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When the Horses Returned
 By Winniefield Park   •   27th Sep 2016   •   1,108 views   •   0 comments
When the Horses Returned

Many people are surprised to learn that what we call wild horses are not truly wild at all. There is some debate on how horses disappeared from the North American continent, why they did, where they went and how it all happened. Scientists tend to agree that the horse disappeared about a few thousand years ago after about 35 to 56 million years of evolution, evidenced by fossil remains. In fact, it’s held that North America was the birthplace of the earliest horse, the eohippus.

There are several theories about why they disappeared. It may have been an infectious disease that wiped them out. A change in climate may have brought about changes in the vegetation horses ate. Or, more recently, scientists are speculating that over-hunting by man might have been the reason. Prehistoric man may have hunted the huge wooly mammoth to extinction. Did the same thing happen to the North American horses?

But, there is little debate about when the horse returned to North America. Most of us know that “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. Columbus is generally credited with discovering North America. This is debatable too since there were Europeans sailing to and living in North America at least 500 years before Columbus took his cruise. But, Columbus is the guy that gets the credit. The Vikings to the north settled and then went home. Those Europeans that followed Columbus stayed.

There may have been no horses on Columbus’ first voyage. However, in all voyages thereafter, horses and other livestock were part of the cargo. It was a royal decree that ensured this. Despite this, Columbus doesn’t get the credit for reintroducing horses to the Americas. And in fact, the horses that Columbus brought may never have set hoof on the actual mainland. The person that is credited with reintroducing horses to the Americas was a Spaniard named Hernán Cortés.

Cortés arrived in the new world in 1504 and began life as a colonist and aid to the local governor, He eventually became mayor of Cuba. where a thriving colony existed. After 15 years, he was given command of an expedition to colonize Mexico. He set sail early in 1519 and included in the ships’ cargo were thirteen horses. These baker’s dozen of Spanish bred horses were the first horses in the Americas since the mysterious extinction 1000s of years earlier.

These horses had no easy time, and neither did the soldiers and adventurers who accompanied Cortés. The first crossing of the Atlantic was made on ships that were small, crowded, had only primitive navigation and were prone to rot and other structural damage. In those days, the crossing could have taken up to two months. Horses may have been at least partial suspended in slings to protect their legs and help them balance as rolling waves rocked the boat. If horses did not break legs during the violent tossing of storms, they could become badly bruised as the hit the sides of their wooden stalls. We know that it isn’t good for horses to stand still for long periods of time, and the stress of life at sea would have been great. Columbus’ The Nina had a deck length estimated to be 50 feet long. In her hold would have been the livestock, provisions, weapons and fresh water. A crew of about 20 would live onboard as well. Cortes would have arrived on something similar or slightly larger.

The journey that Cortés took from Cuba to the Yucatan Peninsula would have been much shorter, but what awaited them was unknown. Horses would have been unprotected from biting insects and have to adjust to new food and environment. Nor did Cortés wander about idly. There were many skirmishes with the indigenous people, who thought they were being invaded by strange gods and centaurs.

Are there descendants of these first horses roaming the wild herds of North America? I think it’s unlikely. In the few decades that followed, horses were so valued that it's recorded they were traded only for slaves or gold. Many died of illness and injury. It would be many decades before horses were in any number, and a few lost couldn’t be accounted for. Breeding stock was valuable. But, in March of 1519, with those first few conquistadors mounts, the Americas saw the return of the horse for the first time in thousands of years.
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