The Horse at the American Museum of Natural History

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And God took a handful of South wind and from it formed a horse, saying:
“I create thee, Oh Arabian.
To thy forelock, I bind Victory in battle.
On thy back, I set a rich spoil
And a Treasure in thy loins.
I establish thee as one of the Glories of the Earth…
I give thee flight without wings.”
— Ancient Bedouin Legend


Trotting Horse Mount
This skeleton of Lee Axworthy, the first trotting stallion to break the two-minute mile, was mounted by Samuel Harmsted Chubb, an anatomist and research associate at the Museum, during the first half of the 20th century. Chubb’s innovation of mounting skeletons in lifelike, natural positions revolutionized the presentation of these specimens in museums.
Image: D. Finnin, AMNH 2008 [larger view].

One of the many fun things that my colleagues and I did during our NYC get-together was to visit the American Museum of Natural History to see the special Horses exhibit on the fourth floor. This was the first time I’ve set foot onto the public exhibition floors at the AMNH since my postdoc ended a couple years ago, so it was rather .. intense for me. I was glad for the presence of my colleages.


The goal of this exhibit was to explore the relationship between horses and people; how horses affected the evolution of human society and how humans affected horse evolution.
The first thing that you see upon entering the exhibit is a thrilling life-sized video of a running horse, complete with thundering hooves. I was a little surprised that they filmed such a “fuzzy” horse — a horse with such thick hair, instead of a sleek Thoroughbred or Arabian, so we could more easily see the horse’s blood veins and muscles rippling under its skin.
The first exhibit was something that the AMNH invented a century or so ago and still excels at: dioramas. This diorama featured a group of horses that are evolutionary cousins to modern horses and asses [video showing how this diorama was prepared (8:43)];


Ancient horse diorama
Some ten million years ago, up to a dozen species of horses roamed the Great Plains of North America. These relatives of the modern horse came in many shapes and sizes. Some lived in the forest, while others preferred open grassland. Here, two large Dinohippus can be seen grazing on grass, much like horses today. But unlike modern horses, a three-toed Hypohippus tiptoes through the forest, nibbling on leaves. A small, three-toed Nannippus, shown here eating shrubs, ate both grass and leaves. In the background are several other large mammals living at that time, including Procamelus, a camel relative; a herd of Dinohippus horses; Gomphotherium, a distant relative of true elephants; and Teleoceras, a hornless rhinoceros.
Image: M. Shanley, AMNH 2008 [larger view].

Near this diorama was a family tree depicting the fossil record for the evolution of horses from the ancient and dimunitive Eohippus, or “Dawn Horse” up through the modern horse, Equus caballus. This family tree showed that horses evolved not as a single lineage with a distinct end point (Equus caballus) but instead, the horse family comprises a bush with many branches, most of which did not survive to modern times, unfortunately.
The exhibit then delved into the human-horse connection. Of course, horses were initially domesticated so people could eat them, but fortunately, we later expanded our appreciation from mere culinary interests to include their more aesthetic and practical value. So the first horse shoes, saddles, stirrups, and bits are displayed, along with more modern equipment, such as carriages and fire engines.
Since humans are nothing more than poorly domesticated apes, it didn’t take long before we made extensive use of horses in warfare. Because a good warhorse was very valuable, this necessitated the development of elaborate equipment to protect them during battle; equipment that was quite heavy and thus, required the horse to be very strong to wear it while carrying a similarly-clad soldier into battle;


Horse armor
In 16th-century Europe, the armor worn by horses rivaled that of the knights who rode them. This German horse armor includes the chanfron, which covered the horse’s head and carried the rider’s family crest or coat of arms; the crinet, which protected the horse’s neck and was made of overlapping plates so the horse could move its head; the crupper, which shielded the horse’s hindquarters; the saddle, which kept the rider’s waist safe from lances, spears, and arrows; and the peytral, which was worn over the chest and raised or flared outward to provide freedom of movement for the horse’s legs.
Image: D. Finnin, AMNH 2008 [larger view].

You may not realize this, but the “heavy” horse breeds, such as the Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire and others, are actually the descendants of warhorses from the human dark ages. These former warhorses were later adapted to modern “draft” horse uses; pulling plows and large beer wagons.
But fortunately, the human-horse partnership expanded to include other roles in addition to killing people, from sports such as polo and racing, hunting and jumping, to essential social roles, such as law enforcement, pulling fire engines and delivering mail to essential innovations resulting from equine veterinary medicine (they even included a picture of Barbaro and an x-ray of his surgically repaired leg) and just plain old transportation and companionship. In short, horses ended up transforming nearly every aspect of human life, and in doing so, they captured our imagination like no other animal ever could (the exhibit even included a valuable first edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty). And as a result of our long and close association, thousands of horse breeds were developed that were specialized for a variety of uses, from coal mining to horse ballet (dressage).
I highly recommend a visit to this informative exhibit to everyone who is interested in the development of human cultures and society as well as to everyone who loves horses. Not only will you learn a lot about the depth and breadth of the human-horse connection, but you will realize how much we owe to horses, and how their influence affects society to this very day. This exhibit is ongoing through 4 January 2009, so you still have a little time to see it, but don’t wait; you will no doubt wish to see it again and again before it moves on to its next destination.

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to The Horse at the American Museum of Natural History

  1. Coturnix says:

    It was so good seeing this exhibit WITH you, Grrrl. Made it so much more fun and informative that way.

  2. Barn Owl says:

    I really enjoyed reading the summaries of this exhibit by you and by Coturnix, Grrl. I won’t be able to visit the AMNH to see the exhibit myself, so I really appreciate reviews by two other hippophiles.

  3. i loved seeing the exhibit with you, too, bora! and i am sad that you won’t be able to see it for yourself, barn owl. it’s definitely worth seeing, if you ever find the opportunity to do so.

  4. I’m envious! The museums and Central Park are among the few attractions that could lure me to NYC.

  5. Thomas M. says:

    I saw that exhibit when I hit NY from mid to late May. Out of curiosity, how’d you manage to get those pictures? Find ’em on the website, manage to sneak a camera in? They’re too high quality to be cell phone pictures. I was hoping to take pictures, but they were pretty adamant about not getting any photos in that exhibit.

  6. thomas — the images are from the press package they gave us.