11 Astonishing Facts About Horses

brown horse with black mane runs through field with wind blowing through hair

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Horses have existed for 50 million years. Our own human history has been greatly shaped by our partnership with these creatures, and they have been shaped by us as well; since domesticating the horse 6,000 years ago, humans have created hundred of horse breeds, used for everything from racing and war to plowing and pulling carts and carriages.

In honor of the great horse, here are 11 fascinating facts you never knew about them.

1. Horses Have a Wide Range of Vision

close up front view of horse face showing large eyes far apart on sides of head
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Horses' eyes are located on the sides of their heads, so they have a wide range of vision. They can see nearly 360 degrees and have blind spots only immediately in front of and behind their bodies.

Horses mostly use monocular vision, when both eyes are used separately. That means a horse can see and process different things happening on different sides of its body. When a horse switches to binocular vision, it's to focus both eyes on a single object in front of it.

2. They Cannot Vomit

Horses are physically incapable of vomiting. There are a number of anatomical reasons for this, such as the strength of the muscles in the esophagus, the specific way the esophagus connects to the horse's stomach, and the location of the stomach itself.

The evolutionary reason for this isn't known for sure, but one theory is that it is protective. The back-and-forth motion of a full gallop could theoretically induce vomiting that would allow a predator to catch it, so evolution may have eliminated the concern entirely.

3. They Are Related to the Rhinoceros

Horses are members of the genus Equus, which is considered the only extant group in the horse family. The genus includes not only the domesticated horse (Equus caballus) but also the Przewalski's horse, zebras, and asses such as donkeys.

But they are not the horse's closest living relatives. As an odd-toed ungulate, the horse is closest related to the similarly hooved rhinoceros.

4. Arabian Horses Have a Unique Build

majestic tan arabian horse with white markings trots downhill in a field
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Arabian horses stand out for their historical importance, particularly to the culture and lives of desert tribes in the Middle East. But they are also distinct from other horse breeds because of their unique build.

Arabians have a greater bone density than other horses, and they also have a shorter back with one fewer lumbar vertebrae. Additionally, Arabians have one fewer pair of ribs, and their ribs are set wider apart. And while they are known for carrying their tails high like a flag behind them, that may have less to do with high spirits and more to do with having two fewer tail vertebrae than other horse breeds.

5. Ponies and Miniature Horses Are Different

white falabella small horse trots through meadow full of dandelions
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All miniature horses are ponies, but not all ponies are miniature horses. Any horse that is shorter than 14.2 hands (58 inches) at the withers qualifies as a pony. According to the American Miniature Horse Association, miniature horses must be no taller than 34 inches, which puts them squarely in the pony category in addition to being their own group.

However, many enthusiasts consider miniature ponies to be a distinct breed of horse because they maintain standard horse body proportions, unlike ponies that have shorter legs, longer bodies, and an overall stockier build.

6. Their Teeth Contain Lots of Information

close up of horse face with mouth open showing small teeth
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Much can be learned about a horse through its teeth, starting with its gender. Male and female horses have a different number of teeth; males have 44 while females have between 36 and 44. So if you ever look at a horse skull, you can likely discern its gender simply by counting its teeth.

You can also estimate a horse's age by looking at its teeth. According to the University of Missouri, this can be done by observing the occurrence of permanent teeth, the disappearance of cups (indents in each tooth), the shape of the surface of the teeth, and the angle at which the top and bottom rows meet.

7. There Is Only 1 Truly Wild Horse Species

light tan Przewalski's horse bends down to drink water surrounded by green grass
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There is only one subspecies of horse that is truly wild, not feral: Przewalski's horse. It's had a narrow brush with extinction and is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

However, there have been worldwide efforts to bring this horse back from the brink. Just one example is the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection the Przewalski Horse; it worked for almost 40 years on breeding strategies and ultimately released over 350 horses in Hustai National Park in Mongolia.

8. They Have Muscular Ears

tan and white speckled horse with ears perked up tall while sun sets
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Horses' ears may be small, but they are mighty. Each ear contains 10 muscles (compared to humans' three) and can move 180 degrees, from facing directly forward to directly backward. They can also distinguish and identify distinct sounds by directing their hearing to specific areas.

Horses also use their ears to communicate, such as by pinning them back to indicate anger or for guidance. In a 2014 study by the University of Sussex, horses were found to make decisions based on where another's ears were pointing, telling us that the animals may use their ears to direct each other.

9. Their Funny Faces Aren't Laughter

brown horse stretches neck to tilt head up high, showing top teeth
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When a horse curls its upper lip and raises its head in the air, many people see it as a funny face or an expression of laughter, but that's inaccurate.

The behavior is called the flehmen response, and it's about getting a better whiff of an interesting smell. This action allows pheromones and other scents to transfer to the vomeronasal organ (VMO), which then sends signals to the brain that can trigger physiologic and behavioral reactions.

Stallions show the flehmen response most often as they pick up the pheromones of mares. Mares will flehmen shortly after birth as a response to the pheromones of their newly born foal.

10. One Breed Has a Metallic Coat

profile of dark brown horse with glistening, shiny coat walking
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The Akhal-Teke horse is famous for its coat. While many well-tended horses have beautiful sheens, this breed boasts a metallic shine.

It all has to do with the structure of its hair. In most horse breeds, hair strands have an opaque core, but for the Akhal-Teke, that core is extremely small or completely absent. The transparent part of the hair takes its place, bending and refracting light as it passes through and giving each hair an apparent shimmer.

11. They Are Highly Intelligent

Horses are smart creatures, and there are studies to prove it.

Research published in 2012 found that horses use input from several senses to identify — and remember — people. The horses were able to distinguish between a familiar and unfamiliar human by their voices alone (without using sight or smell). The horses could also do the opposite, telling the difference using just the sight and smell of the people, not hearing their voices.

Meanwhile, the Equine Research Foundation has disproven an assumption about horses that they cannot transfer information between different sides of the brain. Their study found that horses were easily able to employ this skill of interocular transfer, recognizing objects with one eye that they had learned about with the other.

View Article Sources
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  4. Loch, Wayne, and Melvin Bradley. "Determining Age Of Horses By Their Teeth." University Of Missouri Extension.

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