Are horses native to America? Where do horses originate?
The horse is central to American culture and folklore and is closely associated with the ancient pioneers, cowboys, the Wild West, and the freedom of the Plains. Moreover, the image of a wild horse roaming the vast open spaces of North America is familiar to everyone.
But where do horses come from? Where did they develop? And how did the Mustang come to establish itself throughout its North American range? To give you the answers you’re looking for, here we discuss the question, Are horses native to North America?
If you’d like to learn more about the free-roaming Mustang in America, you can also check out this documentary before reading on.
The Evolution of Horse Ancestors in North America – Early Beginnings
Whether horses are native to the Americas is a more complex and controversial question than it may first appear, but one thing is certain is that the ancestors of today’s horses evolved in North America.
Modern horses, along with donkeys and zebras, belong to the genus Equus , the only remaining genus of a larger family of animals known as the Equidae.
Over the course of millions of years of evolution, many other genera (plural “genus”) of equids emerged and became extinct, but at present, Equus is the only surviving genus.
Among the oldest members of the Equidae family — and ancestors of today’s horses, donkeys, and zebras — is a creature called eohippus.
Its name means “dawn horse,” and this ancient ancestor of modern horses is known from early Eocene sediments, mostly found in the Wyoming River Wind Basin, meaning it first appeared about 52 million years ago.
However, eohippus would not have looked much like what we think of as horses today. It was about the size of a fox and had all of its toes – although primitive hooves were starting to develop.
Eohippus probably lived in forests, ate soft foliage and fruit, and it actually showed some adaptations for speed such as long legs relative to its body size.
Over millions of years, descendants of eohippus evolved, eventually giving rise to the genus Equus , probably about 4 million years ago. These early types of horses were not still modern horses , but are now closer to what we would know as a horse.
One of the oldest species of Equus, Equus simplicidens – better known as Hagerman’s horse – appeared about 3.5 million years ago and was first discovered in fossils in Hagerman, Idaho, in the early 20th century .
Hagermann’s horse may have resembled a stocky zebra with a donkey-like head.
Migration to Eurasia and extinction in the Americas
Animals like the Hagerman’s horse thrived in North America, and sometime around 2-3 million years ago, some also crossed into Eurasia, presumably traversing the Bering Land Bridge.
Since then, members of the genus Equus are believed to have flocked back and forth between North America and Eurasia several times.
It is also believed that the North American population became extinct several times before the return of animals from Eurasia to the African continent.
The final extinction probably occurred in North America about 13,000-11,000 years ago, and if members of the Equus had not moved to Eurasia, the genus would have become completely extinct.
Domestication and back to the Americas
According to the most accepted version of the story, the modern horse, Equus ferus caballus , a descendant of animals that crossed the Bering Land Bridge, was probably first domesticated in Central Asia sometime before 3500 BC.
From there, domesticated horses quickly spread throughout the Eurasian continent, where they played an important role in many cultures.
Later, when Spanish explorers reached the Americas, they brought horses with them.
The first Spanish horses were transported to the Virgin Islands by Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage, after which they were also brought to the American mainland, starting in 1519.
It is believed that some of these horses managed to escape or were stolen, and then these feral horses moved to live in parts of North America. The descendants of these animals make up the bulk of the American mare herds today.
The ‘original’ vs. ‘submission’ debate
There are now about 90,000 free-roaming mares in the United States, and although they are often referred to as “wild” horses, since they are descended from the domesticated breed that arrived with the Spaniards, they should technically be called “wild”.
However, there is a certain amount of controversy surrounding their status, and debate hinges over whether the reintroduced domesticated Spanish horses can be considered to be of the same species that became extinct in North America about 13,000-11,000 years ago.
It was accepted that although they belonged to the genus Equus , the horses that became extinct in North America belonged to a different species than Equus ferus caballus – and the fossil record seems to support this.
In the past, when paleontologists looked at the fossils they discovered, they classified the animals according to their physical characteristics. This is the traditional methodology, and it’s a logical way to work because paleontologists often had little other evidence.
Among the many examples would be the Equus lambei , better known as the Yukon horse. Due to the obvious physical differences between this animal and modern horses, the Yukon horse has been classified as a separate – although closely related – species.
The same was true of other extinct species of Equus , and the prevailing view was that the animals represented in the North American fossil record were not of the same species as the modern horse.
Arguments in favor of horses being a native species
Recently, researchers have begun to use modern technology – specifically, techniques that look at mitochondrial DNA – to shed more light on the topic, and the results have cast the previously accepted theory into doubt.
For example, researcher Anne Fürstein, of the Institute of Zoology at the University of Helsinki, looked at mitochondrial DNA from a frozen carcass of a Yukon horse and found that it is more closely related to the modern horse than previously expected.
Although the Yukon horse has certain physical characteristics that you don’t find in modern horses, genetically speaking, it was close enough to be considered of the same breed as modern horses. Both are just a subspecies of the same type of animal.
Why is this important?
Let’s take another example to illustrate what this means.
If you think of modern domesticated dogs, there are a variety of different breeds in the world today. They come in all shapes and sizes, from something large and sturdy like a Rottweiler to something small and delicate like a Chihuahua.
If a paleontologist in the far future were to uncover the fossils of rottweilers and chihuahuas, without any other information and judging only by the physical appearance of the two animals, they would most likely be considered different species.
However, we know that they are just different subspecies – or subspecies – of the same animal. Genetically speaking, they are very similar.
Based on new information from DNA analysis, some people now believe the Yukon and the modern domesticated horse belong to the same species – just two closely related subspecies.
This has an important bearing because if we accept this view, this species was already in the Americas long before the arrival of the Spaniards. This meant that the Spaniards were simply bringing back extinct native species rather than introducing a new one.
why does it matter?
Some people may consider this whole discussion somewhat abstract and academic. After all, what does it matter if the modern domesticated horse is a different species or just a different subspecies than the horses that existed in North America before their extinction?
However, it is not just a matter of names and classification because this debate also has an impact on the real world.
In the United States, government agencies are required to take care of native species by protecting them from invasive and non-native species that might harm them—generally speaking, this includes reducing numbers or even eliminating species considered non-native and harmful.
As a result, whether we classify horses that roam freely in the United States as a returning native species or as a non-native introduced species has a measurable impact on how they are treated.
So far, the problem has not been completely resolved. At the moment, maresomes are still considered a non-native species. However, its cultural significance is recognized in the United States, so it is tolerated and protected to some extent, despite population management.
At the same time, some argue that because mare are essentially the same species as extinct North American horses, they should be given the same status and protection as other North American species.
“Wild” vs. “Wild” vs. “Domestic”
At least part of the controversy stems from the differences between what we call “wild” animals, “wild” animals, and “pets”.
In theory, the definitions are straightforward. A wildebeest is an animal whose ancestors were never domesticated while a zebra is an animal that is descended from domestic animals that escaped into the wild.
But what is a “domesticated” animal?
To answer this question, it is helpful to consider the differences between a captive zoo zebra and a domesticated horse – because “domestication” and “captivity” are two different things.
Captive zebras are still wild animals, even if they are born in captivity from captive parents. Sometimes it may be possible to find a tamed zebra that may allow you to ride, but with most zebras, riding is impossible due to their temperament and physiology.
On the other hand, domesticated horses have been selectively bred over many generations to prefer certain characteristics, including docileness, calm temperament, a willingness to pounce and, in some breeds, a willingness to work.
(This doesn’t mean that the original, ancient wild horses were all untrainable – it just means that domesticated horses were selectively bred to make their riding more rideable.)
The same can be said about domesticated dogs and wolves. You cannot keep captive wolves offspring as if you were a pet dog – although it was born in captivity, it is still a wild animal.
The question, then, is how much has the process of domestication and thousands of years of selective breeding changed the horse and how different are modern domestic horses from their wild ancestors really?
Are there really any wild horses anywhere in the world?
Perhaps one way to approach this question is to look at groups of wild horses – as opposed to wild – to see how they differ from domestic horses. But do such animals still exist? Well maybe.
One candidate, known as the Tarpan, lived in the wild until the recent past, and the last known individual died in captivity in 1909. These animals roamed the Russian steppes in the 18th and 19th centuries , but there is still debate as to whether they were really wild or just brutality.
Another possibility is the so-called Przewalski’s horse. This animal was previously declared extinct in the wild, but the captive animals remained, and they were reintroduced into the wild in the 1990s.
However, even with these animals, which were once thought to be the last remaining true wild horses in the world, genetic analysis shows that they may indeed be related to ancient domesticated horses, so it is now possible that there are no truly wild horses that were never domesticated. .
This means we may never know to what extent years of domestication changed a wild horse in terms of its physiology and temperament before it came into contact with humans.
However, the natural ability of the Persians to revert to the way of life suggests that a certain amount of “wildness” is still present in the species.
Are horses native to the Americas? Yes and no
So we can see that the question of whether horses are native to North America is not as simple as it might seem. Horses were once in the Americas, that’s for sure, but they probably became extinct sometime around 13,000 to 11,000 years ago.
Then the Spaniards reintroduced them, and the main debate now centers on how different these animals were from those that existed before their extinction in North America, and this is a question that remains unanswered.