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. This article made me wonder if there were horses native to North America before the Spanish brought them.

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.

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.

Horses native to North America

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?

Eohippus “dawn horse” lived in North America

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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.

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Epihippus showed signs of hoof development

Thirty-eight million years ago, Epihippus stepped out from the forest and into the meadows. It made its way on the scene with small developmental strides over Orohippu, with more grinding teeth, a more substantial body, and changes to its feet. Epihippus middle toe was larger, the first sign of its development into a hoof.

Merychippus stood ten hands and had a long face

Seventeen million years ago, Merychippus entered the equine line. It retained its three toes, but otherwise, it looked like a horse. It stood ten hands tall with a long face and long legs.

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.

Dinohippus had the ability to sleep while standing

Dinohippus fossils have been found in 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. 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.

Horses went extinct in North America two times

Horses went extinct on the continent of North American a couple of times. First about 25,000 years ago and most recently 11,000 years ago, but before they went extinct in North America they migrated to Asia

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 the continent.

Human overkill

Scientists unearthed tools used to butcher horses that date back over 7,000 years. The DNA found on the tools indicated it was used on horses native to North America; however, there are no fossils of horses from this time, so skeptics dismiss the findings.

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.

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?

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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.

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.

Related articles:

  • To read more about the native horses of North America, click here.
  • To read about wild horses, click here.
  • Click here to read an article about the Appaloosa horse, or
  • You can click here to read about the American Paint horse, a breed that originated in North America.

Miles Henry

I love animals! Especially horses, I've been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn't make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines. Miles Henry

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