All thanks to a foot

HAYLEY WILD, an instructor at Saddleworth and District Pony Club, looks back at the history of the horse…

Recently, Oldham Gallery hosted a talk on the History of the Horse by The Horniman Museum curator Paulo Viscardi.


In a snapshot of a fascinating heritage, he began charting horses’ incredible evolution which traces the animal back about 55 million years to a small dog-like creature.

Horses are members of the Perissodactyla order which they share with rhinos and means they are odd toed.

The first or ‘dawn’ horse known as Hyracotherium was a small forest dweller that browsed on foliage and fruit, he was solitary and used the thick brush for protection. The lower leg was shorter with individual toes, not unlike large claws.

As the climate changed it started to become cooler and drier and the vast forests couldn’t be supported, horses became bigger and their legs longer. Some still had side toes but movement on the terminal digit, or one toe, the equivalent of our middle finger, began to dominate.

Something rather fortuitous happened to the way their limbs continued to change, said biomechanics specialist Viscardi, as horses’ legs are in fact not in proportion with their bodies as they used to be.

HORSE POWER: Crucial to industrialisation
HORSE POWER: Crucial to industrialisation

When animals increase in size, usually all the body parts increase at the same rate. Horses didn’t – had they evolved in this way their speed would have been completely compromised by lugging around heavy limbs. In other words, horse racing would have been impossible.

Also their heads lengthened to accommodate high crowned teeth which left a gap between their incisors and molars, very handy for a bit. The position of their head and neck made them perfect for a length of rein and riding, coupled with their rigid spines very comfortable to sit on and of course a trainable nature

Horses were first domesticated about 5000 years ago and have since been selectively bred for purpose. They were used by humans to pull ploughs, carriages, coal carts and boats.

They literally pulled us through the beginning of industrialisation and a world war. It was only down to horsepower we were able to move boats along the network of canals in Britain, including cotton.

One stark point stood out of the talk; the evolution of this tough, gritty creature, the changes to his shape have not only allowed the horse to adapt and survive through considerable environmental challenges, but incredibly have also allowed them to forge a union with humans that has endured us through our own historical changes.

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