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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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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