The Evolution of the Horse

R.C.M.P. Vol. 46, No. 4 Fall 1981 p. 43-45

The Evolution of the Horse

By D/Commr. W. H. Kelly (Rtd.)

Whenever we see or think of the Musical Ride, we appreciate the beauty of the horses and enjoy watching them perform. But rarely do we think that these beautiful animals, and others of different breeds and sizes, evolved from the small rabbit-like creatures found on the North American continent, millions of years ago. There is evidence to show that the evolution of the horse predates that of man by some sixty million years.

During the Eocene period, some sixty to forty million years B.C., the earliest ancestor of the horse, Eohippus (Eos meaning Dawn and Hippos meaning horse) was only fifteen inches (four hands) high, and lived on leaves and plants. In the next 20 million years, its successor Mesohippus, had reached a height of 20 inches. Over the next 25 million years, or so, to about 10,000 years B.C., through the Oligocene, Miocene, Piliocene and the Pleistocene periods, the horse lost its toes, gained a hoof and had grown to about 53 inches (13 hands) in height. Since then the horse has evolved into the beautiful animal of the present day.

Bones have been found in North and South America which show that horses existed on these continents in the Pleistocene period, about 1,000,000 to 10,000 years B.C. But they disappeared from these areas and are believed to have crossed into Asia by way of the Siberian Isthmus, to appear again only when the Spanish conquistadores brought them back in the 16th century.

Meanwhile horses had been evolving in Asia and Europe. They were first hunted for meat and, later, kept in herds much as cattle are kept today, long before men learned to domesticate them for other purposes. The Chinese are thought by some to have been the first horsemen, but this is disputed by others who believe the brahmans were the first.

It is also known that there were skilled riders in Asia, Europe and North Africa as early as the third millennium B.C. Some time before that man had already begun to value the horse as a draft animal, and harness in a crude form is known to have existed as early as 4,000 years B.C.

It was inevitable that man would use the horse to help him in battle against his enemies. This had been done thousands of years before Alexander the Great, in the 4th century B.C., crossed the Hellespont, not only with tens of thousands of soldiers on foot, but 5,000 mounted on horses. It soon became common for all armies in Europe to have a complement of mounted troops.

Large horses were developed to carry heavy armour into battle, in the days when the broad axe was considered a useful weapon, and later to draw heavy cannons and mortars. Much later, the idea began to prevail that speed and surprise were useful qualities in winning

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battles, and so lighter horses and cavalry tactics came into use.

After centuries of being used on the battlefield the horse eventually gave way to mechanization. Nevertheless, horses played an important part in World War I, and even at the beginning of World War II in some European countries. Today in countries such as Switzerland, they still are used in mountainous regions to haul equipment over rugged territory, where soldiers have to patrol.

As the horse was being developed for war, it was also being put to other uses. From the time it was domesticated, man used horses for his own welfare. Until the eighteenth century, usually only people of means could afford to keep them. But as society evolved, more people began to own horses when they were able to use them in commercial ventures. As the only means of land transportation it became necessary to put the horse to work in the interest of the community and not just in the interests of the wealthy.

From very early days the horse has been used for recreation and entertainment. At first the horse was used by some men to hunt for food; later, the hunt became part sport as well as necessity. Soon the horse became part of the pomp and pageantry at Royal Courts. History is replete with details of chariot races, and even polo was played in the 4th century B.C. Romans are known to have raced horses and imported stallions and mares to breed the types of horses they desired.

In medieval times, jousting took place at tournaments, and very early the horse became part of the bullfight. No one knows exactly when steeplechasing and flat racing first took place, but they were given a tremendous boost when the English, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, imported Turk, Barb and Arab horses, which became the foundation stock for all thoroughbred horses in the world today. In America where all the European sporting uses of the horse were accepted, some additional ones were added, such as rodeos and stampedes. A new type of horse, some may call it a breed, was especially developed to run a quarter of a mile – the quarter horse.

While all these things were going on, ponies were not forgotten. Some were used for work purposes, such as the pit ponies, where height is a consideration, but ponies were mostly kept for recreational purposes, such as light carriage work and the show ring.

Although the horse as a work animal has greatly diminished, it is still used for farm work in many countries, and it has not altogether vanished from the North American farm scene. Some religious sects, such as the Mennonites, refuse to mechanize their farm operations, or even to use cars to go to market. But the recreational horse is more popular than ever today. In this category can be placed the draft horses that are specially bred, not for work purposes but for the purpose of improving the breed, or as is done by some breweries, as an advertising gimmick.

Our affluent society has enabled more young people than ever to own their own horses, or to take riding lessons on rented horses. Horse racing is as popular as ever, and harness racing probably more popular than ever before, although this can be attributed as much to love of gambling as love of horses.

During its history, the RCMP has used horses as draft, military and recreational animals. As in the case of work horses, generally mechanization gradually spelled the doom of the RCMP patrol horse. The recreational use of RCMP horses, as seen in today’s Musical Ride, brings pleasure to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.

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The Musical Ride’s popularity can be partly attributed to its pageantry and colour, but it is not difficult to believe that mostly it is the enjoyment of seeing beautiful, well trained horses perform. When watching them perform, even when one knows that it took them over sixty million years to evolve into the noble creatures they are, it is difficult to appreciate the fact that their ancestors were once small dog-like creatures only two or three hands high.

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