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screen legacyExhibit Dates: 1978 - Present

A chronological exhibit that leads visitors through five million years of equine history, Legacy of the Horse is the signature exhibit of The International Museum of the Horse. Beginning with the evolutionary history of the horse, the exhibit then moves on to the domestication of the horse and its use by the earliest civilizations. Visitors then learn about the expanding role of the horse throughout the Old World, how the horse was first brought to the Americas, and about the “Golden Age” of the horse in the nineteenth century.


The First Horses
Hyracotherium (eohippus)

55 - 45 :Million Years Ago

eohippusHyracotherium, or eohippus (dawn horse) as the scientists named it, first appeared on earth as a small, timid creature no bigger than a dog. It existed from 55 to 45 million years ago. It was 10 to 17 3/4 inches tall at the shoulder and had four toes on its front legs and three toes on its hind legs. Hyracotherium lived in a damp, hot jungle of huge cypress and mammoth trees. Here it fed on leaves as it roamed over the boggy ground. Small size and multi-toed feet kept Hyracotherium from sinking into the swamp. The remains of this original little horse have been found in such places as the Wasatch Range in Utah, the Wind River Basin in Wyoming, and in Europe.


The First Horses

37 – 32 Million Years Ago

During this time, some of the early horses migrated across a land bridge between Europe and North America. As the temperature and the climate changed, conifers began to outnumber deciduous trees. The forest thinned and grass became more prevalent. Mesohippus was larger than Hyracotherium, its teeth had further evolved, and it had three toes on its front legs. It was better suited to running fast to escape the enemies that pursued. Because the swamp had given way to soft ground, Mesohippus no longer needed his toes as much has Hyracotherium did. The lateral supporting toes decreased in size while the middle toe strengthened. The toes ended in little hooves but still had a pad behind them. This genus lived about 37 to 32 million years ago.


The First Horses

17 - 11 Million Years Ago

Merychippus evolved in North America and adapted to the hard grasses of the plains region. This was the beginning of the grazing horse of today. Merychippus had now increased in size to about 35 inches. These larger horses of the plains lived in herds. In order to chew the rough, hard grass, Merychippus developed complicated grinding teeth quite similar to present-day horses. Its lateral toes continued to diminish and no longer reached the ground. The main toe thickened and hardened for swift travel on the dry ground. 


The First Horses

12 - 6 Million Years Ago
Fossils of Pliohippus are found at many late Miocene localities in Colorado, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Canada. Species in this genus lived from 12-6 million years ago. In the late Miocene Epoch, one branch of horses crossed into Asia and quickly multiplied and spread to Europe. Meanwhile in North America, the horse developed into the final model. Pliohippus was the first true monodactyl (one-toed animal) of evolutionary history. Pliohippus had increasing need for speed to outrun its enemies, so the hoof evolved from the continued over-development of its middle toe. Its denture and extremities were the nearest approach to our present-day horses. This horse now spread into South America, as well as Asia, Europe, and Africa. In the last two million years, Equus emerged as the large, magnificent creature we admire today. Finally about 8,000 years ago, Equus became extinct in the New World and was not to return until the Spanish brought horses to the Western Hemisphere in the 1400s.


The First Horses
The Przewalskii and Tarpan Horses

The Przewalskii Horse
The Przewalskii, or Asiatic wild horse (Equus przewalskiii), was only discovered in the 19th century. In 1879, the Russian Captain, Nikolai Mikailovich Przewalskii sighted the horse as he traveled through the remote valleys of Mongolia. The modern Przewalskii horse resembles the now extinct Tarpan, or European wild horse (Equus ferus), whose ancestors were captured so vividly in the cave paintings in France and Spain between c. 31,000 and c. 17,000 BCE. The Przewalskii horse was once believed to be a direct ancestor of all living breeds. DNA testing, however, has revealed chromosomal differences between Przewalskiis and modern horses (Equus caballus) indicating that the title of prime progenitor more likely belongs to the European based Tarpan. Przewalskiis typically stands 12 to 14 hands high and have a dun (yellowish) coloring. It has a light colored muzzle, a short, upstanding mane, a dark dorsal streak along its back, as well as dark legs. In its native Mongolia it feeds on tamarisk, feather grass, and the white roots of rhubarb. The Przewalskii horse was once threatened with extinction. The former Soviet Union had established a refuge for the horse in the late 1970s to insure both its continued existence and its freedom. During the 1990s, Przewalskiis were successfully returned to preserves in their native Mongolia. Although held in captivity in many zoos around the world, the Przewalskii horse has never been effectively tamed, and in fact can be vicious if threatened. In Mongolia, they are known as the Taki, Tachi, Takh or Tag. For more information see the site of the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalskii Horse at

The Tarpan Horse
The Tarpan, or European wild horse (Equus ferus), is now considered the most likely candidate to the title of ancestor to all modern horses. The last wild Tarpan died in captivity in 1917 or 1918. The last of the feral herds were killed in the mid-19th century by farmers tired of the wild horses stealing their domestic mares and eating their crops. Tarpans once ranged from northern Germany, though Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and western Russia. They were said to look very much like the Przewalskii, except for a grayer coat. After extinction, efforts were made to recreate the breed, and while the modern Tarpan bears a close physical resemblance to its ancient ancestor, it can no longer be considered pure.