Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


A herd of ponies in the Isle of Shetland guarded by a sheep-dog.

The Horse

Teacher's Story

"There was once a little animal no bigger than a fox,

And on five toes he scrambled over Tertiary rocks.

They called him Eohippus, and they called him very small,

And they thought him of no value when they thought of him at all.

Said the little Eohippus, I am going to be a horse!

And on my middle finger nails to run my earthly course!

I am going to have a flowing tail! I am going to have a mane!

And I am going to stand fourteen hands high on the Psychozooic plain!"

—Mrs. Stetson

It was some millions of years ago, that Eohippus lived out in the Rocky Mountain Range; its fore feet had four toes and the splint of the fifth; the hind feet had three toes and the splint of the fourth. Eohippus was followed down the geologic ages by the Orohippus and the Mesohippus and various other hippuses, which showed in each age a successive enlargement and specialization of the middle toe and the minimizing and final loss of the others. This first little horse with many toes, lived when the earth was a damp, warm place and when animals needed toes to spread out to prevent them from miring in the mud. But as the ages went on, the earth grew colder and drier, and a long leg ending in a single hoof, was very serviceable in running swiftly over the dry plains; and according to the story read in the fossils of the rocks, our little American horses migrated to South America; and also trotted dry-shod over to Asia in the Mid-pleocine age, arriving there sufficiently early to become the companion of prehistoric man. In the meantime, horses were first hunted by savage man for their flesh, but were later ridden. At present, there are wild horses in herds on the plains of Tartary; and there are still sporadic herds of mustangs on the great plains of our own country, although for the most part, they are branded and belong to someone, even though they live like wild horses; these American wild horses are supposed to be descendents of those brought over centuries ago by the Spaniards. The Shetland ponies are also wild in the islands north of Scotland, and the zebras roam the plains of Africa, the most truly wild of all. In a state of wildness, there is always a stallion at the head of a herd of mares, and he has to win his position and keep it by superior strength and prowess. Fights between stallions are terrible to witness, and often result in the death of one of the participants. The horse is well armed for battle; his powerful teeth can inflict deep wounds and he can kick and strike hard with the front feet; still more efficient is the kick made with both hind feet while the weight of the body is borne on the front feet, and the head of the horse is turned so as to aim well the terrible blow. There are no wild beasts of prey which will not slink away to avoid a herd of horses. After attaining their growth in the herd with their mothers, the young males are forced by the leader to leave and go off by themselves; in turn, they must by their own strength and attractions, win their following of mares. However, there are times and places where many of these herds join, making large bands wandering together.


Four-toed Horse of the Eocene Period

After Charles R. Knight.

The length of the horse's leg was evidently evolved to meet the need for flight before fierce and swift enemies, on the great ancient plains. The one toe, with its strong, sharp hoof, makes a fit foot for such a long leg, since it strikes the ground with little waste of energy and is sharp enough not to slip, but it is not a good foot for marshy places; a horse will mire where a cow can pass in safety. The development of the middle toe into a hoof results in lifting the heel and wrist far up the leg, making them appear to be the knee and elbow, when compared with the human body.

The length of neck and head are necessary in order that an animal, with such length of leg as the horse, may be able to graze. The head of the horse tells much of its disposition; a perfect head should be not too large, broad between the eyes and high between the ears, while below the eyes, it should be narrow. The ears, if lopped or turned back, denote a treacherous disposition. They should point upward or forward; the ears laid back is always a sign that the horse is angry; sensitive, quick-moving ears indicate a high-strung, sensitive animal. The eyes are placed so that the horse can see in front, at the side and behind, the last being necessary in order to aim a kick. Hazel eyes are usually preferred to dark ones, and they should be bright and prominent. The nostrils should be thin-skinned, wide-flaring and sensitive; as a wild animal, scent was one of the horse's chief aids in detecting the enemy. The lips should not be too thick and the lower jaw should be narrow where it joins the head.


The horse's teeth are peculiar; there are six incisors on both jaws; behind them, is a bare space called the bar, of which we have made use for placing the bit. Back of the bar, there are six molars or grinders on each side of each jaw. At the age of about three years, canine teeth or tushes appear behind the incisors; these are more noticeable in males, and never seem to be of much use. Thus, the horse has on each jaw, when full-grown, six incisors, two canines, and twelve molars, making forty teeth in all. The incisors are prominent and enable the horse to bite the grass more closely than can the cow. The horse, when chewing, does not have the sidewise motion of the jaws peculiar to the cow and sheep.

The horse's coat is, when rightly cared for, glossy and beautiful; but if the horse is allowed to run out in the pasture all winter, the coat becomes very shaggy, thus reverting to the condition of wild horses which stand in need of a warmer coat for winter; the hair is shed every year. The mane and the forelock are useful in protecting the head and neck from flies; the tail is also an efficient fly-brush. Although the mane and tail have thus a practical value, they add greatly to the animal's beauty. To dock a horse's tail as an ornament is as absurd as the sliced ears and welted cheeks of savages; and horses thus mutilated suffer greatly from the attacks of flies.


Hooves of horses from earliest ages to the present time, arranged in pairs, hind and front.

Owing to the fact that wild horses made swift flight from enemies, the colts could not be left behind at the mercy of wolves. Thus it is, the colt like the lamb, is equipped with long legs from the first, and can run very rapidly; as a runner, it could not be loaded with a big compound stomach full of food, like the calf, and therefore, must needs take its nourishment from the mother often. The colt's legs are so long that, in order to graze, it spreads the front legs wide apart in order that it may reach the grass with its mouth. When the colt or the horse lies down out of doors and in perfect freedom, it lies flat upon the side. In lying down, the hind quarters go first, and in rising, the front legs are thrust out first.


English draft-horse

The horse has several natural gaits and some that are artificial. Its natural methods of progression are the walk, the trot, the amble, the gallop. When walking there are always two or more feet on the ground and the movement of the feet consists in placing successively the right hind foot, the right fore foot, left hind foot, left fore foot, right hind foot, etc. In trotting, each diagonal pair of legs is alternately lifted and thrust forward, the horse being unsupported twice during each stride. In ambling, the feet are moved as in the walk, only differing in that a hind foot or a fore foot is lifted from the ground, before its fellow fore foot or hind foot is set down. In a canter, the feet are landed on the ground in the same sequence as a walk but much more rapidly; and in the gallop, the spring is made from the fore foot and the landing is on the diagonal hind foot and, just before landing, the body is in the air and the legs are all bent beneath it.

An excellent horseman once said to me, "The whip may teach a horse to obey the voice, but the voice and hand control the well-broken horse," and this epitomizes the best horse training. He also said, "The horse knows a great deal, but he is too nervous to make use of his knowledge when he needs it most. It is the horse's feelings that I rely on. He always has the use of his feelings and the quick use of them." It is a well-known fact that those men who whip and scold and swear at their horses, are meantime showing to the world that they are fools in this particular business. Many of the qualities which we do not like in our domesticated horses, were most excellent and useful when the horses were wild; for instance, the habit of shying was the wild horse's method of escaping the crouching foe in the grass. This habit as well as many others is best controlled by the voice of the driver instead of a blow from the whip.



Timothy hay, or hay mixed with clover, form good, bulky food for the horse, and oats and corn are the best concentrated food. Oats are best for driving-horses and corn for the working team. Dusty hay should not be fed to a horse; but if unavoidable, it should always be dampened before feeding. A horse should be fed with regularity, and should not be used for a short time after having eaten. If the horse is not warm, it should be watered before feeding, and in the winter the water should have the chill taken off. The frozen bit should be warmed before being placed in the horse's mouth; if anyone doubts the wisdom of this, let him put a frozen piece of steel in his own mouth. The tight-drawn, cruel use of the over check-rein should not be permitted, although a moderate check is often needed and is not cruel. When the horse is sweating, it should be blanketed immediately if hitched outside in cold weather; but in the barn, the blanket should not be put on until the perspiration has stopped steaming. The grooming of a horse is a part of its rights, and its legs should receive more attention during this process than its body, a fact not always well understood.

The breeds of horses may always be classified more or less distinctly as follows: Racers or thoroughbreds; the saddle-horse, or hunter; the coach-horse; the draft-horse and the pony. For a description of breeds see dictionaries or cyclopedias. Of the draft-horses, the Percherons, Shires and Clydesdales are most common; of the carriage and coach-horses, the English hackney and the French and German coach-horses are famed examples. Of the roadster breeds, the American trotter, the American saddle-horse and the English thoroughbred are most famous.


A Good Coacher

Lesson LXVII

The Horse

Leading thought—The horse as a wild animal depended largely upon its strength and fleetness to escape its enemies, and these two qualities have made it of greatest use to man.

Method—Begin this study of the horse with the stories of wild horses. "The Pacing Mustang" in Wild Animals I Have Known, is an excellent story to show the habits of the herds of wild horses; Chapter first in A Country Reader and the story of horses in Life of Animals are excellent as a basis for study. Before beginning actual study of the domestic horses, ask for oral or written English exercises descriptive of the lives of the wild horses. Get Remington's pictures illustrating the wild horses of America. After the interest has been thus aroused the following observations may be suggested, a few at a time, to be made incidentally in the street or in the stable.


1. Compare the length of the legs of the horse with its height. Has any other domestic animal legs as long in proportion? What habits of the ancestral wild horses led to the development of such long legs? Do you think the length of the horse's neck and head correspond to the length of its legs? Why?

2. Study the horse's leg and foot. The horse walks on one toe. Which toe do you think it is? What do we call the toe-nail of the horse? What advantage is this sort of a foot to the horse? Is it best fitted for running on dry plains or for marshy land? Does the hoof grow as our nails do? Do you know whether there were ever any horses with three toes or four toes on each foot? Make a sketch of the horse's front and hind leg and label those places which correspond to our wrist, elbow, shoulder, hand, heel, knee and hip.

3. Where are the horse's ears placed on the head? How do they move? Do they flap back and forth like the cow's ears when they are moved, or do they turn as if on a pivot? What do the following different positions of the horse's ears indicate: When lifted and pointing forward? When thrown back? Can you tell by the action of the ears whether a horse is nervous and high-strung or not?

4. What is the color of the horse's eyes? The shape of the pupil? What advantage does the position of the eyes on the head give to the wild horse? Why do we put blinders on a horse? Can you tell by the expression of the eye the temper of the horse?


"Palo Alto," a Famous Running Horse

5. Look at the mouth and nose. Are the nostrils large and flaring? Has the horse a keen sense of smell? Are the lips thick or thin? When taking sugar from the hand, does the horse use teeth or lips?

6. Describe the horse's teeth. How many front teeth? How many back teeth? Describe the bar where the bit is placed. Are there any canine teeth? If so, where? Do you know how to tell a horse's age by its teeth? (See Elements of Agriculture, Warren, page 304, and The Horse, Roberts, page 246.) Can a horse graze the grass more closely than a cow? Why? When it chews does it move the jaws sidewise like the cow? Why? Why did the wild horses not need to develop a cud-chewing habit?

7. What is the nature of the horse's coat in summer? If the horse runs in the pasture all winter, how does its coat change? When does the horse shed its coat? What is the use of the horse's mane, forelock and tail? Do you think it is treating the horse well to dock its tail?

8. Why do colts need to be so long-legged? How does a colt have to place its front legs in order to reach down and eat the grass? Does the colt need to take its food from the mother often? How does it differ from the calf in this respect? How has this difference of habit resulted in a difference of form in the calf and colt?

9. When the horse lies down which part goes down first? When getting up which rises first? How does this differ from the method of the cow? When the horse lies down to sleep does it have its legs partially under it like the cow?

10. In walking which leg moves first? Second? Third? Fourth? How many gaits has the horse? Describe as well as you can all of these gaits. (See pictures illustrating the word "movement" in the Standard Dictionary.)

11. Make a sketch of a horse showing the parts. (See Webster's Unabridged). When we say a horse is fourteen hands high what do we mean?

12. In fighting, what weapons does the horse use and how?

13. In training a horse, should the voice or the whip be used the most? What qualities should a man have to be a good horse trainer? Why is shying a good quality in wild horses? How should it be dealt with in the domestic horse?

14. What sort of feed is best for the horse? How and when should the horse be watered? Should the water be warmed in cold weather? Why? Should the bit be warmed in winter before putting it in a horse's mouth? Why? Should a tight over check-rein be used when driving? Why? When the horse has been driven until it is sweating what are the rules for blanketing it when hitched out of doors and when hitched in the barn? What is your opinion of a man who lets his horse stand waiting in the cold, unblanketed in the village street. If horses were kept out of doors all the time would this treatment be so cruel and dangerous? Why? Why should dusty hay be dampened before it is fed to a horse? Why should a horse be groomed? Which should receive the most attention, the legs or the body?

15. How many breeds of horses do you know? What is the use of each? Describe as well as you can the characteristics of the following breeds: The thoroughbred, the hackney, and other coach-horses; the American trotter, the Percheron, the Clydesdale.

16. Write English themes on the following subjects: "The Prehistoric Horses of America," "The Arabian Horse and Its Life With Its Master," "The Bronchos and Mustangs of the West," "The Wild Horses of Tartary," "The Zebras of Africa," "The Shetland Ponies and the Islands on Which They Run Wild."

Supplementary reading—The Horse, Roberts; Elements of Agriculture, Warren; Life of Animals, Cram; Neighbors with Claws and Hoofs; A Country Reader; Agriculture for Beginners; Black Beauty; John Brent, by Theodore Withrop; Half Hours with Mammals, Holder; Chapters on Animals, Hammerton; "Kaweah's Run" in Claws and Hoofs.


Many horses shy a good deal at objects they meet on the road. This mostly arises from nervousness, because the objects are not familiar to them. Therefore, to cure the habit, you must get your horse accustomed to what he sees, and so give him confidence. . . . . Be careful never to stop a horse that is drawing a vehicle or load in the middle of a hill, except for a rest; and if for a rest, draw him across the hill and place a big stone behind the wheel, so that the strain on the shoulder may be eased. Unless absolutely necessary never stop a horse on a hill or in a rut, so that when he starts again it means a heavy tug. Many a horse has been made a jibber and his temper spoilt by not observing this rule.

H. B. M. Buchanan

"A Country Reader"

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