Caspian Horse

  • HEIGHT: 10–12 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: A very ancient breed rediscovered in northern Iran in 1965
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Small, beautiful, fine-boned, tractable horses of surprising, strength and athleticism
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Driving, jumping; elegant and reliable children’s mounts

In an astonishing and incredibly lucky accident in 1965, an American woman rediscovered a famous, ancient breed of horse thought to have been extinct for more than one thousand years. Louise Firouz had married an Iranian she met in college. They moved to Iran, where she started a riding school. Looking for suitable mounts to use for small children, Firouz heard there were small horses and ponies available near the southern end of the Caspian Sea, which forms part of the northern border of Iran. While searching for suitable school ponies, she came across three very fine, small, graceful animals that didn’t look at all like other ponies—they were proportioned much more like Arabian Horses. They had big eyes, large jaws, and high-set tails. Firouz knew of the ancient literature and lore about tiny horses from this area, so she took all three back to her riding school, and in so doing managed to save an ancient breed from almost certain extinction.

The Caspian is an ancient breed closely related to the Arabian.

Over the past several decades, the number of Caspian Horses, while still only in the hundreds, has risen steadily in North America.

A Long History

Documents from the sixth century CE tell of a little horse with small ears and a head “unlike [that] of a horse.” Since most horses of the day had Roman noses, a good guess, confirmed by the art of the time, is that these animals were dish-faced. The Caspian, as Firouz named the breed, appears in ancient Persian art and writings going back to 3000 BCE. Small Caspian-type horses decorate the seal of King Darius the Great (521–486 BCE).

In the days of King Darius, Persian kings demonstrated their fitness to rule in public displays of strength and courage. Unfortunate lions were captured and taken to an arena, where the king killed them from a chariot. The chariot horses had to be small, handy, fast, brave, and very tractable to do such dangerous work in the confined space of the arena. Archaeologists and historians believe that the little horses depicted on King Darius’s seal represent the actual horses used: that is, the little dish-faced, small-eared, fine-legged Caspian type. Small horses were also depicted in the rock relief of King Ardashir’s investiture in 224 CE and were last mentioned in writing in about 600 CE.

The last Zoroastrian king of the Sassanid dynasty was defeated by followers of Islam in 637 CE. As power shifted from Zoroastrianism to Islam, rituals changed and the little chariot horses became unnecessary. As centuries of wars, invasions, and uprisings followed, great libraries and art were lost, and with them the knowledge of these beautiful horses.

Miraculously, some survived as feral horses in the remote areas of the Elburz Mountains, near the southern end of the Caspian Sea, where a few were caught occasionally and used by the locals. But until Firouz stumbled upon them, they had been lost to the rest of the world for some thirteen hundred years.

A Bright Future

In 1968, Firouz wrote, “We are still searching for them: diminutive . . . Arab looking creatures with big bold eyes, prominent jaws and high-set tails which so distinguish their larger cousins. It has been a losing battle as the already pitifully small numbers are further decimated each year by famine, disease and lack of care, until now we must accept the sad fact that the survivors must number no more than 30.” Further searching turned up about fifty, but clearly they were on the very edge of extinction.

In addition to the three acquired on her first trip, Firouz was able to purchase thirteen more. She and her husband began a private breeding herd to save the little horses. The herd was taken over by the Royal Horse Society of Iran in 1970 under the guidance of the crown prince, although the horses were kept at the Norouzabad stud, the Firouz breeding operation, until 1974. As the political situation for the royal family of Iran became increasingly precarious, Firouz wisely managed to export nine stallions and fourteen mares to Europe between 1971 and 1976, and again, by her actions, may have saved the breed. In 1977, all further exports of the horses from Iran were stopped. After the royal family fell out of power, the royal breeding herds were sold. All of Firouz’s carefully rescued stock still in Iran became pack animals or were sold for meat.

Since 1977, political upheavals in Iran have seen the Caspians rise to the peak of honor as national treasures, only to fall to the point that they were used for food. Firouz herself started a second foundation herd of twenty-three animals, but during the Iran–Iraq War, these horses were confiscated by the Revolutionary Guards and sent to the front, where they were run across minefields to clear them.

Over the past several decades, some Caspians made their way from Europe to the North America, where they have been bred very successfully, mostly on several large ranches in Texas.

Breed Characteristics

Genetic research as well as archaeological evidence proves the Caspian to be a genetically distinct breed, with genetic markers that authenticate its ancient status. They are of an old, old breed, closely related to the Arabian. Bonnie Hendricks, in the 1995 International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, writes, “If continuity with the ancient breed can be absolutely proven, it is likely that this breed is the ancestor of all modern breeds of hot blooded horses.” Ongoing research points to this continuity.

Caspians have an exceptionally gentle disposition. They show superb jumping ability and are still, as they were in the time of King Darius, excellent driving animals.

Conformation

Caspians stand between 10 and 12 hands. They are delicate-looking and quite beautiful, but, as their history indicates, extremely tough and durable. The head is short and fine with short ears, a small muzzle, and large nostrils that are placed low. The forehead is vaulted and the neck fine and graceful. Pronounced withers lead to a straight back, and the tail is set high on a level croup. The legs are fine, but with strong, dense bone. There is no feathering at the fetlock. The feet are very strong, and oval, shaped almost more like those of a donkey than those of a horse.

Color

The most common color is bay, but chestnut, black, and gray are also allowed. There are some very light duns, and many of the bays have dorsal stripes. Most Caspians display a minimal amount of white, perhaps a star, strip, or snip, and maybe socks. The breed standard specifically disallows piebald and skewbald.

With their gentle disposition and athletic ability, Caspians make wonderful mounts for young riders.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Caspian Horse Society of America (founded in 1994):

• In 2005, there were 540 Caspians in North America.

• About 75 new foals are registered each year.

• All U.S. horses are also registered with the International Caspian Association.

• Currently 90 percent of the Caspian horses in North America are in Texas.