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17 Wild Facts About Horses

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"A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace." That's what Ovid said 2000 years ago—and American Pharoah just proved him right. We've depended on horses for thousands of years for more than just a heart-pounding race. Learning about these excellent equines is more than just horseplay.

1. Horses are pretty historical.

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Cave art gives us the first documentation of horses, which were likely domesticated in Eurasia some 10,000 years ago. They appear in mythology from China to Greece and have been relied on for travel, farming, and other purposes by many cultures for thousands of years. Horses have also been involved in almost every documented war. 

2. There are hundreds of horse breeds.

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Seriously. Hundreds. Depending on whom you ask, this list may or may not include ponies (which are usually under five feet tall). They can be divided into several groups, including light horses, heavy horses, and feral horses.

3. Horses have huge eyes.

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Horses have the largest eyes of any mammal that lives on land. They are capable of moving them independently and, because their eyes are on the sides of their head, they have nearly 360 degree vision. However, they have two blind spots—one directly in front of them, and one directly behind.

4. They have some unexpected relatives.

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They're distantly related to rhinoceroses and tapirs. They're also related to donkeys and zebras.

5. Their hooves are sensitive.

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A horse’s hooves are exceptionally complex and sensitive. When the horse puts pressure on its hoof, the blood shoots up its leg into the veins, thus acting like a pump. In addition, the hooves are just like human nails. Their hooves have to be clipped over time in order to keep them from causing the horse any pain or discomfort.

6. Horses eat a lot ...

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Horses eat different amounts depending on their size, but they're all good at putting it away. Like humans, horses will eat not only to meet daily needs, but because food tastes good. So they keep on eating. Some estimates say that a horse that weighs 1200 pounds can eat seven times its weight in a year.

7. But they can't vomit.

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Because of their inability to regurgitate food, digestive problems can be fatal. Reportedly, colic is the leading cause of death in horses.

8. There's a history to the hand.

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A hand unit is 4 inches, and yes, it was originally based on the male human hand. The measurement began in ancient Egypt and was standardized by King Henry VIII in 1541 as a simple way to measure horses. The hand unit is the length of either a clenched fist or the breadth of the hand (although there's some debate over whether or not a thumb should be included). Because most of the time a human hand isn't exactly 4 inches by any of those measures, we now have tape measures specially designed to measure horse height and weight in both hands and centimeters. 

9. Horses are emotional creatures.


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Horses are capable of expressing their emotions through their facial expressions, ears, and nostrils. They are also highly perceptive to human emotions and tend to mirror them. Thus, if you’re in a good mood, your horse will most likely be amiable and easier to handle.

10. The ribbons on their tails mean something.

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If you see a red ribbon on a horse's tail, you should stay back: It means the horse kicks. Red isn't the only color you might see, though. A white ribbon means a horse is for sale, a pink ribbon that it's a mare, and a blue or yellow ribbon that it's a stallion. A green ribbon tells you a horse is younger and probably inexperienced.

11. Most horses are domestic.

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However, there are feral horses out there whose ancestors were tamed animals. For example, North American mustangs are the descendants of Iberian horses brought over by Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago.

The Przewalski’s horse is the only remaining truly wild horse. The breed has never been tamed and—before its population dwindled—it used to exist between Eastern Europe and Asia. It is currently on the list of critically endangered animals, as there are only 1500 left in zoos and breeding facilities.

12. A knight likely had many different horses.

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To be a knight in feudal England, you had to be born into a royal family or earn the honor in battle. That's usually how knights afforded to have several horses for several different reasons. The strongest horses would likely be warhorses, whereas smaller or weaker horses would be used for travel or general purposes.

13. Horses barely sleep.


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Horses usually sleep only 3 to 4 hours a day, and not consecutively—they actually sleep in short bursts, from 10 to 15 minutes at a time. However, they are capable of experiencing two different kinds of sleep, SWS (short wave sleep) and REM (rapid eye movement). In addition, they can sleep standing up because of the way their joints can lock.

14. The Mounties haven't actually ridden horses on the job in a while.

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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is the national police force in Canada. They're famous for their nifty uniforms and the fact they ride horses. The only problem? Special ceremonies are really the only time they are actually on horseback, because most mounted police forces are now local forces. Regardless, the horses have to go through special training.

15. Arabian horses have a few unique features.

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Compared to other horse breeds, some Arabian horses have one less rib bone and one fewer vertebra. Some legends say they were created by Allah from wind.

16. Australia used to be horse-less.

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The first horses arrived in Australia in 1788 when a British fleet brought them to Sydney. No indigenous horse remains or fossils have ever been found in Australia.

17. It can take a lot to put them in a movie.

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There are a lot of rules governing the handling of animals on a movie set. For a movie to be able to display "no animals were harmed" at the end of a production, the beasts must have been handled by people who have proper training. Representatives from the American Humane Society must supervise "intense action" such as rodeo scenes. Horses shouldn't use stairs, which they have difficulty navigating, and they must be held a safe distance from filming when they're not on camera. And if you fire a weapon while on a horse, it must be held at a certain angle in order to prevent the horse from being injured by powder burns.

There's a lot more, too. If you want to check it out, the Humane Society has published an exhaustive list of regulations here.

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14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: an eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch it themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE.

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: the male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weight about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
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You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the Earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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