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The Horse, Equus caballus, is a large ungulate mammal, one of the seven
modern species of the genus Equus. It has been important for transportation:
to ride on, or pulling a chariot, carriage, stagecoach, tram, etc.; also as
plough horse, etc. as well as food; see also Domestication of the horse.
Domestication of the Horse and Surviving Wild Species
The earliest evidence for the domestication of the horse has been found in
Central Asia, about 3,000 BCE. There are competing theories about the time
and place of domestication. However, wild species continued into historic
times, including the Forest Horse, Equus caballus silvaticus (also called
the Diluvial Horse); it is thought to have evolved into Equus caballus
germanicus, and may have contributed to the development of the heavy horses
of northern Europe, such as the Ardennais. The Tarpan, Equus caballus
gmelini, became extinct in 1880, but has been "bred back", by crossing
living domesticated horses that had primitive features, thanks to the
efforts of the brothers Lutz Heck (director of the Berlin zoo) and Heinz
Heck (director Tierpark Munich Hellabrunn). The resulting animal is more
properly called the Wild Polish Horse.
The only true surviving wild-horse species is Prezwalski's Horse, Equus
caballus prezwalskii prewalskii Polaikov [], a rare Asian species. In
Mongolia it is known as the taki, while the Kirghiz people call it a kirtag.
Wild vs. Feral Horses
A distinction should be made between wild animals, whose ancestors have
never been domesticated, and feral animals, whose ancestors have been
domesticated, but who now live in the wild. There are several populations of
feral horses, including those in the West of the United States (often called
mustangs) and in parts of Australia (called brumbies). These feral horses
may provide useful insights into the behavior of their ancestral wild horses.
The Icelandic horse (which is pony-sized but is referred to as a horse) are
an interesting breed too from a historic and behavioural point of view.
Introduced by the Vikings on Iceland, they have not been subject to the
selective breeding that has taken place in Europe from about the middle ages
until now, giving us a picture of what horses looked like and behaved like
in those days. The Icelandic horse has a four-beat gait called the Tolt,
which is equivalent to the Rack exhibited by several American gaited breeds.
Other members of the horse family include zebras, donkeys, and hemoinids.
The Donkey, Burro or Domestic Ass, Equus asinus, like the horse, has many
breeds. A mule is a hybrid of a male ass and a mare and is infertile. A
hinny is the less common hybrid of a female ass and a stallion. Recently
breeders have begun crossing various species of zebra with mares or female
asses to produce "zebra mules" -- zorses and zedonks. This is likely to
remain a novelty hybrid as these individuals tend to inherit some of the
nervous, difficult nature of their zebra parent.
Horses are rarely bred for use as food, but the meat of old, injured or
discarded animals is used in many places. In 2001, an estimated 153,000
tonnes of horse meat were consumed worldwide. In France horsemeat is sold by
specialized butcher shops (boucheries chevalines) as ordinary butcher shops
aren't allowed to sell horse meat. The eating of horse meat is taboo and
abhorrent to most in some parts of the world, such as Great Britain and the
US, and sometimes even illegal. In other parts horse meat has the stigma of
being something poor people eat and is seen as a cheap subtitute.
Horse meat is often of very good quality. It is tender, low in fat and high
in protein, altough with a slightly sweet taste, that can be disguised with
seasoning and spices.
Horse was commonly eaten in many countries in pre-Christian Europe, but not
in Islamic or Jewish countries, since under Mosaic Law, horse meat is
unclean because the horse is not cloven-hoofed or cud-chewing. In
pre-Christian times, horse meat was eaten in northern Europe as part of
Teutonic religious ceremonies, particularly those associated with the
worship of Odin.
In 732 A.D., Pope Gregory III began a concerted effort to stop the pagan
practice of horse eating, calling it "abominable", and it has been said that
the people of Iceland were reluctant to embrace Christianity for some time
largely over the issue of giving up horse meat. In some countries the
effects of this prohibition by the Catholic Church have lingered, and horse
meat prejudices have progressed from taboos to avoidance to abhorrence.
The French appetite for horse meat supposedly dates from the Battle of Eylau
in 1807, when the surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon's Grand Army, Baron
Dominique-Jean Larrey, advised the starving troops to eat the flesh of dead
battlefield horses. The cavalry used breastplates as cooking pans and
gunpowder as seasoning, and a tradition was born. Today, horse meat is
commonly produced and consumed in many European countries, including Italy,
Romania and Belgium.
During WWII the sale of horse meat was legalized in New Jersey, due to low
supply and high prices of beef. At war's end, the sale was again prohibited.
According to some due to pressure from the beef lobby.
Although horse meat is rarely eaten in the US, many horses from the US are
sold for slaughter and consumption in Europe, Mexico or Japan. A Food
Standards Agency (FSA) 2003 investigation has revealed that salami and
chorizo on sale in the UK sometimes contains horse and donkey meat, without
being mentioned on the food label, something that is required.
Much of the horse produced in the US is sold to zoos for carnivore feeding.
Brigitte Bardot has spent her latter years crusading against the eating of
When used on sandwiches horse meat is usually smoked and salted. Horse meat
is used in several traditional recipes of salami and in Kazakhstan it's used
in hazy (horse sausage).
In Japan raw horse meat is called basashi and is is served in thin slices
either with rice as sushi or without as sashimi.
In Switzerland horse meat may be used in Fondue bourguignonne. In Belgium,
the traditional french fries were cooked in horse fat, although since the
replacement of horses with automobiles inferior types of fat are often used
In Italy it is used in recipes such as Pezzetti di cavallo. In Chile it is
used in charqui.
In the English-speaking world, horses are measured in hands. One hand is 4
inches, or about 0.11 meter. Adult horses can range in size from 5 hands (a
very small miniature horse or falabella) to over 18 hands. The convention
is: 15.2 hh means 15 hands, 2 inches in height, measured at the highest
point of the withers.
Horses are usually distinguished from ponies purely according to size: a
horse stands 14.2 hh (58 inches, 1.47 meters) or higher, a pony is an adult
equine less than 14.2 hh. Thus, normal variations can mean that a horse
stallion and horse mare can become the parents of an adult pony. There is
however a distinct set of characteristic pony traits that evolved in
northwest Europe and further evolved on the British isles, muddying the
issue of whether "pony" should be used to describe a size or a type. Several
small breeds are called horses or ponies interchangeably, including the
Icelandic, Fjord, and Caspian. Breeders of miniature horses favor that name
because they strive to reproduce horse-like conformation in a very small
size, even though their animals are undeniably descended from ponies.
A vocabulary of specialized words relating to horses
* horse - adult equine of either sex over 14.2 hh (58 inches, 1.47
* pony - equine 14.2 hh or less (58 inches, 1.47 meters)
* mare - adult female horse
* stallion - adult, uncastrated male horse
* gelding - adult, castrated male horse
* foal - infant horse of either sex
* filly - female horse from birth to sexual maturity (about 24 months)
* colt - male horse from birth to sexual maturity (about 24 months)
A vocabulary of specialized words relating to horse anatomy
* withers - the highest point of the shoulder seen best with horse
standing square and head slightly lowered. The withers are formed by
the the tops of the two shoulder blades and the space between them.
The Origin of Modern Horse Breeds
Horses come in an astonishing array of sizes and shapes. The draft breeds
can top 20 hands (80 inches, 2.03 meters) while the smallest miniature
horses can be as little as 5.2 hands (22 inches, 0.56 meters). These are
breed differences, not species differences; the individuals would still be
fertile if bred.
There are several schools of thought on how this amazing range of size and
shape came about. These schools grew up reasoning from the type of dentition
and the horses' outward appearance. One school, which we can call the "Four
Foundations" is that the modern horse evolved from two types of early
domesticated pony and two types of early domesticated horse; the differences
between these types accounts for the differences in type of the modern
breeds. A second school is the "Single Foundation"--that there was only one
breed of horse domesticated, and it diverged in form after domestication by
human selective breeding (or in the case of feral horses, ecological
pressures). Finally, there are those geneticists who are evaluating the DNA
and mitochondrial DNA to construct family trees.
Breeds, Studbooks, Purebreds and Landraces
The idea of a "purebred" animal gained importance in Europe during the 19th
century. But selective breeding has been practiced almost everywhere man has
kept horses. The Arabs were famous for breeding their prize mares to only
the most worthy stallions, and kept extensive pedigrees of their "asil"
(purebred) horses. During the late middle ages the Carthusian monks of
southern Spain, themselves forbidden to ride, bred horses that were prized
by the nobility throughout Europe; the lineage survives to this day in the
Andalusian or caballo de pura raza espanol.
The modern landscape of breed designation is a complicated one. Some breeds
have closed studbooks; a registered Thoroughbred or Arabian must have two
registered parents of the same breed, and that is the only criterion for
registration. Other breeds are open to limited infusions from other breeds
-- the modern Appaloosa for instance must have at least one Appaloosa parent
but may also have a Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, or Arabian parent and must
also exhibit spotted coloration or else be denied full registration. Still
other breeds, such as most of the warmblood sporthorses, require individual
judging of an individual animal's quality before registration or breeding approval.
Hotbloods, Warmbloods, and Coldbloods
The Arabian horses, whether originating on the Saudi peninsula or from the
European studs (breeding establishments) of the 18th and 19th century, are
termed "hotbloods", for their fiery temperaments. (Some include the
thoroughbred in the "hotblood" category.) The slow, heavy draft horses are
termed "coldbloods" as they are usually quite calm in temperament. The
warmbloods are everything else, but the term also specifically refers to the
European breeds such as the Hanoverian that have dominated dressage and show
jumping since the 1950s.
The list of horse breeds provides a partial alphabetical list of breeds of
horse extant today, plus a discussion of rare breeds conservation.
The invention of the internal combustion engine and the tractor reduced the
utility of the horse in agriculture, although there are still working teams,
in particular in specialty forestry.
Horses in Sport today
Racing in all its forms
It is a safe bet that the domestication of the horse preceeded betting on
which horse was fastest by a matter of hours. Certainly the desire to see
which horse is fastest seems to be an innate human feature! Horse-racing
today can be divided into racing short distances under saddle on a track:
flat racing or the thoroughbred horse race. Thoroughbreds are the most
famous of the racing breeds, but Arabians, quarter horses, and Appaloosas
are also raced on the flat in the United States. Steeplechasing is racing on
a track, where the horses also jump over obstacles. It is most popular in
Great Britain. Standardbred trotters and pacers are raced in harness with a
sulky or racing bike. Endurance riding, a sport whose top ranks are
dominated by the Arabian, is very popular in the United States and Europe,
race lengths ranging from 20 to 100 miles.
The Traditional European Competitions
The following three are the Olympic disciplines:
* Dressage ("training" in French) is the progressive training of the
horse to a high level of impulsion, collection, and obedience. It
originated in the military and artistic equestrian academies of Europe
and became an Olympic sport in 1912. Dressage competition levels start
with the basic training of a young horse and advance in small steps to
the highest level, called "Grand Prix." At each level the horse and
rider must perform a test of gaits and figures. A judge grades each
specific movement as well as overall impressions of the rider's and
horse's performance. There is also a tradition of purist,
noncompetitive "classical" dressage, which is pursued for its own joy
* Show jumping is a timed event judged on the ability of the horse and
rider to jump over a series of obstacles, in a given order and with the
fewest refusals or knockdowns of fence rails, which for safety are set
in shallow cups. At the Grand Prix level fences may be as much as 6' tall.
* Eventing, combined training, horse trials, "the Military," or "the
complete test" as its French name translates, puts together the
obedience of dressage with the athletic ability of show jumping, the
fitness demands of a long endurance phase (aka "roads and tracks") and
the "cross-country" jumping phase. This event has its roots as a
comprehensive cavalry test requiring mastery of several types of
riding. Cross-country riding at the highest levels can be especially
dangerous to horses and riders, as the obstacles are large, technically
challenging, and solidly built.
* Polo originated in Asia around 2000 years ago and became popular with
19th century Britons when they were exposed to this challenging
horseback team sport in India. The game is divided into periods called
"chukkas" and riders score by driving a ball into the opposing team's
goal using a long-handled mallet. It has remained a sport of the rich
because of the expense of maintaining an adequate string of "ponies" --
a rider needs to swap tired horses several times over the course of the
* Huntseat riding is the show discipline derived from the English
foxhunting style. In the modern show ring hunters show "on the flat" at
the walk, trot, and canter, and "over fences" where unlike show jumpers
they are judged on the rider's good position and the horse's smooth
performance. A good show hunter is safe, willing, and careful over
* Saddleseat, Park, or English Pleasure riding is a uniquely American
discipline developed to show to best advantage the extravagantly
animated movement of high-stepping gaited breeds such as the American
Saddle Horse and Tennessee Walker. Arabians and Morgans are also
commonly shown saddleseat in the US.
Dressage, jumping and cross-country are forms of what is referred to in
America as 'English riding'. Western riding evolved stylistically from
traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and its skills are based
on the working needs of the cowboy in the American west. A main
differentiating factor is the need of the cowboy to rope cattle with a
lariat. The cowboy must control the horse with one hand, and use the lariat
with the other hand. That means that horses must be taught to neck rein,
i.e., to respond to light pressure of the slack rein against the horse's
neck. Once the lariat is twirled and its loop is thrown over a cow's head,
the rope must be snubbed to the horn of the saddle. For roping calves, the
horse is trained to pull back against the calf, which falls to the ground,
while the cowboy dismounts and ties the calf's feet together so that it can
be branded, treated for disease, etc. Working with half-wild cattle,
frequently in terrain where it is impossible to see what is behind the next
bush, means the ever-present very great danger of being unseated in an
accident miles from home and friends.
These multiple work needs mean that different tack must be used, most
notably a curb bit (usually with longer bars than an English equitation curb
or pelham bit would have) which works by leverage, long split reins (the
ends of which can serve as an impromptu quirt) and a special kind of saddle.
The Western saddle has a very much more substantial frame (traditionally
made of wood) to absorb the shock of roping, a prominent pommel surmounted
by a horn (a big knob for snubbing the lasso after an animal has been
roped), and, frequently, tapaderos ("taps") covering the front of the
stirrups to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the stirrup in
an accident so that he might be dragged behind a frightened horse. The
cowboy's boots, which have high heels of an uncommon shape, are also
designed specifically to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the
Competitions exists in the following forms:
* Western pleasure - the rider must show the horse in walk, jog (a slow,
controlled trot), trot and lope (a slow, controlled canter). The horse
must be under control with minimal force being directed through the
reins and otherwise with minimal interference from the rider.
* Reining - considered by some the "dressage" of the western riding
world, reining requires horse and rider to perform a precise pattern
consisting of canter circles, rapid "spins" (a particularly atheltic
turn on the haunches), and the sliding stop which is executed from a
* Cutting: more than any other, this is the event which highlights the
"cow sense" prized in stock breeds such as the Quarter horse. The horse
and rider select and separate a calf out of a small group. The calf
then tries to return to its herdmates; the rider loosens the reins and
it's entirely the horse's job to keep the calf separated, a job the
best do with relish, savvy, and style. The cutter is awarded points by
* Team penning: a popular timed event in which 3 to 5 marked steers must
be selected out of a herd and driven into a small pen by a team of 3
riders. The catch is that the gate to the pen can't be closed till all
the cattle (and only the intended cattle) are inside.
* Trail class: in this event, the rider has to manouver the horse through
an obstacle course in a ring. Speed is not important, but total control
of the horse is. The horses have to move sideways, make 90 degree turns
while moving backwards, a fence has to be opened and/or closed while
mounted, and more such manouvres relevant to everyday ranch or trail
riding tasks are demonstrated.
* Barrel racing and pole bending: the timed speed/agility events of
rodeo. In a barrel race, horse and rider gallop aaround a cloverleaf
pattern of barrels, making agile turns without knocking the barrels
over. In pole bending, horse and rider gallop the length of a line of
six upright poles, turn on a dime and weave through the poles, turn
again and weave back, and gallop back to the start.
* Steer-wrestling: this is not allowed in Europe because of animal
welfare concerns, but is done in the USA, usually at rodeo events.
While riding, the rider jumps off his horse onto a steer and 'wrestles'
it to the ground.
* Roping: this is also not allowed in Europe. In calf roping, the rider
has to catch a running calf by the neck with a lasso, stop the animal
in its tracks, rapidy dismount the horse and immobilize the calf by
tying three of its legs together. This task shows the trained ability
of the horse to maintain an appropriate amount of pressure on the rope
after the cowboy has dismounted to tie the calf. In team roping, one
horse and rider team lassos a running steer's horns, while the other
brings it to the ground by lassoing its two hind legs.
Bronc riding (riding a bucking "wild" horse for a timed duration) is a
separate event and not considered Western riding as such. It is divided into
bareback bronc riding and saddle bronc riding, with saddle bronc being the
more technical of the two.