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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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Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
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K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
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“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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