Worth A Second Look – Knowing A Horse

March 26, 2003

Man’s relationship with the horse is complex, spanning many centuries. Domesticated for about 5,000 years, horses have enabled human transportation, agriculture, and sport. A member of the family equidae, in the order Perissodactyla, the domestic horse or equus caballus belongs to the same family as zebras and asses. Horses evolved from a four-toed, small-browsing animal to the modern horse, a large grazing animal with a single leg bone and enlarged middle toe.

60 million years ago, horses were the size of a dog; modern horses stand between 14 and 16 hands. Over 100 breeds of horses are found today, each selectively bred by man to have certain characteristics or to perform specific kinds of work.

Most equids originated from a common ancestor about four million years ago. After the ice age, horses were hunted to the point of near extinction. About 7,000 years ago, the only remaining horses were found in the open grass steppes of the Ukraine and Central Asia. Although horses were primarily considered a food source, the people of that area first began to ride horses about 6,000 years ago. Evidence of this is found in ritual graves where horses have been buried with antler tines with holes in them. Scientists have concluded these antler tines were the cheek part of ancient rope bridles. The teeth of these horses have been analyzed under a microscope and have been found to have markings similar to the teeth of modern day horses that carry bits in their mouths.

Once domesticated by man, horse populations flourished and today about 60 million domestic horses can be found worldwide. The domestication of the horse enabled the growth of civilizations as mobility allowed tribes to wage warfare on their stationary neighbours. By 2000 BC, the horse and chariot enabled civilizations to conquer each other. Replaced by the car as a means of transportation, horses are still found today in sports like polo and rodeo riding.

My relationship with horses started last summer, during a vacation in Jasper. Looking for a break from the traditional tourist activities, my husband and I thought that a trail ride might be the activity we were looking for. The stable’s brochure promised dramatic and scenic vistas. We booked the “three hour tour” which promised a scenic climb up a mountain. My horse “Buddy” was very old and was only interested in eating. I had to keep my wits about me as he tried to brush me off on every tree and shrub on the trail. In spite of his efforts, the morning passed pleasantly and, as promised, the view on the mountain was incredible. Soaking in the hot springs after the ride to ease the saddle sores, I realized that a new opportunity had presented itself for exploring the beauty that Canada has to offer.

My husband surprised me with riding lessons as an anniversary gift, and I have started to learn how to ride “Western” style on a horse named “Tennessee”. Included in the lessons is time for grooming the animal. Horses are very social, and develop attachments to other horses. Mares will often pair off and groom each other, scratching the other’s neck and back with their teeth. Most herds have distinct social or “pecking” orders. Order is kept in the herd by a system of signals such as pinned back ears, which signals aggressiveness. Humans have learned to take advantage of the horse’s need for bonding and social order. Grooming the horse allows the owner to enter the horse’s “space” and cements the bond between the horse and its owner. Once the horse identifies the human as having higher social standing, very little punishment is needed to train the animal.

Grooming is necessary to keep dirt from beneath the saddle and girth, and it keeps the horse looking neat, especially in spring when the horse sheds its winter coat. Grooming Tennessee is relaxing and sheds any stress that I might be carrying. Once Tennessee is groomed and his saddle and bridle are on, the lesson begins. Tennessee stands 15 hands 3 high or 63″ at the withers, which is a point in his spine between his shoulders and back. Putting the bridle on can be comedic as at his withers, Tennessee is as tall as I am. When I reach up to put the bridle on, his head towers above me.

Once we are in the riding ring, getting into the saddle is the next challenge of the day. Once I am securely in the saddle, we cover a number of exercises designed to help learn how the horse moves. The lesson then focuses on some aspect of riding – turning, slowing down from a jog, or riding in a straight line. I am amazed at how fast the lesson goes. In no time, I am grooming Tennessee, putting his tack away, and sweeping the stable.

At school, a lot of my friends were crazy about horses. Now that I am learning to ride, I understand their affection for these beautiful and intelligent animals. My instructor says that the time she spends with the horses is her favorite part of the day. Maybe someday, I can own a horse. In the meantime, I plan to explore Canada’s diverse regions on horseback as my ancestors did on the steppes of Western Europe all those centuries ago.

Teresa is enrolled in the Bachelor of Professional Arts Program, Communications Studies, at Athabasca University and is enjoying returning to school after 18 years. Teresa enjoys writing, union activism and gardening, and lives and works in Regina, Saskatchewan, with her partner Kevin and son Adam.

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