Skip to Content

Are Horses Native to North America? The Fossils Tell a Story

Any links on this page that lead to products on Amazon are affiliate links and I earn a commission if you make a purchase. Thanks in advance – I really appreciate it!


The sight of wild horses in North America stirs curiosity about their roots. Many believe they were brought here by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Yet, archaeological discoveries are reshaping this belief, hinting at a more complex history of horses on this continent.

Fossils of Eohippus, an ancient ancestor of our modern horses, present a surprising truth: horses are, in fact, native to North America. They first evolved here nearly 45 million years ago, disappearing for a time only to return with the Spanish. Their history is not just a story of arrival but an intriguing tale of survival, disappearance, and unexpected return.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into this riveting tale of horse evolution and migration in North America. We’ll explore fossils, question old theories, and journey back in time to see how horses first made this continent their home. Stay with me as we untangle a tale that weaves together natural history and human exploration.

From Eohippus to Equus: A Glimpse into the Evolution of Horses

The story of the horse, as we know it today, begins with a creature you would hardly recognize. The Eohippus, or “dawn horse,” was a small, multi-toed creature about the size of a dog. Living in the forests of North America around 45 to 55 million years ago, this early equid grazed on leaves and fruits rather than the grasses that modern horses prefer.

Picture of wild horses, which prompted the question, are horses native to North America?

Through millions of years, the Eohippus underwent numerous evolutionary changes to become the Equus, the genus that includes today’s horses. The changing climate, shifting from dense forests to open grasslands, played a significant role in this transformation.

Over time, Eohippus’s descendants became larger, their snouts longer for better grazing, their teeth more suited to a diet of grass, and most notably, their toes fused into a single hoof. This hoof, combined with long, powerful legs, made them excellent runners – a crucial adaptation for survival in open plains where threats could come from any direction.

Having evolved in North America, horses were once widespread across the continent. But their story does not stop there. Over thousands of years, these creatures ventured over land bridges, reaching new territories in Asia and Europe.

Their global journey was interrupted in their homeland when, around 10,000 years ago, horses became extinct in North America due to factors we’re still trying to fully understand. Yet, the tale doesn’t end there. These versatile animals would eventually make a triumphant return to their native lands, marking another twist in the captivating narrative of their evolution and distribution.

NameFirst recordedFeatures
Eohippus60 million years ago13 inches and had an arched back similar to some deer.
Epihippus38 million years agoGrinding teeth and hoof development
Merychippus17 million years agoLong face, tall, and developed cheek teeth
Dinohippus13 million years agoFirst species to develop one toe and the stay mechanism
Equus4 million years ago (present)Long neck and legs, with a single toe. 13 hands tall

Horses in North America: A Prehistoric Perspective

The saga of horses in North America has its roots deeply planted in the prehistoric era. Their journey began over a million years ago during the Ice Age, a time of significant climatic shifts and the rise and fall of countless species. Among the diverse wildlife of this epoch, horses found their niche, thriving across the verdant landscapes and grazing the vast grasslands that sprawled over much of the continent.

However, like many Ice Age animals, horses faced a dramatic upheaval in their fortunes. Around 10,000 years ago, horses, along with mammoths, mastodons, and other large mammals, vanished from North America. This extinction event coincided with changing climatic conditions and the arrival of the first humans, though the precise cause remains a topic of ongoing scientific investigation.

The echo of their hooves may have faded, but horses left behind indelible footprints in the form of fossils. These ancient remnants, scattered across various North American sites, testify to the once-thriving equine populations.

horse on the Irish plain

Unearthing the Past: Fossil Evidence of Horses in North America

Proof of horses’ native status in North America lies beneath our feet in the wealth of fossil evidence unearthed over the years. Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming, a treasure trove of Ice Age animal remains, offers compelling testimony to their ancient presence. Horse fossils, along with those of other large mammals, highlight the diverse wildlife that once roamed these lands.

Further north, in the rugged Yukon territory, a horse skull lends additional support. This relic of an ancient caballine breed indicates that horses journeyed over the Bering Land Bridge into Eurasia around a million years ago. This discovery solidifies the fact that horses were part of North America’s fauna long before the Spanish set foot on the continent.

Numerous archaeological sites echo this narrative, revealing horse remains predating the Columbian era. Central California, for instance, houses a site teeming with the remnants of over 30 horses. These discoveries reaffirm horses’ presence in North America thousands of years before Columbus’s arrival.

The fossil record provides a riveting glimpse into the life, evolution, and disappearance of horses in prehistoric North America. Yet, as we’ll soon discover, their story was poised for a dramatic twist, leading to a surprising resurgence centuries later.

Horses’ Dramatic Journey in North America

Around 10,000 years ago, a profound silence fell over the landscapes of North America – the echoes of horse hooves had abruptly ceased. This marked the end of an era for horses on the continent as they succumbed to an extinction event that claimed the lives of many large mammals. This dramatic disappearance has intrigued scientists for years, leading to multiple theories explaining this sudden loss.

The most commonly accepted hypotheses revolve around two key factors: drastic climatic changes and the arrival of humans. As the Ice Age waned, habitats transformed drastically, possibly challenging the survival of horses. Concurrently, the first humans were making their way into North America, and their hunting practices might have further pressured the horse populations.

Nevertheless, the tale of horses in North America was destined for a thrilling plot twist. Centuries later, in the Age of Exploration, Spanish explorers unknowingly set the stage for a remarkable comeback. Arriving in the 16th century, these explorers brought with them a variety of domesticated animals, including horses.

These horses, descendants of the survivors that had migrated to Asia and Europe, thrived in their ancestral homeland. They swiftly spread across the continent, adapting to various climates and landscapes, from the scorching deserts of the Southwest to the vast prairies of the Midwest. Their reintroduction drastically reshaped the cultures and lifestyles of Indigenous peoples and forever altered the ecological tapestry of North America.

Thus, in an extraordinary cycle of extinction and reintroduction, horses etched an indelible mark in the annals of North American history—a testament to their resilience and adaptability.

Picture of horses in a pasture

Understanding the Mystery of Horses’ Disappearance from North America

Surprisingly, horses vanished from North America not once but twice. The first occurrence was around 25,000 years ago, followed by a second around 11,000 years ago. What could have driven these enigmatic disappearances? While the full picture remains elusive, scientists have proposed a few plausible theories.

The timing of horses’ extinction roughly aligns with the arrival of humans in North America. Were the early settlers responsible for the horses’ disappearance? Some evidence suggests this could be the case. Archaeologists have unearthed ancient butchering tools in the Western United States, some dating back over 7,000 years. Intriguingly, these blades bear the DNA of native horses. However, skeptics argue that the lack of fossil evidence from this period leaves this theory wanting.

Alternatively, could climate change be the culprit? As the Ice Age came to an end, the North American landscape underwent dramatic shifts. These climatic changes likely led to fluctuations in the availability of suitable vegetation, forcing horses and other large mammals to cross the Bering land bridge in search of greener pastures.

When sea levels rose, the bridge was submerged, cutting off the route and leaving many species stranded without their usual food sources. Many scientists consider this scenario the most likely cause of horses’ extinction.

Finally, the idea that infectious diseases might have contributed to the horses’ demise has also been proposed, albeit with limited scientific support. The rapid spread of pathogens could have decimated horse populations, leading to their ultimate extinction.

While the exact cause of the extinction of horses in North America remains shrouded in mystery, these theories offer compelling insights into the trials these noble creatures faced thousands of years ago.

Below is an interesting YouTube video from PBS Eons about how horses took over North America.

Horse’s Influence on Indigenous Cultures of North America

With the return of horses to North America, a profound transformation took place, particularly within the indigenous cultures. The Plains Indians, amongst other tribes, quickly adapted to this reintroduction, integrating these majestic creatures into every facet of their existence.

The horses’ adoption marked a watershed moment in the evolution of the tribes’ way of life. Prior to their arrival, the Plains Indians were largely sedentary, their livelihoods revolving around farming and hunting on foot.

The horse ushered in a newfound mobility and efficiency, drastically altering their lifestyle and hunting techniques. The tribes could now cover vast distances quickly, enabling them to follow migrating herds of buffalo, their primary food source, more efficiently.

But the influence of horses extended far beyond their practical value. They permeated the cultural fabric of these societies, gaining a near-sacred status. From playing a pivotal role in warfare and tribal ceremonies to being revered as spiritual symbols, horses became deeply ingrained in the cultural identity of the tribes.

The tribes treated horses as members of their own community, and a man’s wealth was often measured by the number of horses he owned. They were painted and decorated for tribal ceremonies, and their courage and strength were celebrated in tribal songs and stories.

This period of history exemplifies how the reintroduction of horses transformed indigenous cultures in North America. Through their adoption and veneration of these animals, the Plains Indians and other tribes were able to adapt and thrive amidst the changing landscapes of their homelands, forever intertwining their destinies with the fate of these noble creatures.

The Current State of Wild Horses in North America

Wild horses continue to graze the vast terrains of North America, and among them, one breed stands out—Mustangs. Descendants of horses brought by Spanish explorers, Mustangs have evolved into sturdy, adaptable creatures perfectly suited to the diverse climates and rough terrains of the American West.

Today, Mustangs are considered symbols of the untamed West, embodying the essence of freedom and resilience. Their populations, however, are under stress due to factors such as habitat loss, competition for resources, and human interventions.

The US Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 95,000 wild horses and burros on public lands, which is more than the land can support. To address these concerns, various conservation efforts are underway.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees the Wild Horse and Burro Program, which aims to manage and protect these wild populations. They employ strategies such as round-ups and adoptions, controversial yet crucial measures to prevent overpopulation and ensure the sustainability of their habitats.

Private organizations, too, are stepping up. The Cloud Foundation and the American Wild Horse Campaign, among others, are committed to preserving the wild horse populations. They strive to protect the animals’ natural habitats, advocate for humane treatment, and foster public awareness and involvement in their conservation efforts.

In essence, while the legacy of horses in North America traces back millions of years, their future rests on the conservation actions we undertake today. The intertwining of human and equine destinies, it seems, continues well into the 21st century.

Check out the YouTube video below for more information about the origin of horses.

The Hagerman Horse: A Legacy Engraved in Fossils

Although earlier members of the horse family left their traces on North American soil, the first true horse here is believed to be the Hagerman horse. Fossil remnants discovered in Hagerman, Idaho, suggest these creatures roamed the continent around three and a half million years ago.

These findings substantiate the long-standing presence of horses in North America, predating Columbus’s arrival by millions of years. Some theories even propose their initial migration to the Western Hemisphere occurred over 20 million years ago.

A once familiar sight across North American landscapes, the Hagerman horse mysteriously vanished around 10,000 years ago. Researchers propose two leading theories behind this extinction: human predation and climate change.

With the first humans setting foot in North America approximately 15,000 years ago, it’s plausible that overhunting contributed to the Hagerman horse’s demise. Rapid climate change, occurring around 12,000 years ago, presents another feasible explanation. The Hagerman Valley’s transition from a hot, dry environment to a colder, wetter one may have been too drastic for these horses to adapt.

Nevertheless, the exact cause of their extinction remains a mystery. Overhunting, climate change, or perhaps other unidentified factors may have contributed. What we do know is that the Hagerman horse’s fossil record—among the oldest in the genus Equus—provides an invaluable window into an era long past.

Picture of an Irish Draft horse.

Journey Through Time: The Evolution of Horses

Horses have had an extraordinary journey of transformation. From their humble beginnings as small, deer-like creatures, they’ve evolved into the large, diverse species that we know today. Let’s journey back through time and explore the remarkable lineage of the modern horse, spotlighting the key evolutionary milestones along the way.

Diagram showing the evolution of the horse's foot in four stages from four toes to hoof.

Eohippus “dawn horse,” lived in North America.

The evolution of horses in North America begins 60 million years ago with Eohippus. Eohippus is the ancestor of all modern-day horses as well as prehistoric horses like Epihippus and Merychippus.

Eohippus differed dramatically from the horses of today. It was a small animal, standing only 13 inches, and had an arched back similar to some deer. Eohippus also had functioning toes, four on their front feet and three on their hind feet.

These small animals didn’t have grinding teeth found in modern horses but short crowned teeth. Their teeth indicate the Eohippus was a roaming animal that sustained itself on foliage, like leaves and other plant foods. The characteristics of the ancient animal suggest it was likely a timid forest dweller.

The name Eohippus was first applied by Thomas Henry Huxley while visiting the United States in 1876. He had examined the collection of ancient fossils gathered from the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.

Mr. Huxley believed these fossils bolstered the theory of evolution by tracing horses native to North America to modern horses. Thus the name Eohippus, the “dawn horse.” The Eohippus evolved into Orohippus.

The noticeable differences between Orohippus and Eohippus were the absence of the vestigial toes that were present in Eohippus, and Orohippus had an extra grinding tooth with more crest, allowing it to feed on tougher plants.

Eohippus, the “dawn horse,” was one of the first mammals to live in North America. It is believed that this small, equine-like creature roamed the continent around 60 million years ago.

Scientists have discovered many fossils of Eohippus in areas such as Nebraska and Wyoming. While much about this prehistoric animal remains a mystery, researchers constantly uncover new information about its habits and behavior.

Drawing of the Epihippus horse,


Epihippus has been getting a lot of attention lately. This little guy is considered to be the most important ancient equine and for good reason. Epihippus is a small, dog-sized horse that lived in the early Eocene period.

It is responsible for developing some of the key features that make horses so unique. For example, it was the first ancestor of the horse to develop hooves that allowed him to travel long distances without getting tired.

Thirty-eight million years ago, Epihippus stepped out of the forest and into the meadows. It made its way on the scene with small developmental strides, with more grinding teeth, a more substantial body, and changes to its feet.

Thanks to Epihippus, horses were able to flourish and spread across North America and Europe. His discoveries paved the way for future equine evolution.


Merychippus was one of the earliest equine species, and little is known about it. What we do know, however, is that it was an important part of early horse evolution. This species is named for the three bones in its lower leg, which are still found in modern horses.

Merychippus first appeared in the fossil record around 17 million years ago. It was a small horse, standing about ten hands tall. Merychippus evolved from a previous equine species called Hyracotherium.

Unlike its predecessor, Merychippus had long legs and hooves that were well-adapted for running. It also had a more complex diet, which can be attributed to the development of its teeth and jaws.

It also had high-crowned cheek teeth for grazing, allowing it to be the first grazing horse. Merychippus was smarter, more agile, and taller than its predecessors.

Despite its importance in horse evolution, very little is known about Merychippus itself. Much of what we do know comes from studying its fossilized remains. Unfortunately, few complete skeletons have been found, so scientists are still working to piece together this enigmatic species.


Dinohippus was a genus of horses that lived in North America during the Miocene epoch. It was larger than its predecessors and is most well-known for being the first horse to develop a true hoof.

Dinohippus fossils have been found all over North America and date from 13-5 million years ago. The Dinohippus skull, teeth, and foot structure are very similar to modern horses. Dinohippus evolved into the Equus, the genus which includes the modern horse.

They are the first breed to have developed one toe and also a stay mechanism. The stay mechanism allows horses to stand for extended periods without exerting much energy. This mechanism enables horses to sleep while standing.

Picture of horses grazing in the wild.

Equus had the features of a modern horse

1-4 million years ago, Equus, the modern horse, debuted in North America. It stood approximately 13 hands tall with the features of a standard horse. Equus had a long neck and legs with a single toe.

Equus originated in North America and spread throughout the world. Early Equus fossils have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica and Australia.

Evidence suggests that Equus migrated to Asia a million years ago. They went extinct in North America about 11,000 years ago but survived on other continents and many years later returned to their continent of birth.

A recent study published in the journal Science has rewritten the history of horses. It was previously believed that Equus, the genus that includes modern horses, evolved in North America around 3.5 million years ago.

However, the new study suggests that Equus actually originated in Europe and Asia about 4 million years ago. This means that North America played a much smaller role in the evolution of horses than previously thought!

The study also found that ancient Equus had the features of a modern horse, such as a single toe on each foot. This suggests that horses evolved relatively quickly and did not undergo any major changes over millions of years. It’s amazing to think about how much our understanding of horses has changed in such a short amount of time.

Picture of a man riding a palomino horse.


The story of horses in North America is a tale of resilience, adaptation, and intricate connections between species and civilizations. From their ancient origins in the continent’s landscapes to their disappearance and eventual return with the Spanish conquistadors, horses have left an indelible mark on the history and culture of North America.

Through the examination of fossils and archaeological evidence, we have gained valuable insights into the evolution and migration of horses, uncovering their deep-rooted presence in North America for millions of years. The reintroduction of horses by Europeans sparked a new era, transforming the lives of indigenous tribes and shaping the course of human exploration and settlement.

Today, wild horses like the iconic Mustangs continue to roam the plains, serving as a reminder of the untamed spirit of these magnificent creatures. Conservation efforts strive to protect their habitats and maintain their populations, ensuring a harmonious coexistence between horses and the natural world.

As we reflect on the rich history of horses in North America, we are reminded of their enduring significance as symbols of freedom, strength, and the enduring bond between humans and animals. The story of horses is an ongoing saga, inviting us to appreciate their remarkable journey and the profound impact they have had on our shared heritage.


What country did horses originate from?

Horses originated from the United States and other countries in North America more than 50 million years ago. However, they went extinct on the continent about 10,000 years ago.

When was the horse first discovered?

It’s not easy to say when horses were first discovered. However, through science, we know that horses have existed for 55 million years and were domesticated in Kazakhstan 5,500 years ago.