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History of the Horse

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The horse has been with us since the beginning of time. In fact, the horse was around approximately 50 million years before the dawn of mankind! Here's how it went:

55 million years ago – Eohippus appeared, a small fox-like animal with four legs. each with toes.

29 million years ago - A couple of toes are missing, but the dog-like animal known as Mesohippus still isn't looking much like a horse.

15 million years ago - Now we're getting somewhere! About the size of today's miniature horses, Protohippus is now partially hoofed and growing more into what we would call a horse.

4 million years ago - At last, Equus! The toes have been replaced by hooves, and although smaller than most of today's horses, the first recognizable horse has arrived.

2 million years ago - Hey, what's that thing looking at us through the bushes? It has two legs and... Nah, it can't be. Wait, it is, it's MAN!!

10,000 years ago - What we know as the modern horse, Equus, is finally here, looking a lot like the true horses we see today.

There's only one problem though. Even though the first horses appeared only in the America's 55 million years ago, they disappeared from the American continents. 10,000 years ago they could only be found in Europe, Asia and Africa. What happened?

No one is really sure of the answer to this question, but is believed that some of the early horses crossed a land bridge to reach Asia, and then spread out to Europe and Africa as well. As for the horses left in the Americas, it is believed that they were either hunted to extinction, or wiped out by some climatic catastrophe. A lot happened to the horse before he returned to the Americas.

The horse was first domesticated in Central Asia about 4500 BC. It wasn't too long before the rest of Asia discovered the benefits of the horse and the Middle East followed quickly in discovering how useful the horse could be to mankind. Horses were used for transport, entertainment, as weapons of war, as a system of money and unfortunately, as a source of food.

Early horseback riding was difficult. The horses were not as lean as they are today. They were very muscular and stocky, quite short and of uncertain temperament. Life in Asia was particularly hard with rough terrain, cold climates and a people who were always at war.

Life in the Middle East was much better, as horses were revered and great worth was put on a good horse. Bedouin tribes replaced some of the camels with a horse, although they required more water and grazing area. The horse was highly prized and the great Sheiks prided themselves on the beauty of their horses, often decorating them with elaborate jewels and cloths.

The Greeks used the horse for the first Pony Express, and although the Chinese were the first to invent the saddle, it was the Greeks who first gave us the horseshoe, although it wasn't much like the shoes worn by today's horses. It was the Greeks who also gave us the most famous horse in history, the Trojan Horse, which they used to fell the people of Troy and thus win a long-standing war.

The Romans prized their horses as great warriors, much like the Asians did. There was one great difference, the Asians preferred pony sized horses, preferring their sure footedness to the large horses that the Romans desired. In fact, Alexander the Great used ponies to defeat his enemies as they battled throughout the mountains.

It was the Romans that introduced the horse in sport, bringing us the chariot races. The Greeks soon followed with the first horse and rider horse race, around 600 BC. During this time, many religions believed that animals were actually Gods and there were some horses that were given mythical properties, like the winged Pegasus and the horned unicorn.

During the Middle Ages, the horse was again called on to aid in the winning of wars. The knights needed very large horses to carry their armored bodies, and the horses were highly decorated during battle, wearing their country’s colors with pride. It was also during the Middle Ages that the horse became a work-horse, plowing fields, hauling supplies and transporting men and women of all classes throughout the kingdoms.

The Industrial Revolution again called on the horse to provide labor. Horses were used to haul goods to and from the new factories, and even used for pulling canal barges and early trains! Horse drawn carts were a familiar site, and the carriages of the 17th and 18th centuries were starting to develop. It was during this time that the English established a prison colony on the Australian continent, bringing horses to help work fields, transport prisoners and provide transportation to prison guards and their families.

The horse was now everywhere, with the exception of the America's, but that was all about to change. In the early 1500's Queen Ysabella of Spain sent forth her conquistadors to South America, after hearing of the "City of Gold". The Spanish went forth and invaded South America, warring with the Incas, and bringing their Spanish horses with them. Some of these horses broke free and roamed the continent, before heading northward through Mexico and into the southern most parts of North America. The horse was finally back in the Americas, where it all began.

Soon after, Columbus landed in the Eastern Americas, again bringing horses, some of which again broke free. Thus began the wild herds of North America; wild that is until the Indians discovered that "the white mans big dogs" were actually wonderful creatures that could aid them in their hunting of buffalo and made great war allies.
The story of the Indian and the horse is a never-ending one. It is hard to imagine the early North American Indians without their horses, paints being a favorite because of their camouflage capabilities. The most famous breed of Indian horse is probably the appaloosa, bred by the Nez Perce Indians.

But all too soon, the time of the horse with his Indian rider came to an end. The white man came in earnest, taking the land and in some cases, the horse from the Indian, and placing them on little parcels of land, the reservations. Once the white man came with all of his different breeds of horse, many of whom escaped to become feral or wild horses, we started to see the wild herds of horses, only a few of which remain today.

Soon after settling in the New World, Europeans began heading West, giving us the cowboy, the gambler, the wagon trains, the outlaw and the lawman. None would have been possible without the horse. It was during this time that the US Pony Express began, delivering mail between East and West coasts until the invention of the railroad and the telegraph.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, horse-drawn carriages were all the rage; big, fancy carriages, with footmen for those who could afford them. Handsome cabs they were called. Horse drawn trolleys, or buses soon appeared too. The same was to happen on the East coast of America as well. Again the horse was helping man advance through history.

Another important development was the horse as policeman. Both in Europe and on the East Coast of America, horses were used to catch the running crook, for crowd control and as a very visible presence of the police department, helping to prevent crime. Mounted police are still found today in some major cities, and are invaluable as a measure of crowd control or just as tourist guides. They still chase down the crook (although not as often) and the R.C.M.P. and their Musical Ride is still one of the most popular horse events, watched by thousands of people every year as they tour the countries.

It may sound as if life was good, and it was, but there were still wars to be fought, including the Spanish American War, the War of Independence and of course the Civil War. Throughout them all, the horse was present and played a vital role to both sides.

Once all had calmed down, work began in earnest on a transcontinental railroad in America. "The Iron Horse" as it was known, that great hulking mass of metal and steel, the locomotive was on it's way, and it seemed, the horse was on it's way out. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Horses were still required to pull wagons, carriages and for plain old riding. Out west, the cowboy had discovered the versatility of the horse, not just as a pack animal or means of transport, but as a tool to help raise cattle. Horses were bred for speed and agility, strength and calmness. The cattle horse was born, helping to round up the cows, patrol the range and soon became the cowboy's best friend. Horse races began between cowboys as a way of proving themselves. The first rodeos began to spring up in the 19th century, with Buffalo Bill Cody leading the way.
In the early 1900's, the invention of the automobile removed many horses from city streets, but out on the range, horses were still popular and soon it was discovered, entertaining too. Horse races became the "Gentleman's Sport", new breeds were being developed at an unbelievable rate and pleasure riding was becoming popular.

Over in England, the cowboy didn't exist, but the farmers raced their horses too. And the sport of steeplechase and the fox hunt were very popular among the British elite.

All was not fun and games though. The first half of the 1900's brought us two World Wars, and horses were a vital part of both. Used mainly during the First World War, they provided transport for soldiers, (cavalry), and worked as pack horses. Some were even used to pull hospital ambulances around the rough European terrain. During the Second World War, much of what the horse had done during WW I was replaced by the automobile, but there were still a number of horses used by both sides in different capacities.

After World War Two, life changed greatly in the world. The race was on the put a man on the moon, a Cold War had begun with the Soviets, but it was fought with spies and covert operations, no actual armies invading each other's territories. What was a horse to do?! Become a movie star, of course.

The late 1940's through the 1960's brought us the horse in a brand new capacity. The Movie Star!!. Westerns were the most popular genre in film and books, and no Western would be complete without the horse. Gene Autry and Champion, Roy Rogers and Trigger among many others were filling movie screens around the world. But nowhere was the Western more popular than the US. Hundreds of movies were made with some of the greatest stars of all time, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, to name a few.

Not all horse movies were Westerns. Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet", made every little girl want a horse, followed closely by "International Velvet." Books appeared everywhere with a horse as one of the main characters. Steinbeck's The Red Pony and Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague, paved the way for the invasion of the horse in literature.

The fifties gave us television, and the horse was quick to invade the small screen too. The Lone Ranger, The Roy Rogers Show, The Gene Autry Show, and of course, probably the most famous television horse of all, "Mr. Ed, the Talking Horse" were very popular with kids and adults alike.

Today, the horse is still used as a work horse by cowboys both here and in Australia, Mexico and South America. Some European and Asian farmers still use them for field work and as hauling animals. They still work the fields of Africa and are indispensable in some of the Third World Nations, both as a source of labor and a source of pleasure.
But today's horses are mainly used as a source of pleasure. Whether riding yourself, watching a rodeo, a jumping competition, a horse race, whatever, horses still help us to survive, like they have since the dawn of mankind.
We've come a long way in the last two million years, but none of it would have been possible without the help of the horse. So next time you see your favorite mount, remember to give him a good pat, a fresh carrot or apple and a big thank-you for getting us this far.

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