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A New Role for the Horse



What is it about the horse that has enchanted humanity more than any other creature on earth?


Beautiful horses have always caused my own heart to clutch–a susceptibility resident in the Heath lineage. However, I hadn’t realized the horse’s importance to the human psyche in general until I read The Horse, The Epic History of our Noble Companion, by Wendy Williams. Again, how timely is this recent publication by Scientific American.

As a result of all the political turmoil, I had decided that a study of deep history would be a comfort; but it was the beauty of the image on the cover of this book that caught my eye. The proud and powerful profile represent a height in equine evolution when our own seems threatened. And as I read, page by page I became more hopeful.

But what is the basis of that introductory claim that humanity has always been enthralled by the horse? Well, maybe not always.

I have often heard that Homo sapiens made a giant, evolutionary leap at one point in our history. I have also heard that it may have been visiting aliens that inseminated new potential. If so, the extraterrestrials must have been artistic. One aspect of an evolutionary leap began to appear about 35,000 years ago in both carvings and drawings, primarily of the horse. The images appeared from the western coast of Spain all the way to the Ural Mountains of Russia.

Vogelherd Horse

Vogelherd Horse

Chauvet Cave Horse

Chauvet Cave Horse

The oldest example that Williams gives is the carving in mammoth ivory of the Vogelherd horse discovered in a cave in southern Germany. In this figure less than two inches long, one again sees the classic arching profile and an image of beauty and power. Drawings in Chauvet Cave in France were created about the same time. Both reveal the acute observation that can spark genius. Inspired by the horse, art was now “ahoof” in humanity.

But consider this: The story of Homo sapiens began about 200,000 years ago. The story of the horse began 56 million years ago. And if we had been around from the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have found early horses visually inspiring.

The oldest fossilized specimens to be discovered are very small, about the size of a Siamese cat or a small dog with toed feet. Their skeletal structure suggests that they “scampered” rather than ran. These were called the “dawn” horse. When the Vogelherd artist took tool to ivory, they had evolved into the modern horse known as Equus.

Archaeologists are always making new discoveries; but at the moment, it seems that the dawn horse first appeared in Wyoming. Then, after evolving into Equus lambei, it mysteriously became extinct about 8,000 years ago. Only a few survived in the highest reaches of the continent.

“What we see by looking into the eyes of the horse is that we are all members of one constantly seething energy system.”

Today the horse endures everywhere in the world except Antarctica , and the key to their survival has been adaptability. If food was abundant, they grew in size. If it wasn’t, they shrank. Where they needed to descend hills on soft ground, they developed short pasterns to avoid injury. When damp, soft ground became hard and dry due to changes in temperature and rainfall, the toes disappeared and the hoof formed. In a climate swarming with horseflies, the horses developed white coats because they were less attractive to the insects. Where the diet was based on gorse, “the plant from hell” with its thorns, a kind of mustache developed to protect the lips.

These are only a few of the examples Williams provides of the horse’s ability to endure in what she refers to as a “constantly seething energy system.” Over the last 10,000 years, however, Earth has been remarkably hospitable. It may be that we think that the belief systems we have created have served to stabilize our world, but Williams relates in excruciating detail an event that is cautionary.

Before the Volcano in Idaho

Mural at Ashfall

I am referring to a volcanic eruption 12 million years ago in Idaho. It spread volcanic ash one to two feet deep over hundreds of thousands of acres, including a plain in Nebraska about 1,000 miles away. Microscopic bubbles of silica, like the glass of a pulverized Christmas ornament, fell on the grass where a number of species of the horse were feeding along with the rhinoceros and deer. As they grazed, they ingested the glass into their lungs and proceeded to descend into a long and very painful suffocation. Bodies were beautifully preserved by volcanic action, and they can be seen at the Ashfall Fossil Beds in Nebraska.

Because every reader must at this point be deeply impressed by the history of this beautiful and peaceful creature, this account is kind of like crashing into a wall. How does one explain such a horrifying experience on Mother Earth? We know this kind of thing has happened, but here it feels different. One aspect of our own creativity is that we have embraced the idea of a moral governance afoot here with which we can negotiate protection on certain terms. This account makes you wonder: Are we so special or have we just made this up?

Whatever, Equus has endured, and there has been an interesting, recent development in our relationship with them that may help us do the same.

Since the horse has been domesticated so long, it hasn’t been a great object of interest with scientists. However, people trained as equine ethologists are now spending enormous amounts of time just observing horses in the wild. They have learned that their preference is to live in bands of up to 10 animals rather than big herds, and that they have very complex and sophisticated systems of communicating within their communities. Observations of mare behavior were especially fascinating.

Apparently, they get what they want through patience and persistence, largely ignoring the squealing, biting, and kicking of stallions acting out. The stallion of a band does need to fend off others that come courting. However, it seems that mares will sometimes choose to consort with another stallion. Of course, this is not readily tolerated, and the mare must wait to find an opportunity, apparently sometimes just wearing out the stallion in her band with rejections and evasions.

The book goes on with so many more fascinating insights, but I would like to close on speculation about this mare behavior. One can’t help but wonder, in light of the extraordinary success story of the species, if the mare’s preference for a certain stallion has to do in part with characteristics perceived to be beneficial to the species. Perhaps we humans should take note.

As I said at the outset, this book was very comforting in all the ways it shows how adaptation can ensure long-term survival. With all the scientific knowledge in hand about how often Earth has gone through epic disruptions, maybe the time will come when we commit to reproduce in ways that will help us endure as long as the horse has. A stretch, but something to think about.


4 Responses to “A New Role for the Horse”

  1. Maggie

    This is a thought provoking and informative article as I find with all your writing. To trace the evolution of a beautiful creature like a horse is a massive undertaking. You were able to extract some truly unique threads that tie into the horse evolution and adaptation. The fossilized bed in Nebraska sounds so interesting and intriguing and worth a visit. But I would generalize your comment, Ellen, by saying man still has so much to learn from Nature in so many ways and the horse is a prime example.

  2. Lynn

    Hi Ellen,
    I very much enjoyed your post about horses. I have an article in Smithsonian Magazine I’d like to pass on to you after Jay finishes reading the magazine. The story is about wild horses in Mongolia known as Przswalski’s horse. Pronounced Shuhswalski.


  3. Sandra

    Yes, so enjoyed this blog post and appreciated your words of wisdom. I hope you will continue these writings! To me, horses are the master healers!

  4. Lynn

    You know my love for horses—so I really enjoyed this reading!!! I’m gong to have to check out the Ashfall Fossils Beds.

    Thank you Ellen, for your insightful writings! 🙂