“My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse” were the last words of Shakespeare’s Richard III as he died on the battlefield.

The year was 1485 and the dying king rightly expressed his his own profound desperation at not having the tool he required in order to effectively fight or flee. Indeed, he uttered an honest and accurate lament. 

The horse’s value to humanity has been enormous. They have carried us, pulled our heavy loads, planted our fields, pumped our water, carried our warriors and weapons into battle, fed us with their milk and meat, clothed and housed us with their hides and hair, and even gifted us with the world’s best violin strings via their long, strong tail hair. 

The horse itself, evolved over the past 45-55 million years from a small multi toed animal called Eohippus to the much larger, single toed  creature we know today. Horses were first domesticated by humans about 6,000 years ago, on the western part of the Eurasian Steppe, modern-day Ukraine and West Kazakhstan. 

It’s interesting that the horses we still encounter in Mongolia and on some of the Eurasian Steppe today still resemble much earlier examples of the equine than their sleek, agile cousins in the Arab and Western world. 

Even what we still refer to as the draft breeds have been refined and are remarkably elegant and agile today. 

Prior to the industrial revolution and the invention of the internal combustion engine, the horse was indispensable to the majority of the western world and beyond. 

The horse population (horses and mules) in the US in 1900 was roughly 21.5 million. By the end of the First World War, that number peaked at 25 million. However, the rapid shift from a rural agrarian economy to an urban industrial model, led the US horse population to drop to 14 million by 1940, and down to a scant 3 million by 1960. Between then and the present day, we’ve seen a resurgence to about 4.5 million. 

The largest user of horsepower; agriculture,largely abandoned the horse as gas powered tractors modernized food production after the Second World War. Horses that had literally built the nation were driven by the millions to slaughter houses and “glue” factories. Ranching operations in the west still mounted their cowboys and buckaroos horseback, but their use of horses to farm, and haul freight ended almost completely by 1950. 

Our country saw its population of horses drop by more than 87% in just 40 years and although we’ve seen a rebound since 1960, numbers are still 80% fewer than a century ago.

Today’s US horse population is primarily a ranching and pleasure dominated herd. Of the more than 4.5 million horses in the US today, over 2.8 million are reportedly still used and kept on US agricultural properties, and nearly a half million of those properties identify themselves as active horse breeders or farms. 

The remaining 1.7 million horses in our country are a combination of privately owned riding, outfitting, rodeo and pleasure event animals, thoroughbred and other racing stock and finally, the feral “wild horses” that can be found on the open range of the US west. 

So with this abbreviated history of the horse tucked under our belts, I’m keen to ask, why do Americans have such an enduring love and devotion to a large, outdated, inconvenient livestock animal? 

I’d maintain that horses are part of the American experience and nearly embedded in our dna. Whether one is a Native American whose ancestors started to adopt the horse culture five centuries ago after the Spanish introduced their mustangs to the continent, loggers who cleared the land, sod busters who used horses to tame and farm the great Midwest, hungry and eager settlers who pushed west in horse drawn wagons in the 19th century, brought cattle and managed them horseback as cowboys and buckaroos, fire departments, freighters, stage operators, landed gentry who loved horseback blood sports and racing, Hollywood’s romantic depiction of the equine as four legged compatriot, workmate, hero and friend. That  is our collective history, accurate or not, and it adds up to horses being a beloved part of the American family. 

This shared experience and personification of the horse likely explains our illogical abhorrence toward horse slaughter for food, and even the emotional political war against properly managing the feral herds that over populate and decimate parts of our western range. 

I’m not writing from any particular political viewpoint when it comes to the horse. Full disclosure would reveal that I’m a sixty year old rancher who never rode well, and has retired from a once active career of falling off perfectly nice saddle horses in favor of helping my daughter on foot, administratively and financially with her ranch and performance horse business which includes raising and managing a fleet of nearly 50 horses here on the ranch. 

I don’t have the heart-horse connection that my daughter has always had with the horses on the ranch, but I appreciate them, think I understand them, I like to do ground work with them, and I have to admit that watching them doing a job or just running or grazing through a meadow is perhaps the most perfect image I can imagine. 

Their sight, sound and even smell has a way of filling you up inside, and when they see you walking out into a field and just have to come over for a visit, 30-40 of them, just coming close and asking for your hand to reach out and scratch their neck or rub their nose, it’s something so special that it’s hard to describe. 

I think at the end of the day, horses truly are more than a sum of their parts. My father in law truly meant it when he said, “I’m really not interested in going to heaven unless there are horses there.”

And I’ll close with a quote that sums it all up for me…Every now and then, something comes into your life, that is so good, so pure, and so raw, that you know it came from God himself. I think the horse is one of those heavenly gifts. 

Kris Stewart is a rancher from Paradise Valley, Nevada.