The Prehistoric Horse

By Karine Burt

We simply cannot imagine a life without horses. The horse an extraordinary creature, an enigma in the age where so much has been unraveled. It embodies beauty and spirituality, and though shaped by humans of thousands of years ago, it has retained an intrinsic wildness that remains untouched by domestication. The horse’s spirit,  remote and beyond human comprehension, is both magical and humbling.

Major Role in History

Horses roamed the earth long before humans did and have witnessed their countless times on battlefields across centuries. The horse has had one of the most profound influences on human history and development. Their influence on human culture and their key roles in war, transportation, and agriculture have lasted into the twentieth century. Today, they no longer power societies but instead fuel our dreams through pleasure riding and equestrian sports.

Horse Evolution

The prehistoric horse in North America evolved over a period of 50 plus million years. To date, scientists have pinpointed the original horse, Eohippus, which resembled a small dog. The horse has undergone multiple changes over the past and today holds a place deep within the human heart.

The process of evolution began when the position of the great land masses of the world changed enormously, to the extent of some breaking apart and others colliding. Climatic changes were extensive.

The modern-day horse, Equus, has undergone multiple changes throughout the stages of evolution. For example, the Eohippu, a dog-like horse that lived during the early Eocene era, was very small and had three distinct toes. This animal evolved into Orohippus, which scientists do not consider a true horse. It had the same body size as Eohippus, but the toes were slightly different; it had four toes on each front leg and three toes on each hind leg.

horse evolution

3 million years later, Epihippus evolved from Orohippus. Scientists note that during the early evolutionary period, horses developed teeth fit for grinding. Epihippus was no exception. In fact, these animals began to exhibit some traits common to modern-day horses. For example, Epihippus possibly spent more time grazing on flatter lands and had grown stronger teeth to grind vegetation. Epihippus gave way to the next generation of early horses, Mesohippus, roughly 38 million years ago.

prehis horse

Origins of the Modern Horse

Around 10 million years ago, close to a dozen different species of horses roamed the Great Plains of North America. They came in all different shapes and sizes, with some preferring the forest, while others stayed out on open grasslands.

The large Dinohippus horses loved to graze on grass, similar to the modern horse. Another species was the three-toed Hypohippustiptoes, which lived in the forest and nibbled on leaves. There was also a small, three-toed Nannippus, which liked to eat leaves and grass. The Procamelus was a large species and a camel relative. Gomphotherium was a distant relative of true elephants and also very large. The Teleoceras was a hornless rhinoceros.

Prehistoric horses were much smaller than the modern horse, but they did not steadily get larger through time. The species Little Nannippus was actually quite a bit smaller than its predecessors.


Columbus and His Influence on Horses

Columbus bought the first Spanish horses to the Americas during the late 15th century. Columbus bred these animals so the conquistadors had transportation when they went out on expeditions.

Today, the wild horses that live along the Shackleford Banks in North Carolina are proven descendants of Spanish horses from 400 years ago. Recently completed genetic testing indicates their heritage. The North American horse has undergone multiple changes since prehistory. Today, the horse weighs up to 1500 pounds, supports North American farming and participates in important events around the world.

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