Exhibition offers sweeping history of the horse


PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Carnegie Museum of Natural History will display the acclaimed exhibition The Horse, an in-depth look that showcases spectacular fossils, models, dioramas and cultural objects from around the world, Feb. 28 through May 24.

The exhibition also shows how horses have influenced civilization and major changes in warfare, trade, transportation, agriculture, sports and many other facets of human life.

Rare opportunity

The Horse provides visitors with a rare opportunity to understand the sweeping history of this beloved animal,” said Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and co-curator of The Horse.

“From its origins more than 50 million years ago, through its relationship with humans over the millennia, to its roles in modern society, the horse has left an indelible mark on our world.”

Olsen is one of the foremost authorities of early horse domestication and uncovered the site of the oldest known settlement with domesticated horses. Her research is featured in the exhibition with a video presentation.

The Horse was organized by the American Museum of Natural History where it was first exhibited for most of 2008.

Will travel

After Carnegie Museum of Natural History, it will travel to the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage; the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau-Ottawa; The Field Museum, Chicago and the San Diego Natural History Museum.

“This thoughtful and compelling exhibition interprets the long history of the horse from a particularly insightful viewpoint, offering an in-depth look at how every facet of human existence has been influenced by our relationship with the horse,” said Samuel Taylor, director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Video projection

Visitors entering the exhibition are immediately captivated by a high-definition video projection of a beautiful thoroughbred horse moving across a giant screen.

Close-ups in slow motion capture every rippling muscle while the sounds of thundering hooves engulf the viewer. A large-scale video and computer interactive allows visitors to peek inside a life-size, moving horse to learn about its anatomy and biology.

They also encounter a 220-square-foot diorama depicting some of the horse species that existed 10 million years ago in what is now Nebraska, representations of the horse in art from the Paleolithic to the present and equipment such as a full suit of horse armor from 15th-century Germany and a horse-drawn fire engine from the 19th century.

New discoveries

The exhibition also examines exciting new archaeological discoveries concerning the domestication of the horse and looks at the role of horses in sport, from medieval times on.

“The human-horse relationship was almost predestined,” said Ross MacPhee, curator, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, Department of Mammalogy at American Museum of Natural History and co-curator of The Horse.

“Puny but clever, enterprising humans needed an animate energy source that was both mobile and controllable — hence the domestic horse. What no one could have foreseen was that, over the millennia, while we molded the horse to our ends, the horse also molded us by changing the scale and scope of what could be carried, traded, fought over, or used to make life better — in short, civilization as we know it.”

Interactive stations

The Horse offers numerous interactive stations throughout the exhibition inviting visitors to touch casts of horse teeth and feet as well as a full-size bas relief of a horse against which visitors can measure themselves.

Activities invite visitors to measure their strength in horsepower, and discover characteristics of many different breeds of horses on a computer interactive.

Visitors can examine different gaits of a horse by looking through a zoetrope — a precursor to the modern movie projector — at the revolutionary series of photographs taken by the famous photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Videos include an interview with Olsen on recent discoveries of horse domestication in Kazakhstan as well a short film examining the enduring bond between humans and horses.


Throughout the exhibition, visitors are quizzed to identify objects such as a Roman horseshoe, a stirrup, a bridle ornament and a whip used in buzkashi, a polo-like sport played in Central Asia.

The exhibition is co-curated by MacPhee and Olsen. It is designed and produced by the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Exhibition under the direction of David Harvey, vice president for exhibition.

Museum hours

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and Mondays between July 4 and the Monday before Labor Day, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and President’s Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Admission to both Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History is $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens, $11 for children 3-18 and full-time students with ID and free to children under 3 and Carnegie Museums members.

Visitor parking is available in the museum’s six-level garage at Forbes Avenue and South Craig Street.

For more information visit www.carnegiemnh.org or call 412-622-3131.

The Horse includes an introduction and six sections

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Horse is divided into an introduction and six sections.

The Introduction welcomes visitors to the exhibition with a high-definition projection of a horse in motion that emphasizes the beauty, grace and strength of these magnificent creatures.

Shot at 1,000 frames per second, the footage details the horse’s musculature and movement, while a soundscape surrounds visitors with thundering hooves and the whinnying and snorting of a herd of galloping horses.

The Evolution of Horses examines the origins of the horse family 55 million years ago and its evolution including the development of the foot from three toes to the single hoof and the lengthening of the teeth.

This section features a spectacular diorama of North America’s Great Plains 10 million years ago.

Visitors come face-to-face with a variety of now-extinct horse species that lived there, including Dinohippus (a close relative of modern horses, with single-toed hooves and a diet mostly of grass and two three-toed species, Nannippus and Hypohippus.

This section also includes a map illustrating the migration of the horse from North America to the other continents and Dinohippus and Hypohippus skulls and jawbones showing the evolution of the shape of horse teeth over time.

Horses and Hunters considers the early interactions between horses and humans between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago in Ice Age Europe.

Although no one knows the details of this first relationship, it likely began with humans hunting the wild horse as prey. Early hunting weapons and horse remains found in the area show long before humans rode horses or used them as beasts of burden, they hunted them for food.

This section includes prehistoric stone tools and horse bones and teeth more than 17,500 years old from the famous horse-kill site of Solutre in central France, along with large-scale photographs of cave paintings of horses — including one from Chauvet Cave in southern France that dates back some 33,000 years.

Domesticating Horses explores the archaeological site of Krasnyi Yar in northern Kazakhstan, where researchers are uncovering the remains of an ancient village that shows early signs of horse domestication.

This section includes a re-creation of the dig site, a model of the village and a video interview in which Olsen, one of the site’s lead archaeologists, explains some of the many steps involved in the archaeological work.

This section also briefly examines the way early domestication has shaped other familiar animals, including dogs, pigs and sheep.

The Nature of Horses delves into the many extraordinary qualities of horses that have made them so significant and useful to humans.

Their bodies are powerful, living machines that can work all day powered only by grass, while they have both the ability to comprehend subtle commands and the motivation to obey them.

Creatures of instinct, horses accept the authority of herd leaders, making them receptive to taking orders from humans as well. A skeleton mount created during the first half of the 20th century shows a dramatic display of a man trying to control a rearing horse.

A computer interactive offers a peek inside a moving, life-size horse, revealing how special adaptations to the horse’s legs, digestive system, vision and hearing gave the horse its unique qualities as a domesticated animal.

How We Shaped Horses, How Horses Shaped Us is divided into five subsections examining how horses and humans have influenced each other.

People have remade horses, creating dozens of breeds in efforts to make horses faster, stronger, bigger or smaller; all the while, horses have changed the way we travel, trade, play, work and fight wars.

* Warfare — Men on horseback or in horse-drawn chariots were the ultimate weapon for more than 3,000 years — until the modern era, when their transportation finally became outmoded by tanks, airplanes, machine guns and other modern weapons.

This area examines the many ways people have used horses in war, including the horse-drawn chariots of Greece around 1500 B.C.E., the Amazon warriors, European knights of the Middle Ages, the samurai in Japan and the Spanish as they invaded South America in the 1500s.

Also featured here is a late 19th or early 20th century ivory sculpture of a Japanese samurai on horseback from the Carnegie’s own collection, and a horse’s gas mask from the early 20th century.

* Work — Horses in the 19th century helped push Europe and the Americas into the Industrial Age by pulling carriages, buses and carts on streets, towing barges along canals and herding cattle across the North American Plains.

Display highlights include skeleton mounts of a 2,370-pound draft horse (bred to be massive and strong) and a 170-pound Shetland pony (specially bred to work underground in coal mines in the 1800s).

* Status and Spirituality — From the North American Plains to the steppes of Central Asia, horses have long served as symbols of power, nobility and wealth. Some cultures have considered horses gods, and in many faiths they play a role in sacred ritual.

This subsection of the exhibition features a wooden goblet with hoof-shaped feet used by the Sakha people of Siberia, who celebrate the summer solstice with a drink of fermented mare’s milk; a wealthy Crow woman’s ceremonial horse gear, including the saddle, blanket, stirrups and bridle ornaments and a terra cotta horse from India, where village potters create massive horse figures as an offering to the god Aiyanar.

* Trade and Transportation — The fastest means of land transportation for the greater part of human history was by horseback.

Horses made possible the conquest of the vast Mongol empire, ruled by Genghis Khan and his descendants in the 1200s and 1300s.

This subsection contains a Mongolian fiddle, with a carved horse head on the end and two strings made of hair from a horse’s tail.

Bowed instruments such as this originated in Central Asia and quickly spread to other cultures via the Silk Road and other trade routes.

America’s legendary Pony Express, created in 1860 and lasting only a year and a half, reduced the amount of time it took to get a letter across the U.S. from 25 days by carriage to 10 by horseback.

This section also explores four natural gaits — walk, trot, canter and gallop — along with a dozen other distinct gaits in which horses can be trained.

Also featured are images by pioneering British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the first person to freeze the movement of a running horse into a series of still photographs.

His photographs resolved once and for all a long-standing debate about whether all four hooves of a trotting horse leave the ground at the same time.

* Sports — One of the world’s fastest land animals and a magnificent athlete, the horse is always being tested for speed and agility.

Equestrian sports examined here include chariot races, which, in ancient Greece, date back to at least 700 B.C.E.; the Afghan game buzkashi; thoroughbred races and polo and hunting on horseback (an ancient sport dating back at least 2,700 years).

The final section, An Enduring Bond, rounds out the extensive examination of the horse by taking a look at the relationship between horses and humans today. Horses are now used less for warfare, travel and work, and more for recreation and companionship.

With a total of 58.5 million horses in the world today, this bond should remain strong for many years to come.

This section examines racehorse injuries and some strategies for preventing them, such as installing synthetic tracks. Also discussed are the difficulties of protecting the small populations of wild and feral horses around the globe.

Horses and humans today have a bond that can be observed in work, sport and play. A video program presents three examples of contemporary, uplifting horse/human relationships: a disabled young girl’s self-confidence increased through therapeutic riding; the trust between a mounted police officer and his horse and a teenage cowgirl’s unique emotional connection that grows from the daily care, riding and interaction with these unique animals.

This section concludes with a life-size modern horse sculpture created by artist Deborah Butterfield, who constructed the piece out of wood and cast it in bronze.


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  1. Very insightfull piece. 100 years ago we had no oil and horses. 100 years from now we will have no oil or horses, if we don’t properly manage our wild mustangs. Eventually we will run out of oil, coal, uranium. Horses may again have a role in the survival of mankind.


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