There are more than three hundred breeds of horse and pony in the world – we’ll bet you have a favorite one out of all those breeds! Where did such diversity come from? If every breed descended from one little dog-sized creature, Eohippus, how did we end up with everything from the Shetland to the Shire?
Well, the answer is humans, of course — we know what we want, and we aren’t afraid to mix and match horses until we get it. But in the case of horses, different groups of humans wanted different sorts of horses. The light-boned horses of Mesopotamia, selected to draw chariots and to transport the high-born and wealthy, would develop into the Arabian horse. Much later in history, Europe caught on to the use of horses, and they wanted heavy horses for work and carrying knights into battle.
The result was two different strains of domesticated horse, the light and the draft, in Eurasia. The light Arabian horse would eventually be crossed with heavy European drafts to give us, over the centuries, today’s sport horses: Thoroughbreds, Saddlebreds, Morgans, Quarter Horses, Standardbreds, and so many others. Meanwhile, the draft breeds would be specialized, creating strains with particular colors and physical traits, such as the protective feathers on the Clydesdale and Shire, or the bright red chestnut coat of the Suffolk Punch.
Custom-made breeds seem modern, but selective breeding for particular traits is as traditional in horsemanship as red coats and black boots. The American Saddlebred is a wonderful example of this. The five-gaited Saddlebred is the result of centuries of selective breeding, from Libya, the Barbary Coast, and Western Europe. Natural pacers from northern Africa were brought into the European gene pool early in the history of the domesticated horse. They were light, tractable, and extremely comfortable with their ambling pace.
Eventually, the African bloodlines, crossed with Europe’s draft breeds, resulted in a relatively light horse that was imported to New England, where colonists selectively bred and developed the Narragansett Pacer — a fast and comfortable horse for the great distances and poor roads of the New World. The Pacer was then crossed with Thoroughbreds, creating a new breed about the time of the Revolutionary War – “the American Horse.” The American Horse would be refined with more Thoroughbred, Arabian, and Morgan blood — retaining its natural ambling gait but lightening its body — until the Kentucky Saddler was competing in horse shows.
Today called the American Saddlebred, this naturally five-gaited horse is a stunning example of selective breeding–the creation of a horse breed through centuries of out-crosses and fresh bloodlines.
What’s your favorite breed, and where did they come from? It’s likely a fascinating story.