What is each breed of domesticated horse used for?

What is each breed of domesticated horse used for
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A photo of four horses with different coats lined up looking over a fence. Horses grouped together staring over a fence. (Image credit: catnap / Alamy Stock Photo)

Horses are hoofed creatures that have been coexisting with humans for thousands of years. Nearly all horses in existence today are domesticated and descended from extinct wild horses. Horses have been roaming the earth for around 50 million years. The earliest horses evolved in North America before spreading out to the rest of the world, although they later became extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago, Live Science previously reported (opens in new tab).

When were horses domesticated?

According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), all breeds of domestic horses are members of the same species, Equus caballus, which also includes feral populations of domestic horses surviving in the wild (opens in new tab).

According to Oklahoma State University, modern horses were likely domesticated in Central Asia between 3000 and 4000 B.C. (opens in new tab). However, horse DNA is relatively diverse, which suggests that horses could have been domesticated in more than one place and from several different wild populations, according to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) (opens in new tab).

Related: The ‘Ice Age’ horse skeleton discovered in a Utah garden is not what we expected. (opens in new tab)

According to Oklahoma State University, horses were originally maintained for meat and milk. Horses were a vital resource for the people who lived in the Central Asian steppes, where horses are still eaten and milked today. Live Science earlier revealed that fermented mare’s milk is a popular alcoholic drink among the kumis people of the Central Asian steppes (opens in new tab). As horses became more domesticated, humans have developed more uses for them, such as serving as a means of transportation, as companion animals and as a source of entertainment in the form of horse racing. Horses are now under the care of people all over the world (opens in new tab).

Horses are social animals and are known for bonding with members of their herd and for following the most dominant horses in the herd, according to AMNH (opens in new tab). In captivity, and in the absence of a herd, horses have a tendency to bond with people and learn to follow their instructions. This makes it easier for humans to teach horses to be ridden. Being led by humans, like other domestic animals, has been reinforced over numerous generations of breeding.

Przewalski’s horses, or takhi, are the only horses surviving today that are not considered tamed. ITIS classifies these wild horses as a distinct species called Equus przewalskii. However, some experts categorize domesticated horses and Prezewalski’s horses as subspecies of the same species, called Equus ferus caballus and Equus ferus przewalskii, respectively. Either way, Przewalski’s horses are distinct from domestic horses, although their evolutionary origins are debated within the scientific community.

How big are horses?

Horses are muscular creatures with a long, coarse-haired tail, a long, thick neck draped with a mane over the midline, and an extended head and skull. Humans have created hundreds of different horse breeds through selective breeding, which has resulted in many different horse coat colors, including chestnut, gold with a white mane and tail (palomino), spotted, completely black and more, according to Oklahoma State University.

Measured from the ground to the tops of their shoulders, horses typically range between 2 feet 6 inches (76 centimeters) and 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm) tall, and weigh between 120 lbs. (54 kilograms) and 2,200 lbs. (1,000 kg), according to National Geographic (opens in new tab). Horses that are smaller or bigger than normal are not uncommon.

Horse taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia 

Order: Perissodactyla 

Family: Equidae 

Genus: Equus 

Species: caballus

Source: ITIS (opens in new tab)

According to Guinness World Records (opens in new tab), the largest living horse is a Belgian horse called Big Jake, who is about 7 feet tall (82.8 inches, or 210 cm, to be exact). The Belgian breed is well-known for being one of the world’s strongest and most powerful horse breeds. The tallest horse to have ever lived was a shire horse named Sampson, or Mammoth, who in 1850 was measured to be about 7 feet 2 inches tall (86.2 inches or 219 cm), according to Guinness World Records.

Ponies and tiny horses are at the opposite extreme of the spectrum. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a pony is an adult horse that is less than 4 feet 10 inches (147 cm) (opens in new tab). A tiny horse stands less than 3 feet 2 inches (97 cm) tall. The shortest horse ever recorded by Guinness World Records (opens in new tab) was a miniature horse named Thumbelina, who was measured to be just 17.5 inches (44.5 cm) tall before she died in 2018.

How fast can a horse run?

A photo of horses racing with jockeys at the Sha Tin Racecourse on May 8, 2021 in Hong Kong.

Horses racing at the Sha Tin Racecourse on May 8, 2021 in Hong Kong. (Photo courtesy of Lo Chun Kit/Contributor via Getty Images.) )

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Horses have four basic movement patterns known as gaits: walk, trot (slightly quicker than walking), canter (faster than a trot), and gallop (the horse’s fastest gait). The average domestic horse can gallop at a speed of about 30 mph (48 km/h), but horses have been clocked at speeds of over 40 mph (64 km/h), according to AMNH.

Related: Thoroughbred racehorses get their speed from just a few predecessors. (opens in new tab)

According to Guinness World Records, the fastest speed attained by a racehorse is 44 mph (70.8 km/h). This was accomplished in 2008 by a Thoroughbred called Winning Brew over a quarter-mile distance. However, the American quarter horse is often considered to be the fastest horse breed, and the American Quarter Horse Association (opens in new tab) states these horses have reached speeds of up to 55 mph (88.5 km/h).

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, horses are ungulates, which are animals with hooves (opens in new tab). Horses developed to have a single toe on each foot, which is protected by a strong hoof. Hooves are made of keratin, which is the same protein that makes human fingernails, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica (opens in new tab). Hooves, like fingernails, never stop growing and must be trimmed. Metal horseshoes are often attached to the bottom of a horse’s hooves to protect them from wear.

What do horses eat?

Horses are herbivores, meaning they eat mostly rough grasses. Large, flat teeth called incisors at the front of the horse’s mouth help it to grab and rip grasses from the ground, which the horse then grinds with the molars and premolars that line each side of its jaw, according to the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine (opens in new tab).

According to Iowa State University, horses have the smallest stomach compared to body size of any domesticated mammal (opens in new tab). A horse’s stomach is designed for little yet regular meals. Most nutrients are absorbed as food passes through the small intestines and into the hindgut, which includes the cecum, large colon and small colon, where it is fermented by bacteria. The Humane Society (opens in new tab) suggests that a healthy horse should be fed 1% to 2% of its body weight in grass or hay every day.

The life of a horse

A picture of a horse foal running on snow in Eskisehir, Turkey

A horse foal running on snow in Eskisehir, Turkey. (Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency/Contributor via Getty Images.) )

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A stallion is an adult male horse, whereas a mare is an adult female horse. A gelding is a male horse that has been castrated by humans. In the wild, horse herds are led by a dominant mare, while a single, dominant stallion typically guards the rear of the group from predators and rival stallions, according to AMNH.

In April and June, wild horses often reproduce. Mares give birth to live young after an average gestation period of 11 months, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web (ADW) (opens in new tab). Newborn horses, known as foals, can normally stand within an hour of birth and begin eating solid food within a week. Wild foals may suckle from their moms for up to two years. Domestic horses, which may be weaned at six months of birth, have a sped-up weaning process.

According to the ADW, the average domestic horse longevity is 25 to 30 years, however they have been known to live as long as 61 years. Wild horses, and horses living in the wild, such as mustangs (opens in new tab), tend to have a shorter lifespan, but have been known to live up to 36 years.

Do horses sleep standing up?

According to the AMNH, horses may relax and even sleep while standing (opens in new tab). They do this by locking one of their hind legs at the stifle joint — the horse equivalent of the knee — which holds them upright while they doze, occasionally switching the locked leg to prevent fatigue. They developed this skill to allow them to react swiftly to the presence of predators and flee. However, The University of Adelaide (opens in new tab) in Australia notes that horses still need to lie down to enter deep stages of sleep (opens in new tab), which they’ll do periodically each day and night.

Horse breeds

According to Horse & Hound (opens in new tab), there are around 350 distinct horse breeds that have been produced to suit a range of roles. Oklahoma State University’s (opens in new tab) list of horse breeds includes slender-legged Thoroughbreds, which make excellent racehorses; black Friesians, characterized by their luxurious manes and tails; and the tall, muscular shire horses known for being exceptional workhorses. Little pony breeds, such as Shetland ponies and miniature horses, are also available.

Certain horse bloodlines, especially racehorses, command exorbitant prices. The most expensive horse ever sold was a Thoroughbred stallion named Fusaichi Pegasus that won nearly $2 million by the end of his highly successful horse-racing career. According to Horse & Hound, he was sold to horse breeders in Ireland for $70 million (opens in new tab).

Horses are present in practically every nation on the planet as a result of domestication. In places all around the globe, humans have produced a broad range of horse breeds. For example, the Albanian breed is from Albania, the Budyonny comes from Russia, the Deliboz is from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, and the Colorado ranger originated in the Colorado plains, according to Oklahoma State University.

Related: US Space Force hires a horse to boldly go where rockets can’t. (At the beach) (opens in new tab)

Are horses native to North America?

A photo of four wild mustang horses running in Ogden, Utah in the United States.

Four mustang horses running in Ogden, Utah in the United States. (Photo by Kelly Lambright/Getty Images) )

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Horses evolved in North America millions of years ago but went extinct on the continent about 10,000 years ago, after they had spread out to the rest of the world. The mustangs (opens in new tab) that roam the U.S. plains today are descendants of domestic Spanish horses brought to the Americas by explorers and colonists in the 16th century. Since they are descended from domesticated stock, these free-roaming mustangs are officially feral rather than wild. According to the AMNH, other feral horse populations include the brumby in Australia and the cimarron in South America (opens in new tab).

The last wild horses

Przewalski’s horses of Central Asia had long been thought to be the last remaining wild horse species. A 2018 study published in the journal Science (opens in new tab) suggested that Przewalski’s horses actually descended from horses herded by humans about 5,500 years ago, in the earliest evidence of horse domestication. As a result, Przewalski’s horses are feral, and all really wild horses are gone.

However, the study is disputed, and some archaeologists, geneticists and conservationists have voiced their objections to its conclusions on the Science journal’s online forum (opens in new tab). The Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute (opens in new tab) states there is no strong evidence that Przewalski’s horses are the feral descendants of a domestic population. Przewalski’s horses might be derived from non-domesticated tamed wild animals. This situation is compared to elephants, who have been tamed and utilized for labor and battle but are not domesticated.

Related: Why can’t all animals be domesticated? (opens in new tab) 

Conservation status

A photo of four wild Przewalski's horses standing up.

The Przewalski’s horse is considered a conservation success story having been saved from extinction and reintroduced into the wild. (Photo by Patricia D Moehlman/IUCN)

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The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species classifies Przewalski’s horses as endangered (opens in new tab). These horses once roamed across Europe and Asia, but environmental changes and competition with humans and livestock led to their extinction in the wild during the 20th century, although the species was kept alive in captivity, according to the National Zoo. Using a captive herd, Przewalski’s horses have now been reintroduced to China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. There are around 1,900 Przewalski’s horses in both captivity and the wild today. These horses are all descended from 14 animals captured between 1910 and 1960.

Domestic horses and feral populations descended from domesticated stock, like mustangs, are not included on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as they are not considered wild animals. Mustangs, on the other hand, are protected and regulated on public lands in the United States under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (opens in new tab).

Related: Endangered horses spotted in Valentine’s nuzzle (opens in new tab) 

Additional resources

  • Horse in the American Museum of Natural History (opens in new tab)
  • Online exhibition of fossil horses at the Florida Museum of Natural History (opens in new tab)
  • “The Horse Encyclopedia,” published by DK in 2016. (opens in new tab)

This post was originally authored by Alina Bradford for Live Science and has now been modified.

Patrick Pester is a freelance journalist who used to work for Live Science. He has worked with endangered animals all around the globe and has a background in wildlife conservation. Patrick received his master’s degree in international journalism from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

Related Questions

  • What are different horse breeds used for?

    There are hundreds of horse breeds in the globe, each with its own distinct qualities and history. Some breeds are known for their strength and stamina, while others are prized for their speed and agility. Some are used for riding, while others are employed for farming or transportation.

  • What were domesticated horses used for?

    Genetic evidence indicates that domestication of the modern horse’s ancestors likely occurred in an area known as the Volga-Don, in the Pontic–Caspian steppe region of Western Eurasia, around 2200 BCE. Horses were then used for transportation, agricultural labour, and warfare across Eurasia.

  • What are the 3 most common uses for horses?

    Horses are largely utilized for sport, breeding, animal assisted therapy, or as leisure companions in high-income nations.

  • What are the four main uses for horses?

    Horses have been domesticated since the third millennium BCE [1] and have served a variety of functions in human-horse relationships, including war, labour, transportation, sport, and affection.

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