Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Allison Price
Spanish conquistadors introduced the domestic horse to North America in the 15th Century. But did you know horses were roaming the Americas before the arrival of the settlers?
The modern domestic horse (Equus Caballus) isn’t native to America. However, its ancestors evolved on the continent. Horses moved from North America to Eurasia about 2-3 million years ago. They became extinct in America between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago.
Although there are many theories as to why horses vanished from North America, the truth is still unknown. Horses were able to spread again across North America thanks to the settlements. They became an integral part in many North American cultures.
We briefly describe the history of horses in North America, and highlight some fascinating facts.
Are Horses Still in North America before the Spanish?
Evidence is abundant to show that horses originated in North America. The Eohippus was the earliest known ancestor of horses and was discovered by archeologists in Wyoming. It dates to the Eocene Epoch (56-33.9 Million years ago).
Horses were first found in North America before the Spanish arrived. They were extinct, along with many large herbivores, around 10,000 years ago.
The Hagerman Fossil Beds has also been found remains of the oldest species in the genus Equius. This species is a modern zebra, with the head of an animal donkey. It was discovered during the Pliocene Epoch which occurred between 5.3 million and 2.6 millions years ago.
Why did North American horses become extinct?
The 15,000 BP (years before the present) period in which most of North America’s megafauna vanished lasted for 5,000 year. This phenomenon is known as the Quaternary event by scientists.
Two main hypotheses are being offered to explain why North American horses became extinct. The first hypothesis suggested that climate change could be a cause. While the second hypothesis suggests that humans overhunt megafauna.
Alaska, as it is now known, was covered in grassy steppes before around 10,500 BC. Alaska became a barren tundra that couldn’t support horses after 10,500 BC.
Additionally, Alaska was home to humans at the time that horses disappeared. The Clovis people were known for their large-game hunting culture, and their appearance coincided with the extinctions of horses. Horses could have been driven extinct by climate change or overhunting by humans in North America.
Where did the horses in America come from?
Horses first stepped foot in North America in 1493, after being absent for thousands. Christopher Colombus, an Italian explorer, brought Spanish-bred horses to the New World during his second voyage. These horses did not make it to the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.
In 1519, the first horses reached mainland America with Hernan Cortes (Spanish conquistador), who brought 16 horses to aid his search for gold.
These initial imports of horses were followed by larger shipments. They were brought to North America in large numbers by the explorers Coronado and De Soto. Many Iberian horses arrived to Mexico and South America. The first horses reached Florida in 1538.Native Wild Mustang horses
What Horse Breeds Are Descendant from the First Horses to Arrive in America?
The descendants of the original horses that populated North America are the basis for most modern American horse breeds. This is evident in the Spanish Mustang and Marsh Tacky horse breeds, as well as the Florida Cracker and Choctaw horse varieties.
The term “Colonial Spanish Horse” refers to horse breeds that were bred from Spanish horses by the settlers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these horse breeds instinctively avoid mixing, which is how their original bloodlines were preserved.
You can also read our guide to the six types of Mustang horses.
Galiceno horses are one example of such a breed. They were bred from Hernan Cortes’ horses through natural selection. Galicenos, a Mexican horse breed that lived on the Atlantic coast of Mexico was isolated from the rest and did not mix with any other horses.
A preliminary genetic analysis by Dr. E. Gus Cothran, Texas A&M University, has revealed a link between Galiceno horses and Garrano horses. The Galiceno horse is closely related to Garranos, a primitive Portuguese horse breed.
How did horses spread across North America?
Due to the limitations of the colonial ships, the first horses that were imported with the Spanish conquistadors were mostly smaller. Draft horses arrived in the New World only around the middle of the 19th century.
After the 16th century’s first Spanish immigrants to Mexico and Florida, wild horses began spreading across North America. Horses were also imported from Europe by other settlers. The western United States was not reached by horses until the end of the 18th century.
Horses were common in North America from the 19th century. Horses were used for a variety of tasks, including herding cattle, pulling carriages and hauling goods. This was also when harness racing began, which resulted in the American Standardbred breed.
In 1912, the United States had the second highest horse population after Russia. estimates at this time show that the US population surpassed 20 million.
After the First World War, which saw the end of North American horse populations, this has all changed dramatically. Many horse breeds are on the verge of extinction, and horse prices were the lowest in 60 years.
Horse populations in North America began to recover slowly after the Cold War. There are now more than 9 million horses in North America. Despite not being a part of Americans’ everyday lives since mechanization, their popularity in sports and leisure continues to grow.
How did Native Americans get horses?
Native Americans acquired horses in greater numbers during the middle of 17th century. Horse riding was common in some tribes, such as the Aztecs of Mexico, as far back as 1541. It took Native Americans a while to learn how to manage these animals efficiently.
Historical experts claim that the Comanche tribe was the first to purchase horses. They were followed by the Crow tribe and the Blackfoot tribes. The Sioux tribe, in particular, made horses a major part of their culture.