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
HORSES AND THEIR KIN
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
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
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.
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Update: June 2012