This post may contain affiliate links. We earn from qualifying purchases. Learn More
When we think of horses, images of the Wild West often spring to mind. Magnificent herds galloping across the open plains have become synonymous with North America’s untamed spirit.
Yet, there is a long-standing debate surrounding these noble creatures’ origins on this vast continent.
Were these majestic animals always a part of North America’s diverse fauna, or did they migrate from elsewhere?
Below we explore this intriguing question – are horses native to North America?
Are Horses Native to North America?
Horses are not native to North America in the modern sense. The last native horses disappeared from North America around 11,000 years ago. However, horses did evolve in North America, and the modern horses that are found in North America are descended from horses that were brought back to the Americas by Spanish explorers in the 16th century.
There is extensive evidence to support that horses first evolved in North America. Archeologists found fossil remains of the earliest ancestor of horses, the Eohippus, dating to the Eocene Epoch (56-33.9 million years ago) in Wyoming.
Remains of the oldest species of the genus Equus, Equus simplicidens, have also been uncovered at the Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho. This species resembling a modern zebra with the head of a donkey lived during the Pliocene Epoch between 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago.
The Debate About Modern North American Horses
There is some debate about whether or not the modern horses that are found in North America should be considered native.
Some people argue that they are not native because they were not here before the arrival of humans.
Others argue that they are native because they are descended from horses that evolved in North America.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the modern horses that are found in North America to be non-native.
However, the American Wild Horse Preservation Act of 1971 considers them to be “wild free-roaming horses and burros” and gives them the same protection as native wildlife.
Ultimately, whether or not the modern horses that are found in North America are native is a matter of opinion. There is evidence to support both sides of the argument.
Why Did Horses Go Extinct in North America?
The time period during which most of North America’s megafauna disappeared started in 15,000 BP (years Before the Present) and lasted for 5,000 years. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as the Quaternary extinction event.
There are two main hypotheses trying to explain why horses went extinct in North America. The first one suggested climate change as a possible cause, while the second hypothesis blames the overhunting of megafauna by humans.
Prior to around 10,500 BC, what is today known as Alaska was covered with grassy steppes. After 10,500 BC, Alaska turned into barren tundras that couldn’t sustain horses, leading to their extinction.
What’s more, humans migrated to Alaska around the same time horses went extinct. The Clovis people are especially known for their big-game hunting culture and their appearance was simultaneous with the extinction of equids.
It is quite possible that both climate change and overhunting by humans caused horses to go extinct in North America.
Where Did Horses in America Come From?
After being absent for thousands of years, horses set foot in North America once again in 1493. The Italian explorer Christopher Colombus brought horses of Spanish origin to the New World on his second voyage. However, these horses only made it to the Virgin Islands of the Caribbean.
The first horses to reach mainland America arrived in 1519 with the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who brought 16 horses to help his search for gold.
Larger shipments of horses soon followed these initial imports, brought to North America by explorers De Soto and Coronado. Many Iberian horses arrived in Mexico and South America, with the first horses reaching Florida in 1538.
Which Horse Breeds Descend From the First Horses That Arrived in America?
Most modern American horse breeds are descendants of the first horses in North America. This is most prominently seen in the Spanish Mustang, Marsh Tacky, Florida Cracker horse, and Choctaw horse breeds.
“Colonial Spanish Horse” is a collective term referring to those horse breeds that developed from the Spanish horses of the settlers and remained pure over centuries. There is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that these horse breeds instinctively avoid mixing with others, which is how they preserved their original bloodlines.
One such breed is the Galiceño horse that developed from the horses of Hernán Cortés through natural selection. On the Atlantic coast of Mexico, Galiceños lived isolated from the rest of the world without mixing with other horse breeds.
A preliminary genetic study done by Dr. E. Gus Cothran at Texas A&M University has found a link between the Galiceño and Garrano horses. Garranos are a primitive horse breed of Portugal closely related to the modern Galiceño horse, proving that the latter indeed originated from the Iberian Peninsula.
How Did Horses Spread Across North America?
The first imports that came with the Spanish conquistadors consisted of mostly smaller horses, due to the size restrictions of colonial ships. Draft horses only arrived in the New World starting from the mid-19th century.
In the centuries following the first Spanish imports to Mexico and Florida in the 16th century, wild horses spread in every direction across North America. Other European settlers also brought horses to the north, east, and west ends of the continent. Horses were the last to arrive in the western United States, which didn’t happen until the late 18th century.
From the 19th century onwards, horses were abundant in North America. They carried out jobs like herding cattle on ranches, farming, drawing carriages, and hauling goods. Harness racing also developed around this time, which led to the creation of the American Standardbred breed.
The horse population in the United States peaked in 1912 when the country had the second-highest number of horses in the world after Russia. According to estimations from this time, population numbers exceeded 20 million.
This has changed drastically after the First World War, which decimated the horse population in North America. Many breeds have drifted to the brink of extinction and horse prices were the lowest going back 60 years.
With the beginning of the Cold War, horse populations in North America slowly began to recover. Today, there’re over 9 million horses on the continent. Even though they haven’t been part of Americans’ daily lives since the spread of mechanization, their role in leisure and sports continues to make them popular.
When Did Native Americans Get Horses?
Native Americans first obtained horses in larger numbers around the middle of the 17th century. Some tribes like the Aztecs in Mexico were riding horses as early as 1541. However, for most Native Americans it took some time to figure out how to efficiently manage these animals.
According to historians, the Comanche people were one of the first tribes to acquire horses, followed by the Crow and Blackfoot tribes. Horses became a central part of most Native American cultures, especially the Sioux tribe.