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Nature: American Horses


Compiled by Nancy Brannon

The episode of Nature that aired February 23, 2022 featured American Horses – from Mustangs to Morgans, Appaloosas, and Quarter Horses. As each breed is featured, the program illustrates the particular conformation characteristics of each.

This program begins with the origin story of American horses that can be traced back through the 50-million-year-old fossil beds of Polecat Bench, Wyoming. From these ancient beginnings, Equus spread around the globe, but mysteriously went extinct in North America.

I wanted to see if this was accurate information, so I searched the history of Equus in America. According to a 2008 article by Jay F. Kirkpatrick and Patricia M. Fazio, “The Surprising History of America’s Wild Horses,” the authors verify:  “Based on fossil records, the genus appears to have originated in North America about 4 million years ago and spread to Eurasia 2 to 3 million years ago. …The last prehistoric North American horses died out between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene, but by then Equus had spread to Asia, Europe, and Africa.”

Also read more about the history of horses on the North American continent at:

Arriving aboard ships, Spanish conquistadors brought European horses to North America, returned to the continent after a 10,000-year absence. As these horses flourished in the American West, they became feral and came to be called Mustangs. With their return, the stage was set for a new generation of American breeds and a lifelong partnership with humans. This program features four uniquely American horses: Mustang, Appaloosa, Morgan, and Quarter Horse.

The program begins with the Pryor Mountain (Wyoming) Mustangs, which naturalist Phyllis Wray has studied and photographed over many years. She describes the social dynamics and hierarchy of the herd, and gets photos of newcomers (new foals) to the group.

The program next travels to the University of Vermont’s Morgan horse farm to showcase the horse with a pedigree that traces back to 1789, when a small colt named Figure was born, owned by Justin Morgan, that became the foundation of the Morgan horse. The ideal traits of the Morgan breed – balance, athleticism, spirit, and stamina – make a versatile workhorse. A very poignant scene shows the birth of a Morgan foal, who soon is able to stand on her own and nurse. Kim Demars describes the scene: “The whole act of pushing that baby out only took 16 minutes. This is about as perfect as it can go. It's not something you get tired of. It’s really cool.”

Next the show travels to the M-Y Sweetwater Appaloosa Ranch to visit with descendants of the Nez Perce who raise Appaloosas. Of course, the hallmark of the Appaloosa is its spots, controlled by a single gene known as the “leopard complex.” Their other distinctive features are striped hooves, mottled skin, light and sturdy frame, and white sclera around the eye. The story is that these horses are descended from the horses that Nez Perce Chief Ollokot, the younger brother of Chief Joseph, had. Yearout says, “In my family, we've always had [Appaloosa] horses as far back as I can remember with my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. … And so our heart is with the horses, carrying on the tradition of the horses.”

American settlers brought the Quarter Horse to the open range and mountains of the West. Here, pasture roping cows is filmed at Mike and Tara Miller’s ranch.

The American Quarter Horse was first celebrated for quick bursts of speed – up to 55 miles per hour – consistently the fastest horse in the world in the quarter mile. All that speed comes from the Quarter Horse’s unique conformation. A Quarter Horse’s neck joins its sloping shoulders at a 45-degree angle to allow it to work head-down. The body is well-muscled, especially in the hindquarters. Mike is shown performing reining maneuvers on his horse. A horse with “cow sense” has a natural instinct to anticipate, track, and direct a cow's movement, and Quarter Horses excel in it.

For Kaelynn Clark, adopting and training Mustangs has been her lifelong passion. She is training her mustang, Spartan, to show prowess on one of the oldest proving grounds in the American West – the Pony Express Trail. She explains how to develop trust with the wild horses, the training process she goes through, culminating in saddling and riding the horse. The Pony Express Trail, the mission for Kaelynn and Spartan, is the same as it was in 1860: get the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to California in 10 days or less – a 2,000-mile journey.

The program concludes with the idea that no matter what breed you have, if you’re a horse person, you’re a horse person. Horse people are a unique kind of group; horses are part of their families.

For millions of years, American horses developed in tandem with this continent – an evolution that flows, in modern times, through human hands. But deep in the Pryor Mountains, horses continue to flourish as they have for countless generations – in the wild.

Since the return of horses to America, we’ve become a country moved by horsepower.

If you missed this episode of Nature, you can watch it online until March 23, 2022 at:
Kirkpatrick, Jay F. and Patricia M. Fazio. 2008. “The Surprising History of America’s Wild Horses.” Live Science Newsletter.

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