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Caspian Horses - History
   Ancient Lineage       Louise Firouz       Rediscovery       War and Revolution       Recent History   

Royal Patronage Helps Save Caspian Horses from Extinction

Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II enjoying a Caspian character

In ancient history they graced the seal of King Darius the Great, were offered to Persian kings as treasured gifts, decorated the walls of ancient palaces, and were used in royal ceremonies. More recently the late Shah of Iran bought all he could obtain. Queen Elizabeth II is one of their admirers. Her husband, HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, promotes Caspians and owns three of them. They have ever attracted royal attention and patronage. Yet in 1965, when they were rediscovered, only a handful were still in existence.

Research has demonstrated that the Caspian is depicted in ancient Persian statuettes, friezes and writings going back to 300 B.C. The most famous artifacts are the stone frieze on the eastern staircase of the Palace of Persepolis (the "Lydian Horses"), the tri-lingual seal of King Darius the Great (processed by the British Museum), and Gold Oxus Treasure of Darabgird, which depicts four tiny horses pulling a ceremonial chariot, all dating back to the sixth or fifth century B.C.

King Darius Seal
Seal of King Darius 550 B.C.

Archaeology can help us understand the purpose for which the Caspian was systematically bred as a pure-blood breed.

King Darius I, of the Achaemenid dynasty established in Persia by Cyrus the Great of biblical fame, came to power in 550 B.C. The seal of King Darius the Great is of particular interest. The small horses pictured have several of the physical characteristics of the Caspian - slim legs, concave faces and small ears. As a public ritual demonstration of their fitness to rule, Persian Kings killed captured lions which were brought into amphitheaters and released. At this event, which the seal of King Darius portrays, the small size of the horses pulling the chariot is worthy of note. The idea that the horses were purposely down-sized for special considerations on the seal of for stylized artistic interpretation has been refuted. The horses necessarily were small for fast maneuvering at high speeds in a confined space. For this particular ceremony, Caspians would have been the premier choice due to their acceleration, small size and agility. Such characteristics were highly prized by King Darius and his royal successors.

The later, Sasanid dynasty, maintained the old Zoroastrian order with its ancient royal investiture ceremonies. The rock relief at Naqsh-e-Rostam in Iran, which depicts the 224 A.D. investiture of Ardahir I, the first Assanid king, shows the king on a small horse with slim legs and small ears. Though he is mounted, the king's feet are almost touching the ground.

The last king of the Sasanid dynasty was Yazdegerd III. He was defeated by the followers of Islam at the battle of Qadisiyah on the Euphrates River in 637 A.D. This was not long after Timotheus of Gaza, quoted above. This Arab invasion made a break with the Persian Zoroastrian past and traditions, which had included a prominent place for the Caspian horse. The new Islamic rulers had no use for the royal investiture ceremonies. Their authority was derived from the Caliph, rather than from a dynasty that had ritually to prove its prowess in chariots drawn by Caspians.

So from 3,000 B.C. to 637 A.D. there is a historical continuity for the small, refined pre-Achamaenian horse After that there were doubtless some records or inventories made of horses in Persia, but the great libraries succumbed to repeated raids and invasions by the Moselems and the Mongols over the centuries. In this way the fate of the royal horse became a mystery for over 1300 years.

J. Biolchini

Ancient Lineage

Ancient Caspian Lineage
Caspians were used to develop the ancient Arabian by the Mesopotamians in the 3rd millennium B.C.

Research into the history and origin of this elegant horse proved the ancient lineage of the Caspian. It was identified as a royal breed previously thought long extinct.

Through examination and research of ancient Persian archaeological remains, along with blood-type, bone structure and genetic testing, the Caspian was found to be the forerunner of Persia's native wild horses. It was used to develop the ancient Arabian by the Mesopotamians in the 3rd millennium B.C. Identification of the Caspian was aided by several of its unique features such as hemoglobin composition and its skeletal structure.

The rediscovery of the Caspian and the archaeological and scientific research it inspired, have offered solid and convincing proof of the origin of the hot blooded, Near Eastern horse. As Louise Firouz states, "Iran's position at the crossroads of the earliest human migrations with the lush pastures of the Elburz and Zagros mountains and plentiful water put her in the unique position of having all the natural elements for being the first to selectively breed horses for different uses and specific characteristics." With findings from cave diggings made in Iran in 1949, Carleton Coon discovered remains which proved that the horse was in Iran in the Mesolithic period. This finding refuted the previously held belief that horses were not native to Iran but were introduced by Indo-Europeans in the 3rd or early 2nd millennium B.C.

Small wild horses roamed the district of Persia around Kermanshah, now known as Bakhtaran, in west central Eran. The most common theory of the horse's presence around Kermanshah is that many species were swept southward before the glaciers, retreating to warmer climates. After the glaciers melted, many species returned to their former northern habitats, but some remained, within fixed geographical areas forming isolated breeding groups with distinctive genetic characteristics. This would account for the very early isolated pocket of Caspians in ancient Persia in the Zagros near Kermanshah.

Timotheus of Gaza, writing in the 6th century A.D. stated that a small breed of horse was then being raised in the area of Kernamshah: "The horses of the Medes are of moderate size with small ears and heads unlike those of a horse..." The typical, ancient large horse to which he would have compared this breed, was substantially smaller than an average-sized modern horse, and was Roman-nosed. Thus his horse of "moderate" size would have been a small horse with a head unlike the Roman-nosed Nisaean horse, in other words, a small, dished-headed horse - the Caspian.

J. Biolchini

Louise Firouz

"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."

Mrs. Firouz, the American who rediscovered them, wrote the above quotes in 1968. She was writing of her concern that an ancient, pure race of horse, the proto-Arabian and forerunner of most hot bloods, until then thought to be extinct, was in fact, on the very brink of extinction. Through neglect, ignorance, and the vicissitudes of 13 centuries returned to the wild, this ancient breed's honored place in history had been almost irretrievably lost. Only at the 11 hour, the 59th minute, was the existence, beauty and rarity of this regal horse rediscovered.

In 1957, Louise Laylin, an American-born Cornell graduate, married fellow student Narcy Firouz, an aristocrat linked to the former Shah of Iran, and returned with him to his native country. Subsequently, she and her husband established the Norouzabad Equestrian Center for children of families living in the country's capital of Tehran. One of the difficulties she faced, that of providing appropriate mounts for some of the smaller riders, proved a catalyst for her pursuit of what were rumored to be very small horses in the remote villages above the Caspian Sea. Because hot blooded stallions were the only mounts available for Tehran's young riders, Mrs. Firouz wanted to provide smaller, more even-tempered equines. Her work would soon result in the rediscovery and preservation of an ancient breed.

J. Biolchini


Rediscovery By An American - 1965

Millenium Farms Mares
Millennium Farms Mares

In 1965, with a small expedition on horseback, Louise Firouz discovered small horses in the mountainous regions south of the Caspian Sea, centered near the town of Amol. At first glance they appeared somewhat rough from lack of nourishment, and were riddled with ticks and parasites. However, upon closer inspection, these horses showed distinctive characteristics similar to the Arabian horse such as large protruding eyes, a prominent jaw, large nostrils, a dished head and a high-set tail. This first trip rescued 3 horses which were dubbed Caspian, for the vicinity in which they were found. The former owners of these often misused and over-worked horses had no idea of the breeds' near extinction.

Between July 1965 and August 1968, Mrs. Firouz conducted a careful survey to determine the approximate number and range of the surviving Caspian horses. On the basis of this survey, it was estimated that there were approximately 50 small horses with definite Caspian characteristics along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. The major concentration of these horses (approximately 30), occupied a 2,000 square mile triangle between Amol, Babol and Kiakola in the Elburz mountains. The remaining 20 horses were so scattered that it was impossible for the survey to consider them as completely pure.

J. Biolchini

War and Revolution

CaspianWith Iran's many recent political upheavals - the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution, bombing during the protracted Iran-Iraq War and the ever-present threat of famine, together with the Caspian's close association with royalty, the Caspian's survival there remains precarious. Louise Firouz' discovery was ever in the balance between political honoraria as a national treasure, and the threat of political seizure as wartime food. After Mrs. Firouz' breeding successes in the 1960s and early '70s, the Iran-Iraq War placed a heavy burden on her endeavors. The RHS completely took over the Norouzabad herd in 1974. A second private herd was started in 1975, consisting of 20 mares and 3 stallions from feral stock found along the Caspian coast. This breeding center was established by Mrs. Firouz in northeastern Iran at Gara Tepe Sheikh.

In 1977, this second private breeding center was forced to close it's doors and the RHS declared a ban on all Caspian exports. The RHS collected all Caspians remaining in Iran to breed selectively in a "national stud" to conform with a specific standard of the breed. Forced by the government to surrender all but one Caspian horse, Mrs. Firouz' founding stock was effectively wiped out. Due to the complex political climate, most of the RHS horses were lost, primarily through auction sales of the nationalized horses to Turkoman and Kazakh tribes who used their purchases as pack animals OR FOR MEAT.

Due to the pressing military situation caused by the Iran-Iraq War, and her interest in deeping the breed alive, between 1971 and 1976 Mrs. Firouz exported 6 stallions and 17 mares trpresenting 19 different Caspian bloodlines from Iran to Europe. These 26 horses constitute the European Foundation Herd. Through these European transfers the Caspian breed has been established outside Iran.

Because of her efforts to save the Caspian horses from starvation and slaughter by exportation during the early years of the Islamic Revolution, in 1979 Mr. and Mrs. Firouz were repeatedly arrested and detained. During one of these incarcerations, Mrs. Firouz went on a hunger strike in protest, which was successful, but she left prison weak and emaciated.

After the war was over, Mrs. Firouz once again completely redeveloped a breeding center to save the Caspian from extinction in Iran. The 1992 International Caspian Stud Book lists 38 registered Iranian Caspians. Mrs. Firouz obtained most of these horses through either expeditions to the Caspian seacoast to capture more feral horses; purchases from Revolutionary Guards repatriating stolen or seized horses after the Iran-Iraq; or through breeding. Mrs. Firouz now maintains a breeding center on the Turdoman Steppes next to Russian Turkmenistan.

J. Biolchini

Recent Caspian History

Research by Dr. E. Gus Cothran

Careful research conducted by rare breeds geneticist, Dr. Gus Cothran has established that none of the horses that Mrs. Firouz has now, bears lineal relation to the Caspians Exported to Europe.
J. Biolchini

Costessa Bellamira
Costessa Bellamira & her filly

DNA studies show that the Caspians in Europe and in Iran are all part of the same unique Caspian genetic pool.

By 1992 there were still only 112 breeding mares and 30 stallions in Europe. Fortunately, according to the studies completed by Dr. Gus Cothran, the measure of genetic variation among the worldwide Caspian horse population was near the average for U.S. domestic breeds. Hopefully this insures sufficient genetic diversity to avoid any harmful inbreeding problems.

More recently, Mrs. Firouz, was able to ship 3 stallions and 4 mares to Europe via the Azeri-Armenian war zone where bandits attacked and robbed the convoy, on across Russia to Belarus, and the to the United Kingdom. These horses, which left Iran in July of 1993 reached the United Kingdom in February of 1994. This shipment sustained and enhanced the gene pool and healthy breeding of the Caspian horse established in Europe.

In May of 1994, 2 stallions and 5 mares were imported into the United States after quarantine. There had been two Caspian stallions imported before this time but Caspian mares had never been here, so there were no purebred offspring.

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