Horses have been depicted in cave paintings, rock art, and artefacts for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence shows the Caspian horse was around over 5,400 years ago. This might make it the world’s oldest breed – but other great horses challenge it for the title.
One thing’s for sure; the world’s oldest horse breeds have had to be tough and resilient. They had to endure war, conquest, harsh work, and cruel climates.
In this article, we’ll take a fascinating exploration through the steppes of Mongolia and stark Arabian deserts to icy Scandinavian fjords, and meet six incredible ancient horse breeds. We see how these amazing animals helped shaped early civilizations and how their descendants remain a crucial part of their cultures today.
We’ll also take a look at each breed as a potential modern riding partner.
The Caspian horse (also known as the Khazar horse) is a small and ancient breed that traces its origins back to the Caspian Sea region around Iran and Turkmenistan.
The Caspian horse has a rich history that unquestionably makes it one of the oldest horse breeds in existence. The oldest Caspian remains were discovered in 2011 and date back to 3,400 B.C. Based on this evidence, many consider the Caspian the world’s oldest equine.
Breed in brief:
- Caspian horses are small and compact, standing between 9 and 12 hands. They are one of the smallest horse breeds.
- The Caspian horse colouring is varied and includes bay, chestnut, black, grey, dun, and occasionally palomino.
- These horses were highly valued by ancient civilizations, including the Persians and Parthians, who appreciated their agility, speed, and versatility.
- Caspians experienced periods of decline and were once considered an endangered horse breed. In the 1960s, a small population of Caspian horses was rediscovered in northern Iran. There are dedicated efforts to preserve this remarkable and rarest of horse breeds.
Riding a Caspian Horse
These horses are small and compact, with a short back. They are smart, athletic, and often have a spirited nature.
Their size and intelligence make them excellent sports ponies for children. This oldest of horse breeds also has impressive jumping ability. They are talented dressage, driving, and pony racing performers.
The Mongolian horse is known to be one of the oldest horse breeds in the world. These resilient and adaptable survivors have been around for over 4,000 years.
As its name indicates, the horse is native to Mongolia, an Asian country located between Russia and China. Today there are an estimated 3 million Mongolian horses in the nation.
The breed has gone largely unchanged since Genghis Khan ruled the Mongol Empire in the 12th Century.
Mongolian horses were widely used as warhorses during the historical battles waged in the region.
Breed in brief:
- This is a short and stocky breed, standing between 12 and 14 hands.
- These horses come in a wide range of coat colours.
- They have long manes and tail hair. The hair is sometimes used to make ropes – and even violin bows.
- They live outdoors all year round and are pretty self-sufficient in terms of finding their own food.
- They have been linked to numerous other horse breeds, including the Icelandic horse, Japanese horse breeds, and the Akhal-Teke, as well as British horse breeds such as the Scottish Highland and Exmoor ponies.
Riding a Mongolian Horse
The horse breed was bred and developed to be saddled. Riding is a central part of Mongolian culture. In modern nomadic communities, kids are in the saddle at three years old!
These horses are pony-sized, but they are tough and mighty little beasts. They run fast and low to the ground, and are often used for racing in the region.
The Mongolian horse is an independent character; entirely comfortable and instinctive under saddle. They are well-adapted to ride in a variety of conditions, including deserts, steppes, and mountains.
The Great Mongolian Ride is an epic 3,000km charity ride across Mongolia taking place every year. Intermediate to experienced riders from all over the world can take part.
Apart from being one of the oldest horse breeds, this little Icelandic gem is also one of the most charming.
Icelandic horses were developed from ponies brought to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The breed has remained largely isolated and pure for over a thousand years. The law in Iceland says no horses may be imported into the country, and exported horses aren’t permitted to re-enter.
The breed’s hardiness and adaptability allowed it to thrive in Iceland’s challenging climate and terrain over the centuries.
Icelandic horses were originally used for transportation and farming, and still help out with tasks like sheepherding today.
Breed in brief
- The Icelandic horse breed is closer to pony size, reaching only 13 to 14 hands in height.
- Icelandic horses trot out in most colours, including bay, brown, black, and grey. Some have a spotted coat.
- This versatile breed has a thick double coat and abundant mane which allows it to endure the harsh Icelandic climate.
- They are the only horse breed in Iceland. Icelandic horses are very popular and also found in North America and Europe.
- There is evidence of a genetic link between Icelandic horses and the Mongolian horse.
- This unique horse is so sure-footed it has two extra natural gaits – the “pace” and “tölt.”
Riding an Icelandic Horse
As I mentioned, besides the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, this horse breed also gives us the “pace” and “tölt.” The pace is a lateral, two-beat gait where the horse moves its legs on the same side of its body together, providing a smoother ride than the traditional trot. The tölt is a faster four-beat gait.
This makes these slightly smaller horses fun and interesting to ride – both for long distances and leisurely outings.
The Icelandic horse, with its big heart, is great for hacking and trail riding. It won’t shy away from hardy hills, vales, or any other rugged countryside.
The breed is a people-friendly package of good sense, confidence, and easy attitude.
Any discussion about the oldest horse breeds in the world will inevitably turn to the Arabian breed at some point.
This breed originated on the Arabian peninsula over 4,000 years ago. In fact, there is evidence of horses resembling the modern Arabian in the Middle East as far back as 4,500 years.
For centuries, the Arabian horse has been cherished by the Bedouin tribes; the nomadic desert dwellers of the Arabian Peninsula.
Arabian horses were the Bedouin’s trusted companions and essential transportation across the vast deserts.
It’s said the Bedouin even invited their steeds into their tents to sleep alongside the family. That’s after ensuring they were fed with the best grasses, grains, dates, and camel milk the desert and surroundings could provide.
Breed in brief
- Arabian horses are muscular and athletic, and known for their handsome bearing. They stand between 14.1 and 15.1 hands.
- The breed is usually coloured chestnut, bay, grey, black, or roan.
- Arabian horses have influenced numerous other horse breeds all over the world, enhancing modern riding horses with endurance, speed, refinement, and bone strength.
- Arabs are popular all over the world, with over 1 million horses in more than 60 countries.
- The Arabian horse is an expensive horse breed
Riding an Arabian Horse
Arabian horses are quick learners, eager to please, and are renowned for their ability to bond with humans.
They are excellent riding horses, although their lively, spirited side makes this hot-blooded breed better suited to more experienced riders.
They are dominant performers in horse racing and competition. Arabs regularly bag a haul of medals in endurance contests and major international championships, like the Equestrian Games and the Tevis Cup.
Fjord Horse (Norwegian Fjord Horse)
The Fjord horse is amongst the oldest and the purest horse breeds on earth. Horses were shown to exist in Norway at the end of the last ice age. Evidence of the Fjord horse ancestry dates back around 4,000 years.
The breed may be related to the primitive Przewalski horse, or share ancestry with the Mongolian horses brought to Scandinavia by Swedish traders.
Historically these horses were the war mounts of Vikings and also worked on the farmlands of Norway.
The modern Norwegian Fjord is a versatile personality and equally at home pulling a carriage, competing in equestrian arenas, or acting as a delightful riding companion.
Breed in brief
- While the average Fjord is only between 13.1 and 14.3 hands tall, the breed has the sturdy, muscular body of a light draught horse.
- People sometimes wonder if the Fjord horse is one of the pony breeds because of its small stature. The breed is defined as a horse and is comfortably able to carry an adult human.
- All Norwegian Fjord horses are dun; five different shades are accepted by the breed registry.
- Their coats grow long and thick in the cold months, and they benefit from some feathering on the legs.
- There are an estimated 80,000 Fjord horses in the world today.
Riding a Fjord Horse
The Fjord has a lovely temperament; generally docile and calm-natured. This, together with their low mount, makes them ideal for new riders.
Overall the Fjord is friendly, agile, and sure-footed with a smooth gait. They make a wonderful addition to any riding stable, especially for kids.
They are also successfully used in therapeutic centres.
The much admired Akhal-Teke horse originates in Turkmenistan, an Asian country that borders Afghanistan and Iran. This extraordinary Turkmen breed can be traced back over 3,000 years.
Akhal-Teke horses played a vital role in the culture of the Turkmen tribes. Like other ancient horse breeds, they served as battle horses. Akhal-Tekes were at the forefront of wars against invaders, like the Russian Empire.
These beautiful equines were also prized companions. Their graceful elegance and glossy metallic coats made them status symbols at the time. They were and are known as “golden horses.” Even Alexander the Great was wowed when he encountered the Akhal-Teke.
Their number once dwindled to 1,250 when the conquering Russians demanded that horses be slaughtered for their meat. Happily, these animals are safeguarded today.
Breed in brief
- The Akhal-Teke is graceful, slender, and athletic. The horse stands at 14.2 to 16 hands.
- The breed is famous for the metallic sheen of its coat. This shimmering appearance is due to the structure of the hair itself.
- The Akhal-Teke coat can exhibit a variety of colours, including golden, buckskin, palomino, and other cream colours.
- Akhal-Tekes have been bred with Thoroughbred horses to create faster long-distance racers. They were also bred with the Appaloosa to produce the unique spotted and metallic Nez Perce horse.
- Together with the Caspian horse breed, the Akhal-Teke breed is considered one of the rarest horse breeds in the world.
Riding an Akhal-Teke
These elegant, long-legged animals are great and lively to ride. They have a startling turn of speed and stamina for days!
Besides its abilities in endurance racing, the breed also excels in disciplines like jumping, dressage, and eventing.
What are the oldest British breeds of horses?
The Exmoor pony is believed to be Britain’s oldest breed of pony or small horse. Ponies were recorded in the Exmoor area as long ago as 1086. The Cleveland Bay is another one of Britain’s oldest horse breeds, dating back to the 17th Century.
Is the Turkoman horse one of the oldest horse breeds?
The Turkoman horse is an ancient Oriental breed that existed many centuries ago. Historically it was bred in Turkmenistan and Iran, and is regarded as one of the oldest horse breeds. Turkoman horses are thought to be extinct today.
What are the oldest modern horse breeds?
The Arabian horse and Mongolian horse are among the oldest modern horse breeds. The Caspian horse is believed to be the oldest horse of all.