where the game dates back more than 500 years. After catching on in Great Britain, it spread to other parts of the world. Today, Argentina is a major center for polo. Argentine polo ponies are typically bred from thoroughbreds crossed with criollos, South American ranch horses known for their cattle-herding skills.
In a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, program called Work to Ride, high-school students who may never have ridden a horse before are learning to play polo. In 1999, players began competing across the United States after forming the first all African-American interscholastic polo team.
A polo shirt on exhibition belongs to Argentine polo player Ignacio "Nacho" Figueras, a member of the Black Watch team of East Hampton, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida. A typical polo team has four players who wear numbers indicating their positions. Highly rated players are often assigned the number 2 spot and play both offense and defense at all times.
During the game, a polo player must lean down from the saddle and strike a ball with a mallet, often while the horse is galloping down the field. The handle is traditionally made from a specially treated length of cane. Handles can be firm or more flexible, depending on the player's preference. Experienced players often use very bendable mallets, which are harder to aim but ensure a more powerful swing.
History of Polo - Polo Museum
Utah Fort Douglas Polo Match - Google News
The Thrill of the Chase
In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, hunting on horseback has long been a favorite pastime of the ruling classes. During the Middle Ages, young noblemen were encouraged to learn skills such as tracking down game and shooting while riding as preparation for war.
Other animals sometimes helped with the chase, including hounds, hawks, falcons, and even big cats. Horses had to be trained to work calmly side by side with these hunting partners and to follow in swift pursuit when hunting parties spotted their prey.
Hunting on horseback is an ancient sport. Stone carvings from ruins in the Middle East show that horses were used in royal lion hunts more than 2,600 years ago. In the fourth century AD, Iranian kings kept game parks where hunters on horseback stalked dangerous beasts such as bears, leopards, and wild boars. It took strength, speed, and courage to hunt large animals like these, so hunters selected their horses with care.
In the 1700s, British aristocrats made foxhunting into a popular sport. A master on horseback leads the chase, helped by a team of assistants and a pack of hounds. To follow the hounds cross-country, horses must jump over hedges, fences, and streams. Traditional foxhunts are now banned in most parts of Great Britain, though they are still held in other parts of the world.
In Central Asia, India, and the Middle East, hunters once used trained cats such as lynxes and cheetahs as hunting assistants. These predators learned to ride behind the hunter on the horse's rump, as shown on an ornamental vessel from Iran in the exhibition. When game was spotted, the cat leaped down and went in for the kill.
Royal hunts were once carefully planned to ensure success for the king and his court. Hunters on horseback fanned out and surrounded an area where game was plentiful, then slowly closed in on their prey. A decorative tile on exhibit from Iran shows two mounted hunters cornering and killing a deer.
Horses no longer carry soldiers into battle or pull plows and stagecoaches 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.
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 more than six lengths. But then, just a few weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, he stumbled--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 an animal with a broken leg. If a horse is unable to stand and is in constant pain, the only humane option is often euthanasia. Fortunately, however, some new strategies offer hope of preventing such injuries before they occur.
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, their 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, which ended Barbaro's recovery.
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 United States, 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.
Protecting Wild Horses
Across the globe, there are small populations of wild horses that roam free, ridden by no one. Among the most famous of these are the mustangs of the American West. But mustangs, like many other "wild" populations, are actually descended from escaped domesticated horses. The only truly wild horses live in Asia: The Przewalski horses of Mongolia have never been domesticated by anyone.
Today, all wild horses need human help to survive. As people made more and more demands on the land for livestock and human use, their 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, which 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.
Horses have roamed free in the American West since the Spanish brought these animals to North America in the 1500s. For years, wild mustangs were rounded up and used for anything from rodeos to dog food, until a 1971 law made it illegal to kill or capture them. Most Americans strongly favor protecting mustangs, but some worry that they harm native plants and animals and drain conservation resources, and cattle ranchers complain about sharing land with horses. Mustangs today have few natural predators so their populations rise quickly if left unchecked. Since 2000, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been reducing the number of mustangs on public lands, but the question of how many horses to remove remains controversial.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management controls the number of wild mustangs by regularly capturing a specific number and offering them for adoption. Many remain in corrals for years without finding homes.
Mustangs and wild ponies from Assateague, Virginia, or Sable Island, off Novia Scotia, Canada, capture our imagination--but the only truly wild horses alive today are the Przewalski horses of Mongolia. They nearly became extinct in the 1960s, when the last free-roaming wild horses in Mongolia died. Fortunately, captive populations remained in zoos, although at one point, that population dwindled to no more than 15 horses. But these animals were bred successfully, and since 1992, many have been released into the wild. By 2005, the number of Przewalski horses reached 1,500, with 248 living in the wild in Mongolia.
As the toys in the exhibit show, 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. Horses are more than just part of our history. They have become part of who we are.
Deborah Butterfield has been building horse sculpture for more than 30 years. She shapes her art from a wide variety of materials, both natural and industrial. "My horses' gestures are really quiet," Butterfield has said of her work, "but their internal space reflects great movement and energy."
This sculpture, constructed of Hawaiian ohia wood and then cast in bronze, was inspired by the artist's longtime dressage mare, Isbelle. After a career-threatening leg injury, Isbelle recovered to help Butterfield earn her U.S. Dressage Federation rider's gold medal.
The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears.
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)
Horses' history runs deep in Utah. The very basics of our infrastructure (width of our streets) to the enduring image of Utah and the old west are deeply rooted here. Check out these links for more information about Utah's connection to The Horse.
Dinosaur Caravan - UofU Continuum
Mining Horses in Park City - Gail Block
Do you know of any great resources which belong on this page? If so, please email Echo Paixao