One of the earliest forms of mail delivery in the U.S., and certainly the most legendary, was the Pony Express, in which men rode on horseback from coast to coast in order to get people their mail as fast as possible. To celebrate the anniversary of the Pony Express, we’ll be looking at all the ways horses have helped humans get our jobs done through the centuries.
The Pony Express began service on April 3, 1860, closing a mere 18 months later in October of 1861. While operating, the service used an estimated 400 horses to deliver mail across America. In order for delivery to be efficient, the best horses had to be used, and had to be changed frequently. The Pony Express had a policy of covering 200 miles per day in any weather, so the mounts needed to run top speed at all times. Horses were changed every 25 miles at first, but this distance was judged to be too long and was altered to 10 to 15 miles to maximize efficiency. On top of the grueling conditions of speed and the elements, the horses also needed to be able to outrun hostile natives when necessary. (Western Horseman)
Draft horses, also known as work horses, are horses that typically work in farming, plowing and pulling vehicles, representing one of the most basic and earliest jobs horses have performed since humans domesticated them. Today, of course, machines have almost completely replaced horses for this kind of work, but draft horses may still show off their classic skills at shows and competitions. Certain groups, such as the Amish, still employ draft horses in the old-fashioned ways.
Humans have employed horses in warfare for thousands of years. In the earliest reported instances, approximately 4000 B.C., horses were often used essentially as draft animals in a military context, pulling wagons and heavy loads. Over time, emerging technologies adapted horses as chariot pullers, and then as mounts for cavalry. Horses were used in militaries and wars all around the world right up until the 20th century. With the introduction of modern innovation during World War I, such as machine guns and tanks, war horses became mostly a thing of the past, although several countries still used mounted cavalry through World War II. But horses are not completely gone from the U.S. Army. President Obama was widely noted for his retort to Mitt Romney in a debate last fall that the country has “fewer horses and bayonets.” Notice he didn't say “none.” There is still one equestrian unit in the U.S. Army. However, the unit is not used in combat, but for ceremonies, funerals and the like. (Christian Science Monitor)
For many Americans, horses are inseparably linked to cowboys and images of the Old West. Of course, cowboys still exist today. Cattle ranches are very much alive in certain parts of the country, and motorized vehicles have not totally replaced horses as ideal transport. Cattle ranchers and herders are required to travel over rough or otherwise inaccessible terrain. Horses are required to negotiate canyons, mountains, and even rivers or other bodies of water through which the cowboys may frequently need to drive herds of cattle.
Holding a job that may not please many animal lovers, field hunters, aka fox hunters, are horses used in the practice of fox hunting, in which people track, chase and kill foxes. The field hunters serve as mounts for the human hunters. Field hunters are prized for certain characteristics that will make them ideal mount in a fox hunt, such as the ability to jump fences and avoid other obstacles in the field, as well as their ground manners and general physical soundness. Some horses enter field hunter shows, in which they are judged competitively for these characteristics, although without actually participating in a hunt. These may also be called “show hunters.” (Norfolk Hunt Club)
Police officers use many different kinds of transportation, be it cars, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters or, of course, horses. Many metropolitan areas have used police horses, which may seem paradoxical at first, but horses provide distinct advantages in urban areas. Used primarily for crowd control purposes, horses offer a distinct height advantage that cars lack. Mounted police are able to see much farther, and therefore can better survey a large crowd. Horses are also easier to maneuver in crowded situations. New York City is known for its mounted police, a common sight in Times Square. The NYC mounted unit was made up of 79 police officers and 60 horses as of 2011. (New York Times)
MOUNTED SEARCH AND RESCUE
Mounted search and rescue teams, or MSAR, are specialized search parties that use horses to travel off-road or over terrain where motor vehicles cannot go, in order to find missing persons. MSAR horses provide their riders with advantages similar to police horses. Aside from allowing faster and longer travel than humans can achieve on foot, horses provide a higher viewpoint and greater visibility. They also provide an extra pair of eyes in a search-and-rescue situation. A horse is aware of its surroundings and can be alert to sights, sounds and smells, making them essentially both searcher and search vehicle in one. Some MSAR horses are simply horses used by search and rescue teams, but others are specifically trained for MSAR. (Bureau County Mounted Search and Rescue)
Typically, we think of dogs as the go-to service animal for the blind. Dogs are ideal choices in many cases, but they aren’t the only option. Don’t be shocked if you ever see a blind person walking with a miniature horse leading the way. There are several reasons why someone may choose a guide horse over a guide dog. One reason is simple preference, i.e., a horse lover may desire a horse instead of a dog. More practically, someone who is allergic to dogs may require an alternative. A distinct disadvantage that dogs have is their relatively short life span. Depending on a given blind person’s age, he or she may need to train and bond with several guide dogs over a lifetime, which can be inconvenient at best and heartbreaking at worst. Because guide horses can live up to 35 years, they may be a better choice for someone who can expect to require a guide animal for a long time. (The Guide Horse Foundation)
There are no more pit ponies, and that’s a good thing. Pit ponies were ponies that were made to work in coal mines. The working conditions in the mines were dangerous and compact. Low ceilings and tight spaces meant the ponies needed to be short and hardy. The animals were even stabled in the mines and brought to the surface only on holidays. Because the conditions were so harsh, pit ponies were often raised directly in the mines so they would be accustomed from birth to life inside, almost never seeing sunlight. When ponies retired, they often had great difficulty adjusting to life on the surface, like convicts who grow accustomed to life in the penal system after decades of imprisonment. Thankfully, pit ponies are a thing of the past. Pip, believed to be the last living pit pony, died in 2009. (Horse and Man)
Next: 12 Tips to Keeping Your Horse Healthy!
All sorts of animals are used therapeutically in a variety of contexts, and horses are no exception. Horseriding itself may be used to benefit those with physical disabilities or ailments. Most often, therapy horses are used to help people with behavioral, social or psychological problems. The use of horses in counseling has been shown to improve confidence, communication, trust, social skills, boundary issues and more. Therapy horses have even led to marked improvement in the communication and social skills of autistic children. (Equine Psychotherapy)
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