Facts about Horses
(All photos – European wild horse from Bosnia and Herzegovina, near city Livno)
Horses and cows might stand in the same fields but they are quite different animals. In fact, horses are more closely related to the rhinoceros and the tapir than they are other farm animals.
The ancestors of the horse were small deer or pig-like creatures that lived in forests. As grasslands began to spread around the world 50 million years ago, the early horses moved to the plains and developed tougher teeth to cope with grazing. Exposed on the open plain, they banded together into herds for safety and, over the next 40 million years, gradually evolved longer and longer legs to outrun their predators.
A lion or a wolf can flex its spine as it runs, as a way of increasing its effective stride length. Horses can’t do this because they have to suspend a large barrel-shaped body, full of slowly digesting grass.
That requires a stiff, inflexible spine for support. So instead they evolved to run on their U tip-toes. A horse’s hoof is the toenail of the third toe on each foot.
The other toes have shrunk to almost nothing, while the third toe has become greatly enlarged. The leg joint normally called the ‘knee’ on a horse actually corresponds to our wrist, and the fetlock, which looks like an ankle, is in fact the knuckle joint of a finger or toe.
By standing on the very tips of its toes, the horse has increased the number of different bones that contribute to the total stride length and, as evolution gradually extended the length of each one, the total length of the legs increased. Carnivores can’t do this because they need to keep their claws off the ground, to keep them sharp.
This keeps the heavy muscles up near the body so they don’t need to be wastefully accelerated back and forth with each stride. The tradeoff is that horse legs are quite delicate. Without muscles to absorb an impact, a single kick from a rival stallion or an awkward landing on uneven ground can easily tear a tendon or break a bone. Horses use the spongy pad on the underside of their hooves (called the ‘frog’) to help pump blood back up the leg with each step, but even so horses have poor circulation in their lower legs and, as a result, injuries can take a long time to heal. Even with human veterinary intervention, a broken leg is usually a fatal injury for a horse.
Horses are not ruminants; they only have one stomach, compared with four for a cow. Instead, grass is digested in an enlarged chamber of the large intestine, called the cecum. This holds about 28 litres (7.4 gallons) of semi-digested grass slurry and symbiotic bacteria that break down the tough cellulose in the grass. In a cow’s digestive system, the bacteria live in a chamber that sits in front of the intestine, so as they grow and multiply, the excess bacteria pass into the intestine and are themselves digested. Horses can’t do this; the excess bacteria pass straight out with the droppings, wasting energy, so horses aren’t such efficient grazers.
The exact mix of bacterial species in a horse’s cecum depends on the kind of foodstuff in its diet. Domesticated species must have their diet varied very gradually to allow the bacterial population to adapt to the new nutrient balance, otherwise they will develop colic. This gastrointestinal condition is the leading cause of death among domesticated horses. These animals are also quite vulnerable to poisoning because they can’t vomit. Certain plants, such as ragwort, can cause severe liver damage. Horses will avoid fresh ragwort due to its bitter taste but can’t detect it when it has been dried – during hay making, for instance.
Horses, donkeys, zebras and asses are different species, however they are all members of the same genus: Equus. They are closely related enough to be able to cross-breed, although the hybrids are nearly always infertile. The most common hybrid, a mule, is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. Most ‘wild’ horses are actually feral – that is, they are descended from domesticated horses that subsequently escaped back into the wild.
Horses died out on the American continent about 12,000 years ago and weren’t reintroduced until the Spanish settlers arrived in the 15th century. The only true wild horse remaining today is Przewalski’s horse, which is a very rare subspecies of the modern horse, found solely in Mongolia and a Bosnian wild horse (only true wild horse in Europe) that can be found in Bosnia and Herzegovina, near city Livno, on a mountain Cincar.
Horses were first domesticated around 4000 BCE. Selective breeding has resulted in horses that are more docile around humans, but every horse must be trained anew to some extent before it will accept a saddle and bridle or respond to basic commands from a rider. This process is known as ‘breaking in’ a horse.
European wild horses from Bosnia and Herzegovina
These horses are about 40 years ago released in nature – some say it was due to lack of food during winter, and some say it was because of the mechanization of the processing of plains near Livno.
Despite the severe winters and the attacks of wild beasts, and sometimes the very people, horses have managed to survive through the decades. At the beginning of their life in the wild horses lived in the lower regions, so that later, after they formed herds, they started to live in the higher regions – especially in the highlands named Kruzi. Pastures rich with grass contributed to their survival to this day. Today there are over two hundred.
Wild horses from Cincar mountain are one of the rare herds of wild horses left in Europe. They can survive without humans, adapt to conditions in the mountains, and unlike half wild and tame horses they can find food throughout the year alone. Even in winter they are digging grass they eat beneath the snow. Through winters they survive together in a large herd, while the rest of the year they are distributed to small groups.
Wild horses of Livanjsko plains is one of the most beautiful tourist attractions that should be under government protection. There is a petition for their protection but until than they will try to survive on their own.
How do horses get around?
Horses have four natural gaits – patterns of placing their feet as they move. The slowest is the walk, where the legs move one at a time from left-hind to left-front, then right-hind to right-front. Only one foot is ever off the ground at a time. A walking horse moves most comfortably at about 6.4 kilometres (four miles) per hour.
As it begins to move faster there isn’t time for the right-hand legs to wait for the left-hand ones to finish moving. Instead the legs move in diagonally opposite pairs: left-hind and right-front, alternating with right-hind and left-front. This is the trot and it is the most efficient gait for a horse. Horses can trot at 12.9 kilometres (eight miles) per hour for hours. To move faster, the horse transitions to a canter. If you listen to a horse cantering, you can hear three hoof beats instead of four, as one diagonal pair always lands together, alternating sides on each stride. 18th-century paintings of running horses always show the legs stretched out when all four hooves are off the ground, but actually the airborne phase of the canter occurs when the legs are all grouped together.
The fastest gait – the gallop – is actually just a stretched-out canter. All four hooves land at different times as the horse reaches for the longest stride length. Galloping is only possible in short bursts and generally used for escaping predators.
The language of the herd
Wild and feral horses typically live in herds of 10-40 animals with one of the older mares taking charge of all the major decisions. There is normally just one breeding stallion in each herd. The foals and younger horses are allowed to remain until they are two years old on average, after which both the colts (male) and fillies (female) are driven away by the lead stallion. Fillies will join another mixed herd, but the colts join a male-only bachelor herd until they are old and strong enough to try challenging the breeding stallion of a mixed herd.
Breeding and training have made domesticated horses much less skittish than their wild cousins, but most of their body language remains. Horses don’t communicate with their voice much; it’s mostly done with the angle of the head, the position of the ears and the movement of the eyes.
‘Horse whisperers’ have learned to mimic these movements to reassure a horse. Approaching a horse with your head down and angled to one side, for example, makes it much less likely to shy away if you are trying to catch it in a field.
Modern DNA analysis has shown that all domesticated horses are descended from a single wild species. The difference between a Shetland pony and a Thoroughbred racehorse is just down to selective breeding. There are around 300 recognized breeds of horse but most of them fall into one of five categories.
Ponies are any horse under a certain height -usually 14.2 hands (147 centimetres/58 inches) at the shoulder. A cob is larger than a pony but still quite compact and solid – ideal for everyday riding. Hunters are characterised by their stamina, jumping ability and fearlessness. Thoroughbreds are larger again, while draught horses are the largest and most placid, typically bred to pull wagons and ploughs.
Of these, only the Thoroughbred is an actual breed of horse. A purebred horse is any member of a defined breed, such as a Clydesdale or Mustang. A Thoroughbred is the name of a specific breed frequently used for racing.
What kind of coat does the tiger horse have?
This breed is over a thousand years old and was so named as the Chinese Royal Court used them when hunting tigers. Its coat is actually spotted, resembling a modern Appaloosa. The fine specimen pictured is Admiral’s Ponca Patches – a foundation stallion of the breed Tiger horse F059.
Interesting facts about horses
Jaw muscles – Grass is very tough and needs a lot of chewing in order to grind it up.
Common digital extensor tendon – Straightens the leg. A horse with a damaged extensor tendon can learn to compensate by flicking the leg forwards instead.
Heart – Weighs 3.6kg (7.9lb) and can beat up to 240 times per minute.
Stomach – Relatively small compared to the overall body size. Most of the digestion happens in the intestines.
Ear – The ears can swivel through 180 degrees to let the horse precisely pinpoint the origin of any sound.
Eye – Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal – they’re even bigger than an elephant’s!
Lung – Horses can absorb twice as much oxygen into their blood per kilogram of body weight as humans.
Tail – Not used for balance at all, the tail is purely for swishing away annoying insects.
Impact – When a horse walks on a hard surface, small stones can create point-loading stresses on the hoof that cause it to crack.