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

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I was reading a recent article about wild horses and their origin in North America. It has long been believed that horses were not native to North America- that they first arrived with the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. However, recent fossil evidence suggests that this may not be the case.

Horses are native to North America. Forty-five million-year-old fossils of Eohippus, the modern horse’s ancestor, evolved in North America, survived in Europe and Asia, and returned with the Spanish explorers.

In this article, we will take a close look at the evidence and see what it tells us about horse evolution and migration in North America. Stay tuned for an interesting journey through time.

Picture of white horses in a field.

Evidence of Horses in North America

The early horses went extinct in North America but made a come back in the 15th century. So are they native? The classification is fuzzy, so let’s take a deeper dive into the topic.

The best piece of evidence that indicates horses are native to North America is a horse skull that was discovered in the Yukon territory. This skull provides proof that an ancient breed of horses known as caballine crossed over the Bering Land Bridge about 1 million years ago into Eurasia.

This discovery suggests that horses were present in North America long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. In addition to this evidence, there are also several archaeological sites throughout North America that have yielded horse remains dating back to the pre-Columbian period.

One such site is located in central California and contains the remains of over 30 horses. These finds suggest that horses were present in North America for thousands of years before Columbus arrived on the shores of the New World.

Horses have played a significant role in the history of North America and throughout the world. Currently, in North America, there are close to 19.5 million horses, representing almost a third of the world’s horse population. But are horses native to North America?

horse on the Irish plain

The Hagerman horse

Although there are fossils from earlier members of the horse family, the first true horse in North America is the Hagerman horse. Remanents were found in Hagerman, Idaho, and is estimated to be about three and a half million years old.

The discovery of the Hagerman horse proved that horses were present in North America before the arrival of Columbus. In fact, it’s now thought that horses may have first come to the Western Hemisphere over 20 million years ago.

The Hagerman horse was once a common sight in North America. But this species went extinct around 10,000 years ago for unknown reasons. Some scientists believe that the arrival of humans on the continent led to the extinction of the Hagerman horse, while others believe that climate change played a role.

The first humans arrived in North America around 15,000 years ago, and they quickly began hunting the horses for food which has led scientists to believe is the cause of the Hagerman horses’ demise.

Climate change is another possible reason for the extinction of the Hagerman horse. The climate in North America changed dramatically around 12,000 years ago, and this may have caused the horses to die out.

The Hagerman valley was a very hot and dry place, and when the climate became colder and wetter it may have been too harsh of a climate for the horses to survive in.

Regardless of the reason for their extinction, the Hagerman fossils are some of the oldest remains of the genus Equus.

Overhunting and climate change are two of the main reasons why the Hagerman horse went extinct, but there may have been other factors as well. We will never know for sure what caused this species to go extinct, but it is interesting to think about what could have happened.

Picture of an Irish Draft horse.

How horses evolved from small creatures to the large, powerful animals we know today.

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

Scientists believe that the horse evolved from a small, rodent-like creature that lived in jungles. This creature was known as Hyracotherium. Over time, the horse evolved to become larger and more powerful and eventually became the domesticated animal we see today.

The horse is believed to have first evolved in North America about 55 million years ago. They were small, four-legged creatures that resembled modern-day deer. Over time, horses began to develop and grow larger. By the late Pleistocene period, they resembled the horses we know today.

There are several theories as to why horses evolved over time. One theory suggests that horses grew larger in order to better survive in colder climates. Another theory suggests that horses became larger as a result of natural selection and adaptation to their environment.

Whatever the reason may be, it is clear that the horse has come a long way from its small beginnings. Let’s look now at some of the ancestors of modern horses.

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 are constantly uncovering new information about its habits and behavior.

Drawing of the Epihippus horse,

Epihippus

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

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

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. 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.

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.

Horses went extinct in North America two times.

Did you know that horses went extinct in North America twice? It’s true! The first time was around 25,000 years ago, and the second time was about 11,000 years ago. Scientists aren’t sure why they went extinct both times, but there are several theories.

Picture of horses in a pasture

Why did horses disappear from North America?

Horses native to North America vanished. Scientists confirmed horses originated in North America by examining the fossil evidence. And we have proof that they went extinct, but why did the horses native to the region disappear from North America?

It is unclear precisely what caused the extinction of horses in North America, but there are three viable theories: human overkill, climate change, and infectious disease.

Humans crossed the Bering Sea and arrived in North America close to the time horses became extinct. For years it has been believed that horses and humans did not cohabitate on the continent.

Human overkill

Archeologists in the Western United States have unearthed butchering tools that date back over 7,000 years ago. The DNA from horses native to North America was found on these ancient blades.

Skeptics dismiss these findings because there is no fossil evidence of horses from this time, so did humans kill off all our equine friends? That’s a question we can’t answer yet.

Climate change

Climate change and the resulting change of vegetation are the most likely cause of the extinction of the horses native to North America. Equus survived by crossing the Bering land bridge that connected Alaska to Siberia.

During the ice age, rapid climate changes took place, resulting in population swings, according to research by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The Bering Strait land bridge allowed horses and other mammals to travel from Alaska’s northern slope when food supplies dwindled and return during times of abundance.

When the Ice Age ended, sea levels rose to cut off animals’ natural food sources. The flooding of the Bering Strait land bridge resulted in the extinction of many large mammals in North America.

Infectious diseases

The rapid spread of infectious diseases is a theory floated as a cause of the extinction of horses native to North America; however, there seems to be little scientific support for this theory.

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

How did horses return to North America?

People in North America love horses, and we know they’re native to our continent. However, at some point, the animals were extinct and later made a huge comeback, so who do we thank for their return?

Picture of horses grazing in the wild.

Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing horses back to North America in 1493. However, he left the horses in the Virgin Islands. The Spanish explorer Cortez is the first person to re-introduce horses to the mainland. In 1519 he transported horses to Mexico from Europe.

Cortez and other explorers brought mostly Iberian horses. Some horses escaped or were abandoned and populated large areas of the southwestern United States. These bands of horses became known as mustangs.

European settlers brought horses of varying breeds to North America. Some were large for farming, and others as stock to mate with smaller horses. In the early 1900s, the horse population in the United States had grown to 20 million.

Horses flourished on the new continent, and they were used for transportation, ranch work, hauling freight, and farming. Horse racing became a popular sport, and thoroughbred breeding farms were established. Horses were back and stronger than ever.

When did Native Americans get horses?

When I think of Native Americans of the old west, I picture them hunting and traveling on horseback. But since we know the Spanish introduced horses to North America, when did Native Americans get horses?

Native Americans first possessed horses from 1630-1650; no one has a precise year. Some believe Native Americans owned horses much earlier. They theorize the Native people subdued the wild Spanish horses in the mid-16th century.

It is doubtful that Native Americans could learn to catch, break, and train a wild horse without training, especially in such a short time. It is more likely they either traded for horses or were taught to train horses, which would take time.

In the southwestern United States, a wealthy Spaniard established a settlement, which included livestock and horses. The vaqueros rode horses to watch over the vast property. Indians from local tribes were used to help keep the horses and other livestock.

Over some time, the Native American helpers recognized the value of horsemanship and learned how to handle horses. The help would abscond a horse and bring it to their tribe. These horses were used to teach other tribe members horsemanship skills.

Native Americans learned the skills needed to train their horses and began capturing wild horses and trading with the Spanish for horses.

Picture of a man riding a palomino horse.

When did humans start riding horses?

I’m always amazed by how well horses and humans coordinate to perform amazing feats. While recently, at a showjumping competition, I wondered how long people have been riding horses.

Horses were probably first ridden about 5,500 years ago on the plains of northern Kazakhstan, according to a 2009 study conducted by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Archeologists uncovered evidence that indicates horses were selectively bred, used for milk, and possibly ridden. Through the use of new scientific techniques, the team of researchers confirmed bit damage caused by horses being harnessed or bridled.

And testing of pottery remanents found traces of horse milk. These revelations indicate horses were domesticated 1,000 years earlier than prior estimates.

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

FAQ

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.

Resources:

  • To read more about the native horses of North America, click here.
  • To read about wild horses, click on the link.