This exhibition explores biological and cultural aspects of the horse, a species closely associated with humankind for millennia. You can use the Essential Questions below to connect The Horse
's educational themes to your curriculum.
What can we learn about evolution by studying the horse?
- Evolution of species: The abundance of horse fossils makes this a well-studied group of animals, and one that serves as a solid example of evolution. The horse family, known as Equidae, first emerged in North America 55 million years ago and has changed over time. The general trend went from smaller to larger species. Yet this evolution did not proceed in a steady, linear sequence. Rather, new species diverged from common ancestors like branches on a tree. Nearly all of these diverse horses went extinct. Today the family Equidae, which also includes asses and zebras, has only seven species.
- Natural selection: About 35 million years ago, climate change began turning North America's wet forests into dry grasslands. This affected horse evolution. Today's horses show many adaptations to the plains habitat. For example, early horses had three or four toes, each ending in a small hoof. But those with bigger, stronger middle toes were better adapted to run on dry, hard ground. Natural selection eventually led to the near-disappearance of the side toes, while the remaining middle toe, with its hoof, became much larger.
All horses living today belong to one species.
credit: © AMNH/R.Mickens
- Artificial selection: Humans breed horses by mating individuals that possess desirable natural traits, such as strength and size for workhorses and slender, speedy legs for racehorses. This artificial selection has resulted in more than 200 varied breeds of horses. Yet all belong to one species—Equus caballus.
What are key structures, functions, and behaviors of the horse?
Horses are natural candidates for domestication
. They have many traits that enable them to be employed all day long. For example, horses can digest food continuously without needing to rest. The anatomy of their "locking knee" enables them to conserve energy while standing more than 20 consecutive hours. Furthermore, horses are social and are naturally submissive to a leader. Such behaviors allow humans to easily control horses.
How do scientists gather data and interpret evidence?
Paleontologists and archaeologists have many questions about horse evolution and history. What were the habitats of early horses like? Where and when were horses first domesticated? Scientists must identify, collect, and analyze evidence such as bones, artifacts, and DNA to develop hypotheses and theories.
How have humans used horses to transform civilizations around the world and over time?
Horses are fast, but they overheat if they run at top speed for too long. So, like other postal relays, the Pony Express used a series of horses to shuttle mail across long distances.
credit: © L.Cunliffe/AGE Fotostock
Horses have played a critical role in the development of societies. For much of human history, the use of the horse bestowed power and drove technological advances. While the role of horses has diminished today, they remain important to many people.
- Warfare: From Iron Age cavalry to Japanese samurai, from Spanish conquistadors to the modern era, warriors on horseback had distinct combat advantages.
- Work: For millennia, people have used horses to haul goods, herd cattle, plow fields, mine coal, and more.
- Status and Spirituality: Horses are a symbol of wealth and prestige in many societies. To this day, some cultures incorporate horses into their sacred rituals.
- Travel and Trade: Horses provided critical mobility and contact between civilizations before motor vehicles. For example, they enabled the vast Mongol empire to achieve its size and America's Pony Express its speed.
- Sports: Humans have developed elaborate sports around horses' athletic abilities, including polo, hunting, and numerous forms of racing.