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Wild About Utah: gallop through time

The skull of a Hagerman horse.
Mary Heers

In 1928, Elmer Cook, a rancher in Hagerman, Idaho, noticed an interesting bone sticking our of the hillside on his land overlooking the Snake River. Intrigued, he started to dig around and discovered it was a fossilized bone and there were plenty more like it. Elmer alerted the National Smithsonian Museum, who sent out a team. This team determined the bones were ancestors of the modern horse. They were 3 ½ million years old. In the end, after digging into the hillside for two years, they took over 200 fossils, including 12 complete horse skeletons, back to Washington D.C.

My own fascination with horse fossils actually began a few years ago when I was giving tours at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City. A fossil hunter near Kemmerer, Wyoming had been quite surprised to find a small mammal while digging through layers of fossilized fish in an ancient seabed. This skeleton is now also in the Smithsonian Museum in D.C., but the Utah museum owns a copy.

When giving tours, I always paused my group as we entered the dinosaur floor.

A fossilized horse skeleton.
Mary Heers

“I’m going to pull a whole horse out of here,” I’d say as I pulled a sliding drawer out of a chest with a flourish.

It was a fully grown horse about the size of a small dog – 24 inches long and 20 inches high.

It was over 50 million years old. In that time, the Intermountain West was a lush, swampy place. Fierce predators like the Utahraptor roamed the land, and the mammals that survived were small and stayed hidden in the dense forested undergrowth.

Over the next 50 million years, the dinosaurs went extinct and the terrain dried out. The Hagerman Horse (dating back 3 ½ million years ) stood about 4 feet, 6 inches high. Most notably, it now stood on four hooves. The three toes on the Kemmerer Horse had evolved into a single dominant toe, perfectly adapted to running away from predators over dry terrain.

The Hagerman horse's fossilized hoof, showing three toes.
Mary Heers

Unfortunately, this remarkable adaptation was not enough to save the horse. The horse went extinct in the Americas (along with other large mammals like the mammoth and giant sloth) about 10,000 years ago. It was the Spanish Conquistators that reintroduced the horse to North America. When Hernan Cortez and his 200 soldiers landed in Mexico in 1519, they brought 16 horses with them. Over time, some of these horses got away to form wild bands, and others fell into the hands of the Native Americans.

This summer I made a small archeological pilgrimage into Idaho, to see the Hagerman Fossil Beds, now a National Monument. In the newly opened visitor center I found a life size replica of the Hagerman Horse. As I stood next to it, admiring its shapely hoof, I remembered one more remarkable fact about the horse. The bows now used to play violins are made from horse hair It takes 5 horse tails to make a violin bow. To this day, absolutely nothing has been found that makes the strings of a violin sing as sweetly.

Mary got hooked on oral histories while visiting Ellis Island and hearing the recorded voices of immigrants that had passed through. StoryCorps drew her to UPR. After she retired from teaching at Preston High, she walked into the station and said she wanted to help. Kerry put her to work taking the best 3 minutes out of the 30 minute interviews recorded in Vernal. Passion kicked in. Mary went on to collect more and more stories and return them to the community on UPR's radio waves. Major credits to date: Utah Works, One Small Step, and the award winning documentary Ride the Rails.