People around the world have used horses (Equus caballus) for thousands of years for farming, ranching, hunting, transportation, sport, and war—and even for simple companionship. “Pony” is a name used for certain types of small horses. Since the development of railroads, automobiles, tractors, and other machinery, horses are not as widely used for work as they once were. Yet, these beautiful animals remain among our most beloved creatures.
There are more than 150 breeds of horses and ponies—each one carefully produced by people through selective breeding to have particular, desirable traits. The breeds at Big Run Wolf Ranch include a miniature horse and a Welsh pony. All horse breeds are classified into three main groups: heavy horses, light horses, and ponies.
Heavy horses are the largest horses, with large bones and thick legs. Some weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Light horses are smaller horses, with small bones and thin legs. Most weigh less than 1,300 pounds. Ponies are also small horses, usually less than 800 pounds and shorter than 58 inches from ground to withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades). Many ponies have short, stout legs.
Heavy horses are the strongest types of horses. Draft horses are heavy horses that were once commonly used to pull plows across farms and wagons filled with heavy freight. The largest draft horse breed is the shire, which may stand more than 68 inches high. Other draft horse breeds include the Clydesdale (famous for the long hair at the bottom of its legs), the Belgian, and the Suffolk.
Coach horses are somewhat smaller than draft horses. They were also once commonly used for farm work and pulling heavy wagons. Coach horse breeds include the German coach, French coach, and Cleveland bay.
Light horses known as saddle horses include breeds that are often used for riding, racing, performances in horse shows, and hunting. The quarter horse is a saddle horse used by cowboys and cowgirls for herding cattle and other ranch work. This breed is also the fastest racehorse, able to run a quarter mile in about 20 seconds. The thoroughbred is a high-spirited breed used for racing, jumping, and hunting. Other saddle horses include Lipizzaners (famous performing horses), the Tennessee walking horse, the Morgan, and the Arabian.
Many kinds of light horses are more often classified by their color patterns than by their breeds. For example, palominos are light horses with a golden/blond coat and a golden or silvery mane or tail. Appaloosas usually have a whitish area on the loin and hips with small dark “raindrop” spots.
Some people classify miniature horses as light horses, other people classify them as ponies. A miniature horse is usually less than 34 to 38 inches in height. Some “dwarf” miniature horses are less than 20 inches high. Miniature horses are friendly animals that are valued as family pets and horse show performers. Some are even used by blind people as guide animals—just like guide “seeing-eye” dogs. Miniature horses (and ponies) typically live longer than larger horses.
Most ponies are gentle, easily trained animals that can be used for riding and for pulling or carrying light loads. Pony breeds include the Welsh, Shetland, Hackney, and Connemara.
The Welsh pony was originally bred in Wales to work in the narrow tunnels of coal mines and to herd sheep over hilly farmland. Most Welsh ponies are less than 57 inches in height. Welsh ponies are intelligent, friendly, and athletic. The are easy for children to ride. They are also excellent jumpers at horse shows. Welsh ponies are hardy animals that feel right at home in both cold and hot climates.
The Welsh pony at Big Run Wolf ranch is a gelding—meaning a male that has had its reproductive glands removed to prevent it from breeding.
In addition to the many breeds of domestic horses, there are also some horses that live in the wild. The only remaining truly wild horse is the Przewalski horse (Equus przewalskii) of Central Asia. This horse is an endangered species.
Horses that live in the wild in the western United States—animals that are sometimes called mustangs—are descendants of tame horses that escaped from Spanish colonists, Native Americans, and other people hundreds of years ago.
The Horse’s Body
Although horses vary greatly in body size, shape, and color, there are certain things that most horses have in common. Their legs end in hooves that are strong, hard, and curved. A hoof is actually a cover at the tip of a single toe. Two other “toes” grow as bony strips on the sides of the leg. The horse’s “heel” bone (called the “hock”) is actually halfway up the leg. A horse uses its strong legs and hard hooves to kick and protect itself.
You can tell how old a horse is by looking at its teeth. Foals (baby horses) are usually born with no teeth. A four-month-old horse has four upper and four lower teeth. A one-year-old horse, has six upper and six lower teeth. When a horse is five years old, it has a full set of 36 teeth if it is a mare (female) and 40 teeth if it is a stallion (male). As a horse ages, the teeth become increasingly worn down from eating.
Have you ever seen a horse twitch? Horses have special muscles in their bodies that can twitch to help them shake off insects.
Breeders, trainers, and handlers measure the body of a horse in units called hands. One hand equals four inches.
Horses have excellent senses of vision, hearing, and smell. They have larger eyes than any other land animal, except for ostriches. A horse can look forward with one of its eyes and backwards with the other. However, because its eyes are on the sides of its head, a horse has to turn its head to see directly in front.
Horses move their ears around to help them pick up faint sounds coming from different directions. Horses’ large nostrils help them smell odors originating far away.
Horses eat only plant food, such as grass, hay, and oats. A horse typically needs to be fed about three times a day. A hard-working, medium-sized horse may eat 20 pounds of food per day. A horse living a life of leisure will eat less. A horse may drink about 10 gallons of water a day. Horses also need to be given blocks of salt to lick, because they lose a lot of body salt through sweating.
Horses—Young and Old
A foal is born after being carried in its mother’s womb for 10 to 14 months. Most mares will give birth to five or six foals throughout their lives.
Soon after being born, a foal can stand. Within a few hours, it can run. A colt (growing horse) typically reaches full size by the time it is five years old. Mares may be used to breed in as early as three years. Stallions are usually first bred around the age of four years.
Horses typically live to be about 20 to 30 years old.
Fossils lead most scientists to believe that all horses are descended from a small horselike animal that lived about 55 million years ago. This prehistoric animal, called Eohippus or Hyracotherium, was only 10 to 20 inches high. Fossils indicate that by 3 million years ago, wild horses had evolved to have the basic size and appearance of modern horses. People domesticated horses sometime before 5,000 years ago.
There were no horses in the Western Hemisphere when Europeans first arrived in the late 1400’s. When Christopher Columbus and the other early explorers from Spain brought horses with them to the Americas, it was the first time that Native Americans had ever seen a horse. However, they soon became expert horsemen. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, horses were crucial to the settlement of the United States by the pioneers.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Horse article, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Ronald M. Novak, John L. Paradiso. Walker's Mammals of the World, 4th ed. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.