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David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
Toronto Ontario CAN

David Manly is a freelance journalist who will blog about a wide range of topics that all fall under the umbrella of zoology and ecology. While his expertise lies with reptiles and amphibians, he has a wide array of knowledge and interest in all animal species - from the sponge to the great ape. He hopes you will enjoy his blog, as he plans to make it both entertaining and enjoyable (as well as fill it with interesting facts, tidbits, photos and videos).

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I was inspired to write this post based on a movie I saw this weekend entitled “Secretariat”. The movie, which is based on the amazingly true story about a horse that won the Triple Crown (a series of three big races in the United States) that has only been won eleven times.

Secretariat in motion

The movie is inspiring, even though you know how it will end. I still found myself learning forward during the movie, enthralled by what was on the screen. It is definitely the best movie I have seen in the past few months.

But, this post will not be a movie review. Instead, I’m just going to talk about the amazing biology of horses so that you can understand just how amazing these animals are.

Horses evolved around 50 million years ago from Hyracotherium, which was about the size of a fox, but with elongated legs for running and four out of five toes touching the ground. After 20-25 million years, Mesohippus evolved due to the rapid evolution of the prairies. This allowed for widespread running, most of the body weight was distributed onto the third toe. And eventually, these animals evolved in the modern horse (Equus) that we know today.

Now, you are probably wondering - Why is he mentioning the toes of horse?

Well, the most amazing thing about horses are their legs. Horses have a leg that has been built by evolution for speed. Unlike humans, which have a flexible ankle, horse feet have a much more limited range of motion. But, what they do have are a series of bones that end in a hoof, which is surrounded by cartilage and keratin (just like our fingernails).

Think of a hose foot like a toe. There is only one long bone, a simple joint and a stub that ends in a nail.

Therefore, if you wanted to feel what it would be like to walk/run like a horse, you would have to carry over 1,500 pounds while walking on tiptoe.

I used to watch a show when I was a kid, called Inquiring Minds, where the hosts answered science questions in a fun and entertaining way (yes, I was and still am a science geek, but let’s move on, shall we?)

One of the questions was about how do horse legs break. I remember the host saying that with so much force applied to one area, accidents can happen. He then held up a piece of chalk, and snapped it perfectly in half.

“This is how we humans break our legs,” he said. “But, the pieces can easily fit back together and heal perfectly.”

He then put another piece of chalk in a vice, and slowly tightened it.  “By having so much weight on one central point, the leg doesn’t snap,” he said as he continued tightening the vice. “The leg shatters, and putting all those pieces together is extremely difficult.”

That said, horses can recover from such an accident. It requires a lot of surgery, plenty of drugs to keep an animal that large anesthetized, screws and metal places to fasten what are left of the bones together and a massive amount of antibiotics. In addition, the horses also must keep the weight off their injured leg either using a water treatment, or a specially designed harness.

Simply put, it is a long, painful and expensive process in which the horse may never recover. That is why horse owners will often put the horse out to pasture if it breaks its leg, or even put them down. It is the sad reality of the sport of kings: Horse racing.

But, to cheer you up after that most depressing comment, here is a little bit of information about my favourite horse – Przewalski’s horse.

Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) is a critically endangered species of horse native to China and Mongolia. It was, at one point, extinct in the wild (last one in the wild was seen in 1966), but it has since been successfully re-introduced in Mongolia.

It is also the last truly wild horse still living today, as most others (such as the Mustang or Brumby) are actually descended from domesticated animals that escaped and adapted to life in the wild.

And, it has a Mohawk. How can you not love a horse with a Mohawk?


Credit: National Geographic


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Washington University School of Medicine
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Fascinating. Horses are so majestic. I love the mohawk!

UC Davis
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So are the toes of faster horses different from that of slower horses?

UC Davis
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This is why races that involve obstacles like jumps are such a bad idea - like the grand national.  It's amazing more horses don't have to be put down when you see the number that fall at the first fence.

In relation to Will's comment, it would definitely be interesting to see how the toes of thoroughbred race horses differ from those of slower pack driving horses for example!

Jason Goldman
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Horses are also sensitive to human social cues!

Dub C Med School
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Przewalski’s horse!  I had a giant "aww" moment reading about them in Jane Goodall's "Hope For Animals And Their World."

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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Amazing post David. Horse is one of my Favorite animal.

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