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Horse power: for thousands of years, people have bred horses to meet their needs. In the process, they've also altered human history.


It was 1775, and the British were about to invade the Boston area. Settlers decided to hang lanterns from a church tower to warn one another of the troops' method of approach: "One if by land, two if by sea." On the night of April 18, Paul Revere looked up to see two lanterns hanging in the distance. The moment had come for his now-famous midnight ride to warn the townsfolk of the impending British invasion. He saddled up and climbed atop his ... cow?

All right, so Revere hopped onto a horse--not a cow. But just imagine how this and other historic events might have turned out if it weren't for the help of horses.

"The domestication of horses was a pivotal moment in history," says Sandra Olsen, co-curator of "The Horse," a new exhibition that will open this month at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The exhibition will look at how the relationship between horses and humans has shaped the modern world. One thing is for sure: It's been a wild ride.



Today's domestic horses--the kinds that carried Paul Revere, pull plows, and race in the Kentucky Derby--weren't always so tame. In fact, they've been thousands of years in the making.

Experts believe that domestication, or the process by which an animal is brought from a wild state to one in which it's under the control of humans, likely began roughly 6,000 years ago. Evidence shows that prior to that, humans had been hunting horses for tens of thousands of years. During much of that time, vast sheets of ice covered large parts of Earth's surface. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient cave art depicting horses being struck by spears. Researchers also have uncovered concentrations of horse bones at areas of prehistoric encampments.

Both of these types of evidence suggest that ancient humans killed wild horses for food.


So when did humans decide to hop on horses' backs and go for a gallop? Experts don't know exactly. "We don't see evidence of people riding homes until 4,300 years ago," says Olsen. And the oldest known saddle dates to 1,400 years after that.

Despite the uncertainty over when humans saddled up the first horse, one thing is sure: Over time, people slowly began to choose horses with specific desired traits, like size and controllability, to serve as parents for the next generation of homes. Since traits get passed down from parents to offspring through their genes, this process of selective breeding eventually yielded an animal that humans could easily handle.


Besides tailoring homes for a means of quick transportation from here to there, people also began to breed the animals to perform other tasks, such as plowing fields and herding livestock. But according to Olsen, horses' most important role in shaping society was their use in warfare. Horses were used in battles as far back as 1500 B.C. As the animals became specialized for certain tasks, different horse breeds were developed.


Modern-day horses come in a variety of shapes and sizes that didn't exist before domestication. Much as dogs range from tiny Chihuahuas to towering Great Danes, horses vary from stocky Shetland ponies to immense Clydesdales.

What accounts for this much variation? It all comes down to the purpose of the horse: The Shetland's short, sturdy legs made the animal ideal for hauling coal in low-ceiling mine shafts, while draft horses like the Clydesdale were bred in the 1700s to pull heavy stagecoaches and large wagons. Today, there are more than 150 breeds of horses, each one with its own history.

Olsen investigates horse remains to better understand just how these animals came to be so closely linked to humans some 6,000 years ago. "In the history of humankind, there has never been an animal that has made a greater impact on societies than the horse," she marvels.

check it out

In addition to its beloved dinosaurs, the American Museum of Natural History is world famous for its collection of more than 250,000 fossil mammal specimens, such as mastodons, giant sloths, and prehistoric horses. About 250 of these fossils are on display in the Wallace Wing of Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives. One interesting fossil exhibit traces 55 million years of horse evolution, starting with the tiny Eohippus.

To learn more, ask your teacher, or visit

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For more activities and information on animals around the globe, go to:


* A horse's hoof is like the animal's toenail; it keeps on growing and has to be clipped on a regular basis.

* A pony is not an infant horse; it is a horse of breeds that grow no taller than 147 centimeters (58 inches).


* How might the world be different today had horses never been domesticated?


MATH: The unit used to measure the height of a horse is called a hand. One hand equals 4 inches. Provide for students the heights of five horses in hands, and have them calculate the horses' height in inches. Then, have students convert the answers from inches into centimeters.


* Learn about the different breeds of horses at this Ohio State University Web site:
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Title Annotation:LIFE: GENETICS
Author:Carney, Elizabeth
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 12, 2008
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