The little ancestor of horses

  • Name: Hipparion
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Weight: 70 kg
  • Period: Neogene
  • Found In: Europe, Asia, North America and Africa

The Hipparion was a genus of prehistoric mammal that inhabited our planet during the Cenozoic and more specifically in what we know as the Neogene period (about 10 million years ago). It is classified within the group of perisodactyl mammals.

This genus would have had a similar appearance to that of a modern-day horse. The only difference between the current horses and them is that these, the hipparion, would be somewhat smaller.

Read on and we will tell you more about this prehistoric mammal, where it lived, what it ate…

What does the name Hipparion mean?

The name Hipparion means “powerful horse” or “small horse”, it is a term that comes from the Greek “ἱππάριον” (ippárion), word that derives from “ἵππος” means horse and “άριον” that refers to a horse from Greek mythology.

History of the Hipparion discovery

The first discovery of this small horse was in 1832 by Christol, who also classified them within the family of the Equidae and gave them the name of Hipparion.

In 1871, in Russia, the geologist and engineer Nikolay Barbot, during some geological studies he was carrying out in the Crimea area, Russia, found other fossil remains of this horse.

In the years 1883 and 1887, more fossil remains of Hipparion were found also in the Crimean area, Russia.

And another important discovery took place in the Crimea as well. A resident of the Frunze region of the village of Saki observed what looked like the bones of a beast in the sea and immediately reported it to the Taurine Central Museum.

The researchers, on approaching the site, found that they were fossilized remains of Hipparion, which were embedded in a red clay plate.

Despite the fact that these remains were very well preserved, scientists initially believed that they were the ancestor of a rhinoceros, however, after a thorough examination it was found that these fossils really corresponded to an ancestor of modern horses.

This finding was very important because until now it was not very clear how the horse had evolved; and these complete remains helped to reveal a lot of information that allowed to know a little more about its origin.

Since the first discovery until now, many more species of this animal have been found. In this way it has been possible to expand the information about him.

General Hipparion characteristics

As we have already mentioned, in general terms the hipparion was very similar to the current horses, but this one was smaller and had a height of about 1.4 meters to the withers and could weigh about 100 kilos.

It had short legs and a robust body. His extremities were adapted to run fast in long distances; he was an endurance horse.

In addition, it had very wide eyes which allowed it to have a large field of vision, which helped it to instantly detect a predator.

Its legs were equipped with three toes, where the toes at the ends were underdeveloped compared to the middle one which was longer, bigger and more robust. These toes allowed them to move on wet ground without sinking, as they could spread their toes out to the sides thus widening the footprint.

Where and when did the Hipparion live?

He lived between the middle Miocene and early Pleistocene, about 23 to 7 million years ago.

And this species could be found almost anywhere in the world, as has been shown by finding fossils of this equine in different parts of the world, such as in Asia, Africa, North America and Europe.


Just like the reindeer and elk, in the Hipparion a sharper and lighter posture than that of the modern horse could be observed, such characteristic is key for animals that live in humid plains, wide river valleys with rich vegetation and meadows that are easily flooded.

And from this we can deduce that their habitat was the coastal forests, steppe-type forests and wetlands.

What did the Hipparion eat?

Analyzing their teeth, it could be concluded that they had teeth adapted to eat soft grass, just like modern horses. So it is claimed that he ate hay, grass, grain…

How did the Hipparion behave?

Many researchers point out that it is very likely that the Hipparion lived in herds, occupying the great plains, savannas and ponds.

It was even suggested that the herds of this animal species were made up of thousands of heads.

The rapid movement of these horses was of vital importance, as it was their only protection against attack by different predators.

And these movements were possible because they all had a high degree of control over the rapid change of direction in the middle of the race.

Hipparion Extinction

As in many other species there are several theories that could have caused their extinction, which we will detail below:

One of these hypotheses is related to feeding…

Despite being a numerous species and scattered to almost every corner of the earth; after the Miocene the Hipparion found himself living and sharing a world in which more genera of advanced equids appeared. One could even begin to talk about species from the same family beginning to appear that were much more advanced.

These new animals similar to them, but more modern and better adapted, as well as other new grazing animals, such as mammoths, for example, would have meant greater competition for the same food resources as the Hipparion.

Another hypothesis is related to predators…

If the existing predators are joined by the appearance of new ones, such as the cave hyena, which apparently actively hunted the hipparion, this would have contributed to a rapid disappearance of the species.

Finally there is the hypothesis of the glaciations of the end of the Pleistocene…

Although this theory has, at least today, little weight and it is actually believed that it is the sum of the other two theories that led to the disappearance of this species.

Curiosities about the Hipparion

What is very clear is that the fossil findings of this animal helped to reveal and understand much better how the evolution of horses has been.

As a curiosity we will tell you that although it is clear that the Hipparion is the ancestor of the horses, many researchers point out that this Equidae is actually the ancestor of the ponies.