One of the things I like best about living in Pagosa Springs, and there are many, is to see all the pretty horses, from glossy black to spotting patterns, to vanilla white, as they enhance green fields and conifer forests.
But it wasn’t always so.
“It wasn’t?” you might ask.
I didn’t know either, but the modern horse was first brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492, when he made his momentous discovery of the Americas, 10,000 years or so after the native Americans arrived in the New World.
But long before humans inhabited any lands, the diminutive Eohippus, the dawn horse, wandered these plains. You couldn’t throw a saddle over this little guy’s back. He stood about the height of a medium dog. But then, you and I weren’t around, and neither were saddles. This small forest mammal, with the modern horse sleeping in his loins, was related to the rhinoceros and the tapir. It was thought he was also related to the Hippopotamus, but it turns out that the Hippo is related to pigs.
Over time, while his relatives were content to remain in the sheltered forests, cheeky little Eohippus ventured out to the drier open grasslands of the steppes and became a grass eater.
There was one problem. At his height, he couldn’t outrun the slavering meat-eaters who dogged his toed heels. Mom Nature accessed the situation, and in her continuous arms race of predator and prey, she decided Eohippus had to grow and switch to hoofs.
It came to pass, with much time, that he began to resemble the modern horse. With his larger skeleton, he was able to outrun the carnivores. But the early horse died out in the Americas at about the time of the last ice age, ten to twelve thousand years ago, possibly due to climate change, or the hunting of early populations. Eventually, his cousins in Central Asia morphed into Equus, that hoofed, saddle-bearing, wagon-pulling, load-carrying race-running and jumping, cattle-catching, show-stopper, the modern horse. But that was not nature’s idea, that was man’s, who saw the possibilities of what the horse could do for him.
Some of Christopher Columbus’ domesticated horses, and later the Conquistadors’ animals, escaped and used their highly-developed sense of flight or fight to gain their freedom. In other words, they ran for their lives. Not truly wild, but feral, they still run, these mustangs, on the open plains. And they still like to stay away from humans and saddles. First descended from Iberian stock, mostly Arabian, Andalusian and Barb ancestry, the mustangs are a cross of many breeds.
The Native Americans were quick to see the usefulness of the horse in battles, trade, and hunts, especially of bison. The Comanche, Shoshone, and especially the Nez Perce, became masterful horse breeders. The Nez Perce developed a truly American breed: the Appaloosa, with its black on white spots.
As far as training horses, perhaps no one holds a candle to Monty Robertson, the Horse Whisperer, who seems to communicate with horses through their own body language and trains them in the gentlest of manners.
By 1900 North America had approximately two million free-roaming mustangs. Now, drastically reduced by hunting, capturing, poisoning and slaughtering for meat, the wild herds are under govt. protection. Almost half of all wild mustang herds are found in Nevada.
Altogether, there are about 300 breeds of modern horses, mostly shaped by humans, from the cowboy’s working Quarter Horse to the white Lippizan stallions that dazzle with their ballerina steps, to that hot-blooded Arabian, with his almond-shaped eyes, his dish-shaped face, his arched neck and short back. To watch one of these beauties run free, you have to ask who choreographed their dance movements. An ancient text talks of the treasured Arabian horse: “Thou shallst fly without wings and conquer without swords.” The harsh desert allowed for only the strongest horses to survive and shaped the modern Arabian horse. The Bedouins, those fanatical horse breeders, considered the mare to be their most prized possession.
Mohammed himself instructed his followers to look after the Arabian horse and treat him kindly, with special attention to the mares. He proclaimed that Allah Himself had created the Arabian horse, and those who treated him kindly would be rewarded in the afterlife.
So as I drive by all the pretty horses in the fields of Pagosa Springs, I think about the evolution of little Eohippus, and the connection we seem to inherently have with horses.
But if this were fifty-four million years ago, I’d be watching small mammals with toes peeking out from the shelter of the conifer forests. You couldn’t throw a saddle over them, but then, the fences could be lower.