Saturday, 8 February 2014

2014 - The Year of the Horse

I think 2014 is going to be my favourite year so far.This August,  I'm going to Australia for a wedding and can't wait to see all the koala bears, kangaroos and hopefully spot Nemo and Dory if I'm lucky enough to go scuba diving.

However, the other reason why 2014 is great because just a few days ago on Chinese New Year, it was named the Year of the Horse.

Now everyone who knows me is aware of how much I love horses, but how did they evolve into the ones we see today?

Fifty-five million years ago, when marine reptiles became extinct, mammals began to evolve which brought about the ancestors of animals such as the elephant, rhino, ox, pig, monkey and the horse.

During this period it was at its smallest at a mere 12 inches tall and was called Hyracotherium, which is derived from the Greek word for hog. With four toes on its forefeet and three on its hind, it died out some 40 million years ago after it failed to adapt to the changing geographical locations as the world around it changed.

This ancestor was succeeded by Orohippus and then Epihippus which was similar in shape, but its teeth became more efficient and enhanced. Later on, these were both eclipsed by an animal three times the size of Hyracotherium, which was called Equus and had grown to about 13 hands (62 inches) high.

Originating from America, this horse moved south and spread to Asia, Europe and Africa. While this also became extinct, different species then emerged and became the exclusive ancestors of those that we see today.

These three ancestors were known as the Steppe, Forest and Plateau. The Steppe had a large head with long ears and a long face. Its body was short and supported by slender legs and long narrow hooves. Agile, it was able to scramble over most obstacles and its feature remain largely unaltered in the wild horse of Mongolia, otherwise known as Przewalski's Horse.

The Forest type was heavier and more thickly-built. With a long body, short strong legs and broad rounded hooves it was able to walk on marshy ground without sinking. This is thought to be the ancestor of the 'cold blooded' heavy horse.

Then there is the Plateau. This horse had a small narrow head, small ears, large eyes and was lighter and more slender than the Forest or Steppe. This is thought to be the ancestor of the more lightweight ponies and finer-built horses of today, such as an arab or thoroughbred.

Today, the difference between a horse and a pony is defined by its height. A horse must stand more than 14.2 hands (58 inches) high. Anything less, is regarded as a pony. A creature of comfort, they come in a variety of colours from albino, bay and chestnut to dun, piebald, grey and palomino. It has four natural gaits: walk, trot, canter and gallop. My favourite is the canter, especially when attempting it with stirrups!

I could go on and on about the numerous breeds that I absolutely adore, but I've decided to restrict them to my top three.

First is the Icelandic pony. I've always wanted to go to Iceland to visit these beautiful ponies which were first introduced by the Norwegians. Just 12-13 hands high, they are usually a grey or dun colour, but can come in dark brown, chestnut and palomino.

A friendly pony, they are particularly independent and have a great homing instinct. If ridden, they can be taken out for long distances and when let loose can always find their way home. They respond better to a voice, rather than the usual aids, and is one of the toughest of all the breeds of horse.

Another one of my favourites is the wild American mustang. Between 14-15 hands high, it comes in a range of colours and is a hardy and independent breed. They used to roam the plains of North America in large herds and were frequently used by the Native American Indians.

Sadly they are in decline, but thankfully they are protected under the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1959. This allows them to be free range in specific areas at no risk of harm.

Last, but not least is the shire. Native to England, they average at about 17 hands, although they can reach 18 hands. They generally come in a brown or bay colour, but black or grey is not uncommon. They are enduring, gentle and docile with powerful shoulders and beautiful feathers from the back of their knees all the way down to their hooves.

The tallest horse in the world, sadly their numbers declined once machines were bought in after the war to use on farmland. Now they are fairly ornamental in their roles within the show ring or as a team horse to pull brewer's drays. What makes them even more impressive is their ability to pull an amazing five tons.

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