Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



Horses and Their Kin
Nature Bulletin No. 517-A  February 16, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County 
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The horse has disappeared from our streets, highways, and most of our agricultural regions. Farm boys no longer learn to say gee, haw, whoa, giddap, and make the clicking sound which also means "go". Except in backwoods country and the western grazing lands, the use of horses is mostly confined to race tracks and bridle paths. In this mechanized age we are apt to forget the dramatic role that this animal played in man's history.

As early as 1700 B.C. they pulled the chariots of the Babylonians and age after age, their descendants carried Alexander the Great, Attila, Genghis Khan, the Moors, and Napoleon on their far-flung campaigns of world conquest. Likewise, American history is rich in traditions of the savage horsemen of the Great Plains, the gallant cavalry of our Civil War and Indian campaigns, the Pony Express, the stage coach and the immortal cowboy.

When America was discovered it had no horses. The mere sight of sixteen armored cavalrymen with Cortez on his invasion of Mexico, in 1519, caused the Aztecs to flee in panic. After De Soto's expedition crossed the Mississippi in 1541, they abandoned or lost some of their horses. These gave rise to bands of half-wild mustangs which, captured by the Plains Indians, enabled them to become the finest of horsemen.

The domestication of the horse was begun before the dawn of history, possibly by nomad herdsmen in central Asia. The qualities which recommended it then were the same as what the Indians saw in the mustang, thousands of years later. The horse was big enough and swift enough to give riders great advantages over men on foot -- either in attack, in flight, in hunting, or in bearing burdens. Added to these are its docile nature and response to training, its ability to forage for food, and an esthetic appeal to men of all ages. An owner often treated a favorite mount with as much care and affection as a member of his own family. Only in recent times have horses been used widely for hauling and plowing.

All of the 25 or so breeds of modern horses are descended from three types of single wild species: The Forest Horse of central Europe, a smaller Mountain Pony -- both now extinct -- and the little Mongolian Horse or Tarpan which survives. Our larger breeds, draft animals often weighing over a ton, have descended from the powerful chargers that carried medieval knights in their ponderous armor. The smallest is that children's delight, the Shetland Pony. An ancestor of our riding and racing breeds is the magnificent Arabian.

In contrast to the romantic history of the horse, its cousin, the ass, has been a patient long-suffering beast of burden since Stone Age times, some 12,000 years ago. Asses, donkeys and burros are all descended from the wild ass of East Africa. Unlike the horse, they have enormous ears, small narrow feet, a short erect mane, and a mere brush of long hair on the tail. They are hardy, sure-footed on mountain trails, and can subsist for considerable periods on a minimum of food and water. The zebras of Africa are more nearly related to the ass than to the horse and, together with a few kinds of Asiatic asses, make up the remainder of the horse family.

A mule is the offspring of a jackass mated with a mare or female horse. The U.S. Army mule and the Missouri mule are famous for their hardiness, their frugality and their disdain of man and their kicking prowess. Being hybrids, mules are sterile.

Equally famous is the burro -- companion of the lonely prospector.

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs