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The perilous evolution to the Arabian thoroughbred

Posted in America, Animals, British Countryside, Sport, Wildlife on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about the horse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

Mesohippus, picture, image, illustration

Some twenty million years into prehistory, the three-toed mesohippus had evolved from the small dawn horse through the sheer necessity of survival; it was about two feet tall. Picture by L R Brightwell

In Europe and Asia, two different types of horse developed as a response to the change in conditions in which they lived. The Northern horse, called “cold-blooded”, had to withstand the cold and harsh conditions of northern Asia and so it developed a thick skin and long, rough coat. Northern horses grazed on the lush pastures of northern Europe, and became heavy, passive and slow-moving, with great, strong, muscular bodies.

The “warm blooded”, or Southern horse, lived in the hot, desert lands of the Middle East where grazing is poor. To help circulation and make life more comfortable in the hot summer these horses had fewer layers of skin. They had a more slender frame and shorter snout than the Northern horses.

The first horses were small creatures. Once domesticated, they were used only for pulling carts and chariots. But when men began keeping large herds of horses, they also began to ride them and took to breeding them carefully in order to produce bigger and more powerful animals.

The Chinese had herds of wild horses which they valued, and chariot horses belonging to the emperors were buried with their masters in the royal tombs. There was even a special cemetery containing the bones of chariot horses. The Chinese used their horses and chariots mainly to ward off attacks from the nomads of the steppelands who attacked their borders. They needed to breed horses which were superior to those of the nomads, in order to give them superiority in battle.

The Chinese Emperor Wu-ti had heard that the ruler of Ferghana, a city state in Turkestan, had horses far bigger and swifter than anything the Chinese possessed. He sent rich presents to him but could not persuade him to part with any of his horses.

The Emperor eventually gave up trying to use peaceful methods to obtain the horses and in 102 BC Wu-ti sent his army into Turkestan. When the soldiers finally returned – they brought with them a large number of the superior horses and also 30 “heavenly” horses, the pride of the ruler of Ferghana. These magnificent beasts were said to sweat blood when under a hot sun and were believed to have certain mystical qualities.

These animals were probably the swift, graceful Arab horses, which had developed from the Southern “warm-blooded” animals. The Chinese used them as breeding stock to improve the quality of their own horses and the speed and stamina of the “heavenly” horses gave the Chinese a great advantage over the raiders on their borders who rode small stocky ponies.

The breeding of horses has continued over the centuries and there are now nearly 200 official breeds. All of them have developed from the Northern “cold-blooded” or the Southern “warm-blooded” types. Centuries of careful matching and cross-breeding have given us the many different kinds of horse in existence today.

Large, heavy horses, such as the Clydesdale and the shire horses, were bred for heavy farm work. The American Quarter Horse, a compact, stocky horse, was developed to work with large cattle herds and it has been said that the reputation of the American West was largely built on the back of a Quarter Horse.

In contrast, the elegant and rather superior American Saddle Horse and Tennessee Walking horse were both developed because the rich plantation-owners wanted a horse which was both useful and beautiful, a horse which the plantation owner could ride to survey his estate. It would be comfortable to ride during long hours in the saddle, had great endurance but looked unmistakably superior as befitted its owner’s rank. Several generations of selective breeding were needed to produce the American Saddle Horse.

The English thoroughbreds, which make perfect racing animals, are a result of cross-breeding native British ponies of the Northern type with Barb, Turk and Arab horses of the Southern type.

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