History Of Horse Breeds – Where They All Came From

Horse Breeds History

History Of Horse Breeds

Most people know that all dog breeds of today originate from the wolf – but have you ever wondered where our horse breeds came from? Like other domesticated animals, all horses can be traced back to a single species. As this species was domesticated, different modern (and extinct) breeds were developed.

From where did all horse breeds originate? All modern horse breeds can trace their ancestors to a single genus known as Equus. Though the exact breed(s) from which our modern horses were derived is up for debate and is likely extinct, the oldest horse that is still alive today is the Przewalski’s horse, evidenced to have existed 11,000 years ago.

Keep reading to learn more about the origin of the horse, from which country they came, and a list of the oldest living horse breeds!

Where Did Horses Come From?

All modern horse breeds come from the family Equus, which itself evolved from its earliest ancestor, Eohippus. Following is a brief history of this evolution, including why you wouldn’t recognize the horse’s earliest ancestors as, well, horses.

  • Eohippus: It is said that based on fossil evidence, this earliest ancestor of our modern horse came into the picture 60 million years ago. If you saw Eohippus today, though, the last thing that would come to your mind would be “horse”. Eohippus was hardly over a foot tall and had an arched back and feet with toes. This animal was similar in size to a small fox and was believed to have lived in the forest feeding on brush and other plants.

  • Orohippus: After Eohippus came Orohippus, who was only slightly larger in size but did gain an additional “grinding tooth” that enabled the chewing of tougher greens (I could think of more exciting transformations, but hey, chewing is important).

  • Epihippus: With Epihippus we see another jump in size – from about a foot tall to almost two feet tall. This change also accompanied a large middle toe, which may sound insignificant but is believed to have been the first move toward our modern horse hoof.

  • Merychippus: With this jump came an almost doubling in size, from about 4-5 hands in height to about 8 hands. Merychippus had longer legs, a larger brain, wider eyes, and a longer muzzle, bringing it more in line with what we see today. Merychippus may have appeared, at least in size, similar to today’s Miniature Horse.

  • Dinohippus: Here, we have an animal closer in size and structure to a modern-day pony – Dinohippus was about 13 hands high and lost all but one large toe. Dinohippus is also where the stay mechanism first arrived on the scene – the “leg locking” feature allowing an animal to sleep while standing upright. This mechanism likely evolved as the animal became larger and more vulnerable to predators while lying down.

  • Equus: This brings us to Equus, a.k.a. our modern horse. Equus maintained the height of its previous ancestor, and from there different breeds have branched out either through environmental differences or intentionally through humans.

In Which Country Did Horses Originate?

You may have heard that horses were introduced to North America by the Spanish explorers in the 1400s. This is true. Another truth is that from Eohippus to Equus, the horse originated in North America. How can both of these statements be factual?

Scientists say that the animals we know as Equus would migrate between North America and Asia through a strip of land called the Bering Land Bridge. It is believed that some 11,000 years ago, the ice that covered much of the Earth began to thaw, and as sea levels rose, the Bering Land Bridge disappeared.

The prevailing theory is that when this happened, the horses were busy grazing in Asia and found themselves stranded. 

Given this information, it shouldn’t be surprising that some of the oldest horse breeds hail from Asia. It did not take long for humans to recognize the advantages of keeping horses, however, and from here horses were domesticated and moved around the globe – which brings us back to North America. 

It was Christopher Columbus himself who brought the horse back to its country of origin (unbeknownst to him). Before his voyage, the king instructed him in writing to bring twenty “fighting horses” and five “replacement horses” in case any of the twenty should perish.

These horses made it as far as the Virgin Islands. Twenty-five years later, explorer Hernan Cortes brought sixteen Iberian horses to the United States. It is believed that today’s Mustangs of the West originate from the earliest abandoned or escaped Iberian horses.

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The World’s Oldest Horse Breeds

Most of the earliest horse breeds have long been extinct, but there are still a handful of breeds around today that are thousands of years old.

Przewalski’s horse 

The oldest living breed of horse isn’t actually a breed at all – the Przewalski’s horse is believed to be the last truly wild horse in the world (with the well-known Mustangs and Brumbies being “feral” since they came from once-domesticated animals).

Przewalski’s horses originated in Mongolia 11,000 years ago and after years of extinction, have been successfully reintroduced in their country of origin through breeding programs in zoos around the globe. 

While there are claims that all modern horse breeds trace back to the Przewalski’s horse, that isn’t actually scientifically known.

There has been debate over the years after DNA research suggested that the Przewalski’s is genetically significantly different from the domesticated horse, with some scientists saying the true type from which our horses originated has long been extinct.

Caspian horse

The Caspian horse is a small breed that originated in Iran about 5,000 years ago according to fossil remains found in 2011 as well as ancient art in which they are depicted pulling chariots. The breed was discovered (or really, re-discovered) in the Iranian mountains by American ex-pat Louise Firouz who then began breeding the horses. 

Caspian horses are believed to be unique in that they do not fit into one of the four “ancestral horse types” (Northern European, Northern Steppe, Southern Steppe, and Iberian/Mediterranean). The breed is extremely rare and it is believed that there are only around 750 individuals left.

Arabian

Perhaps the most well-known ancient horse with a thriving population today, the recognizable Arabian originated in the Middle East. There is archaeological evidence suggesting the Arabian was developed some 3,500 – 4,500 years ago, with recorded evidence of the breed as early as 2,000 years ago.

It is believed the Arabian was domesticated by the Bedouin people shortly after they domesticated the camel. They were bred as warhorses with prized, quiet mares used in raiding.

Mongolian horse 

The Mongolian horse, as you can imagine, originated in Mongolia. The Mongolian is believed to be at least 4,000 years old, with documented domestication as early as the year 2,000 BC. Among all breeds, the Mongolian horses have the highest level of genetic diversity, suggesting that that it is an ancient breed that has undergone very little intentional breeding. 

Norwegian Fjord horse

The Fjord, with its recognizable primitive, clipped mane, originated in Norway more than 4,000 years ago, with selective breeding occurring for at least 2,000 years. They were once used as war mounts for the Vikings, though they are relatively small at 13.1 – 14.3 hands.

The Fjord is known as one of the purest breeds of horse, with limited crossing with other breeds. They are still quite popular today as riding horses and can be found around the world. 

Akhal-Teke

Known as the “Golden Horse” due to the natural sheen of its coat, the Akhal-Teke is believed to have been in existence for around 3,000 years. The Akhal-Teke is native to the Middle East and is closely related to the extinct Turkoman horse – in fact, some argue that the Akhal-Teke and the Turkoman are simply two different strains of the same breed.

The Akhal-Teke is also closely related to the Arabian, as they both originated in similar regions and in a similar era. It has also been theorized that the Akhal-Teke and the Arabian (and the Turkoman and the Barb) all derived from a single “oriental horse” that has since gone extinct. 

The History of Horses

Humans have been living with horses for almost all of history and have been domesticating the animals for thousands of years. While the written record of horse breeding began around 2,000 years ago, both fossils and artifacts depict a rich history well beyond this period of time, with many different horse “types” akin to the breeds that we have today.

As researchers learn more about DNA and testing techniques, we will surely continue to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about the horse’s fascinating history. That said, I love horses, and I love history – so reading (and writing) about the equine history we do know will remain a favorite pastime of mine so that I can pass that knowledge on to you!

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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