Horses Impact on History

When most of us think of horses, we probably think of them as ranch pets, work horses, or race horses.  The amazing horse has been helping man for many centuries: carrying him and his supplies across continents, charging bravely into battle, plowing dusty fields, delivering mail for the Pony Express, or racing around tracks to fame and glory.  But did you know that the horse has made incredible and unseen impacts on history – everything from railroads to space rockets?  Well, it’s true!  So, let’s learn more about the amazing horse and its hidden history.

Just like many life forms throughout the ages, the horse has evolved over time, although not as much as other species that made the big leap from ocean life to life on land.  But, slowly over the past 45-55 million years, the horse changed from having many toes, to one toe.  Around 4000 BCE, humans started capturing and training, or domesticating, horses for use in daily life.  They quickly became indispensable for everything from transportation to hunting and farming due to their amazing qualities like strength and speed.  They could go much farther and much faster than humans, and could shorten the length of time it took to plow fields, carry supplies, or hunt for food.  

In addition, the horses’ other qualities quickly became apparent, such as their excellent sense of balance, their intuitive fight-or-flight response, and their ability to sleep both standing up or laying down.  The young foals can stand and run very shortly after birth, unlike other animals, thus boasting a wonderful survival technique.  And most horses live for 25-30 years, but some have lived as long as 40 years, which is a wonderful bonus for horse owners using them for transportation.  Most modern-day cars don’t last that long!

And did you know that horses are divided into three categories based on their personalities?  There are “cold-blooded” horses, such as draft horses and certain ponies that are used for slow, heavy work or as therapy animals.  Then there are the “hot-blooded” horses, like race horses and those used in battle. They have spirited personalities, plus endurance, strength, and speed.  Finally, there are the “warm blooded” horses, a combination of the hot- and cold-blooded horses.  These horses are used for specific purposes such as dressage or shows.  In all, there are over 300 breeds of horses around the world today.  

Many us of may even know the words for various parts of a horse, like the flank, tail and muzzle.  But there are other amazing terms, too, like the “barrel,” meaning the bottom side of the belly; the “cannon,” which is the front shin, and the “croup,” which is the part of the back behind the saddle and before the tail.

So, now that we know a little bit more about the horse, including how it evolved and how it became domesticated by man, how did it impact railroads and outer space?  Well, this is a truly amazing story and dives deep into history.  So, let’s start at today and work our way backwards.

In the US today, the common measurement between railroad tracks is called the “railroad gauge,” and it equals 4 feet, 8.5 inches.  But that’s a really weird measurement.  Why not make it an even 5 or 6 feet?  Well, the US railroads were designed by Englishmen and they used that same measurement for railroads in Great Britain. 

That sounds reasonable.  So, why did the Englishmen use that specific measurement – 4 feet, 8.5 inches?  Because Englishmen also built wagon tramways across their country and that’s the measurement they used for the tramways.  Okay, so why did they use that specific measurement for wagon tramways?  Because when they were building wagons to be used on the wagon tramways, that was the measurement used for the width between wagon wheels.  The builders of wagons used one specific measurement because if they used different measurements for different-sized wagons, the wheels could snap off due to their wheels not fitting in the ruts in the road.  

So, then you may ask: who built the roads that were used by all the wagons?  The Romans, of course!  The Imperial Roman Empire built vast stretches of roads across Europe, including England, as well as stone bridges, water-bearing aqueducts, and beautiful buildings.  So, how did the Romans determine that specific measurement for their roads?  Easy – that measurement was the standard width of their chariots!  

So, now we’ve jumped back in time from railroads, to wagons, to chariots.  We now have to ask:  How did the Romans know how wide to make their chariots?  Easier still – the width of their chariots equaled the width of the hips of the two war horses pulling the chariots!  So, the width of two war horses’ hips have impacted chariots, roads, wagons, and railroads!  Isn’t that amazing?

And here’s something that’s even more amazing:  when we see a space rocket about to launch into space, we see it jutting majestically toward the sky, its rocket boosters blazing to life with a great, rumbling roar, spewing flames of orange gas as it launches thunderously towards outer space.  

And you may wonder how this could possibly relate to horses.  But it does.  And to understand it, we need to look at the engineers building the rocket boosters.  The engineers design and build rocket boosters in a large building or facility.  Once finished, the boosters are loaded onto trains and transported many miles to the launch site.  Along the way, the trains pass through narrow tunnels.  The engineers have to make the boosters just the right size to fit onto trains going through narrow railroad tunnels.  These tunnels are only slightly larger than the railroad tracks.  And what measurement is used for the width of these railroad tracks?  The width of two horses’ hips!

So, yes, it’s utterly amazing that the common horse has impacted cutting-age space transportation.  I guess we can say that a horse’s hips have controlled just about everything from wagon roads, to railroads, to space travel! What other creature can say that?  Dinosaurs?  Nope.  Donkeys, elephants, or camels?  No way.  It’s the amazing horse!

I don’t think I’ll ever look at a horse in exactly the same way again!  I’ll immediately think of their impact on wagons and trains and space rockets!  Aren’t animals amazing?!  I never knew that horses living centuries ago are still impacting life today, both on earth and in outer space.