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Unicorns and horses might look similar in book illustrations and movies but it’s not only the presence or absence of a horn that differentiates them.
Horses are real animals who have been aides, pets, and friends to humans throughout history. Unicorns are fantastic mythological beasts who run freely through great legends and stories down the ages and around the world.
What Is the difference between a unicorn and a horse? If you or your child have been asking this question, then this is the right article for you. Read on to find out more about the key features of unicorns and horses, their differences, and the interesting historical background relevant to both.
What Is A Unicorn?
The unicorn is a mythical creature that has been featured in myths and fables since historical antiquity. Generally depicted as a horse-like animal with a single-pointed and spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, unicorns are often symbols of chastity, purity, or truth.
In modern life, the word ‘unicorn’ has branched out to take on several new sub-meanings inspired by the rarity and magical qualities of the mythic beast. The term can be used to refer to a person, object, or entity of exceptionally rare characteristics, unlikely to be found in everyday life.
What Is A Horse?
The domestic horse (Equus caballus), or wild horse (Equus ferus caballus), is an herbivorous, one-toed hoofed mammal belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae.
In the wild, horses are social animals who form hierarchical herds with a clear ranking structure, led by one dominant horse, usually a mare. Horses have 64 chromosomes and there are 2.7 billion DNA base pairs on the horse genome.
Horses move with four distinct natural gaits: walking, trotting, cantering, and galloping. They communicate both through physical means (e.g. mutual grooming, particular stances) and vocalizations including nickering, whinnying, and neighing.
Horses are muscular animals with a deep torso, long necks, and elongated heads. Their four long legs are heavily muscled towards the top with lower legs/feet ending in tough, oval one-toed hooves made of keratin, the same substance which forms human fingernails.
The hair coats of horses may be of varying thickness, color, and pattern according to breed, with longer hair manes and tails. Some horses also have longer hair at their fetlocks (area similar to an ankle).
Horses have between 36 and 44 teeth including 12 long front incisors for cutting grass and other vegetation and 12 each of premolars and molars for chewing.
Horses’ eyes are positioned on each side of their head, giving them a total field of vision of close to 360 degrees. They have the largest eyes of any land-dwelling mammal, enabling them to keep a good watch for predators.
Unicorn appearance varies from country to country and era to era.
In modern western European form, unicorns generally look like horses but with a spiraling horn in the middle of their forehead. Their hooves may be cloven, like goat hooves. These unicorns are usually depicted as being white, or occasionally black, and close in shape to a medium-sized thoroughbred racing horse.
Ancient Greek mythological unicorns could be white, red, and/or black, sometimes with a goat’s beard, the tail of a boar, or the head of a stag. Their horn might be shorter and blunter.
Unicorns from Chinese and Japanese folklore sometimes sported an antelope’s body or the mane of a lion.
The key difference between the appearance of horses and unicorns is the horn, which is not found in horses.
Another difference is the variety of shapes, sizes, and colors found in horses. Pictures of unicorns are generally homogeneous. It would be unusual to find a story where a unicorn was the size of a Shire horse, for example, or with piebald coloring rather than white or black.
Horses are straightforward, flesh-and-blood land mammals with very normal herbivorous mammalian characteristics, needs, and behaviors.
They eat a grass-centered herbivorous diet, bear live young after a gestation period of around 11 months, and sleep either standing up or lying down. Horses achieve full adult development around age five and live for around 25-30 years on average. They have evolved to run with speed and balance.
Unicorns are fantastic, magical creatures, not bound by the mundane rules of reality. They may have a range of magical powers, according to the different cultures in which they arise.
The ancient Greek unicorn, the Chinese unicorn (ch’i lin), Japanese unicorn (kirin or sin-you), and Vietnamese unicorn (kỳ lân, lan, ky kan) all have their own distinct qualities.
The unicorn of the ancient Greeks and medieval legend can only be caught by a maiden. Chinese unicorns are said to walk so softly that their hooves make no sound. Japanese unicorns are able to tell right from wrong and thereby judge human offenses. In some legends, unicorns are said to be immortal, or able to fly.
In earlier eras, unicorn horns were widely reputed to have magical or healing qualities and were much sought after to treat illnesses from epilepsy to plague. According to some legends, a unicorn could even purify poisoned water with a dip of its horn. Narwhal tusks were often mistaken for, or mis-sold as, unicorn horns.
Modern horses are the only surviving branch of the family tree of Equidae. While this taxonomic family has had many different members over millions of years, all other branches of the Equidae family are now extinct.
The very first known horses evolved 55 million years ago and in distant pre-history, multiple horse species often existed side by side. For a large part of their history, most horses were small, forest browsing animals.
Changing climate conditions drove an expansion in areas of grassland, sparking the evolution of many new horse species around 20 million years ago. Some of these species were larger and had the same kind of hooves and diets that we find in modern horses.
By the Ice Age, horses and human beings were both living in the same areas of Europe. Archeological evidence including hunting weapons and horse remains indicate that horses were food, long before they became a means of transport. Ancient images found in cave paintings or bone carvings suggest that horses also played a significant role in the ritual or cultural life of prehistoric humans.
Domestication of horses probably began sometime around 4000 BC amongst nomadic peoples in Asia. Horses have played an important role in human history and development ever since, as a source of food, transport, status, and physical power, in fields from agriculture and sport, through to warfare.
The unicorn has existed in the human imagination for more than 2000 years and many people actually believed them to be real animals until well into the Middle Ages.
There are early glimmers of unicorn mythology coming from the Indus Valley Civilization in the ancient near East around 3000-1300 BCE. The imagery of surviving artifacts shows a horse-like animal in profile, with a single horn. However, it may be that these images were intended to be aurochs, a type of larger wild cattle that formerly roamed Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
Greek historian Ctesias first documented a unicorn-like animal in his writings on the region of India around 400 BCE. In the following centuries, descriptions of the unicorn can be found in the writings of important historical figures, including Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Julius Caesar. Pliny the Elder gave the unicorn its current name in the first century CE: the Monoceros, or unicorn.
In medieval Europe, the unicorn became part of a courtly culture of chivalry. Heroic knights and the women they loved were supposed to follow a similar relationship to that between the unicorn and a maiden. During the renaissance, the unicorn became a more secular symbol of chastity and loyalty.
Some medieval writers also likened the unicorn to Jesus Christ because of its purity, immortality, and supposed healing powers. The unicorn as a symbol of Christ appears in a number of paintings and other artworks over the centuries.
In the 15th century, unicorns became a popular heraldic feature. In reference to their powerful and untamable nature, they’re often depicted with a broken collar chain. The unicorn became part of the Scottish Royal Coat of Arms under William I in the 12th century.
When Scotland and England were first unified in 1603 under King James VI of Scotland, the Scottish Royal Arms showed two unicorns together, supporting a shield. Once James VI became James I of England and Ireland, he exchanged the unicorn on the left side of the shield with a lion, the national animal of England. The lion and the unicorn together symbolized the union between England and Scotland.
By the Age of Enlightenment belief in unicorns was no longer common. When William Shakespeare makes a reference to unicorns in his play “The Tempest”, the line is a sarcastic one and reflected the view of the age that unicorns exist solely in legends and fairy tales.
Is A Horse The Same As A Unicorn?
No, horses and unicorns may look similar in movies and books but they are fundamentally different. A horse is a real animal. While resembling a horse, a unicorn is a mythological beast with magical powers.
How Does A Horse Become A Unicorn?
Horses do not become unicorns, neither in reality nor in myth and legend.
Is A Unicorn A Female Horse?
No, a female horse is called a mare, and a young female horse is a filly. There is no rule about whether a unicorn is solely male, female, or both. In mythology, unicorns are often un-gendered, being neither male nor female.
What Does Unicorn Mean?
Unicorn is a Latin-derived word that literally means “one horn”.
What Do Unicorns Look Like?
In western European movies, books, and myths, unicorns generally look like thoroughbred white horses with a single spiraling horn on its head. Earlier descriptions and those from other countries can differ radically.
Are Unicorns Real?
No. Like dragons, unicorns are mythological creatures, featuring in legends from countries around the world for thousands of years. You can think of unicorns as an imaginary type of magical horse that you will find in stories but don’t expect to see one in a zoo, amongst a herd of wild horses, or wandering alone in a forest glade.
Are Unicorns In The Bible?
Yes, and no. This is likely to be a translation issue.
An animal called the re’em appears several times in the Hebrew Bible, referred to as a wild and untamable creature of massive strength and agility, with a mighty horn, perhaps most similar to an aurochs.
The American Standard Version the Bible translates re’em as “wild ox”. However, English translators of the famous 1611 ‘Authorized King James Bible’ took their lead from the Greek Septuagint translation (which used the word ‘monokeros’) and the Latin Vulgate version (which used ‘unicornis’), making ‘unicorn’ a translation for re’em.
Are Unicorns Evil?
Unicorns are rarely evil. More often they are agents or symbols of virtue. Black unicorns are sometimes said to be nightmares, but even bad dreams can bring useful revelation and are not necessarily evil.
Can Unicorns Have Wings?
As mythic creatures, unicorns could potentially have wings or any other feature which a storyteller wished to give to them. Mostly, however, unicorns are not described as having wings.
Pegasus is a famous winged horse from Greek mythology. Belonging to the mythological hero Perseus, Pegasus had wings but not a horn and is therefore not a unicorn. The unicorn and Pegasus are not the same creature.
Can Unicorns Fly?
Again, as mythological creatures, unicorns can undertake whatever real or imaginary movement legends give them. Some unicorn legends do include powers of flight.
Can Unicorns Swim?
Again, as mythological creatures, unicorns can undertake whatever real or imaginary movement legends give them.
It is possible that sailors in an earlier time saw narwhals swimming in the waves and mistook these one-horned creatures for unicorns.
Can Unicorns Grant Wishes?
According to some ancient legends, unicorns may grant wishes to those who are pure in heart.
Can Unicorns Talk?
Probably not. In some myths, unicorns appear to be shown as understanding the human language but not using it themselves. Horse mouths are not adapted to producing human speech.
How Do Unicorns Sleep?
Unicorn sleep is not an issue addressed by common unicorn legends. Given their physiology, we might assume that, like horses, they can sleep either standing or lying down. Given their legendary status, we might also assume that they don’t need to sleep at all.
Where Are Unicorns Found?
The myth of the unicorn is not limited to one country but is found in different places around the world from ancient Greece to China and Japan.
Unicorns are generally described as solitary and elusive creatures, most likely to be encountered in quiet forest glades.
Where Are Unicorns Born?
Unicorn babies are not generally part of the legend of the unicorn, and unicorns are more symbols of purity and chastity than fertility and birth. According to some legends, unicorns are immortal and in this case there would be no need for the species to reproduce.
Were Unicorns Ever Real?
There is no evidence that unicorns were ever real. No fossil or other physical natural history records of unicorns have been found.
Some theories suggest that a rhinoceros, or perhaps another horned animal with a mutation that caused a single horn, may have been mistaken for a unicorn in ancient times. Narwhals with their long spiraling white horns may also have been mistaken for unicorns playing in the waves.
We hope this article tells you what you need to know about the differences between unicorns and horses. For more interesting facts about horses of all kinds, check out the Amazing Horse Facts site.