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Caspian Horse The Ancient Treasure

Ancient Treasure

The Caspian horse may be the missing link to early equine ancestors. Read how this lost breed was found.
By Sharon Biggs

In 1965 Louis Firouz, an American living in Tehran, Iran, was in the market for ponies for children to ride in her new school in Norouzabad. She had heard of small horses living in surrounding villages in the Elborz Mountains and went to investigate the stories. In one of the villages she saw a little stallion pulling an overloaded cart that should have been too heavy for him. The stallion had no problem pulling the wagon and skittered around corners as though dragging a box of feathers. His name was Ostad, and Firouz described him as no shaggy pony but as a "dream out of a Russian fairy tale." Firouz purchased the stallion and gathered others like him from a feral herd of 30 horses. Because the breed had no name, in honor of the nearby sea, she called the horses Caspians.

Firouz was excited about her find, but not just because she had found suitable mounts for her stable. The American expatriate felt that she has rediscovered a lost breed so important to equine zoologists that it was like a paleontologist finding a live specimen of Tyrannosaurus Rex. She wondered if this small horse could be the missing link between early Equus and the hot-blooded desert horse.

Missing Link

Firouz lived with her Iranian husband in Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia. While visiting a palace in the area, she noticed rock carvings depicting riders mounted on small horses. The horses had unusually domed heads and Arabian-like features. When she saw the stallion Ostad and the feral horses, she hypothesized that they were of the same breed depicted on the palace walls.

Through bone, blood and DNA testing, archeozoologists proved her theory correct. These small horses were direct descendants of the miniature. Mesopotamian horse of antiquity (also known as Horse Type 4) thought to be extinct for the past 1,300 years.

Archeozoologists believe that four breeds of primitive horses existed before domestication, about 6,000 years ago: Przewalski, Tarpan, Forest Horse and Tundra Horse. From these primitive breeds, four sub-species developed that served as the foundation for modern horses. These sub- species were classified as Pony Type1, which resembled the Exmoor Pony and originated in Northwest Europe; Pony Type 2, resembled the Highland Pony and originated in Eurasia; Horse Type 3, resembled the Akhal-Teke and originated in Central Asia; Horse Type 4, resembled the Caspian and originated in West Asia. Horse Type 4 was small and delicate and no larger than 12 hands high. It was a heat-resistant desert horse originally from West and the most refined and beautiful of all the types. It was also thought to be the predecessor of the Arabian. Scientists linked the Caspian to Horse Type 4 because its appearance could be compared to artifacts and remains. Also, Caspian horses possessed characteristics that differ from modern breeds, including the shape of the scapula (shoulder blade), which is wider at the base than at the top; and an extra molar in the top jaw where wolf teeth would be in modern breeds, and is usually shed by the age of 2. Because of the shape of the parietal bones, the Caspian has a domed forehead much like the Arabian.

Ancient Roots

Darius the Great, the ruler of the Persian Empire (c. 519-486 BC) used a small native horse to pull hunting chariots. He was so fond of these horses that he used their likeness on his royal seal. War soon raged and breeding of these horses stopped. Nothing was heard of the breed for next 2,000 years until Mrs. Firouz's finding in 1965. In the past, archeologists had found evidence of a small horse native to the region, but its presence was explained away. Artwork depicting small horses pulling large chariots was discovered, but they were discounted as artistic license. After all, could such tiny horses draw a huge chariot driven by full-grown men? Small cannon bones found in archeological digs were thought to be onager, a type of wild ass, and not horse. After Firouz's discovery, artifacts hanging in the British Museum were studied as the Caspian breed - the very horses Darius the Great had revered.

These horses survived in small numbers because they were hemmed in by the mountains on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other. Their genes are so strong that they are found to be a recessive factor. A normal size mare with even a small amount of Caspian blood could produce a throwback foal with Caspian features.

Because the breed spent hundreds of years in mountainous areas, Caspians have sharply-angled hocks.

Royal Intervention

Louise Firouz's discovery caught the attention of the Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran and in 1970 he founded the Royal Horse Society to help preserve the breed, along with other native Iranian breeds. The RHS included all feral horses as well as Firouz's horses.

In 1971, Great Britain's Prince Phillip and his daughter Princess Anne, both horse enthusiasts, traveled to Iran and visited the Royal Horse Society. Prince Phillip, who established the first set of international rules for combined driving, admired the horses' driving abilities and immediately became a supporter, He expressed concern that a rare breed in such small numbers living in only one country would not survive and offered to help with exportation to the United Kingdom. From 1971 to 1976, 26 horses were exported to the United Kingdom and formed the European Foundation Herd. Two of the horses were given to Prince Phillip by the Shah: a chestnut mare named Rostam, both were later used for breeding.

In 1974, Iran was in political turmoil and the Shah was overthrown. Under new law horse ownership was illegal and Firouz's horses were taken away. Undaunted, she gathered more Caspians from feral herds and built her stable back up to 24 horses. Terrible famine made it difficult for Firouz to feed her horses and she grazed them where she could. When she lost her two best mares and a foal to a wolf attack, an emergency evacuation of seven mares and one stallion to the United Kingdom was arranged. The Royal Horse Society of Iran was not pleased by the evacuation and confiscated her herd once again, this time to be either sold for food or to be sent across minefields to clear them for soldiers fighting Iraq. Only one stallion, Zeeland, was known to survive. Firouz herself, in defense of her horses, was arrested several times and went on hunger strikes to gain her release.

The Caspian's only hope for survival lay with the horses in the United Kingdom at the Caspian Stud UK, owned by Elizabeth Alderson, Stephanie Jenvey and Arthur Griffin. Together they formed the British Caspian Trust. They were worried that the lack of numbers would mean inbreeding, so they kept careful records and used a method of breeding called "cyclic crossings" where each foundation mare was bred to a different foundation stallion each time.

In 1992 the International Caspian Stud Book listed 38 Iranian Caspian Horses - a dismal amount. But in 1994, after the war with Iraq, Firouz visited a stable of 1,000 horses and found a few Caspians. Fortunately, none of the horses were related the European Foundation horses. Firouz found several more feral horses, also unrelated, and exported all to the Caspian Stud UK.

The Caspian in America

It was at this time that enthusiasts in the United States became interested in the breed. As a result, nearly every Caspian horse under the age of two was exported to the Untied States from the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The first seven were imported to the Monastery of St. Claire in Blenham, Texas, for breeding purposes. Before 1994 only two Caspian stallions existed in the United States, but neither was bred and both are now deceased. Texans immediately followed in the monastery's footsteps and several more breeding stables were created in the state.

The Caspian Horse Society of the Americas (CHSA) was incorporated in 1994 to help preserve and promote the breed. The CHSA oversees the purebred and partbred registry in the Western Hemisphere and is also a member of the International Caspian Society.

The Caspian at Work

Although the Caspian horse has played a critical role in equine evolution, the breed also deserves a place in the modern world because of its trainability, incredible strength and gentle nature. Caspian horses excel on carriage driving, particularly scurry driving where speed and handiness is a bonus. Their willing minds and narrow build make them a natural children's mount, and because of their conformation they are superb jumpers. They are also exceptional western horses, particularly for running poles and barrels. Many Caspian owners have found that their horses express an almost dog - like devotion and protective nature.

A few Caspians exist in the wild in Iran but due to political issues, they may remain there forever. Louise Firouz still lives in Iran, helping manage the Ministry of Jehad's herd of horses and attempting to export more bloodlines. With the help of a handful of breeders throughout the world, this 5,000 - year - old breed will hopefully continue to grow in numbers.

© Sharon Biggs. Reprinted with permission.
Sharon Biggs is an American writer based in England. She writes for many magazines in the US and the UK. She is the author of In One Arena: Top Dressage Experts Share Their Knowledge Through the Levels (Half Halt Press).


Fast Facts

  • The Caspian is one of two of the oldest equine breeds in existence. The Asiatic Wild Horse (Horse Type 3) is the other.
  • Considered extinct for nearly 2,000 years, the Caspian was rediscovered in 1965 by American Louise Firouz.
  • The Caspian was first brought to America in 1995 and today there are 400 registered horses living in the United States.
  • More than 1,000 horses are registered in the International Caspian Stud Book.
  • The Caspian is also used for crossbreeding, particularly the Arabian, creating a crossbreed called the Caspian Arabian.

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