What is a Horse?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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The horse is an animal with a long history. Horses have been closely intertwined with humans for thousands of years, and while they are not as widely used as they once were, they are unlikely to vanish from human society altogether. Thanks to the long association of horses and humans, horses appear in many human myths, legends, and religions, and numerous works of art around the world depict the horse, from ancient cave paintings to Roman statues.

Many people are familiar with the horse, as the animals are a ubiquitous part of many societies. Horses have hooves, which makes them ungulates, and they are classified as “odd toed” because each leg has a single toe. They have also developed lengthy manes and tails made from stiff, coarse hair which is used for a number of things, including paintbrushes and bows for musical instruments. Horses come in a range of sizes and colors, and they have a few distinct shapes as well, with some horses being muscular and compact while others are fine boned and lanky.


The formal name for the horse is Equus caballus, placing it in the same family as zebras, donkeys, and onagers. These animals represent the survivors of a once much larger and more diverse group of animals; over the centuries, horses and their relatives developed unique adaptations to survive in the environments where they roamed. The horse is designed for life on the open plains; the animals have several anatomical features which allow them to run extremely quickly, and they are adapted to eat grasses and other plant forage.

Archaeological evidence suggests that many early humans ate horses and used byproducts such as hides for shelter and garments. The shift from wild to domesticated horse is a bit difficult to pin down. Some archaeologists believe that the horse was domesticated around 4500 BCE somewhere in Asia, perhaps by tribes in Russia. The domestication of early horses was the first step in thousands of years of coexistence, and it marked a distinct shift in the evolution of the horse, as people started to deliberately select specific traits through crossbreeding, causing distinct breeds of horse to emerge.

Hundreds of horse breeds have been developed all over the world. Some have been bred for strength so that they can work pulling carts and agricultural implements. Others were bred for speed and endurance, so that they could hunt, while some horses have been bred to be extremely intelligent, assisting their owners with tasks ranging from herding cattle to searching for people who are lost. The horse-owning community have developed a very specific language to discuss horses, with terms for everything from the color of a horse's coat to the shape of its ears. Many horse breeds are quite ancient, and some biologists believe that modern horses may be descended from several distinct wild horse populations.

Humans have used horses for work animals in a wide range of applications. Horses pull farm implements, carry riders, transport people and goods in carts, and help to herd other animals. Over time, the horse has become a beloved and iconic figure in many human societies, with people prizing well bred horses and using horses for sport and leisure as well as work. Some modern horses are pets, treated more like members of the family than work animals, while others are shown in competition to showcase their skills or physical attributes.


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