Great book on the history of the horse

The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams is one of my favorite recent reads. The book is a fascinating mixture of geology, biology, and history. A great gift for anyone who rides, certainly.

Here are some excerpts to inspire you:

Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization.

contrary to popular belief, science has discovered that they are not “herd” animals. Instead of seeking safety in large numbers, horses live year-round in small groups called bands. Membership in these bands, which may consist of as few as three horses or as many as ten or so, is just as fluid as are the individual bonds, but there’s usually a central core of closely allied mares and their young offspring.

(Because of the stress of constant fighting with other males, stallions often live much shorter lives than mares.)

When I started researching free-roaming horses, I was astonished at their numbers—in the millions. I was also surprised by the variety of ecosystems where the horses not only live, but thrive. There may be more than a million free-ranging horses in the Australian outback alone

All over the American West, free-ranging horses roam in small bands. They even seem to do well in areas around Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. You would think that a species that can live in Death Valley would have trouble living in swamps and wetlands, but it turns out that they don’t. A little south of the Namibian desert, another population of horses lives in the Bot River delta of South Africa.

The book gives multiple examples of evolution in action:

consider the case of the sea-island horses who live on Canada’s Sable Island, a small harborless sandbar of an island located far out in the North Atlantic, about a ninety-minute plane flight east from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This tiny island, shaped like a crescent moon, is about thirty miles long and very narrow. Buffeted constantly by violent North Atlantic storms, this island seems an unlikely home for free-roaming horses, yet as many as 450 graze here, surviving by eating beach grass and sea peas. This sounds like a meager diet, but the horses, abandoned there by a Boston entrepreneur before the American Revolution, have endured for more than 250 years.

The only non-marine mammals on the island, the horses serve as a real-world laboratory of evolution. Over the centuries, they have become unique. Their pasterns are now so short that, from a distance, their lower legs look something like the legs of mountain goats. The pasterns of most horses are long and angled, allowing for plenty of spring in the horse’s step, which in turn allows for greater speed and stamina when a horse gallops at high speeds over an open plain. Long pasterns evolved as a survival strategy. But longer pasterns also carry an important disadvantage: the pastern’s fragile bones and vulnerable tendons can easily break or strain, laming the horse. Many a racehorse has ended his career because of this vulnerability. But on Sable Island, the horse does not have to run fast to escape predators. Instead, their enemy is deep sand and their worst “predators” are steep, treacherous sand dunes, some almost a thousand feet high, which the horses must climb in order to eat. These dunes provide some pretty dangerous footing for horses. On Sable Island a horse is much more likely to injure a leg while descending these steep dunes than by running along the island’s beaches. Still, a hungry horse must ascend and descend these obstacles. Consequently, evolution has made a clear choice, just as in the Camargue region. Sable Island horses have shorter, less vulnerable pasterns, giving them that goatlike look. Over 250 years, natural selection has opted for shorter pasterns, improving the horses’ ability to graze, thus improving the horses’ ability to live longer and produce more offspring. We often think of evolution as complicated, but in this case, the process is pretty easy to grasp.

The author covers some of the dynamism of the Earth’s climate:

Most likely, paleontologists suggest, the truth behind the extinction involves many factors. When the asteroid fell, the world was already changing. The great supercontinent of Pangaea had broken up and North and South America were slowly migrating west, creating an ever-widening Atlantic Ocean—an ocean that would become a major player in the appearance of humans and in the evolution of horses and in the flight paths of birds and in the pulsations of ice and rain and drought for the coming tens of millions of years. These long-term events, the results of our always-convulsive, seething-with-energy planet, were probably more influential in the appearance of horses and humans than the onetime crash of a mere mega-asteroid. … the Yale University paleontologist Chris Norris called the emphasis on disaster as a major evolutionary force “asteroid porn.”

His point is well-taken: the worldwide climate had been changing for 10 million years before the asteroid fell. The dinosaurs were no more enjoying a steady-state world before the asteroid impact than we are today.

It was hot. For a brief period, it was very hot, much hotter than when I visited. In fact, it was as though there was a sudden explosion of heat, as remarkable in its own way as the fall of the asteroid had been 10 million years earlier. Curiously, this explosion of heat also marks the appearance of Polecat Bench’s horses and primates. This was a time when temperatures in some places shot up by 6 or 8 degrees Celsius in a very short time period, lingered at those heights, then, almost as suddenly, dropped back down. The cause of this heat spike remains elusive, but it may have been due to large bursts of methane that bubbled up from the deep ocean. On temperature charts that track the rise and fall of heat throughout our planet’s history, the heat spike looks to me like the outline of the Eiffel Tower. The anomaly is officially called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM for short, but I prefer to think of it as the Eiffel Tower of Heat, with its sharp lines of ascent and descent that mimic so closely the graceful lines of the Parisian landmark. It’s a weird event. And it’s doubly weird that both horses and primates may owe their existence, in part, to its existence: the spike marks the beginning of the Eocene, when not just horses and primates, but most modern mammal groups finally came into their own.

Just a few things that surprised me:

  • North America, devoid of horses when the Europeans showed up to trash the place, has a rich fossil record of horses. Horses were here at least as recently as 30,000 years ago.
  • Horse teeth keep pushing out for about 20 years.
  • “The ten thousand or so varieties of grasses that cover Earth today take up an estimated 30 percent of our planet’s land surface.” (and grass is a relatively new plant)

More: Read The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion.

5 thoughts on “Great book on the history of the horse

  1. This sounds surprising to me as well: “North America, devoid of horses when the Europeans showed up to trash the place, has a rich fossil record of horses. Horses were here at least as recently as 30,000 years ago.” The horse lineages on the no human predator continent all died out?

    I will read this book, but for now: when horses were reintroduced in North America post 1600 a.d., by what route did they become animals of the warring Indian tribes? When did Indians’ horses first appear in subsequent conflicts with white colonists?

  2. Interesting stuff.
    But the max elevation of Sable Island seems to be 92 feet. 1000′ dunes would be very impressive!

  3. In addition to the false information about the dune height, the history of the horses on the island is not complete. Although the original introduction was made in colonial times, this was not some evolutionary experiment undisturbed by humans. The horses were constantly being harvested from the island (this is why they were introduced in the 1st place) and new breeding stock was introduced from time to time in an effort to improve the quality of the product. Nowadays, the island is one of those places that makes environmentalist heads explode. On the one hand, everyone loves wild horses and doesn’t want them sent to a dog food factory like in the bad old days so current law forbids removing any horses from the island even if they are starving and eating every blade of grass, but on the other hand they are an alien introduced species who are disrupting the ecosystem of the island.

    The other interesting thing (to me at least) is that modern humans have no problem with the idea that a group of animals in isolation can undergo evolution in a relatively short time span so that different traits come to the fore, but if you say that different groups of humans have evolved different traits so that, for example, one group might be better at being NFL cornerbacks and a different group might excel in the learned professions, you are a filthy racist – all humans are totally identical and equal in potential in any field.

  4. The (re)introduction of horse by the Spanish starting in the 16th century really revolutionized the culture of the Plains Indians. Even though it took them a couple of centuries to become fully nomadic, by the time American settlers hit the Plains in the 19th century, they had been organizing their society around the horse for quite some time and had worked out a whole new system of following the buffalo herds around on horseback that was unknown before then. We tend to think of native societies as being static and having lived in the way that we first encountered them from time immemorial but the Indian tribes each had their own history and cultural evolution.

    Even when the Pilgrims showed up, they were not the 1st whites that the Indians had encountered and their society had already been turned upside down by previously introduced European diseases (mainly smallpox).

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