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Equine matters

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162568.  Tue Apr 03, 2007 5:28 am Reply with quote

The history and evolution of horses is a favourite exhibition of many natural history museums: the earliest horses were about the size of a large dog, and traditional evolutionary theory taught of a smooth advancement of size until the present day. However, the theory of evolution has evolved itself, and it is now known that the story is much more complex, the modern horse is merely the most successful of many species who diversified in size about 20 million years ago, some grew larger while others became smaller or remained the same size.

Another misconception about the history of the horse is that they were unknown in North America before they were introduced by Europeans in the 15th century. While it is true that Native Americans did not recognise the animals, calling them ‘big dogs’ equines had a long history in the continent, dying out 10,000 years ago, most probably hunted out of existence by the Americans’ ancestors.

Modern day horses were not hunted to extinction of course, and what saved them was probably the domestication of the species. The horse was probably domesticated independently many times and in many places, the earliest known was in the Ukraine, around 60,000 years ago, in fact there is evidence of horse riding 500 years older than the oldest known wheel.

Man’s relationship with horses has been a strong one ever since then, they were used for milk, load carrying and meat. Many cultures enjoy horse meat, especially Kazakhs who enjoy a dish called karta made from horse rectum, the French, whose preference allegedly dates back to the Battle of Eylau in 1807, when Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief advised the starving troops to eat the flesh of dead battlefield horses
and the Japanese, who call the raw meat sakura or cherry blossom after its pinkish colour.

The place of the horse in warfare was cemented with the rise of the Hittites, whose war horse training regime turned them into a mighty power rivaling Egypt. The Hittite text by Kikkuli the master horse trainer contains similar techniques to those used today by three day eventers and other modern riders. The horse was worshipped by many Celtic cultures which accounts for a number of the chalk sculptures seen today, in fact Irish kings in Tirconnell had initiation rites including the ritual mating of a king with a white mare. The horse would then be cut into pieces and cooked in a broth, the King then climbed into the cauldron, squatting in the horse soup, and then drinking some of it. Certain Egyptian rituals were similar, the wife of an officiating priest would simulate a ritual mating with a sacrificial horse which was supposed to signify the the union of heaven and earth. Herodotus describes the ritual sacrifice of 50 horses along with the dead king of the Scythians and the tomb of a Chinese prince who died in the 5th Century BC contained 600 horses, killed disembowelled and stuffed.

Horses are excellent at picking up small visual clues, a famous example dates back to 1907 Germany. Clever Hans was a horse who could seemingly count and tap out the answers to simple mathematical problems with his foot. It turned out that Hans was responding to his trainer’s signals which were not deliberate, but the horse was nevertheless able to pick up a change in his demeanour when the right number had been reached. A similar but more unscrupulous trick could be seen in 1920s Virginia where a horse called Lady Wonder was seemingly not only clever but clairvoyant. It turned out that this equine’s owner was deliberately signalling to the horse with a whip.

Wild horses generally live in harems, one adult stallion will generally keep a group of three to five mares, mating involves courtship rituals such as making nickering sounds and sniffing and licking the mare’s genital area, and a posture called flehmen. Flehmen is the commonly seen expression in horses where a horse tilts up his head and curls his upper lip in a "horse laugh”, this activity helps draw air over an organ in the horse’s mouth which can detect a mare’s phenomenal scents. There is a less savoury side to mating which occurs when a stallion takes over a harem from another male. The new male will often harass pregnant mares before forcing copulation which often leads to abortion and re-insemination. A horse’s toilet habits are also a little strange, they always defaecate in established dung piles; males often take it in turns to defecate, the most dominant always the last to go.

Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal and due to their eyes being on the side of their head, can see almost 360 degrees. Horses only have two blind spots in the horizontal plane, a very small spot in front of its nose and a very small one behind its tail. They have only red-blue colour vision though and cannot distinguish green from grey.

Evolution of horse

N America
The Nature of Horses - Budiansky

Extinction saving

Many domestication

The Nature of Horses - Budiansky

Battle of Eylau






Irish ritual

Egypt ritual

Herodotus etc
The Nature of Horses - Budiansky

The Nature of Horses - Budiansky


Largest eye

blind spots
The Nature of Horses - Budiansky

Defecating in piles
The Nature of Horses - Budiansky

Clever Hans

Lady Wonder

Molly Cule
170096.  Fri Apr 27, 2007 6:44 am Reply with quote

Arabian horses have one less vertebrae in their tail and one less rib than other horses.


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