Horse, donkey and mule
Horses are very social animals, spending long time grooming each other, as these in San Simeon Creek, California, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Donkey carts are still a common means of transportation in many countries, here in the town of Shigatse, Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Modern horses (true horses, donkeys, asses, and zebras) evolved from a small, browsing animal, about the size of a fox, with four toes on the front feet and three on the hind feet. Initially, this creature, which first appeared in America about 55 million years ago, was named Eohippus (‘dawn horse’ in the Greek), later changed to Hyracotherium. Recent research has now placed the type species, Hyracotherium leporinum, as the progenitor of both horses and brontotheres (extinct, rhino-like animals, which were closely related to horses), while other species, which were formerly placed in the genus Hyracotherium, have been moved to other genera, including Eohippus.
Over time, these early horses evolved into creatures with fewer toes, and about 5 million years ago, the modern Equus – the single-toed, fast-running animals that we know today – had evolved. During one of the ice ages, an early species of Equus reached Asia from America via a land bridge, which formed between the two continents. From Asia, it spread to Europe and Africa. This progenitor evolved into the true horse (Equus ferus), and into various species of asses and zebras.
Wild horses in America died out gradually, most species presumably because of climate change. The last species, Equus scotti, was probably eradicated by invading nomad hunting tribes from Asia, who spread to America via the Bering land bridge during the latest ice age, c. 12,000 years ago.
In Europe, the true wild horse, or tarpan (Equus ferus ssp. ferus), was also hunted to extinction, and the last one died in a Russian zoo in 1909. Another subspecies, Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus ssp. przewalskii) – named after Russian geographer Nikolai Przewalski – only survived as scattered herds on the vast grass steppes in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. This horse also died out in the wild around 1960, but survived in zoos around the world. In later years, small herds of Przewalski’s horse have been released into the wild from breeding centres in Mongolia, and, once again, true wild horses roam the steppes of Central Asia.
Przewalski’s horse, mare and foal, photographed in Givskud Zoo, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Attempts have been made to recreate the tarpan by crossing Przewalski’s horses with various ancient, primitive types of domestic horses (Equus ferus ssp. caballus), resulting in tarpan-like horses, such as the Konik horse. Today, herds of these ‘primitive’ horses have been released various places in Europe.
The Konik horse, an ancient horse race, resembles the extinct tarpan, apart from the long mane. A feral population of these horses live in the nature reserve Oostvardersplassen, Flevoland, Holland, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Exmoor pony is another ancient horse race, which is kept in semi-feral conditions several places in Europe. Its short mane is a primitive trait. This mare and suckling foal were photographed on the island of Langeland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Feral and semi-feral populations of the domestic horse are also found in several countries, including the United States, England, France, and Australia. In numerous places, they are damaging the local ecology through overgrazing, and many environmentalists want their numbers reduced significantly. Some populations are kept for historic or sentimental reasons, for example the mustangs of western United States, the Chincoteague ponies on Assateague Island, eastern United States, and the Misaki ponies in Japan. Some of these populations are carefully managed to minimize their impact on the local environment.
Chincoteague ponies, or Assateague horses, live ferally on Assateague Island, Maryland, United States. The lower picture shows ponies, grazing in a campground. When Judy and I visited Assateague Island, we spent a night on this campground. Early in the morning, I was busy preparing breakfast outside our tent, when suddenly a large horse head appeared over my shoulder, snatching a bag of cereals out of my hand. These horses may be feral, but you can hardly call them wild! (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The domestication of horses began on the Central Asian steppes around 4000-3500 B.C., and by 2000 B.C., domestic horses were found in most of Europe. Initially, the horse was probably used mainly for meat and milk, the latter often fermented to make an alcoholic drink. Later, people learned to ride on horses, and to utilize them for pulling wagons and the plough. Mongolian riders would often draw blood from their own horses and drink it – a quick and nourishing meal, when travelling. Horse hides were utilized to produce numerous items, such as boots and gloves, the bones to make various tools, and the hooves to make glue. Today, horses are mainly used for sports and leisure, but in certain parts of the world, especially South America, cowboys still work on horseback.
The main difference in appearance between the wild horse and its domesticated cousin lies in the mane, which is short and upright in the wild horse, whereas it is long, hanging down one side of the neck in the domestic horse. The coat also tends to be shorter in domestic horses, although in severe climates, they do grow thicker coats. The tarpan was dun-coloured, and Przewalski’s horse is pale brown, whereas the domestic horse comes in all sorts of colours.
Many modern horse breeds descend from the Arabian horse, which originated in the Arabian Peninsula about 4,500 years ago. This large breed, which is characterized by strength, speed, and endurance, quickly became popular in many parts of the world.
The Spaniards brought a breed of small, agile horses, which they called mestengo, to America, where the local native tribes quickly learned to ride on them. Still today, descendants of these mustangs, as their Spanish name was corrupted into, roam freely several places in the western United States.
The images on this boulder in Utah, called ‘Newspaper Rock’, depict a hunter on a mustang, as well as deer, bighorn sheep, and shamans. The images have been made by scraping off a layer of so-called ‘desert varnish’ on the rock. This ‘varnish’ consists of a thin layer of manganese and clay, formed through thousands of years by bacteria, living on the rock surface. These bacteria absorb small amounts of manganese from the atmosphere and deposit it on the boulders. Other such images may be studied elsewhere on this website, see Culture: Folk art around the world. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Today, descendants of mustangs roam freely several places in the western United States, as here in Monument Valley, Arizona. The rock formation in the background is called Three Sisters. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The main difference in appearance between the wild horse and its domesticated cousin lies in the mane, which is short and upright in the wild horse, whereas it is long, hanging down one side of the neck in the domestic horse. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
At an early stage, horses were trained to pull wagons. This Khmer relief at Banteay Srei, Angkor, Cambodia, depicts a scene from the Hindu legend ‘Fire in the Kandava Forest’, with horror-stricken people and animals (top). – These tourists in Quebec, Canada, are enjoying a trip in a horse-drawn carriage (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The small Icelandic horse is a direct descendant of the horses, which were brought to the island by Norwegian settlers about a thousand years ago.
Farmer Holmgrimur Kjartansson with three of his horses, Aðaldal, near Husavik, northern Iceland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This boy enjoys skiing, being pulled by a horse. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Horse racing is a popular sport in many countries around the world. This rider participates in a race, held annually, during the Festival of the Dead, in the town of Todos Santos, Guatemala. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Shoeing a horse, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Many modern horse breeds descend from the Arabian horse, one of these being a Danish breed, the Frederiksborger. In this picture, two Frederiksborgers are brought from the stables to the watering trough, Melstedgård Agricultural Museum, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Modern horses first arrived in South America in the 1500s. These horses are grazing in a mountain meadow near Embalse El Yeso, Chile. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This sculpture in the Sun Temple, Konark, Odisha (Orissa), India, which was carved in the 13th Century A.D., depicts a horse, trampling a monster to death. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This frieze in the Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India, dating from about 1000 A.D., depicts a rather special use of a mare. The man to the left seems to await his turn, while the embarrassed woman in the background is hiding her face. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A smaller cousin of the horse is the donkey, or ass (Equus africanus ssp. asinus), which is descended from the African wild ass (Equus africanus). Formerly, this species had a wide distribution, from Somalia north to Egypt, and westwards to the Atlas Mountains. Three subspecies are recognized.
The nominate subspecies, the Nubian wild ass (Equus africanus ssp. africanus), is presumed to be extinct, although a small population may survive in the Gabal Elba National Park, on the border between Egypt and the Sudan. However, the purity of these animals is questioned, as they may have interbred considerably with domestic donkeys. Another population, which may be, or may not be closely related to the Nubian wild ass, survives on the Caribbean island of Bonaire. (See: retrieverman.net/2015/02/26/are-the-bonaire-donkeys-the-last-wild-nubian-asses)
The Somali wild ass (Equus africanus ssp. somaliensis) is found in deserts and other arid areas of Somalia, Eritrea, and eastern Ethiopia, but in very low numbers – maybe a total of less than 600 individuals. Thus, it is critically endangered and may go extinct in the wild.
The Atlas wild ass (Equus africanus ssp. atlanticus) was once found across North Africa and in parts of the Sahara, but was extirpated by hunting. The last individuals may have been shot by Roman hunters around 300 A.D.
Donkeys were probably first domesticated around 4000 B.C. by pastoral tribes of Nubia, who used them as pack animals instead of cattle. Using donkeys made it possible for them to move around faster, when trading goods over long distances, as they now didn’t have to wait for the cattle to chew the cud. During the Fourth Dynasty in Egypt (2675-2565 B.C.), wealthy people often owned more than a thousand donkeys, which were used for meat and milk, to pull carts and the plough, and as pack animals.
By about 3000 B.C., the donkey was a common animal in the Middle East, and by 1800 B.C., it had spread further east in Asia, the main breeding centre now being Mesopotamia. By about 2000 B.C., the donkey was present in Europe, from where the first animals to enter the Americas were brought to the island of Hispaniola in 1495, during the second voyage of Columbus. In Mexico, donkeys probably arrived in 1528, from where they quickly spread northwards, used as pack animals by soldiers, missionaries, and miners. During the Gold Rush in the 19th century, the donkey, or burro, as it was called, was the main pack animal. When the Gold Rush ended, many of these burros escaped, or were deliberately released, forming feral populations, which have existed until today.
The world population of donkeys is about 40-45 million, most of them found in the developing countries. The highest number, about 11 million, is in Chinese territories, followed by Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Mexico.
A male donkey is called a jack, a female a jenny, and their offspring is a foal. Jacks are often crossed with horse mares to produce mules, which are very strong and sturdy pack animals. If a jenny is crossed with a horse stallion, the offspring is called a hinny.
Donkeys were probably first domesticated around 4000 B.C. – This jenny and her foal are grazing in an alpine meadow in the Markha Valley, Ladakh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
At a very early stage, donkeys were used as pack animals. These men in Kabul, Afghanistan, are loading sacks of garlic on donkeys, to bring them to a market. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Donkeys are also used for riding in many countries. These pictures show a boy in Petra, Jordan (top), a boy in Birecik, Turkey (centre), and a woman with her daughter, south of Abalak, Niger. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
When the North American Gold Rush in the 19th century ended, many of the working donkeys, or burros, as they were called, escaped, forming feral populations, which have existed until today. This traffic sign in Death Valley National Park, California, is warning against crossing burros. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The strong and sturdy mules are crossbreeds between horses and donkeys. This mule train is making its way down the Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Heavily loaded mules cross the Kali Gandaki River, Mustang, central Nepal, on a steel suspension bridge. Before the introduction of these strong structures, rivers in the Himalaya were crossed on bridges made of bamboo poles, tied together with twine made from liana bark. After some years of wear and tear, these rather flimsy constructions would finally break, often causing casualties among men and beasts. – More pictures of suspension bridges are found elsewhere on this website, see Culture: Bridges. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
After carrying heavy burdens all day, these mules enjoy rubbing their back in a patch of sandy soil near Tal, Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
More pictures of horses, donkeys, asses, and zebras may be studied elsewhere on this website, see Gallery: Animals – Horses.
(Uploaded September 2017)
(Revised December 2018)