Horses in Asia and North Africa
Horses in the Himalayas:
During the first half of the twentieth century, an expedition headed by the Russian artist Nicholas
Roerich traveled throughout central Asia. The artist's son, George Roerich, accompanied the
expedition. Its route took it from Srinagar, India along old caravan roads to Leh, into Mongolia
and along the Silk Road north of the Takla Makan desert; across Russia; finally, into northern
Tibet through the Tsaidam salt marshes and south across Tibet to India. Throughout, the
younger Roerich commented on the qualities and breeds of horses available:
1. Srinagar. The expedition had decided to buy its own riding horses, since local transport across
the Himalayas was not reliable. Srinagar was a good horse market; there, one could buy good
horses of the Yarkendi and Badakhshani breeds, which were famous throughout central Asia.
These horses from Yarkend (in Mongolia) and Badakhshan (in Afghanistan) were considered
invaluable on long journeys. Roerich added that Zangskar ponies (ie, horses from the Zanskar
region in the western Himalayas) were good for mountain travel, but hard-mouthed and of
Another Western traveler in the Himalayas remarked that Zanskar tribesmen on their small hardy
ponies would ride right over mountains to visit their neighbors, as casually as if taking a stroll
down the block.
2. Yarkend. This oasis was the chief entrepot of Indian and Afghan trade in western Mongolia;
its horse market was managed by Kirghiz traders. Here was a thriving metropolis, with a walled
Mohammedan city, a separate Chinese city, and an Afghan colony supervised by a consul. The
most costly products of Afghanistan were opium and Badakhshani horses, neither of which could
be legally sold; for the past few years the export of these horses from Afghanistan had been
prohibited by the Amir. Afghan traders were required to sign a document pledging to return to
their country with their horses. Nevertheless Badakhshani horses were constantly available for
purchase in the Yarkend market.
The big pack horses bought in Yarkend could carry about two hundred pounds each.
The pack saddles used by Himalayan caravaneers were of several kinds. Wooden saddles were
used in Ladak and Tibet, but the Turkestani pack saddle was much superior. This was made
from two thick saddle-clothes, on which was fixed a saddle cushion. The cushion was u-shaped
and made of sheepskin or cloth stuffed with straw; the load was fixed to the saddle by ropes.
Roerich remarked that the Chinese or European hemp ropes were very bad, causing sores on the
pack animals; camel wool ropes were the best for caravan use, and sheep's wool ropes were
3. Karashahr (Mongolia, north edge of Takla Makan desert). Famous horses were bred in this
district, prized throughout Asia and China. Karashahr horses were regularly sent as tribute to the
imperial court at Peking, and Chinese cavalry were mounted upon them. These were strong
animals, twelve or thirteen hands high, with powerful chests and necks, large hook-nosed heads
and well-built legs; they had a very fast gait.
Those horses sold in the Karashahr bazaar were bred in large herds by the Khoshut and Torgut
tribes, both of which belonged to the Kalmuck group.
Mongol riders usually sped their horses, to show off their paces. These horses were the living
descendants of the famous T'ang clay and terracotta horses.
4. Tsaidam. The expedition traveled through Russia via train and car; here, arriving on the
outskirts of northern Tibet, they again began buying horses and caravan animals. They stayed
for several weeks in the high mountain valleys of Shih-pao-ch'eng and Sharagolji, preparing to
recross the Himalayas. Here they bought riding horses from the local Chinese villagers; the
Mongol horses available were useless on a trip through Tibet.
Tibetan horse dealers came annually to buy horses from Sining and Kansu; they refused to take
any horses except those bred in Sining. These ponies, when well-built and seen to be good
amblers, fetched high prices at Lhasa. As for the horses bred by the Tsaidam Mongols, these
were usually well-built animals about twelve hands high; their only serious defect lay in their
fragile hooves. Being reared on the soft saline ground of the Tsaidam marshes, they were quite
unsuited for long marches over hard, stony terrain. (There was a yearly horse fair at Sining, to
which buyers came from all over eastern Tibet and western China.)
Tangut horses, though, were thought as desirable as the Sining breed; they were hardy and
invaluable for long distances. The horses coming from Serthang were better adapted for stony
5. Hor province (eastern Tibet). This district produced small hardy ponies, flawed by the
possession of heavy heads, hard mouths and general clumsiness on the move. Not speedy or
pretty - the Hor pony was a caravan animal, well suited to stony trails; they were never shod and
this made them extremely surefooted and invaluable on bad mountain tracks. The Hor-pa were
nomadic hunters. They let their ponies graze in summer, and in winter when snow covered the
grazing they nourished them with dried or powdered meat (!), tsampa (puffed and ground barley),
and tea bricks . . . this last being the standard tea used by the Hor nomads. The tea bricks were
shipped from China, and were low-quality tea-leaves, unground, and with twigs still mixed in;
they were stamped into the form of a brick, and sold all over Tibet and Mongolia.
One traveler, Bonvalot, reported that his small Tibetan horses were carnivorous and fed upon raw
flesh. Others (Sven Hedin, for instance) observed the same: that the Tibetan nomads fed their
Mongol and Tibetan nomads alike employed a peculiar method of catching their horses. They did not use lassos; instead they crawled toward the horse, took hold of its right front leg, rubbed their hand up along the horse's leg and neck until they could reach and seize the bridle. With a local horse, this is the only way to reach and catch the animal.
Here is George Roerich's description of a party of nomads met during a blizzard: they were
astride small shaggy ponies, the men with crude masks covering their faces, with large fur bonnets
which completely protected the head and ears and were held by strings tied under the chin. Long
unkempt tresses of black hair dangled around the men's faces. They wore dirty grey sheepskin
coats, and high boots of thick Tibetan cotton cloth; they carried long swords and matchlocks;
large ornamented cartridge belts were worn crosswise over their coats. Sometimes there was a
woman along, and she would be dressed exactly like the men except her coat would be longer and
she would carry no arms. During hunting expeditions the nomads lived on tsampa-flour mixed
with brick-tea, along with the raw meat of the animals they killed; they carried no tents, but slept
under the open sky, in a strange crouching position, while their hardy little ponies stood nearby
with tails turned to the wind. Often the sleepers were completely buried with snow by morning!
The expedition had to guard their horses and mules against local robbers. Roerich thought that
the best protection against theft was to dock the horses' tail; according to popular opinion
throughout central Asia, a horse with a short tail was the most ignominious of creatures and no
self-respecting man would be seen on one. In one case in Mongolia, a band of horse thieves
attacked a drove of horses belonging to a Russian merchant. The best horses in the bunch had
their tails cut in cavalry fashion and the thieves refused to touch them, but drove away all the
other horses with long tails and manes.
6. Central Tibet. The expedition never reached this region. However Roerich saw a number of
fine riding-horses of exceptional stature, which were said to be bred there.
Main source: Trails to Inmost Asia, by George N. Roerich
Horses of the Caucasus Mountains:
To take a horse from pasture, trim off the fat brought about by inactivity and get it into fit
condition, drenching the beast's belly with cold water was the most recommended means . . .
while at the same time, of course, with judicious feeding and increasing amounts of riding. At
first the horse would be left two hours after working before being fed; later, it would be allowed
to eat along the road or else fed immediately after arrival. Horses were not allowed to drink
while working, and when on the road they would be permitted only salted water at night. (This
stood in contrast to the Russian custom of never watering a horse except while it was being
worked; horses were not watered standing. Hansom-cab drivers in St. Petersburg were in the
habit of coming to a complete halt at regular intervals, in order to water their horses at the public
troughs--while their passengers sat fuming at the delay..) To ready their horses for raiding,
Tchetchen tribesmen used to subject them to about two months' strenuous toughening; then off
they went, to swoop down upon the Cossack settlements which were the home of their enemies.
Many of these horses (according to one Russian general, who presumably spoke from bitter
experience) could carry their masters a hundred miles between dawn and sunset.
At Grozny in the heart of Tchetchen territory, twice yearly in June and September, there would be
fairs at which horses (among other things) were sold. People from all around came to buy and
sell: men of the wild back forests and mountain fastnesses, Koumuiks and Cossacks and Tartars,
along with German colonists and Persian and Russian merchants, and of course many, many
Tchetchen tribesmen. In the horse-quarters of these Grozny fairs, one could find beasts gathered
from half the Caucasus tribes--hundreds of animals. Most of these were poor-looking creatures,
but looks were no gauge of quality. A horse which would have been sneered at in England
would likely turn out able to carry a rider from dawn to dusk untiring, on fodder no English horse
would touch, and then the same horse would pass the night unsheltered, in pouring rain and sub-zero temperatures, without taking harm from these harsh conditions. Before 1950, a good
saddle-horse could be bought there for less than 200 roubles (or twenty English pounds).
Most of the horses for sale at the Grozny fair were brought in by a tribe called the Karanogais, a
small group of Islamic nomads living on the steppe somewhat north of Terek, between Mozdok
and Kizliar. (They were accounted to descend from the Blue Horde.) They would put on an
exciting show of cutting out wild horses which had never even been ridden, lassoing and throwing
them, and mounting them bare-backed; they were as good as cowboys any day.
These same Caucasian mountain horses were used to fording rivers which would carry off and
drown beasts bred in less mountainous countries. They were very surefooted, used to crossing
over loose stones and rolling rocks in stream-beds, and could cross wide stretches of saddle-deep
icy water. They could also climb up and down bridle-paths so steep that their riders felt safest
when dismounted and leading their mounts on a long loose-rein. They could cross crevasses on
long planks--that is, if their riders dragged them over by main force.
The mountain people used sneeze-wort (Veratrum album), as a medicine to kill maggots in
cankering wounds on their horses.
The best strain of horseflesh in all the Caucasus was the Shaulokh breed. Klaproth wrote about
this breed in 1808: "Their horses wander at liberty in the meadows and never enter a stable. They
are sold to the Russians and the Georgians. They are of middle height and the majority bay or
dapple grey; I have never seen a black among them. The best breed, called Shalokh, has a
particular brand on the flank; it belongs to the family Tau-Sultan and numbers no more than 200
head, mostly bays - whites are extremely rare. The horses are always out at grass, in summer on
the mountains between the Fiag, the Ar-don, and the Ours-don (Psekoush in Tcherkess), the rest
of the year on the Terek, between Tatartoup and Djoulat. A foal is held equal as a gift to one
slave- but the theft of one of these horses is punished no more severely than that of any other
object or article belonging to the prince; that is to say, by a fine of nine times the value, with one
slave thrown in. Really good horses are by no means so numerous amongst the Tcherkess as is
commonly supposed; so that one may have to pay as much as Rs. 100 for one of the best; for
others, however, as little as from 15 to 25 roubles."
In the first half of the twentieth century, Shaulokh horses were still obtainable, and they were
marked with a brand like a circle with three hooks jutting out of it, that is a triskelion; the hooks
pointed counterclockwise. Legitimate Shaulokhs marked with this brand were being bred only by
one man, Abdul Kogolkin. (Horses with forged Shaulokh brands could also be bought, but they
were inferior; besides, the penalty for forging a brand was death.) The true Shaulokh horse was
marked by its large liquid eyes--this was their chief bodily characteristic--through which shone a
mild yet indomitable spirit; the genuine Shaulokh's eyes were unmistakable. According to Pallas,
true Shaulokhs were also marked by their hooves, which were quite full and without frog.
John Baddeley, who examined Shaulokhs in the Caucasus, also collected this folk-tale of their
origin. Once, long before, a group of Tchetchens went raiding among the Kabardan, with a
Kabardan himself as guide; they drove off a herd of Kabardan horses, and at daybreak
(presumably, with hot pursuit on their heels) they took refuge in the impenetrable jungle reed-beds
of the Terek river. Presently, a wild stallion appeared out of the reeds:
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttocks, tender hide,
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack
and covered a particularly ill-favored mare of the stolen herd. All day long, the Tchetchens hid in
the reeds. At last night fell and it was safe to move on. So they dismissed their Kabardan guide
(who had helped them because he wished to avenge some slight dealt him by his own tribe) and
they asked him what reward he wanted. "Give me the mare," he said, pointing to the ill-favored
one, "that scraggy mare, I want her--and in any case, she's too poor to run with you, headlong all
the way back to Tchetchnia." They looked at the mare and had to agree. So, laughing, they
rode on . . . and left him behind, with the mare. Home he went, and in due course the mare
foaled, and from her foal sprang the whole superlative breed of Shaulokh horses.
A Shaulokh horse, the Caucasus tribesmen said in the 1900's, was especially valued for raiding.
Their speed and endurance were great, their courage and devotion even greater. No matter how
wounded or weary, they said, a Shaulokh horse would always bear his rider home.
A writer named Guldenstadt (Reisen, edited by Pallas, vol ii, p 21) in 1773, described a herd of
three thousand mares and their foals and stallions, the name of their breed being Beslan. These
horses were white and brown in color, and the mares were branded on the left flank. They
belonged to the twelve princes of Great Kabarda, and Guldenstadt describes them coming to drink
water from the salt-lake Tambi near Besh-tau.
Among other breeds were the Tram horses, which seemingly came from a Christian village called
Tram or Tramkt, on the north slope of a mountain called Maschuka. (Besh-tau, or the Five
Mountains, is also close to the village of Tram.) Of these, Klaproth again wrote: "Ptolemy,
who, seemingly, knew them well, calls them <the Five Mountains> the Horse Mountains, an
appropriate name, as the best breeds are still found there, especially that called trampkt, which is
branded on one flank with M, and is esteemed next to the Shalokh."
Source: John Baddeley, The Rugged Flanks of Caucasus (1940)
Horses of Morocco: the desert horses from the south side of the Atlas mountains were used in
ostrich-hunting. 'Wind-drinkers' was the name for fine horses there, and these horses were well-fed by their riders, on dates and camel's-milk, and would fly through the sand after the fleeing
ostriches; the hunters always used the same tactics, spreading out like a fan and striving to join
ranks and drive the birds into a circle, or else harrying them into a marsh or stream (or some other
natural trap); while to knock the ostriches down, the Arabs would fling clubs. This was exactly
the same way ostriches were hunted by the Pehuelches in Patagonia, save that the Pehuelches
used bolas instead of clubs.
Saddling and care: a 'flower' was the word for a raw sore on a horse's back. The Gauchos of
South America said it helped a horse if the rider dismounted now and then and lifted the saddle,
loosening the girth so that air got between the saddle and its wearer's back; but then the Gauchos
girthed their mounts very tightly. Moors and Spaniards and Mexicans (and most other riders
from the south) absolutely disagreed with this view, saying that the saddle should never be lifted
until the journey was over and the horse absolutely cool, on pain of saddlesores. The Arabs also
said that a man on a journey should dismount as seldom as he can, for dismounting and
remounting tired the horse more than a league of bad road; a good rider should be in the saddle
the whole march through.
The Arab riders of Morocco scarcely girthed their horses at all. Their saddles rested on seven
(by ancient tradition) thick saddle-clothes, firstly six of various colors stitched together, and
finally a seventh white cloth over the rest for cleanliness' sake; this last cloth could be taken off
and used as a blanket for the rider. The saddle itself stayed in place more through the breast-plate than the girth-strap. Also Arab riders (though fond of their horses) treated them foolishly
and badly: sometimes cramming them with food, at other starving them; they let their hooves
grow too long, spoil their legs by too-tight hobbling, and if on a journey their horse tired they ride
him till he dropped. (This last being the opinion of non-Arab observers.) And when the
Moroccan horsemen rode forth, they must have made a brave sight: perched upon red saddles,
with long silver-mounted guns across their knees, and their long haiks (said to be the African
descendent of the toga, and apparently they looked just like togas) waving in the breeze.
What was known as the fantasia--called in Morocco the Powder Play or lab-el-barod--used to be
practiced both in Morocco and Algeria. In both places, it was the imitation of an Arab tribal
battle. In order to 'play the powder', the horsemen would rush forward, firing their rifles in
parties or singly, stand up in the saddle, fire under their horses' necks and over their tails, fling
their guns up and catch them, and perform all the tactics their ancestors did with javelin and spear.
This dance was still played in the East with reeds at the turn of the last century; it prevailed in
Spain till the middle of the eighteenth century under the name of the 'Juego de Canas'.
The Moroccan horses themselves sometimes ran up to about sixteen hands tall, with tails
sweeping to the ground and manes which in older horses fell to the point of the shoulder. It was
a mark of their Barb breed that their tails were all set rather low. Otherwise, they had large
prominent eyes, large heads, long thin and intelligent ears, short backs and round barrels; they
were well ribbed-up, straight in the pastern, and seemed to be always in motion. Their feet were
small and high, as a result of being bred on stony ground.
Colors of horses: a light cream steed was called by the Spaniards 'huevo de pato' ie duck's egg.
The black horse was called zaino in Spain, and said to be bad-tempered; Arabs called him el Dum,
'best for show yet bad in temper'; a black with no white hairs about him was especially ill-tempered - 'do not ride a black horse to war,' they said, 'for when the sun shines hot and water is
short he will not be able to endure and will leave his rider in the power of the enemy.' However
the 'black without moon or stars' - without any white hairs - was a horse for kings, except that he
feared rocky ground.
The chestnut when he flew beneath the sun, was like the wind. Chestnut was the color favored
by the Prophet and thus is to be desired of all good Moslems and good horsemen. The roan horse
was a pool of blood; his rider would be overtaken, but will never overtake. The light chestnut
(Zfar el Jehudi they called him, the Jew's yellow) was not for men to ride, for he brought ill luck.
The white was a color for princes, but not for war; for when riding a white horse, if you advanced
from afar, your enemy was warned of your advent. No wise man rode a horse with a white spot
in front of the saddle, for such a one was as fatal as the most violent poison. Equally, no prudent
man bought a horse with a white face and white stockings, for such horses carried their own
shrouds along with them.
The bay horse, though, was the pearl of all colors. A bay horse is the hardiest and most sober of
all horses; the Emir Abd-el-Kader in his 'Remarks on Horsemanship' says that if a man tells you a
horse jumped down a precipice without injury, then ask if he was a bay, and if they answer yes -
A good horse in the Atlas mountains of North Africa would sell for about one hundred and fifty
dollars, no more. In Morocco, a good mule was actually considered much more useful and
valuable than a horse; an accomplished pacer mule often fetched two or three hundred dollars.
But in mountain districts like the Atlas a mule was far better than any horse, and on mountain
roads his daily journey was almost a third longer than a horse's. On flat going the horse would
beat the mule (no mule can match a horse's pace on the plain) but on a rough road, the mule's
pace would be much the faster of the two.
Horses of India: the following information was taken from Tavernier's Travels in India, first published in 1675.
Tavernier was a jeweler and merchant who made six trips to India. He saw and described the Emperor's stables in Jahanabad. The horses within cost from 3,000 to 10,000 ecus each, and Tavernier considered them very fine. Their stable was a gallery along one side of the Divan court, elevated about six inches and approached by several doors. In front of each door was a screen of split bamboos all woven with twisted silk resembling flowers, very elaborate and tricky work. These screens were meant to keep flies from the horses, and each horse also had a groom to tend it and another who did nothing but fan it. The floor of the gallery was spread with beautiful carpets, which were taken up each evening so that the horses' bedding (this was dried dung somewhat pounded and powdered, as was also the custom in Persia) could be spread. The horses were imported into India from Persia and Arabia, driven across the Hindu Kush in droves or else shipped by sea; there are many references to this trade, which must have been carried on for several centuries; it seems to have been difficult or outright impossible to breed horseflesh in the Indian climate. In any case, the Emperor's horses were fed neither hay or oats. Each morning, each horse was given two or three balls of wheaten flour and butter, about as large as a penny roll; according to Tavernier's account, it took several months to accustom a horse to this fodder, and the groom had to hold the horse's tongue in one hand and with the other force the ball down its throat. In the sugar-cane or millet season the horses were fed some of these substances at midday. Then about an hour before sunset, they were given a measure of chick- peas which their groom crushed between two stones and steeped in water.
Common horses on the Indian roads were fed with crushed peas steeped in water, a measure every evening,
and in the morning got about two pounds of coarse black sugar (it looked like wax) kneaded with an equal
weight of flour and a pound of butter. The grooms made small balls out of this mixture and shoved them
down the horses' throats, again by main force since no other means apparently sufficed. (And no wonder!)
Afterward they washed the horses' mouths out, especially the teeth which become covered with the stuff.
During the day the horses were also fed grass, which was torn up in the fields roots and all, and then
washed so that no earth remained.
Horses in Persia: here are a few quotations from a book first published in 1813, by one John
He had this to say about the Persian cavalry: ". . . The present King, as an extreme effort, might
probably . . . be able to collect together a force of one hundred and fifty, or perhaps two hundred
thousand men. To their cavalry, which is excellent, the rulers of Persia have hitherto, with
success, solely entrusted the defence of their dominions. Their arms are a scymetar, a brace of
pistols, a carabin, and sometimes a lance, or a bow and arrow, all of which they alternately use, at
full speed, with the utmost skill and dexterity. The pistols are either stuck in the girdle or in the
holsters of the saddle; the carabin or the bow is slung across the shoulder; and the lance, which is
light and shafted with bamboo, is wielded in the right hand. There is one great defect inherent in
the constitution of their cavalry, a defect which cannot fail or proving highly detremental to its
success in the field, and of repressing the natural impetuosity and courage of the troops. His
arms and horse, in general, belong not to the public but the individual: his whole property is often
vested in these articles: and as he receives no compensation in the event of losing them, his whole
attention is naturally turned towards their preservation. This single circumstance, as must be
obvious, may often be conductive of the most disastrous consequences . . . They are not so
gaudy in the trappings of their horses as the Turks; their saddles and brides are more adapted for
use than shew; and the Arabian bit and stirrup were thrown aside, by the orders of Nadir Shah, for
a plain snaffle and a light iron stirrup. The saddle is also much more light than that in use
amongst the Turks or Mamalukes, but somewhat too short in the seat, and inconvenient to a
person who has not been accustomed to it. They ride with very short stirrups; but have,
notwithstanding, a wonderful command over their horses, and can stop them in an instant in the
midst of their career. Their cavalry, like all irregular horse, are incapable of acting in unison, or
of making any serious impression on a body of troops disciplined in the European fashion: but as
their evolutions and movements are extremely rapid, and each individual is aware of the part he
ought to act, they are nearly as formidable, when broken and dispersed, as when united.
". . . The horses of this country, although neither so swift nor so beautiful as those of Arabia, are
larger, more powerful, and all things considered, better calculated for cavalry. There are several
breeds of horses, but the most valuable is that called the Turkoman. In the eyes of an English
jockey, however, these horses would hardly seem to possess a single good point. They are from
fourteen hands and a half to sixteen hands high, have long legs and little bone under the knee,
spare carcases and large heads. But what renders the Turkoman horses so valuable to the natives
is their size, and extraordinary powers of supporting fatigue; for they have been known to travel
nine hundred miles in eleven successive days. The Arabian blood has also been introduced into
this country, and I have seen horses that were bred in Dushtistan, which, in point of speed and
symmetry might emulate the most admired coursers of Nidjid. Their usual food is chopped straw
and barley: the bed is made of dung, which is dried and beat into powder, and regularly every
morning exposed to the sun. No people are fonder, or take more care of their horses, than the
Persians. They are clothed with the greatest attention, according to the climate and season of the
year, and in the warm weather are put into the stable during the day, but taken out at night. The
horses here are not so subject to internal disorders as in England; but their heels are invariably
contracted, from the badness of shoeing.
"Next in estimation to the horses we may reckon the mules, which, with asses and camels,
constitute the only mode of conveyance in Persia. The mules are small but finely proportioned,
carry a great weight, and those that are intended for the saddle are taught a delightful amble,
which carries the rider at the rate of five or six miles an hour. They seldom tire; but must be well
fed, and require almost twice as much food as a horse. The camels of Khorassan are not inferior
to those of Arabia. Both are here in use; but the western parts of Persia are far too mountainous
for this animal."
Elsewhere Kinnear describes what he calls the horses of the Euphrates, renowned since time
immemorial. "They are of a small size, seldom exceeding fourteen hands three inches high, are
never known to be vicious, extremely docile, and of rather a sluggish nature, until heated and put
upon their mettle. It is then, and only then, that the value of this noble animal can be estimated:
and when we view the beauty and symmetry of his form, his delicate limbs, the fineness of his
skin, through which his swelling veins seem to force themselves, his tail erect, the fire sparkling in
his eyes, his nostrils distended, and his long mane flowing over his neck and forehead, there are
few who would not acknowledge the blood-horse of Arabia to be the most perfect of the brute
creation. They are neither so swift nor so strong as their descendants in England, but capable of
undergoing astonishing fatigue; and I myself was once under the necessity of riding a colt, four
years of age, about ninety miles, without dismounting from his back. At the end of the journey I
found him almost as fresh as at the commencement, and for a fortnight afterwards he travelled at
the rate of forty miles a day, without losing his flesh." The best Arabians were those from the
interior of the Nejid desert.
Source: A Geographical Memoir of the Persian Empire, by John Macdonald Kinneir
Horses of the Turkomans, found for sale in the bazaars of Daragez (by Lt. Col. C. E. Stewart,
who passed through the area in the nineteenth century). These would be the same Turkoman
breed as described by Kinnear. Lt. Col. Stewart was posing as an Indian horse-trader, and
examined several hundred of the local horses. The horses were not promising at first glance, he
wrote; they were all leggy, long-backed and long-necked, but when the feats of endurance they
could perform were seen, they gained estimation in the rider's eye. They were surprisingly
hairless, with very little mane (and what they have, was always carefully trimmed off) and scanty
tails, and their skin is very soft and thin, with extremely fine hair. Bald patches on them were
common, especially just behind the saddle where the saddle-bag was fastened; if a patch of hair
was rubbed off it grew back very, very slowly, and if rubbed off twice it probably never grew back
They were never stabled, only picketed out in the open, but always very carefully clothed and
cared for. First they were covered with a thick felt horse-cloth, such as English horses wore.
Over this an immense piece of felt was fastened, covering the horse's ears and whole body down
to the hocks, and secured with a long roller passed three times round the body. Even when the
horse went out on raids (and its rider would manage with nothing save the long sheepskin coat he
wore all day and slept in at night) the Turkoman mount was fully clad in its felts. (They catch
cold easily in the winter season, the Turkomans said to Stewart.)
In camp, horses were usually fed on barley and chopped straw. The Turkomans would give them
almost anything they ate themselves, though--for example, the boiled rice and melted butter of a
pilaf. Stewart said when he was in India and had ridden his mounts hard, at stops along the way
he fed them each a pound of flour and coarse sugar plus half a pound of clarified butter made into
balls; it kept them strong and he thought it more easily digested by the horse than corn. He had
heard that Turkomans fed their horses balls of barley-meal mixed with sheep's-tail-fat; the local
people were unfamiliar with this story--but all over the East, horses required to feats of great
stamina were fed balls of flour mixed with sheep's-tail-fat or else clarified butter. The
Turkomans on foray gave their horses little besides whatever local grazing is to be found, but
always some grain once daily. And sometimes, when they required their horses to make a great
effort, they gave them an opium pill first.
They were not fast horses; their best gait was a quick walk, and they had a long, cantering pace;
they never trotted, Stewart says. But . . . he had heard of them covering 200 miles in three days,
carrying a rider and all his food and horse-fodder; and 360 miles in six days, doing the same. He
once heard of a Turkoman horse making 100 miles in 24 hours, with a rider and full tack. He
himself judged that a really good horse could go 60 miles a day for several days at a stretch,
eating very little food; anything more is exaggeration: "There are no milestones in the desert, and
all Orientals are prone to exaggeration."
Source: The Country of the Tekke Turkomans and the Tejend and Murghab Rivers, by Lt. Col.
C.E. Stewart (19th century).
Horses of the Tekeh tribe, who in the 1800s possessed the whole country west of the Caspian to
the southern Atock mountains; the Tekeh were described by Sir Henry Rawlinson as owning a
very fine breed of horses. "If properly officered, they would probably form a magnificent body of
cavalry. Their horses were perhaps unequalled by any others in the world; they were not small,
like Arabs, for he had seen some 16 hands high; they resembled English horses, but with a little
more bone, and the distances they covered in a day were quite astounding."
Source: discussion on the report "The Road to Merv" by Sir H. Rawlinson, presented to the Royal
Geographic Society (19th century).
Horses of Badakhshan:
Marco Polo made these animals famous merely by writing about them, and this is what he had to say (it comes right after his stirring description of the local porcupines):
". . . And again you may know that very good horses are bred there and they are great
runners and large and wear no irons on their feet though there arc many stones there; and
the reason is because of the good, hard, and strong feet which they have and good bones.
And they go in the mountains & on bad roads always, and do not hurt their feet, and the
men gallop with them over the mountain slopes where other animals could not gallop, nor
would they dare to gallop there. And it was said to him that no long time past there used to
be found in this province horses which bad descended from the seed of king Alexandre's
horse named bucefalo, which were all born with a horn, with a mark, on the forehead like
bucefalo; because mares bad conceived from that very horse.
"But afterwards the whole breed of them was destroyed. And the breed of them was only in
the power of an uncle of the king, and when he refused to allow the king to have any of
them he was put to death by him; and the wife out of spite for the death of the husband
destroyed the said breed, and so it is lost."
A Chinese tale many centuries earlier, speaking of 'this same country of Tokharistan' told of a
cave on a mountain north of the capital, which was frequented by a wonderful stallion of
supernatural origin. There the people every year brought their mares, and the famous breed of
horses called Ku was descended from the stallion's get.
Marco Polo, Description of the World
Horses of the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan: an inferior breed, worth far less than the steeds of the
Turkimen or even those of Bokhara. Kunduz horses were small, bred for endurance not for
speed, and with fore and hindquarters of remarkable size. One year from the day when a foal is
thrown, it was mounted and ridden hard; then left unsaddled and unworked for two more years;
then broken in as per usual. The horses were shod on the fore feet only, and the shoes were a
perfect circle in shape; hillmen shod their horses with horn from the mountain sheep, but such
wear occurred that the horses--if worked--had to be reshod every five days or so.
Sources: Journey to the Source of the Oxus, by Captain John Wood (19th century).
Horses of Egypt:
The Mamaluks were the cavalry of Egypt. They excelled with the javelin, and carried "well-tempered blades of Damascus, with glittering undulations"; to test a Damascus blade's edge, they
would take a large cushion stuffed with feathers, place it about at the height of a man and without
any support--so that the slightest touch would topple it to the ground--and cleave it in two with a
single sword-stroke. (Sonnini--the source for this description--saw this himself, not once but
often.) They were virtually raised in the saddle; a Mamaluk child scarcely old enough to walk
(and clad in enormous pantaloons, to boot), put astride an Arab charger, would gallop backwards
and forwards with astonishing swiftness, and wheel about in every conceivable direction. "All
their movements, whether of approach, retreat, or change of disposition, are made with the
rapidity of lightning; and when the velocity of their career seems to have separated them, they are
in a moment again collected. No people better understand how to shew themselves to advantage
in the management of a horse. The reputation of the Turkish cavalry is well know, but it will not
bear a comparison with that of the Mamaluks. The Turks do not possess an equal degree of
agility and grace; and in the capital of Egypt they were afraid to appear on horseback before a
party of these young men, whose railery they seldom escaped."
Their coursers were bridled with a simple snaffle and a single rein. The saddles were almost of
the same shape as those of Turkey: the Turkish saddles were made high before and behind, but
Mamaluk saddles were even higher in front, so that the Mamaluks were supported to waist-level
both before and behind. The stirrups were long metal boxes, big enough to hold the entire foot;
these were also larger than Turkish stirrups. The pointed corners of the stirrups served the office
of spurs. These stirrups were worn very short, and never used in mounting; Mamaluks mounted
off a stone or block, always on the off side of the horse.
The reputation of Egyptian horses was less famous than that of Arabian steeds, Barbary steeds,
Turkish or Persian mounts . . . and travelers published disparaging accounts of their mettle. (The
French government sent equerries to the Levant in 1706 to buy horses; not only did they buy
every sort except Egyptian, they were under orders to do so.) Egyptian horses were supposed
to lack bottom and spirit: "Ninety out of a hundred," Maillet wrote, "will be found either fired or
lame. They could not stand the heavy roads and pavements of Europe." (Maillet, Description
de l'Egypte.) But Sonnini called them true sons of the Arabians, descended from them, different
enough from them to constitute a distinct breed . . . but second only to Arab horses. "In fact, the
horses of Egypt . . . are the handsomest in the world. A majestic stature, the head well set on,
eyes full of fire, wide nostrils, a fine forehand, the crupper round and plump, legs slender and
tendinous, a light and sure step, proud and noble attitudes; in short, an admirable proportion
between all parts, give them a most beautiful appearance. They are equally full of fire, vivacity
and vigour; but as if beauty and elegance were incompatible with strength, these showy horses are
not so strong as the Arabians which are found in the same countries; and which, as is well known,
are the first among the numerous family of quadrupeds made by man his most favorite
companions. Those of the Egyptian breed are not capable of performing so long journeys as the
Araban coursers; and more delicate, as they are more elegant, would be sooner jaded, were they
employed on services as immoderate in their length, as in the privations by which they are
Sonnini wrote: "However, if the Arabian horses are the first in the world, those of Egypt may
claim the second rank. They are distinguished for the same spirit; and their paces, which are
equally active, are at the same time less fatiguing to the rider. The Arabian horse possesses, in an
eminent degree, qualities most useful to man, inexhaustible strength, prodigious speed, and
inconceivable temperance. The Egyptian horse has the same qualities, but in an inferior degree;
yet he compensates for the deficiency by his stately motions, his proud step, and his beautiful
make, the individual parts of which attract and captivate the beholder. The Arabian horse will
always render more essential services; but the Egyptian will be more gratifying to the vanity of his
The Egyptian horses had just two paces: a stately walk, and a gallop with a long stroke. Their
riders regarded the trot as an ignoble and vulgar thing, with which it was better to leave their
mounts unacquainted. A running Egyptian horse, if asked to halt, would stop short at full speed.
(Only a horse of perfect conformation could habitually do this, without ruining its legs almost at
once.) When a Mamaluk rider dismounted, his mount was led about by a groom till he
remounted; and no matter how short the distance the horse was ridden, it was not returned to its
stable till it had been completely cooled. The food of the Mamaluk horses was chopped straw
and barley. When in their stalls, their heads were left in perfect liberty; this saved them from the
scarring of the head sometimes seen in European horses, which are haltered day and night. They
were kept on their feet by a cord, fastened to a stake fixed behind them in the ground. The
European horses were shod with thick, heavy shoes; the Egyptian horses wore light semicircles of
iron, not recurved at the ends, and held on with small nails. Sonnini says it was a well-known
fact, that in hot climates the horses had a harder hoof than in the colder north; besides, in Egypt
there were no paved or miry roads.
The Arabian cavalry was composed of mares. Turkish and Egyptian cavalry, however, was
entirely formed of stallions: stone-horses, in Sonnini's term. This was something he thought
would astonish all European military gentlemen. The cavalry of the north was mostly made up
from geldings, because the horses were unmanageable otherwise . . . however, it was common
opinion that horses in hot climates were more docile than those in cold ones, and especially that
stallions which were perfectly biddable in summer, often became perfectly wild once winter set it.
It was not the Egyptian custom to geld horses. Nevertheless, Sonnini often saw stallions packed
together, en masse in narrow boats, and transported for several hours; they would patiently stand
without stirring, even though they were surrounded by other stallions. Equally, they were
perfectly docile, easily mounted, and though utterly spirited, a joy to ride; also, if their riders
chose to dismount, they could simply place them against a wall and leave them untied, and they
would usually stand and wait, perfectly quiet.
Arabian horses: there were conflicting reports given of these. This was because there were in
fact two kinds, so different that they appeared to spring from separate breeds. Arabs owned by
townsfolk were stronger, and carried more flesh. Arabs ridden by Bedouin, though, were "the
indefatigable companions of men who pass their life in traversing the scorching sands, are satisfied
with a few handfuls of dried beans once in the four-and-twenty hours, and can travel three days
without quenching their thirst, in spite of the fiery rays of a burning sun, and the suffocating heat
reflected from the ground over which they make their rapid excursions and journies. In this
continual succession of fatigue and abstinence, they preserve incomparable vigour and spirit; but
their meagre condition, the consequences of severe toil, and very scanty diet, so entirely changes
their natural appearance, that their breed cannot easily be discovered."
Source: C. S. Sonnini, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (1800)
Horses of Mongolia:
Hsiao tsou and ta tsou, the small amble and the great amble: these were the two highly important
gaits which set the seal of perfection upon a Mongol horse. These gaits were abnormal for a
horse, but much sought after by all central Asia peoples and also by the Chinese. They make for
an absolutely smooth and level journey for the rider, allowing him to sit at ease on a saddle
padded with huge cushions, while at the same time his pony moved with an appearance of dash
In the big amble, the two legs of the near side were put forward, then the two legs of the off side;
this was really nothing more glorious than a fancified waddle, but great speed could be obtained.
A pony could be trained to it by linking the two legs of each side with rope shackles, so that they
moved together or not at all. A natural pacer, though, was valued more highly than a trained one.
The disadvantage of the great amble was that the pony, when ridden hard, is apt to go shoulder-lame. And once he had done so, his rider was never certain when the disability will reoccur.
The small amble had no resemblance to the great amble. During it, apparently, the pony cantered
in single time on his forehand; while simultaneously, he trotted behind in double time. There were
a number of variations on this gait, each with a technical name. The gait itself was very
comfortable for the rider, though rarely faster than a normal trot, and the pony did tend to tire
itself with a lot of wasted motion. Thus it was not a sound gait for distance travel.
Source: Owen Lattimore, Desert Road to Turkestan and High Tartary
Horses in the ancient world:
To train a horse to high-stepping action (such as the Greeks favored) one exercised them with
weighted circlets upon their legs. The Parthian method of training the special horses called
trepidarii in common speech (or tottonarii in military language): "On dry level ground a course is
marked out between rows of filled gabions, fifty paces long and five paces broad, to resemble a
stadium. This is roughened with furrows, which serve as obstacles to the horses when they
compete in speed. In this space the horse is exercised frequently. To being with he cannot help
striking his feet, both fore and hind, against the furrows, and sometimes he either falls or stumbles
so badly that he seems to fall. Later he learns by painful experience and picks his feet up higher
and carries his rider smoothly by bending his knees and fetlock joints. Moreover he learns to
make his steps very short, in order to put his hooves down between the furrows, for if he tries to
extend them he strikes against the ridges. And by moving with very short steps the horse carries
his rider more comfortably and looks more beautiful in his action." These mounts apparently had
a smooth gait that suited the rider's pleasure--not an amble or pace, but a fast, short-stepping,
high-actioned trot such as is still displayed by the horses of Asiatic Turkey. It is quite smooth for
a rider. Source: Vegetius, ca 400 AD.
Thracian horses: "base, ugly, low-shouldered, ewe-necked, flat-footed, bad walkers, worse
gallopers..." These were horses which appeared as if they had been compounded of all possible
Odrysian horses: a little better than the common run of Thracian mounts, and large, but hard to
The Sarmatian horses of the north were large.
Horses of Hyrcania: with projecting eyes, they were given to shying, but waited for the rider if he
fell off; they made good war horses, and were fed upon hay rather than grain.
Earliest known description of the Arab horse, by Timotheus of Gaza at about the sixth century
AD: the Arab horses near to the mountain of the land of India were of a good size (he wrote),
usually red-bay, carrying their necks high, with faces regular and well proportioned, carrying their
heads close to their riders' faces, haughty and spirited, having a superabundant pride, very keen,
swift, with supple limbs, giving themselves wholely to the ardor of the course, bounding lightly
rather than galloping, with compact flanks and lean bodies, their spines hollow (ie, a well-muscled
and square spine, such as is most comfortable for bareback riding - this is the 'double back' much
sought after in antiquity - At duplex agitur per lumbos spina says Virgil of his ideal horse). The
Arabian was unwearied in the heat, rather rejoicing in the sun; his coat was beautiful, his diet
simple, his bearing dignified. He crossed obstacles without being forced.
Elsewhere it was noted that the Persian charger made a good heavy cavalry horse, but when
matched against the light fleet horses of the Arabs, they were totally outclassed and unable to
come close to their nimble opponents.
In other words, on the eve of the Muslim revolution the Arabs had developed a magnificent breed
of light horses; these were the ancestors of the modern Arab, and probably superior to any other
breed in the world. This breed had been developed in Arabia during the preceding seven or eight
centuries, before which time the horse was unknown there.
The central Asiatic pony, descended from Przewalski's horse, was described by Roman writers.
Ammianus Marcellinus called them tough but misshapen; their riders hardly ever dismounted (he
wrote) even easing nature on horseback, seating sideways like women. Vegetius wrote that they
had great hooked heads (ie, Roman noses), protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong
stiff necks, mane hanging below the knees, overlarge ribs, curved back, bushy tail, cannon bones
of great strength, small pasterns, wide-spreading hooves, hollow loins, body angular all over, with
no fat on the rump or the muscles of the back, their stature inclining to length rather than to
height, the belly drawn, the bones huge. The very thinness of these horses was pleasing, however,
and there was beauty even in their ugliness; Vegetius concluded that they were quiet and sensible
and bore wounds well. These ponies were comparable with the Scythian ponies on the north
shore of the Black Sea, with whom the Greeks were familiar.
Main source: Ancient Greek Horsemanship , by Anderson
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Last Updated on October 17, 2001 by Sylvia