Could your favorite breed of horse go extinct?
When we think of extinction, we typically picture wild animals who are suffering from loss of habitat. But it’s not just exotic or wild creatures that are in danger of disappearing forever. There are horse breeds who are on the brink. You could argue that they’re suffering from loss of habitat, too–lost jobs, barns, and pastures when the Industrial Age replaced horses with machines.
Many of the threatened or endangered horse breeds of the world were once working horses. The Cleveland Bay, the Hackney horse, the Suffolk Punch, and the Shire are all horses who are considered critically endangered by The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization which works to protect disappearing breeds of farm animals. These are breeds who were carefully bred over centuries to work as carriage or farm horses, their foundation sires and dams selected for strength, stamina, and performance, who were simply left out of work and unneeded after cars and tractors replaced them.
Luckily for many working breeds, they have strong supporters helping them hang on. In the 1960s, the British royal family stepped in to save the Cleveland Bay breed, which at the time had only six purebred stallions. Today, there is a growing interest in the Cleveland Bay both in North America and the United Kingdom. There is a revival of interest in uncommon breeds (and their potential uses) on both sides of the Atlantic, which has been good news for the Cleveland Bay and other unique horses, like the Shire.
Ponies are trying to make a comeback from the brink as well, especially British Native Ponies. With the exception of the Hackney pony, who is far more popular than its endangered horse cousin, several pony breeds are on the critical and threatened lists, including the Caspian, Newfoundland, Dales, Dartmoor, and Exmoor ponies. Enthusiasts have stepped up–the Fell Pony was resurrected from a low of four registered fillies in 1955. Hardy and tough, ponies prove their mettle in everything from driving to showing to endurance, making these endangered breeds worth fighting for.
Perhaps the most surprising horse breed on the threatened list is the Lipizzan. Arguably one of the most famous breeds in the world, the subject of Disney movies, children’s books, and countless photo shoots, Lipizzans are actually quite rare, with an estimated global population of just 3,000 horses. With herds decimated by wars, and body and action that aren’t fashionable in the modern dressage arena, this royal breed, founded in the sixteenth century, are still looking for a niche in the modern world.
Want to help conserve horse breeds on the brink? Organizations such as The Livestock Conservancy work to preserve heritage breeds of all livestock species. Each breed also has their own dedicated community. If you’re in the market for a horse for any discipline, visit their websites–perhaps your next horse will be part of the solution for an endangered breed. For breed associations, visit the Heritage Breed list at The Livestock Conservancy.