Animal Welfare Information Center National Agricultural Library
HomeAbout AWICPublicationsWorkshopsServicesNews and EventsHelpContact Us
Search AWIC


Browse by Subject
Research Animals
Farm Animals
Zoo, Circus and Marine Animals
Companion Animals
Government and Professional Resources
Literature Searching and Databases
Pain and Distress
Humane Endpoints and Euthanasia
You are here: Home / Publications / Bibliographies and Resource Guides / Horses in History Bibliography  / Introduction  Printer Friendly Page
Horses in History: A Bibliography
<< Table of Contents << Previous |  Next >>


Introduction - A Horse is a Horse
By Kristina Adams, Technical Information Specialist
USDA. NAL. Animal Welfare Information Center.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Agricultural Library (NAL) got underway in the late 1800’s, when horsepower was at its height to assist farmers. Consequently, NAL contains many books and other collections related to horses. This bibliography on horses in history is an attempt to give the reader an idea of the nature and scope of these collections. It does not list every title and collection on horses in the library, but tries to list some of the more important ones. The collection includes books on the history of different breeds, breeding techniques, farrier or blacksmith skills, health and veterinary medicine, and general horsemanship. Additionally, many texts contain beautiful drawings and pictures or original poems. Some of the texts are now digitized and being made available through such sources as the National Agricultural Library Digital Collections (NALDC), Google Book Search, and the Internet Archive. When possible, links to the digitized versions are provided.

Note: This introduction is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it touches on some of the interesting information about horses that the compilers learned while exploring the NAL collection.

Early History

Studies about the evolution of the horse helped shape our understanding of long-term evolution in an animal species.1,2 Horses were first domesticated in the central Eurasian steppes about 6000 years ago according to estimations. Archaeologists found early bridles dating to 4000 BC in Eastern Europe as well as antler cheek-pieces and toggles for mouth pieces north of the Black Sea. Initially, these animals were used for food but at some point their strength was directed towards being led carrying goods, ridden to help hunt game and engage in warfare, and driven to work in the fields.3 By 500 BC, horses and their ability to carry men great distances at a quick speed had begun making their way into legend.

In the Near East, small horses were used for pulling chariots and carrying goods. Most horse people will tell you that these Arabian horses were the first modern riding horse, although the breed’s exact origins remain a mystery. Marguerite Henry’s tale of the Godolphin Arabian in King of the Wind,4 highlighted the stamina, spirit, and intelligence of these horses. While some authors, such as Spencer Borden5 and William Ridgeway6 suggested that Arabians originated in Africa (Libya specifically), it is commonly believed that Arabians were developed by nomadic Bedouin people in desert environments somewhere on the Arabian peninsula. Bedouin horse breeders kept meticulous records of their horses in order to keep bloodlines pure.

One of the oldest texts providing a complete discourse on horse care, health, and training was written by Xenophon between the years 431 and 350 BC in Greece. The title is translated into English as “On Horsemanship”7 and the information he provided, although geared toward the development of warhorses, continues to serve as a basis for horse selection, management and training today in all areas of horsemanship. Xenophon’s love and respect for horses was evident in his writings. For example, a translation of one of his writings is “A horse is a thing of beauty... none will tire of looking at him as long as he displays himself in his splendor.”

Note: Since Xenophon’s time, many other books have been written about the selection, training, and care of horses. Texts of authors such as Margaret Cabell Self (horseback riding), James Harvey Sanders and John Wall (horse breeding), Daniel Rupp, W.C. Spooner and Edward Snape (farriery), and John Henry Walsh and Wiliam Youatt (horse health and care) are available in the collection of the National Agricultural Library.


  Drawing entitled the Taming of Bucephalus by Andre Castaigne, 1898-1999 [Source: Wikipedia Commons]
The Taming of
Bucephalus by
Andre Castaigne
Riding horses opened up the world to humans who could now travel further and faster than they could while using an ox-cart. Horses played a pivotal role in the ability of Alexander the Great and his armies to conquer millions of square miles between 330 and 323 BC. Alexander the Great’s horsemanship skills were well known. In one story, vividly retold in the 1979 movie The Black Stallion (based on a Walter Farley book8 by the same name), horse traders brought a fiery horse named Bucephalus into a ring to be shown as a prospect to King Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father.9 King Philip expressed no interest after seeing the wild horse, but Alexander asked for the horse if he could tame it. Amid much laughter from the crowd, Alexander soothed the horse, tamed it, and together they survived many battles.


Horse Collars and Stirrups

During the Medieval period, people increasingly used horses for ploughing at the same time they continued riding them. During this period, horsemen developed a few items that are indispensible today, including the stirrup, horse collar, and nailed horseshoe. The stirrup provided extra security and comfort for the rider, the horse collar allowed horses to pull loads with great efficiency, and the nailed horseshoe permitted riders to travel large distances. Horses were important to individuals and entire countries in terms of their use in warfare, transport and agriculture, and remained unrivaled until the invention of the steam engine and later, automobiles.

European horses were heavier than their desert counterparts. These larger breeds were used for ploughing fields and pulling carts. They were hardy animals who could withstand the cold, damp climate of northern Europe. Arab warriors began arriving in Europe to spread the word of the Prophet Mohammed around 600 AD. Soon after, Arabian horses began breeding with heavier European breeds. The mix of lighter breeds with the heavier plough horses resulted in horses that were heavy enough to carry heavily armored riders into war and agile enough to move gracefully and quickly during battle. Horses at this time were often described by their use rather than their breed.

American Working Horses

Early in the exploration of the Americas (beginning with Columbus' voyage in 1493), Iberian horses arrived on Spanish galleons.10 Some of these barb horses escaped and became feral. Today's relatives of these escapees are the mustangs found in the western United States.

Later, when European settlers began arriving in the Americas, they brought with them, among other things, horses. Due mostly to weight and size limitations imposed by ships, these early horses tended to be small or medium-sized. Larger draft horses from Europe began being imported from Europe to the Americas in the middle of the 19th Century. The first set of draft horses to arrive were imported from Normandy, France to a Mr. Edward Harris of New Jersey.11 These horses were smaller Percherons, a breed that originated in Le Perche, France. In a letter reproduced in “The Percheron Horse in America,” Mr. Harris describes the fair in Normandy where he found and purchased the Percherons. Mr. Harris’ horses and their offspring were bred, sold and used by farmers who valued their weight and strength. Following the success of these horses in America, during the 1870s and 1880s, thousands of draft horses of various breeds began arriving, mostly from France and Great Britain.

Horses and the U.S. Department of Agriculture

In the United States, ranchers, farmers, armies, and other people requiring transportation between locations depended on horses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintained breeding herds of horses on experiment stations throughout the early part of the 20th Century. These programs bred horses as mounts for the military 12 (remount horses) and in an effort to preserve American breeds of horses, such as the Morgan, American Saddle horses, and the Standardbred.13 The research stations also conducted experiments on reproduction, nutrition, growth and development, and athletic performance (as measured by endurance and speed trials) of horses.14,15

Originally started by the USDA's Bureau of Animal Industry in 1912 in cooperation with the War Department, the remount program produced good light-type horses suitable for riding that were useful for cavalry and light artillery use.16 Most of the horses in the program were Thoroughbreds, American Saddlebreds, Standardbreds, and Morgans. The remount program focused its activities on acquiring sound, studbook-registered stallions and breeding them to select mares. Congress transferred the remount horse breeding program to the War Department in 1920.17



Photograph of Morgan stallion Troubador of Willowmoor [Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Department Circular 199 (1921), Breeding Morgan Horses at the U.S. Morgan Horse Farm by H.H. Reese]
Morgan Stallion
Troubador of

In 1907, the USDA established the U.S. Morgan Horse Farm in Middlebury, Vermont on land donated by Colonel Joseph Battell for the purpose of perpetuating and improving the Morgan breed. After acquiring a group of mares and stallions, the farm began breeding horses, recording pedigrees, and measuring the performance of individuals in each generation. The breeding program aimed to produce horses that were “sound, sturdy, active, well-mannered individuals, capable of performing well either under saddle or in harness.18 Speed and endurance were of particular importance. The horses bred by the USDA became know as Government Morgans and their relatives are still bred by Morgan sport-horse breeders today. The Morgan Horse Farm was transferred from the USDA to the Vermont Agricultural College (now the University of Vermont) in 1951 by Public Law 26 (S. 271), approved by Congress on May 7, 1951.


The U.S. Range Livestock Experiment Station in Miles City, Montana became the second Government Morgan Horse breeding program and also bred draft horses, Thoroughbreds, and crosses. In 1924, an act of Congress created the station19 when the Fort Keogh Military Reservation was transferred from the War Department to the USDA. Between 1925 and 1935, the station produced 93 purebred Morgans, 77 Morgan-grade crosses, and 1 Morgan-draft horse.20 In addition to the breeding program, the station conducted studies on the reproduction of horses. Researchers examined fertility in mares, the use of chemical tests to detect pregnancy in mares, and semen production in stallions and jacks. Scientists at the station conducted early experiments on the collection and storage of semen and subsequent artificial insemination techniques.21 In 1940, one mare (Irma) in Miles City, Montana was bred with semen shipped by airplane from Beltsville, Maryland.22 The U.S. Range Livestock Experiment Station in Miles City, Montana dispersed its Morgan breeding program after 1935 and maintained a Thoroughbred breeding herd until 1964. Breeding of Belgian and other draft horses also ceased although it is unclear exactly when.

After funding for horse breeding programs ended in the 1950s and 1960s, horse and mule activities of the USDA were limited to a small nutrition project in Beltsville, Maryland, a cooperative project with mules in Tennessee, and to the answering of routine correspondence with farmers and the general public. A 1951 USDA Bureau of Animal Industry publication discussing the Fiscal Year 1951 stated that “Although horse numbers have declined materially in recent years in the United States, numerous requests for information on them are received each year since they continue to be maintained on 60 percent of the farms and ranches in this country and have an inventory value in excess of $300,000,000.00.”23

Census Information

In 1911, the Department of Agriculture reported the total number of horses in the United States to be over 23 million.24 1927 statistics indicated that the aggregated value of horses and mules was more than one-fourth the estimated value of all livestock and that in seven states, the value of horses and mules exceeded that of all other livestock combined. Interestingly enough, the 1926 Yearbook of Agriculture reported that horses were worth less that year than in any of the prior 60 years.25 The decrease in horse numbers and value was attributed to the popularity of the automobile and auto truck following the end of the first World War. Cars and trains became more important modes of transportation, especially after World War II as the changes in industrial processes marched on and horses became less important to the economy. In 1946, Americans owned only 8 million horses, the smallest number in 75 years. The last USDA horse census was taken in 1959 and counted only 4.5 million horses. By the late 1960s, however, the number of horses had risen again to more than 7 million. A 1968 article in Time magazine26 suggested that as horses became less important as modes of transportation or as useful agricultural animals, they became a new status symbol for suburbinites to own. This led to the breeding and development of sport horses which required different characteristics than agricultural animals. In general, sport horses over the last 50 years have been bred for easy-going temperaments and athletic ability, depending on the sport.27

Today, many Americans still keep horses for racing, showing, competition, sport, breeding, recreation, and work. A study released in 2005 by the American Horse Council reported that there were 9.2 million horses in the US.28 Horses remain a pastime for many Americans even if their role in transportation, war, and farming has diminished. For this reason, in 2006 the Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC) put together a comprehensive resource on the Care and Welfare of Horses that updated a 1994 document on the Housing, Husbandry and Welfare of Horses. Together, the documents cover research published from 1988 to 2006 on subjects including anesthesia and analgesia, behavior, environmental enrichment, housing, law and legislation, nutrition and feeding, pasture, equine ranching, safety, training, and transportation of horses.

Back to Top  



1 Hunt, Kathleen. "Horse Evolution." January 4, 1995. (accessed August 15, 2009).

2 Florida Museum of Natural History. "Fossil Horses in Cyberspace."
(accessed August 15, 2009).

3 Anthony, David W. and Dorcas R. Brown. "The Earliest Horseback-Riding and its Relation to Chariotry and Warfare." 2007.
(accessed August 15, 2009).

4 Henry, Marguerite. Kind of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian. Macmillan, New York. 1976 reprint. 172 p.

5 Borden, Spencer. The Arab Horse. Doubleday, Page & Co., New York. 1906. 104 p. (accessed August 15, 2009).

6 Ridgeway, William. The Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred Horse. University Press, Cambridge, England. 1905. 538 p. (accessed August 15, 2009)

7 Xenophon. On Horsemanship. Translated by Henry G. Dakyns. (accessed July 21, 2015)

8 Farley, Walter. The Black Stallion. Random House, New York. 1941. 275 p.

9 Felando, Andrew. "The Legend of Bucephalus." (accessed August 15, 2009).

10 Bennett, Deb. "The Origin and Relationships of the Mustang, Barb, and Arabian Horse." 2008. (PDF | 4.2 MB)
(Accessed August 15, 2009).

11 Weld, Mason Cogswell and Charles du Haÿs. The Percheron Horse in America. Orange Judd Co. New York. 1886. 142 p.
(accessed August 15, 2009).

12 Reese, H.H. Breeding Horses for the United States Army. In: 1917 Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Washington, D.C. 1918. p. 341-356.
(PDF | 1.1 MB)
(Accessed August 15, 2009).

13 Rommel, G.M. The Preservation of our Native Types of Horses. In: U.S. Department of Agriculture Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Animal Industry for the Year 1907. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. 1909. p. 85-143. NAL Call Number: 1An5.

14 Jackson, W. Horses and Mules. In: 1943-1947 Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Washington, D.C. 1943. p. 239-244. (PDF | 376 KB)
(Accessed August 15, 2009).

15 Horse and Mule Investigations. In: Program of Work of the United States Department of Agriculture. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. 1916. p. 65-67. (Accessed August 15, 2009).

16 Williams, J.O. and H.C. McPhee (1936). Bureau of Animal Industry program for horse improvement. Journal of Animal Science 1936b(1): 141-143. (Accessed December 19, 2014).

17 Williams, J.O. Our Work Stock. In: The Extension Animal Husbandman. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C. 1927. p. 2-6. NAL Call Number: Reserve 1.9 An528.

18 Anonymous (1942). The United States Morgan Horse Farm. The Morgan Horse Magazine 1(5): 77-79. NAL Call Number: 42.8 M82.

19 Quesenberry, J.R. (1950). Livestock Breding Research at the U.S. Range Livestock Experiment Station.Agriculture Information Bulletin no. 18. 12 p. (PDF | 882 KB)
(Accessed August 15, 2009).

20 Newmann, S. "Genetics Research at Fort Keogh: A Historical Perspective." 1993. (Accessed August 15, 2009).

21 McKenzie, F.F., J.F. Lasley, and R.W. Phillips (1939). The storage of horse and swine semen. Journal of Animal Science 1: 222-225.
(Accessed December 19, 2014).

22 McKenzie, F.F. (1940). Recent reproduction studies on equines. Journal of Animal Science (1): 98-102. (Accessed December 19, 2014).

23 Anonymous. Bureau of Animal Industry. In: Explanatory Notes for the Department of Agriculture, Fiscal Year 1951. Volume 1. p. 298-386. NAL Call Number: 1.9 Ag81Exp.

24 "Horse Census of the World; Hand Book Just Issued Gives Interesting Statistics." The New York Times, June 9, 1912, p. x16. (Accessed August 15, 2009).

25 Sarle, C.F. Horse Production Falling Fast in the United States. In: Yearkbook of Agriculture, 1926. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington D.C. p. 437-439. (Accessed August 15, 2009).

26 "Return of the Horse." Time Magazine. May 17, 1968.,9171,838380,00.html (Accessed August 15, 2009).

27 Zettl, Walter. The Circle of Trust: Reflections on the Essences of Horses and Horsemanship. Half Halt Press. Boonsboro, Maryland, USA. 2007. 176 p.

28 American Horse Council. "National Economic Impacy of the U.S. Horse Industry." 2006. (Accessed August 15, 2009).

Back to Top  
<< Table of Contents << Previous |  Next >>
Last Modified: Jul 21, 2015  
AWIC Home | NAL Home | USDA | AgNIC | ARS | Web Policies and Important Links | RSS Feeds | Site Map
FOIA | Accessibility Statement | Privacy Policy | Non-Discrimination Statement | Information Quality | | White House