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The History and Romance of the Horse
By Arthur Vernon, Ernest John Donnelly
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1939 Waverly House, Boston
All rights reserved.
THE DAWN HORSES
For thousands of years the history of the horse and the history of man have been one, in war and peace, in exploration and adventure, in work and play. It has been a firm and a fascinating partnership.
Thus, all the romance of man's adventure on this earth, all the pageantries of war, the triumphs of peace, the terrific toil and turmoil of man's few thousand years of related history is shared by the horse.
But, millions of years before the history of man begins, the history of the horse can be recorded.
The first horse took his look about the world just about the time the earth was splitting and roaring with the upheaval that formed the Rocky Mountains. And, interestingly enough, the first horse lived along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. That was about forty-five million years ago—millions of years before the advent of man.
Do not think of the first horse, however, as an animal of noble dimensions standing with a triumphant air upon the mountainsides, or galloping possessively over rich pasture-lands. The first horse—Eohippus, the Dawn Horse—was about the size of a large tomcat. However, some of his cousins were somewhat larger, the greatest attaining the considerable height of twenty inches. This is probably equal to that of a present day terrier, but it was certainly nothing to brag about in a world which had just got rid of dinosaurs that would make Indian elephants look like kittens. In brief, if the Dawn Horses depended upon their size to win the struggle for existence, they would have been beaten before they started.
Aside from this lilliputian size, the physical appearance of the Dawn Horses was not otherwise so awesome as to daunt potential enemies. They had roundish little bodies, short necks, ineffective and small teeth and, far from a ferocious countenance, wore an expression akin to benevolent vacuity. They were as harmless, as totally inoffensive and mild looking creatures as ever appeared on the face of the earth. And if some eternal umpire in the contest of life looked down upon the species, his prompt opinion would unquestionably have been that they had about as much chance for survival in the relentless arena of prehistoric life as a mouse in a pen of half-starved wildcats. Their equipment for the ordeal of surviving was pitifully limited.
Limited as it was, nevertheless, it was not altogether lacking. Eohippus, the Dawn Horse, found himself gifted with a set of extraordinarily effective legs. He could scamper through the forests and among the plants with a swiftness probably never before seen on the earth. His legs were slender and tapering, and his feet were peculiarly useful in traveling over a varied terrain. He had no hoofs, in those ancient days, probably because he had no use for them and they would have been less a help than a hindrance. He did have four toes on each of his front feet and three on the back. And the toes were useful. They had pads on the bottom, very much like the pads on the feet of a dog, and nails formed an armor for them.
The value of this nether equipment to an animal of such conservative dimensions and such bland general appearance can be readily seen. With the slim, graceful legs, he could outrun his enemies. With the soft pads on his feet, he could tread about as he wished without giving himself away with tramping noises. With the flexible toes, he could secure a grip on the less even grounds of his region. And with the nails (which were, in fact, embryo hoofs) he could cling more firmly to rough spots on the slanting slopes. From the dawn of his days, then, the horse has depended chiefly on his legs for his existence. And his legs are also what has made him what he is in this ludicrously young Age of Man.
How the Dawn Horses lived is a matter purely for speculation. No one knows. But we can find clues of a sort. Let us consider various of his physical attributes in relation to the type of world which, we are reasonably sure, then existed. Thus, we can attempt to solve the mystery of how so diminutive and frail an animal managed to live through millions of years down to the present.
In the first place, it should be remembered that, small and insignificant as he was, the Dawn Horse had the jump on the rest of the mammals in one respect, at least. And that was in time. Although he was never the only mammal to grace the earth (rodents, for example, have been around as long as horses have), neither was he behind the times when, those forty-five millions of years ago, the characteristic life on this planet had passed from reptiles to the first mammals. Accordingly, before the animal kingdom became an arena for fierce fights to weed out the weakest, the Dawn Horse was quite well adjusted to the earth, aware of its goodness and experienced in its enmity. In less imposing terms, the Dawn Horse simply knew its way around. And that is a considerable advantage in any contest.
In the second place, the North American continent was then geographically and climatically much more friendly to the development of those little creatures than it would prove today. Moreover, the continent harbored no mammalian opposition so overpowering that the Dawn Horse would have not the least show against it. These are important considerations, for, given the whimsical climate and rough natural conditions of this continent today, with a couple of aggressive wolves thrown in, the Dawn Horse would have perished as quickly as he appeared. But in those remote days, America was warm, chiefly constituted of semi-tropical woodlands and dotted with occasional lagoons, about which flourished rich vegetation. Besides providing food for the Dawn Horse, these thick bushes and heavy plants also furnished a serviceable place to hide in, for it was the discreet policy, promoted by a very sound instinct, of those primitive horses to go out of their way to avoid a fight rather than, as in the case of less retiring mammals, to go out and look for one.
This pacifist proclivity undoubtedly is also the product of the horse's taste in foods. An animal whose system requires the eating of large daily doses of meat is inevitably going to kill to get it. But an animal who is satisfied with a plant diet and has, therefore, no desperate need for fighting, will naturally avoid it. So the Dawn Horse, delicately built and refined as he was, depended not on any physical might for his survival but relied entirely on his grace and speed in moving to make a place for himself in the world. Since this was before the age of the great American grasslands, he was primarily a creature of the forests. In his naturally and advisedly quiet and unobtrusive way, he went about the business of living gracefully and alertly, using his multi-toed feet to get around and his long jaws to reach for his food.
He held his own in the prehistoric world. But that advantage in time which he had did not result in any immediate enlargement of his body. There is no principle in evolution or natural history that warrants the slightest hypothesis that duration of life in a species has anything to do with its size. If there were, the horse might well be forty-eight feet tall, if one considers the length of his stay on the earth with the length of man's. Instead, the horse remained small, for his environment was much more favorable to a horse of small size than it would have been to one of giant dimensions. Except for the variation in sizes of the several more or less contemporary species of the Dawn Horse genus, which was not more than a foot in any instance, the ancient horse remained a tiny, plant-eating, running and leaping creature.
Such was the Dawn Horse's lot in the prehistoric world—a simple enough beginning but still a place under the pristine sun. He had found himself. He knew what to eat and enough to avoid his enemies. He used his head a little and his legs a great deal. And he brought his genus to the starting line of modern mammals and into the present age of man. The continents of the world saw successive invasions of repeated glaciers, altering the face of the earth and leaving plains of strange grasses, rivers where they never flowed before and deep canyons where there had been primitive swamplands. But the line of the Dawn Horse continued, as we shall see, to roam the earth and to flourish in it.
Eohippus, the Dawn Horse, it is interesting to note, derived his name not alone from the fact that he was the first of his genus, the founder of a long dynasty, but also from the circumstance that he made his appearance in the Eocene period. That is, the Dawn Horse was one of the first animals to portend the dawn of a new era. It was the dawn both of rule by a new order and of survival under new principles. The new order was the mammalian, in the procession of which the horse marched inconspicuously in the van. And the guiding new principle was/that brains can conquer brawn.!
The importance of this gradual change in the state of the prehistoric world cannot be too much stressed in a consideration of the survival of the Dawn Horse. Despite his speed in moving, his ability to hide and move silently and his tendency to avoid unnecessary contact with less placid creatures, the Dawn Horse would very likely still have been snuffed out, were it not for this whole new scheme of things gradually but persistently turning out the old. For the horse, completely unconscious of his times and caring no more about what went before than what lay ahead, was no less the symbol of the beginning of a new era.
From the standpoint of natural history, the general scene into which the timid and wary little animal was ushered must have been like a sunny morning after a nightmarish storm. The long and cruel Age of the Reptiles, covering over a hundred million years, was over. Domination by the dinosaurs, who stalked and rampaged over every quarter of the globe, was ended.
So profound were the changes in the earth itself and so complete was the extinction of the dinosaurs that it is doubtful that any visible vestige of their heyday remained in the following period to haunt the life of the Dawn Horse. But the first horse owed something to those incomparable monsters, if it was only for the thoroughness with which they managed to send themselves and their fellows to doom. Certainly in their world—if the world had continued to be theirs—the horse would have been obliterated like an ant under a man's heel.
The largest of the first horses could not have weighed more than a hundred pounds. But the dinosaurs who preceded them on this planet weighed over four thousand pounds, some of them approaching three tons. The largest horse was twenty inches in height. The average dinosaur was ninety feet in length; and, balancing his body with his huge, heavy tail, he could, stand on his long hind legs to attain a height of fifty towering feet. Even in speed, crowning virtue of the equine race, the horse had no advantage over the dinosaurs. The latter, particularly those carnivorous brutes who preyed upon scores of lesser creatures to nourish their tonnage, sped over miles with a lightning-like pace, seizing their victims with talon claws and mangling them wholesale in their powerful jaws. It is a wonder of evolution, though no mystery, that such an animal, so picayune in comparison, as the horse should ever succeed to a world previously controlled by the most gigantic, the fastest, the most powerful and the most ravenous living thing that ever terrorized the earth.
Yet if the dinosaur was the ugliest mechanism ever to have been gifted with voluntary locomotion, the world over which it ruled, and which was the geologic eve of the birth of the horse, made up a suitably ugly environment. The world was designed as though expressly for these monsters, with one eye on ugliness and the other on destruction. Reptiles comparable to the dinosaurs on the land dominated the air and the sea. Giant winged reptiles, flying with great bony wings, swooped down to destroy land creatures and plants. Huge sea lizards sloshed through the oceans to seize their prey. The carnivorous dinosaurs, meanwhile, destroyed not only other orders but were bent on ravishing their cousins, the pinheaded and streamlined versions of bloated and be-pawed snakes.
In contrast to the succeeding grace of the Dawn Horses, motion itself was ugly. The air reptiles were too hugely and awkwardly constructed to embark on any graceful flights. Simply flopping into space from a cliff whence they sighted their prey, they gathered momentum as they fell and used their wings only to hold themselves up. Although a little more fleet in their motions, the sea lizards snorted their way through the waters of the earth, leaping up out of the deep to snatch and gulp whatever hove in sight. It was on land, however, that the epitome of ugliness was reached on this hideous eve of the appearance of the horse. The dinosaurs were in absolute power. Slimy, swift but gross, what they did not intentionally destroy to appease their appetites or vent their spleen they accidentally snuffed out by trampling and mauling. They ruled the earth by sheer viciousness and brute size.
One might still wonder that the earth should pass from the extreme characterized by the dinosaur to the extreme characterized by such mammalian weakness as the horse. It seems incredible that these enormous reptiles could ever lose their prestige to such a little cluster of pitifully weak emerging mammals. The most feasible theory as to why they did is simply that they had no brains worth mentioning. For, although a dinosaur weighed two and a half tons, its brain usually weighed something less than a pound, which means a unit of gray matter equal to one five-thousandth (1/5000) of its body. In other words, the dinosaurs and allied reptiles of the period immediately preceding the Eocene, Dawn of Recent Times and birthday of the Dawn Horse, kept going as long as they did simply from physiochemical interactions. Physical perfection of a mechanical sort compensated for lack of intelligence. But it was insufficient compensation. When their environment changed and their interactions slowed down, they were too stupid to know what to do and too lazy to do it if they had known. So they died out, just as did their fellows of the air and the seas.
With the new period came a new era. Brains succeeded brawn. Grace followed brutality.CHAPTER 2
WHERE THEY WENT
The Dawn Horses did not become localized to the western part of the North American continent. Nomadic by nature, some of them wandered up through Alaska into Asia, for the Behring Strait did not exist in those days and the two continents were connected. From the northeast corner of Asia, the horses then migrated southwest until they reached Europe, where they concentrated in great numbers about the fertile shores of the lake which then occupied the site of Paris.
Early in the nineteenth century, geologists exploring the rock strata of France, Switzerland and Belgium found a profusion of ancient horse bones there. Because the restored skeletons had a remarkable resemblance to Eohippus and because the bones were found in a rock strata nearly as old as that in which the Dawn Horses were entombed, it must be inferred that this migration took place very early in the history of the horse.
These migrants to Europe take over the stage of the historical drama of the horse from the day that they arrived there. Probably because living conditions in prehistoric Europe were so favorable, there was a mushroom spreading of horses while back in America the Dawn Horses were progressing very slowly and evenly. Eventually, as will be seen, the progress of the horses in Europe proved to be false progress; but the rapidity and certainty with which they literally infested the continent commanded attention for several million years from the progeny of the Dawn Horses in America.
Excerpted from The History and Romance of the Horse by Arthur Vernon, Ernest John Donnelly. Copyright © 1939 Waverly House, Boston. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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