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 pulling a chariot, carriage, stagecoach, tram, etc.; also as plough horse, etc. as well as food; see also Domestication of the horse. It was formerly used 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 The Origin of Modern Horse Breeds
6 Horses in Sport today
7 See also:
8 Miscellaneous
9 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 were reduced to the single central toe which is the hoof of the modern equine. 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).

In nature, horses are prey animals. Their natural tendency is to flee from danger, though they'll fight if cornered. Their eyes are placed to the side of the head, giving them a wide view while grazing. 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.

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 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.

Horses graze in a field near London, England

Domestication of the Horse and Surviving Wild Species

The earliest evidence for the domestication of the horse has been found in Central Asia, about 3,000 BCE. There are competing theories 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.

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:

Wild vs. Feral Horses

A distinction should be made between wild animals, whose ancestors have never been domesticated, 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). These feral horses may provide useful insights into the behavior of their ancestral wild horses.

The Icelandic horse (which is pony-sized 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 is equivalent to the Rack exhibited by several American gaited breeds.

Other Equids

Other members of the horse family include zebras, donkeys, and hemoinids. 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. In 2001, an estimated 153,000 tonnes of horse meat were consumed worldwide. In France horsemeat is sold by specialized butcher shops (boucheries chevalines) as ordinary butcher shops are not allowed to sell horse meat. The eating of horse meat is taboo and abhorrent in some parts of the world, such as Great Britain and the US, and sometimes even illegal. In other parts horse meat has the stigma of being something poor people eat and is seen as a cheap substitute.

Horse meat is often of very good quality. It is tender, low in fat and high in protein, although with a slightly sweet taste, 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 a tradition was born. Today, horse meat is produced and consumed in many European countries, including Italy, Romania and Belgium.

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

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


When used on sandwiches horse meat is usually smoked and salted. Horse meat is used in several traditional recipes of salami and in Kazakhstan it's used in hazy (horse sausage).

In Japan raw horse meat is called basashi and is is served 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 inferior types of fat 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 0.11 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. 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.

A vocabulary of specialized words relating to horses

  • horse - adult equine of either sex over 14.2 hh (58 inches, 1.47 meters)
  • pony - equine 14.2 hh or less (58 inches, 1.47 meters)
  • mare - adult female horse
  • stallion - adult, uncastrated male horse
  • gelding - adult, castrated male horse
  • foal - infant horse of either sex
  • filly - female horse from birth to sexual maturity (about 24 months)
  • colt - male horse from birth to sexual maturity (about 24 months)

A vocabulary of specialized words relating to horse anatomy

  • withers - the highest point of the shoulder seen best with horse standing square and head slightly lowered. The withers are formed by the tops of the two shoulder blades and the space between them.
  • mane and forelock - long and relatively coarse hair growing from the dorsal ridge of the neck, lying on either the left or right side of the neck, and the continuation of that hair on the top of the head, where it generally hangs forward. (See the illustration below.)

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 be as little as 5.2 hands (22 inches, 0.56 meters). These are breed differences, not species differences; the individuals would still be fertile if bred.

There are several schools of thought on how this range of size and shape came about. These schools grew up reasoning from the type of dentition and the horses' outward appearance. One school, which we can call the "Four Foundations" is 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 is the "Single Foundation"--that there was only one breed of horse domesticated, and it diverged in form after domestication by human selective breeding (or in the case of feral horses, ecological pressures). Finally, there are those geneticists who are evaluating the DNA and mitochondrial DNA to construct family trees.

Breeds, Studbooks, Purebreds and Landraces

The idea of a "purebred" animal gained importance in Europe during the 19th century but selective breeding has been practiced almost everywhere man has kept horses. The Arabs were famous 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 that were prized by the nobility throughout Europe; the lineage survives to this day in the Andalusian or caballo de pura raza español.

The modern landscape of breed designation is a complicated one. Some breeds have closed studbooks; a registered Thoroughbred or Arabian must have two registered parents of the same breed, and that is the only criterion for registration. Other breeds are open to 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 or else be denied 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 Saudi 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 are usually quite calm in temperament. The warmbloods are 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.

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 there are still working teams, in particular in specialty forestry.

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. Steeplechasing is racing on a track, where the horses also jump over obstacles. This is most popular in Great Britain. Standardbred trotters and pacers are raced in harness with a sulky or racing bike. 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 European Competitions

The following three are the Olympic disciplines:

  • Dressage ("training" in French) is the progressive training of the horse to a high level of impulsion, collection, and obedience. It originated in the military and artistic equestrian academies of Europe and became an Olympic sport in 1912. Dressage competition levels start with the basic training of a young horse and advance in small steps to the highest level, called "Grand Prix." At each level the horse and rider must perform a test of gaits and figures. A judge grades each specific movement as well as overall impressions of the rider's and horse's performance. There is also a tradition of purist, noncompetitive "classical" dressage, which is pursued for its own joy and beauty.

  • Show jumping is a timed event judged on the ability of the horse and rider to jump over a series of obstacles, in a given order and with the fewest refusals or knockdowns of fence rails, which for safety are set in shallow cups. At the Grand Prix level fences may be as much as 6' tall.

  • Eventing, combined training, horse trials, "the Military," or "the complete test" as its French name translates, puts together the obedience of dressage with the athletic ability of show jumping, the fitness demands of a long endurance phase (aka "roads and tracks") and the "cross-country" jumping phase. This event has its roots as a comprehensive cavalry test requiring mastery of several types of riding. Cross-country riding at the highest levels can be especially dangerous to horses and riders, as the obstacles are large, technically challenging, and solidly built.

  • Polo originated in Asia around 2000 years ago and became popular with 19th century Britons when they were exposed to this challenging horseback team sport in India. The game is divided into periods called "chukkas" and riders score by driving a ball into the opposing team's goal using a long-handled mallet. It has remained a sport of the rich because of the expense of maintaining an adequate string of "ponies" -- a rider needs to swap tired horses several times over the course of the fast-paced game.

  • Huntseat riding is the show discipline derived from the English foxhunting style. In the modern show ring hunters show "on the flat" at the walk, trot, and canter, and "over fences" where unlike show jumpers they are judged on the rider's good position and the horse's smooth performance. A good show hunter is safe, willing, and careful over fences.

  • Saddleseat, Park, or English Pleasure riding is a uniquely American discipline developed to show to best advantage the extravagantly animated movement of high-stepping gaited breeds such as the American Saddle Horse and Tennessee Walker. Arabians and Morgans are also commonly shown saddleseat in the US.

Western riding

Dressage, jumping and cross-country are forms of what is referred to in America as 'English riding'. Western riding evolved stylistically from traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and its skills are based on the working needs of the cowboy in the American west. A main differentiating factor is the need of the cowboy to rope cattle with a lariat. The cowboy must control the horse with one hand, and use the lariat with the other hand. That means that horses must be taught to
neck rein, i.e., to respond to light pressure of the slack rein against the horse's neck. Once the lariat is twirled and its loop is thrown over a cow's head, the rope must be snubbed to the horn of the saddle. For roping calves, the horse is trained to pull back against the calf, which falls to the ground, while the cowboy dismounts and ties the calf's feet together so that it can be branded, treated for disease, etc. Working with half-wild cattle, frequently in terrain where it is impossible to see what is behind the next bush, means the ever-present very great danger of being unseated in an accident miles from home and friends.

These multiple work-needs mean that different tack must be used, 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.

Competitions exists in the following forms:

  • Western pleasure - the rider must show the horse in walk, jog (a slow, controlled trot), trot and lope (a slow, controlled canter). The horse must be under control with minimal force being directed through the reins and otherwise with minimal interference from the rider.

  • Reining - considered by some the "dressage" of the western riding world, reining requires horse and rider to perform a precise pattern consisting of canter circles, rapid "spins" (a particularly athletic turn on the haunches), and the sliding stop which is executed from a full gallop.

  • Cutting: more than any other, this is the event which highlights the "cow sense" prized in stock breeds such as the Quarter horse. The horse and rider select and separate a calf out of a small group. The calf then tries to return to its herdmates; the rider loosens the reins and it's entirely the horse's job to keep the calf separated, a job the best do with relish, savvy, and style. The cutter is awarded points by a jury.

  • Team penning: a popular timed event in which 3 to 5 marked steers must be selected out of a herd and driven into a small pen by a team of 3 riders. The catch is that the gate to the pen cannot be closed till all the cattle (and only the intended cattle) are inside.

  • Trail class: in this event, the rider has to maneuver the horse through an obstacle course in a ring. Speed is not important, but total control of the horse is. The horses have to move sideways, make 90 degree turns while moving backwards, a fence has to be opened and/or closed while mounted, and more such maneuvers relevant to everyday ranch or trail riding tasks are demonstrated.

  • Barrel racing and pole bending: the timed speed/agility events of rodeo. In a barrel race, horse and rider gallop aaround a cloverleaf pattern of barrels, making agile turns without knocking the barrels over. If a barrel is knocked over, 5 seconds are added to the rider's time. Most riders complete the course in 15-17 seconds. The rider can choose to go to the right or left barrel first, depending on how the horse is trained or is more comfortable. In pole bending, horse and rider gallop the length of a line of six upright poles, turn sharply and weave through the poles, turn again and weave back, and gallop back to the start.

  • Steer-wrestling: this is not allowed in Europe because of animal welfare concerns, but is done in the USA, usually at rodeo events. While riding, the rider jumps off his horse onto a steer and 'wrestles' it to the ground.

  • Roping: this is also not allowed in Europe. In calf roping, the rider has to catch a running calf by the neck with a lasso, stop the animal in its tracks, rapidy dismount the horse and immobilize the calf by tying three of its legs together. This task shows the trained ability of the horse to maintain an appropriate amount of pressure on the rope after the cowboy has dismounted to tie the calf. In team roping, one horse and rider team lassos a running steer's horns, while the other brings it to the ground by lassoing its two hind legs.

Bronc riding (riding a bucking "wild" horse for a timed duration) is a separate event and not considered Western riding as such. It is divided into bareback bronc riding and saddle bronc riding, with saddle bronc being 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:

classic equitation books list of horse breeds, horse gaits, horse tack, horse teeth, Trojan Horse, Horseshoe, Equine forelimb anatomy, Equine colic


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

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