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Man’s Other Best Friend
A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York tells the horse’s timely tale.

Inside “The Horse,” a comprehensive exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History on the bond between horses and humanity. To the left is a display of 16th century European horse armor, which rivaled that of the knights who rode them. On the right is a mid-19th century fire engine that was powered by steam to pump the water but still pulled by a horse.

A man stands beside a rearing horse that’s nearly twice his size, struggling to control it. Although anatomist Samuel Chubb had arranged these figures—two skeletons—in their dynamic pose in the early 20th century, their stances suggest a more distant past, before humans had successfully tamed these wild animals. A model for the American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) former logo, this tableau now appears in the museum’s new exhibition, “The Horse,” on display through January 4, 2009.

Mustangs on the range.
Bureau of Land Management/Oregon

Today the emblematic struggle depicted in Chubb’s graphic mount is finished—humans control the horse’s fate. Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the current predicament of our country’s feral mustang herds, which have been protected since 1971 as symbols of the West’s pioneer spirit. Now that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is saddled with a larger population than they say public lands and adoption programs can support, in June officials proposed euthanizing mustangs by the thousands, much to the outrage of many horse advocates (see Incite, “Horse Sense,” in the September-October 2006 Audubon). 

The AMNH’s exhibit takes a step back from the current drama. It traces these majestic animals’ evolutionary and societal past, beginning with their dog-sized ancestors living on North America’s Great Plains 55 million years ago all the way to their present roles, primarily on racetracks or for recreation. In between is the tale of how we domesticated the species that proceeded to shape our own civilization.  

This skeleton of Lee Axworthy, the first trotting stallion to break the two-minute mile, was mounted by Samuel Harmsted Chubb, an anatomist and research associate at the AMNH, during the first half of the 20th century. Chubb’s innovation of mounting skeletons in natural, lifelike positions revolutionized how such specimens are presented in museums.
AMNH/D. Finnin

The exhibit’s first sections track early horse migration routes across the continents. Horses had spread globally by the time they went extinct in their native North America at the end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. Climate change, disease, and overhunting are the three main suspects for their demise. Indeed, before we ever thought to tame horses, we hunted them. On display in the exhibit are prehistoric horse bones, teeth, and stone spears from an ancient horse-kill site in France, where humans may have used steep slopes to trap and slay horses. But its also clear that our ancestors—much as we do today—valued these animals, as evidenced in richly detailed cave paintings such as a beautiful 33,000-year-old illustration depicting four horses engaged in different types of behavior (a photograph of the painting appears in the exhibit).

About 10 million years ago, up to a dozen species of horses roamed North America’s Great Plains. Here, in a diorama in “The Horse,” two large horses from the Dinohippus genus (left) can be seen grazing on grass, much as horses do today. A three-toed Hypohippus (right) nibbles on leaves, unlike modern horses. Three-toed members of the Nannippus genus, like the one pictured here (second from right), ate both grass and leaves.
AMNH/M. Shanley

Today’s horse breeds are the result of thousand of years of domesticity. Though all comprise a single species, they show enough genetic variation that researchers believe the animal was domesticated in several locations. One of those places may have been an ancient village on the steppes of Kazakhstan about 5,000 years ago. A scale model in the exhibit shows archeologists unearthing evidence that horses were raised for food there. Horses, in addition to being smart and strong, have instincts that made them ideal companions for humans: They’re natural wanderers that, unlike zebras, won’t fight over turf; they tend to obey the herd’s leader; and, since they seek safety in numbers, they don’t like being alone.

Riders of the Pony Express made quick transfers of two minutes or less at each station on their cross-country route. To speed things up, a removable leather mochila for carrying mail, like the one shown here, was laid over the saddle. At each transfer station, the mochila was removed and slapped onto the saddle of a waiting horse.
AMNH/D. Finnin

More than any other animal, the horse is synonymous with civilization, and evidence of this is the focus of the exhibit’s largest section. The warrior on horseback, whether an ancient Amazonian, Japanese samurai, medieval knight, or Spanish conquistador, was the very image of war until the ill-fated cavalry charges of World War I. These beasts of burden also helped pull, tow, and haul the world to the brink of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th  century. One of the world’s fastest land animals, horses have long been used for sports and transportation, even if the famed Pony Express riders lasted only a year before the invention of the telegraph rendered their role as speedy messengers obsolete.

Nowadays, we no longer depend on horses as we did in the past and can afford to be romantic about them—a changing mindset that brings to mind the 1961 movie The Misfits. Preparing to round up one of Nevada’s scarce free-roaming herds to sell for dog food, Clark Gable’s character, a cowboy desperate to hold on to his dying way of life, observes, “They’re nothin’ but misfit horses.” In the end, though, he resigns himself to letting the horses he captured go free as he realizes their situation is much like his own. As we debate the fate of the today’s abundant mustang herds, his dilemma is relevant once again. 

Exhibit: The Horse
Where: American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY 10024
Admission: General public, $22; senior citizens and students, $16.50; children (2–12), $13 (covers both the museum admission and the special exhibition ticket)
Hours: open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.
More information: American Museum of Natural History
Upcoming Locations: October 2009–February 2010, Abu Dhabi Authority for Cultural Heritage, United Arab Emirates; May 2010–September 2010, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau-Ottawa; February 2011–July 2011, The Field Museum, Chicago; April 2012–September 2012, San Diego Natural History Museum. Other dates and locations will be announced at a later date.

Horse Facts

  • A close, early relative of the horse is Hyracotherium, which stood 10 inches high at its shoulders and had four toes on its front feet and three on its back. Rhinoceroses and tapirs are the horse’s closest living relatives outside the horse family.
  • A female horse is called a mare and a male horse is called a stallion. In the wild, the mare decides when the herd moves on, and usually only one stallion will stay with a herd.
  • A farrier is a person who makes horseshoes and fits them onto the animals’ hooves. Farriers also clip hooves, which grow like fingernails, to keep them from getting overgrown.
  • In 1532, 168 Spanish soldiers, 62 on horseback, faced off against 80,000 Inca on foot in western South America and captured the emperor, Atahuallpa.
  • In 1900, around 130,000 horses worked in Manhattan—more than ten times the number of yellow cabs on the streets of New York City today. 
  • The mustangs of the American West, like many other “wild” populations, are actually considered feral, descended from escaped domesticated horses. 
  • Mongolia's Prezewalski horses are the only horses that humans never domesticated. They were declared extinct from the wild in the late 1960s, but thanks to an existing captive breeding program, a group was reintroduced to the wild in 1992. Today, there are more than 200 that roam Mongolia.
  • There are still places where a horse is more useful than a truck. In 2002, for example, during the war in Afghanistan, some U.S. Special Forces rode horses in areas where the rugged terrain and lack of fuel made auto transport impractical.

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