I was taught in school that the Spanish introduced horses to the Americas. But while the Spanish did bring them, plenty of horses were here before the Spanish arrived.
“The Spanish did indeed introduce the modern horse to the Americas, although one could argue that it was a re-introduction,” said Laura Walkup, a ranger at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and the Minidoka National Historic Site.
The Hagerman Horse remains mark the largest sample of this extinct species found in one area. Although remains of the same species have been found in several states, they’re all much younger. Hagerman’s is the oldest.
The first appearance of the modern genus Equus — which includes modern horses, donkeys, zebras, etc. — was Equus simplicidens, also known as the Hagerman Horse, Walkup said.
“Horses originally evolved in North America, and specimens of Equus simplicidens as well as many earlier horse ancestors have been found throughout the continent,” she said. “The first specimen of the Hagerman Horse ever described by paleontologists was not found in Idaho; it was found and named in Texas by paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope in 1892. However, the most complete specimens ever found were found here in Hagerman — hence the nickname ‘Hagerman Horse.’
“The earliest ancestor of the horse was a small, dog-sized creature that lived in North America about 52 million years ago. The oldest known fossils are about 3.2 million years old, and they were found in Hagerman.”
The Hagerman Horse “spread out to the Old World as well as South America, because at the time they were connected by land bridges,” Walkup said. “They continued to exist in North America until about 12,000 to 15,000 years ago when they went extinct in North America, along with a number of other megafauna. The exact causes for this extinction event are unclear, but the extinctions occurred around the same time that the most recent glacial advance ended, which was also about the same time that big game-hunting humans arrived in North America.”
After their extinction, no horses were in North America for thousands of years. They returned to the Americas with the Spanish in the 1400s and 1500s. “Horses would eventually be lost or stolen from Spanish explorers and missionaries. These horses survived, reproduced and formed large herds of feral horses known as wild mustangs.”
In addition to the oldest horse, Idaho has several other equine firsts.
Through the Appaloosa Horse Club, an international breed registry in Moscow, Idaho became the first to offer a license plate featuring a state horse. The Appaloosa was designated the official state horse in 1975 because of its importance to Idaho history. The Nez Perce were exceptional horse breeders who developed strict breeding selection practice. By the late 1800s, they began to emphasize spotted color in their breeding program.
The year 2003 was a big one for equine firsts in Idaho.
The first Idaho horse ever raced in the Kentucky Derby that year: Buddy Gil from Billingsley Creek Ranch.
Idaho Gem became the world’s first cloned mule, created by a team of scientists from the University of Idaho and Utah State University. Idaho Gem, born in May 2003, is an identical genetic copy of his brother, Taz, a champion racing mule.
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