Grace, beauty, strength, and perceptive abilities are just a few of the admirable qualities that have tied us to horses for thousands of years. Even today, without horses playing much a role in our work lives (unless used for hobbies, sport, and therapy), horses still hold the key to the hearts of millions of hominids the world over.
It’s hard to imagine how long horses have been here in North America, evolving over 40 to 50 million years ago. Surviving well with huge predators such as Sabre-toothed Tigers, horses are fast, have a great sense of balance, and have highly perceptive fight or flight responses. Horses then became a casualty in the Pleistocene extinctions about 11,000 years ago. They disappeared with many large herbivores and predators likely because of a combination of climate change and the introduction of humans to the continent. Before their demise, many left the continent through the Bering Strait, a narrow land bridge, which is now ocean, between what is modern day Alaska and Siberia.
In Asia and Europe horses then prospered and proliferated. People gained much from capturing and using horses to their advantage. First domesticated about 4,000 years ago, our ancestors kept horses to drink their milk and feed their families, similar to how we use cattle today. From the wild species, people artificially selected horses through captive breeding to create what we now know is about 300 different breeds of horse. Only one horse species is left in the wild – the Przewalski Horse. It walks the tight rope of extinction, with small numbers only remaining in Mongolia, all coming from 15 descendants caught from the wild in the year 1900.
It wasn’t until the early 1500s that horses would return to North America when the Spaniard conquistadors, in particular, Hernan Cortes, brought 15 horses to Mexico in New Mexico. From there, some horses escaped, others were taken by settlers and indigenous peoples. It wasn’t before long that horses became the major driving force for clearing the landscape of trees, wetlands and grasslands. The terms ‘work horse’, ‘horse power’ and others attest to the strength and the seeming willingness of the horse to submit to help humans carve out a more comfortable existence in what was a wildly natural landscape.
In small towns and developing cities horses were indeed used to clear thousands of acres of giant trees. In addition, horses assisted these settlers in other means like transportation, hunting, and land surveying. Once this initial colonization was complete, horses became the main means of transportation, both within and between towns and cities. Horse racing also became popular in the 17th century. Horse breeding became a big industry, with many supporting economies created. Blacksmiths for horse shoes, bits, and bridles. Tanners made saddles, reins, chaps and more. Carpenters built barns, wagon houses, and more…almost as much as we have in industry supporting cars currently, dozens of jobs were all based around the horse.
It wasn’t until about 1910 that cars become more numerous than horses in some major cities like New York. Horses then took a back seat in the carriage of industrialization. Never fading too far, horses have remained a mainstay on our rural landscape and continue to be raced, shown, written about, filmed and more recently, are used in therapeutic settings for those recovering from many conditions, including stress and other traumas.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up on a quarter horse farm in Virginia (ON). My Dad built all of our barns, arenas and outbuildings by his own hands. My Mother broke horses, taught riding lessons, ran a tack shop, flew around the continent buying horses for people who had the money and trusted her passionate and informed opinions (she also painted the cover of this issue). My sisters thrived riding and competing in horse shows.
And, well, me… I certainly wasn’t the ‘horseman’ possibly expected by my family. I guess I was destined to get close to other animals and nature in general as an ecologist. Now, much later in life, I’ve really started to connect with horses. I watch my daughters reel in excitement and enthusiasm as they learn to ride and deeply connect with horses. More recently, I’ve been contracted to work with quite a few farms that feature ‘healing’ horses. Blending forest bathing, traditional therapy, and the raw power of openhearted horses, these beautiful animals are becoming more relevant in the lives of more and more people once again.