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This page is about ungulate mammals. For other meanings, see Horse (disambiguation).

Domestic Horse
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Perissodactyla
Family: Equidae
Genus: Equus
Species: caballus
Binomial name
Equus caballus
The Horse, Equus caballus, is a large ungulate mammal, one of the seven modern species of the genus Equus. It has been important for transportation; to ride on, or for pulling a chariot, carriage, horse-drawn boat, stagecoach, tram, etc.; also as plough horse, etc. as well as food; see also domestication of the horse. Until the mid 20th century, the horse was used heavily in warfare.

Table of contents
1 Evolution of the horse
2 Domestication of the horse and surviving wild species
3 As food
4 Specialized vocabulary
5 Horse coat colors and markings
6 The origin of modern horse breeds
7 Horses in sport today
8 See also
9 Miscellaneous
10 External links

Evolution of the horse

The evolution of the horse from the very early (around 55 million years ago) Hyracotherium or eohippus to the wild equids listed below, is well understood in comparison to our understanding of the evolutionary succession of most animals. By natural selection, the toes of early horse ancestors reduced to the single central toe which forms the hoof of the modern equine. The opposite being animals with 'cloven' hooves (2 toes), like cows, pigs and sheep. Vestiges of other toes remain as the splint bones, the callous-like "chestnuts" on the inner sides of all four legs, and the "ergots" hidden in the hair of the underside of the fetlock joint. Rare instances of modern horses with true extra toes have been cited by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould as evidence that minor genetic mutations can reintroduce ancestral features (in his 1983 book Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes ISBN 0393311031 ).

In nature, horses are prey animals. They have a natural tendency to flee from danger, though they will fight if cornered. Their eyes are placed to the side of the head, giving them a wide view while grazing (slightly less than 180 degrees to each side, overlapped in front and leaving a blind spot in the rear). Even domesticated horses are easily startled and must be carefully introduced to strange objects and situations to be able to ride them safely.

Horses live in family groups in primarily grassland habitats. These normally consist of a mature stallion, his harem of mares, and the mares' offspring. Once young males reach breeding age and begin to attempt to breed mares or challenge the herd stallion, they are driven out of the herd and form "bachelor bands" with other young stallions. It's usually not until a stallion reaches 7 or 8 years old that he stands a real chance at acquiring mares, eventually becoming, if successful in the attempt, a "band stallion", i.e. having a harem of his own, having separated female equids from another stallion's band.

An alpha mare dictates the direction in which a family herd travels, while the stallion brings up the rear, "herding" his family. Recently, researchers have observed that there seems to be a form of democracy among horses. For instance, if the majority of the herd decides it's time to stop and eat, the whole herd will stop and eat.

Domestication of the horse and surviving wild species

The earliest evidence for the domestication of the horse comes from Central Asia and dates to about 3,000 BCE. Competing theories exist about the time and place of domestication. However, wild species continued into historic times, including the Forest Horse, Equus caballus silvaticus (also called the Diluvial Horse); it is thought to have evolved into Equus caballus germanicus, and may have contributed to the development of the heavy horses of northern Europe, such as the Ardennais.

The Tarpan, Equus caballus gmelini, became extinct in 1880. Its genetic line is lost, but a substitute has been recreated by "breeding back", crossing living domesticated horses that had features selected as primitive, thanks to the efforts of the brothers Lutz Heck (director of the Berlin zoo) and Heinz Heck (director Tierpark Munich Hellabrunn). The resulting animal is more properly called the Wild Polish Horse or ''Konik.

recreated Tarpan, foal, Biskupin, Poland

The only true surviving wild-horse species is Przewalski's Horse, Equus caballus przewalskii przewalskii Polaikov, a rare Asian species. In Mongolia it is known as the taki, while the Kirghiz people call it a kirtag. There are wild populations in Mongolia, see: http://www.treemail.nl/takh/.

Wild vs. feral horses

One can distinguish between wild animals, whose ancestors have never undergone domestication, and feral animals, whose ancestors have been domesticated, but who now live in the wild. There are several populations of feral horses, including those in the West of the United States (often called mustangs) and in parts of Australia (called brumbies) and in New Zealand called Kaimanawa horses. These feral horses may provide useful insights into the behavior of their ancestral wild horses.

The Icelandic horse (which has the size of a pony but is referred to as a horse) is an interesting breed from a historic and behavioural point of view. Introduced by the Vikings into Iceland, they have not been subject to the selective breeding that has taken place in Europe from the middle ages until now, giving us a picture of what horses looked like and behaved like in those times. The Icelandic horse has a four-beat gait called the Tolt, which equates to the Rack exhibited by several American gaited breeds.

Other equids

Other members of the horse family include zebras, donkeys, and hemionids. The Donkey, Burro or Domestic Ass, Equus asinus, like the horse, has many breeds. A mule is a hybrid of a male ass and a mare and is infertile. A hinny is the less common hybrid of a female ass and a stallion. Recently breeders have begun crossing various species of zebra with mares or female asses to produce "zebra mules"—zorses and zedonks. This is likely to remain a novelty hybrid as these individuals tend to inherit some of the nervous, difficult nature of their zebra parent.

As food

Horses are rarely bred for use as food, but the meat of old, injured or discarded animals is used in many places. Meat from (injured) horses that are put down with a lethal injection is not used for consumption. The carcasses of such animals are cremated. In 2001, an estimated 153,000 tonnes of horse meat were consumed worldwide. In France specialized butcher shops (boucheries chevalines) sell horsemeat, as ordinary butcher shops do not have the right to deal in it. The eating of horse meat is a food taboo and abhorrent to some people in some parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom and the US, and sometimes even illegal. In other parts of the world, horse meat has the stigma of being something poor people eat and is seen as a cheap substitute.

In the late palaeolithic (Magdalenien) wild horses formed an important source of food.

Horse meat is often of very good quality. It is tender, low in fat and high in protein, something that has led to its being popular among body builders. Horse meat has a slightly sweet taste that some find distasteful, but that can be disguised with seasoning and spices.

Horse was commonly eaten in many countries in pre-Christian Europe, but not in Islamic or Jewish countries, since under Mosaic Law, horse meat is unclean because the horse is not cloven-hoofed or cud-chewing. In pre-Christian times, horse meat was eaten in northern Europe as part of Teutonic religious ceremonies, particularly those associated with the worship of Odin.

In 732 A.D., Pope Gregory III began an effort to stop the pagan practice of horse eating, calling it "abominable", and it has been said that the people of Iceland were reluctant to embrace Christianity for some time largely over the issue of giving up horse meat. In some countries the effects of this prohibition by the Catholic Church have lingered, and horse meat prejudices have progressed from taboos to avoidance to abhorrence.

The French appetite for horse meat supposedly dates from the Battle of Eylau in 1807, when the surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon's Grand Army, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, advised the starving troops to eat the flesh of dead battlefield horses. The cavalry used breastplates as cooking pans and gunpowder as seasoning, and thus founded a tradition. Today many European countries, including Italy, Romania and Belgium, produce and consume horse meat.

During WWII the sale of horse meat was legalized in New Jersey, due to low supply and high price of beef. At war's end, the sale was again prohibited, some say due to pressure from the beef lobby.

According to the anthropologist Marvin Harris, horsemeat is taboo because it converts grass into meat less efficiently than other beasts, since horses are not ruminants. When breeding cattle for meat, a cow or a sheep will produce more meat if fed with the same amount of grass.

Although horse meat is rarely eaten in the US, many horses from the US are sold for slaughter and consumption in Europe, Mexico or Japan. A Food Standards Agency (FSA) 2003 investigation has revealed that salami and chorizo on sale in the UK sometimes contains horse and donkey meat, without being mentioned on the food label—something that is required.

Much of the horse produced in the US is sold to zoos for carnivore feeding.

Brigitte Bardot has spent her latter years crusading against the eating of horse meat.

Global Appetites for Horse Meat
U.S.D.A. Promotes Horse & Goat Meat
Americans squeamish over horse meat

Mare milk is used by peoples with large horse herds, like Mongols. They may let it ferment to produce kumys. However, mares produce a much lower yield of milk than do cows.


Those preparing sandwiches with horse meat usually use it smoked and salted. Horse meat forms an ingredient in several traditional recipes of salami, and in Kazakhstan it's used in hazy (horse sausage).

Japanese call raw horse meat basashi and serve it in thin slices: either with rice as sushi or without as sashimi.

In Switzerland horse meat may be used in Fondue bourguignonne. In Belgium, the traditional french fries were cooked in horse fat, although since the replacement of horses with automobiles, other types of fat, considered inferior by many, are often used instead.

In Italy it is used in recipes such as Pezzetti di cavallo. In Chile it is used in charqui.

Specialized vocabulary

In the English-speaking world, horses are measured in hands. One hand is 4 inches, or about 0.10 meter. Adult horses can range in size from 5 hands (a very small miniature horse or falabella) to over 18 hands. The convention is: 15.2 hh means 15 hands, 2 inches in height, measured at the highest point of the withers.

Horses are usually distinguished from ponies purely according to size: a horse stands 14.2 hh (58 inches, 1.47 meters) or higher, a pony is an adult equine less than 14.2 hh. Thus, normal variations can mean that a horse stallion and horse mare can become the parents of an adult pony. There is however a distinct set of characteristic pony traits that evolved in northwest Europe and further evolved in the British Isles, muddying the issue of whether "pony" should be used to describe a size or a type. Shetland ponies are considered by many as the archetypical pony, with its proportions very different from horses. Several small breeds are called horses or ponies interchangeably, including the Icelandic, Fjord, and Caspian. Breeders of miniature horses favor that name because they strive to reproduce horse-like conformation in a very small size, even though their animals are undeniably descended from ponies.

Words for gaits

There are four basic gaits that all horses move in naturally:

There are various artificial gaits that have been developed for reasons such as appearance, and to improve the riding or driving quality.

For details, see Horse gaits.

Words relating to horses

In horse-racing the definitions of colt, filly, mare, and horse differ from those given above. In thoroughbred racing, a colt is defined as a male horse less than five years old and a filly is a female horse less than five years old; in harness racing colts and fillies are less than four years old. Horses older than colts and fillies become known as horses and mares.

Words relating to horse anatomy

Horse coat colors and markings

Horses exhibit a diverse array of coat colors and distinctive markings, and a specialized vocabulary has evolved to describe them. In fact, it is often more likely for one to refer to a horse in the field by his or her coat color than breed or gender. Coat colors include:
Markings include:

On Face:

On Legs: Elsewhere:

The origin of modern horse breeds

Horses come in various sizes and shapes. The draft breeds can top 20 hands (80 inches, 2.03 meters) while the smallest miniature horses can stand as low as 5.2 hands (22 inches, 0.56 meters). The Patagonian Fallabella, usually considered the smallest horse in the world, compare in size to a
German Shepherd Dog. These differences relate to breed, not to species: the individuals could interbreed.

Several schools of thought exist to explain how this range of size and shape came about. These schools grew up reasoning from the type of dentition and from the horses' outward appearance. One school, which we can call the "Four Foundations", suggests that the modern horse evolved from two types of early domesticated pony and two types of early domesticated horse; the differences between these types accounts for the differences in type of the modern breeds. A second school -- the "Single Foundation" -- holds only one breed of horse underwent domestication, and it diverged in form after domestication through human selective breeding (or in the case of feral horses, through ecological pressures). Finally, certain geneticists have started evaluating the DNA and mitochondrial DNA to construct family trees. See: Domestication of the horse

Breeds, studbooks, purebreds and landraces

The idea of a "purebred" animal gained importance in Europe during the 19th century but selective breeding has occurred almost everywhere man has kept horses. The Arabs had a reputation for breeding their prize mares to only the most worthy stallions, and kept extensive pedigrees of their "asil" (purebred) horses. During the late middle ages the Carthusian monks of southern Spain, themselves forbidden to ride, bred horses which nobles throughout Europe prized; the lineage survives to this day in the Andalusian or caballo de pura raza español.

The modern landscape of breed designation presents a complicated picture. Some breeds have closed studbooks; a registered Thoroughbred or Arabian must have two registered parents of the same breed, and no other criteria for registration apply. Other breeds tolerate limited infusions from other breeds—the modern Appaloosa for instance must have at least one Appaloosa parent but may also have a Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, or Arabian parent and must also exhibit spotted coloration to gain full registration. Still other breeds, such as most of the warmblood sporthorses, require individual judging of an individual animal's quality before registration or breeding approval.

Hotbloods, warmbloods, and coldbloods

The Arabian horses, whether originating on the Arabian peninsula or from the European studs (breeding establishments) of the 18th and 19th century, are termed "hotbloods", for their fiery temperaments. (Some include the thoroughbred in the "hotblood" category.) The slow, heavy draft horses are termed "coldbloods" as they usually posess a quite calm temperament. The term "warmbloods" covers everything else, but the term also specifically refers to the European breeds, such as the Hanoverian, that have dominated dressage and show jumping since the 1950s. True warmbloods usually offer greater riding challenges than other horses, especially the coldblood. They show more excitability, and often more dominance; and the longer you ride them, the more excited they become, instead of getting tired.

The list of horse breeds provides a partial alphabetical list of breeds of horse extant today, plus a discussion of rare breeds' conservation.

Horses today

The invention of the internal combustion engine and the tractor reduced the utility of the horse in agriculture, although working teams still exist, in particular in specialty forestry. Mounted police still use working horses as a mainstay in riot control.

Horses in sport today

Racing in all its forms

The desire to see which horse is fastest seems to be an innate human feature.
Horse-racing today can be divided into racing short distances under saddle on a track: flat racing or the thoroughbred horse race. Thoroughbreds are the most famous of the racing breeds, but Arabians, quarter horses, and Appaloosas are also raced on the flat in the United States. Quarter horses were traditionally raced for a quarter mile, hence the name. Steeplechasing is racing on a track, where the horses also jump over obstacles. This is most popular in the United Kingdom. Standardbred trotters and pacers are raced in harness with a sulky or racing bike. In France they are also raced under saddle. Endurance riding, a sport whose top ranks are dominated by the Arabian, is very popular in the United States and Europe, race lengths ranging from 20 to 100 miles.

The traditional competitions of Europe

The first three of the following count as Olympic disciplines:

Western riding

Dressage, jumping and cross-country offer forms of what Americansns refer to as 'English riding'. Western riding evolved stylistically from traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and its skills stem from the working needs of the
cowboy in the American west. A main differentiating factor comes from the need of the cowboy to rope cattle with a lariat (or lasso). The cowboy must control the horse with one hand, and use the lariat with the other hand. That means that horses must learn to neck rein, that is, to respond to light pressure of the slack rein against the horse's neck. Once the cowboy has twirled the lariat and thrown its loop over a cow's head, he must snub the rope to the horn of his saddle. For roping calves, the horse learns to pull back against the calf, which falls to the ground, while the cowboy dismounts and ties the calf's feet together so that he can be brand it, treat it for disease, and so on. Working with half-wild cattle, frequently in terrain where one cannot see what lurks behind the next bush, means the ever-present very great danger of becoming unseated in an accident miles from home and friends.

These multiple work needs mean that cowboys require different tack, most notably a curb bit (usually with longer bars than an English equitation curb or pelham bit would have) which works by leverage, long split reins (the ends of which can serve as an impromptu quirt) and a special kind of saddle. The Western saddle has a very much more substantial frame (traditionally made of wood) to absorb the shock of roping, a prominent pommel surmounted by a horn (a big knob for snubbing the lasso after an animal has been roped), and, frequently, tapaderos ("taps") covering the front of the stirrups to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the stirrup in an accident so that he might be dragged behind a frightened horse. The cowboy's boots, which have high heels of an uncommon shape, are also designed specifically to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the stirrup.

Technically, the differences between 'English' and Western riding are smaller than most people think.

The outfit of competition Western rider is different from the dressage or 'English' rider. While in dressage all riders wear the same to prevent distraction from the riding itself, show in the form of outfit (and silver ornaments on saddle and tack) is part of Western riding. The riders must wear: cowboy boots, jeans, a shirt with long sleeves, and a cowboy hat. The choice of color is free. Things such as bolos, belt buckles, (shiny) spurs are optional.

Competitions exist in the following forms:

Bronc riding (riding a bucking "wild" horse for a timed duration) counts as a separate event, not considered part of Western riding as such. It is divided into bareback bronc riding and saddle bronc riding, with saddle bronc the more technical of the two.

Other horse sports

Authoritative sources of information

Book of Horses: A Complete Medical Reference Guide for Horses and Foals, edited by Mordecai Siegal. (By members of the faculty and staff, University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.) Harper Collins, 1996.

See also


The horse is one of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the
Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar. See: Horse (Zodiac).

External links