In 1988, a survey at that time concluded that there were a total of 207 distinct breeds of horse. However, it is a difficult question to answer with precision because some of these breeds may be valid and some may not. It depends how you define the word ‘breed’. In some countries and districts the word means something different to what it means in developed countries or in the West. These different breeds may be no more than minor variations of better-known forms. Further, there may be some unregistered breeds which have evolved in a confined space (founder effect) which have not been recorded. But the figure 207 is a good starting point and some quick research tells me that it is about right as at 2021.
Of the 207 listed breeds, there are 104 sports horses, 36 working horses and 67 ponies. The definition of a pony is a horse that is less than 58 inches i.e. 14.2 hands high. This is part of a pony’s features which distinguishes them from horses.
Ponies are also closer to the primaeval ancestors of the horse. They have shorter legs in relation to the size of the body. In addition, they have a sturdy build being weight-for-weight stronger than horses.
Then there are also the miniature horses which are the ancient Caspian breed and the modern Falabella. The Caspian looks like tiny Arab horses. It is believed that they may be close to the original equine from which the Arab horses were developed many years ago. There are depictions of them in ancient Persian carvings dating from 2500 years ago. They remained in isolated areas where they were able to breed true which leaves them looking much as they did in the ancient world.
Some were brought out to the West in 1965 where they’ve been carefully bred and protected. They are a forerunner of what modern thoroughbreds looked like.
The Falabella is a modern Argentinian horse breed. It is essentially a miniaturised Shetland pony with more slender proportions. The smallest of the miniature horses are too lightweight to ride and are exotic pets.
They have an average height of 34 inches and are smaller than some dog breeds. The smallest adult Falabella was 15 inches to the shoulder while a great Dane is 40 inches. They should not be looked upon as freakish or highly abnormal because according to Dr. Desmond Morris, “the ancestor of all modern horses, Eohippus the Dawn Horse, that lived 50 million years ago, was only 10 inches high.
Today a Falabella foal measuring less than 12 inches at the shoulder provides us with a glimpse of the size of the horse’s remote ancestors.
At the other extreme there are working horses; the giants of the horse world. Some weight over a ton and are over 7 feet at the shoulder which is 21.1 hands. They provided the power on farms before the internal combustion engine. Their presence was much more environmentally friendly compared to today’s machinery. You see them in shows, spruced up and looking magnificent and much loved.
The largest and most varied group is the sports horses which include horseracing, hunting, showjumping, eventing or polo. Dr. Morris says that their future is assured because as the world becomes more urbanised and populated, the desire to connect with nature and the horse becomes more important. Horsemanship is flourishing. It is an antidote to the “mechanisation of life” according to Dr. Morris. The relationship with horses has become a symbol of humankind’s intimate relationship with animals and of the green and rural past, he states. Agreed and well said.
Russia leads the way with the greatest variety of breeds with at least 27. Britain comes second with 19. In France there are 18 horse breeds and in Germany and the USA there are 16 horse breeds in each of these countries. In Italy there are 10 horse breeds and in Poland nine. These are minimum figures because breeds are being developed all the time.
My thanks to Dr Desmond Morris for his book HORSEWATCHING, a must-read for those interested in horses.
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