By Donna Friess
Once again, San Juan Capistrano has turned its attention to some of our favorite traditions—the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day and the return of the swallows, culminating in our colorful Swallows Day Parade, the largest non-motorized parade in the western United States, showcasing our town’s equestrian heritage.
As I rode in the parade on the Mission San Juan Capistrano float, pulled by a team of beautiful horses, I could not stop from thinking about North America’s equestrian history.
For years, the belief that the Spaniards brought horses to the Western Hemisphere has dominated. However, that is only part of the story.
Science shows that a fossil of Equus Occidentalis, thought to be 190,000 years old, was found in San Juan Capistrano, according to paleontologist Eric Scott of the Cogstone Resource Center. Scott teaches that Equus was native to North America and flourished in past ages, evolving over some 50 million years from a small, dog-sized animal to the stunningly large animal we enjoy seeing in town today.
Scientists believe that relatives of today’s horses evolved during the Pliocene Epoch in North America and emigrated north across the Bering Land Bridge during the Ice Age to Eurasia. Later, those horses disappeared from North America.
The Bering Land Bridge is thought to have been about 600 miles wide, existing for some 15,000 years. Humans lived upon it until the last Ice Age ended, and then it disappeared.
It is possible to visit the 13,000-year-old Western horse fossils on display at the Page Museum in Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits. Long ago, those horses had become trapped in the sticky tar pits; their fossil remains excavated in the last century. The horses we know today are relatives of the horses brought over from Europe since the 15th century.
Humans have relied upon horses across history. We have depended upon them for so much: transporting us, cultivating the soil, harvesting the crops, carrying crops to market and even helping carrying ammunition.
We have used horses for sport, pleasure, work, competition, and even for sustenance. In recent years, psychologists and therapists are discovering the important therapeutic benefits of horses for persons with autism, PTSD, addiction issues, physical disabilities, and other issues. It is important to appreciate, and perhaps even cherish, our four-legged friends.
Historian and author, Dr. Donna L. Friess, is Professor Emeritus, Cypress College. Donna is a 50-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. Her book Capistrano Trails: Ride for the Brand (2018) brings San Juan’s vibrant horse story to life.
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