I INTRODUCTION Horse, large land mammal notable for its speed, strength, and endurance. Horses are members of the Equidae family, which also includes zebras and asses. Like all equids, the horse is extremely well adapted to traveling long distances with great efficiency and to surviving on a diet of nutrient-poor, high-fiber grasses. The horse is an intensely social animal, forming strong associations with members of its herd and possessing a keen ability to recognize subtle social cues. These instinctive behaviors form the basis of the horse’s ability to bond with and obey a human trainer.
The horse’s influence on human history and civilization make it one of the most important domestic animals. Horses were domesticated in Eurasia around 6,000 years ago. Throughout much of human history, they have provided humans with mobility and have served in agriculture, warfare, and sport. Today domestic horses are found throughout the world, with a total population estimated at 60 million. So-called wild horses, such as those found in the American West, are actually feral animals, free-living descendants of domestic horses that escaped or were turned loose.
The wild ancestors of the modern horse evolved for millions of years in North America. They spread to other parts of the world by traveling southward to South America and by crossing land bridges that connected North America to Europe and Asia during the ice age. Horses vanished from both North and South America in a wave of extinctions that occurred near the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, about 15,000 years ago. They were not seen in the Americas again until 1494, when Italian explorer Christopher Columbus transported them on ships from Spain on his second voyage to the New World.
Przewalski's horse, which is believed to be the only truly wild horse to survive to modern times, probably became extinct in the wild in Mongolia in the 1960s. About 1,100 Przewalski's horses survive today in captivity in zoos and wildlife parks.
II PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS
As a result of deliberate breeding by humans, horses display a remarkable variation in size, body shape, and coat color. Traditionally, a horse’s size is measured at the withers—an elevated part of the spine between the neck and the back. The measurement is made in hands; one hand equals about 10 cm (4 in). Typical riding horses stand 14 to 16 hands high and weigh 400 to 500 kg (900 to 1,100 lb). The smallest horse on record, a Falabella miniature pony, stood 48 cm (19 in), or just under 5 hands, and weighed 14 kg (30 lb). The largest horse on record was a Belgian that stood 1.8 m (6 ft) tall, or 18 hands, and weighed 1,450 kg (3,200 lb).
The horse has a hairy coat and a long mane and tail. A heavy winter coat grows in the fall and sheds in the spring. Typical coat colors include black, brown, gray, cream, gold, and white. The mane and tail can be the same or different from the body color, and many variations in color can result from inherited traits that cause spotting, dilution of the basic coat colors, or a sprinkling of white hairs in the coat. Many color patterns have specific names, such as bay (brown with black mane and tail), chestnut (reddish brown with mane and tail of the same or lighter color), and palomino (gold with a creamy white mane and tail).
A horse’s head is composed of the cranium, which encloses the animal’s large, complex brain, and the face, distinguished by a long muzzle consisting of the nose and lips. The muzzle provides enough distance between the horse’s mouth and its eyes so that it can graze and watch for danger at the same time.
Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal. The large eyes protrude from the sides of the head, enabling horses to see almost directly behind themselves, even while facing forward. Their night vision is excellent. Horses have limited color vision, which appears to be similar to one of the less common forms of color blindness in humans—they perceive red and blue, but they cannot distinguish between green and shades of gray.
Horses have powerful teeth and jaws to grind and break down plant fibers. Their teeth grow continuously as their surfaces wear down. Male horses usually have 40 teeth and females have 36. Between the front incisors and the rear molars is a gap called the diastema, where the bit is placed. Horses can close their wide nostrils against dusty winds, and they can move their large ears to detect sounds from various directions
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