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The Evolution of Horses

Early horse painting. Evolution of the horse. Credit: patrick janicek (https://www.flickr.com/people/41538865@N06)

It took millions of years of evolution to get to the horses we know today. The “horse” changed a lot from it’s early ancestors and looking back, it can be hard to see how horses developed from those early animals. But in this article we are going to follow the evolution of horses from their early ancestors until today.

Eocene epoch: Eohippus

A drawing of Eohippus, evolution of horses
Credit: Heinrich Harder (1858-1935)

55 to 33.9 million years ago

The earliest known ancestor of the horse is often referred to as the Dawn Horse. But the official name is Eohippus. This forest herbivoire was the size of a small dog and one of the biggest differences to the modern horse is how it had 4 toes on it’s front feet and 3 toes on it’s back feet.

Oligocene epoch: Mesohippus & Miohippus

A skeleton of Mesohippus, the evolution of horses.
Mesohippus skeleton – Osaka Museum of Natural History

33.9 to 23 million years ago

During the Oligocene epoch the evolution of horses continued. The Eohippus became larger and started to adapt to life in open grasslands rather than the forest. Two examples of horses what lived during this time were the Mesohippus and Miohippus.

The Mesohippus was the size of a medium sized dog, 60-90cm tall at the wither. Whereas the Miohippus was slightly larger, standing at 90-120cm at the wither. But both were still 3 toed.

Miocene epoch: Parahippus & Merychippus

An example of what the Merychippus looked like. The evolution of horses.
Credit: Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.ca/)

23 to 5.3 million years ago

In the Miocene epoch we started to see the evolution of more species of horses. Some of the more prominent were the Parahippus and the Merychippus. These horses had longer legs and bigger teeth than their predecessors. This made them better suited to eating tougher grasses.

The Parahippus was slightly larger than the Merychippus. It’s legs were also slightly better adapted to running and had more developed teeth.

Pliocene epoch: Equus simplicidens

Skeleton of Equus simplicidens, the evolution of horses
Equus simplicidens
Credit: James St. John

5.3 to 2.6 million years ago

It was during the Pilocene epoch that the Equus genus evolved. Equus is the genus which includes all modern horses. The Equus had longer legs than it’s predecessors and had evolved to have a single toe on each foot, allowing greater speed and efficency when running.

Equus simplicidens was the first species of the Equus genus. It was around 13 – 14 hands tall and weighed less than 300kg. It is believed to have been one of the first species of horse to migrate to North American and Asia.

Pleistocene epoch: Early domestication

2.6 million to 11,700 years ago

During this time, the Equus genus became more widespread with different species living in different parts of the world in different environments. It was also during this time that humans started to domesticate horses.

Holocene epoch: Development of Equus caballus

Scottie on the yard, arthritis in horses

11,700 years ago to present

The Holocene epoch is where we are right now. When it comes to the evolution of horses, this is where we see the widespread domestication of horses. Humans started to train and breed horses for various different roles, from farming, to war to sport. This is why we now see such a wide range of breeds within the horse species, each with it’s own traits and purpose.

Equus caballus vs Equus ferus

As mentioned above, Equus caballus is the modern day horse. These include your sports horses, your native breeds and ferral horses such as mustangs. Equus ferus are non domesticated, truly wild horses. The only remaining example of these is the Przewalski’s horse. Other members of the Equus genus include; donkeys, zebras, onagers.

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Last Updated on 21/04/2023

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