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Horse power: scientists explore how taming horses change the course of history.

Try to imagine a world without horses. A horse played a crucial role in the Revolutionary War: In 1775, Paul Revere galloped his horse through the night to alert American settlers that the British army was invading. Would the war have ended differently had Revere made his midnight ride on a cow instead?

According to some scientists, the fate of humankind was changed about 6,000 years ago in what is now Central Asia.

That is when some experts think humans first began to tame the wild horse.

"The domestication of horses is a critical moment in history," says Sandra Olsen. Olsen is co-curator of The Horse, an exhibition opening this May at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The exhibition looks at how the relationship between horses and humans has shaped the modern world. One thing is for sure: It has been a wild ride.


Domestic horses now pull plows, race in the Kentucky Derby, and carry mounted police. But early horses weren't tame enough to perform these kinds of tasks. Scientists think the first interactions humans had with horses were far different from those today.

Thousands of years ago, people killed the wild horses that lived around them for food. Scientists believe that over time, people living in what is now Central Asia began to capture the animals and keep them in herds. This was the first step in domestication. The first of these domesticated horses were likely still used for meat and for the female horses' vitamin-rich milk.



So when did humans decide to hop on a horse's back and go for a ride? "We don't see the evidence of people riding horses until 4,300 years ago," says Olsen. The first saddle didn't appear until 1,400 years after that. But Olsen believes that the practice of riding horses began soon after humans tamed them. "It's difficult to imagine herding horses without having a horse to ride," says Olsen.


As people began to tame and ride horses, scientists believe that they chose to keep individual animals that had more desirable traits. For instance, people may have chosen to keep horses that had a gentle personality so they could be ridden more easily. People who used horses to pull heavy loads would have chosen to keep stronger animals. Traits like strength are partly controlled by the animals' genes. So as the domesticated horses reproduced, they passed the characteristics on to their offspring. Each new generation of horses would show more of these chosen traits. As humans bred horses to be specialized for different tasks, horse breeds were developed.


Like dogs, modern-day horse breeds come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This variety didn't exist in the horse population before domestication. There are now more than 150 different breeds of horses.

The Shetland pony is one of the smallest breeds--typically reaching only 1 meter (3.3 feet) tall. It was bred in the frigid islands of northern Scotland. Its thick coat keeps it warm in the harsh environment. Its short, stocky legs are no accident either. The animals were bred to haul coal in mine shafts with low ceilings.

Giant draft horses like the Clydesdale came on the scene around 1700. People bred these heavy, tall horses to pull stagecoaches and large wagons.



If horses had never been domesticated, societies around the world would likely be far different, says Olsen. For instance, horses were important tools in the advancement of modern agriculture. Using them to pull plows and carry heavy loads allowed people to farm more efficiently.

Before they were able to hop aboard horses, humans had to cross land by foot. Riding horses allowed people to travel far greater distances in much less time. That encouraged populations living in different areas to interact with one another. The new form of rapid transit helped cultures spread around the world. "In the history of humankind, there has never been an animal that has made a greater impact on societies than the horse," says Olsen.

Archaeologist Sandra Olsen studies the history of horses.

Ancient paintings on cave walls show horses being hunted with spears.

In New York City, some police officers still patrol the streets on horseback. This mounted-police unit was established in 1871.

Until the 1950s, when tractors became readily available, farmers regularly used horses to plow their fields.

A hefty draft horse--bred to perform difficult tasks like plowing--towers over a tiny Shetland pony.

Words to Know

Domestication--the process by which an animal changes from a wild state to one in which it is under control of humans

Trait--a characteristic that is inherited from the organism's parents

Gene--a section of DNA, or a chemical code that contains information about the inherited characteristics of an organism

Breed--a group of organisms within a species that have descended from a common ancestor and have shared traits

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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Title Annotation:life science
Author:Carney, Elizabeth
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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