Anything Equine,  Equestrian topic

Horses of Central Asia


Some say horses were domesticated four thousand years ago, some say eight. Maybe it’s more. Whatever the actual case may be, horses were no longer responsible for their own lives.

As soon as the horse transitioned from a food source he served as a useful tool…primarily to further the objectives of human beings. It didn’t take long for people to exploit their new advantage to the fullest.


The Sythians, Parthians and the Huns

“You could smell them coming, it was said, even before you heard the thunder of their hooves. But by then it was too late. Within seconds came the first murderous torrent of arrows, blotting out the sun and turning day into night.” (Hopkirk, 1994) [referring to the Mongol hordes]

“The sheer speed of their horse-borne archers, and the brilliance and unfamiliarity of their tactics, caught army after army off balance.” (Hopkirk, 1994)

Beginning around 2000 BCE and continuing on to the New World, horses facilitated the political ambitions of tribes, groups, and nations, from the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Sythians, the Parthians, the Romans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Avars, the Khavars, the Goths, Visigoths, the Gokturks, the Bulgars, the Huns, the Ottomans, the Crimean Tartars, the Spanish, the Colonists, and many others.

Horses were unabashedly used for the acquisition of wealth, the conquering of Empires and as a vital tool in the growing desire to realize of ‘global’ domination and power.

The talents of this skillful and talented species was now employed as a weapon, furthering the whims, prejudices and goals of unadulterated ambitions.

Ironic that bridled horses served unbridled conquest…

Money has now replaced horses in many aspects of human domination desires, however, the horse is not ‘off the hook’ in modern competition, which serves as a modern version of the same old stuff…

In Central Asia long before the current era began, the Sythians, the Parthians, the Mongols, were all famed horse cultures, and rose to power, each in their own time. The nomadic tribes from the Great Steppe plundered without mercy.

These infamous ‘horse archers’ attacked quickly, shot arrows from a distance, and continued their barrage while they retreated (aka the parthian shot). They exhausted armies with more fire power due to their mobility. They could feign retreat, double back and gain the offensive once again.


If the warriors of the steppe confronted a formal military column, the swift warrior’s response to a charge of cavalry was this: feign fear and disunity. Flee…run away, pretend to scatter. This emboldened the unit, and tempted them to commit. The larger horses carrying more weight tired quickly. They lacked maneuverability, and had one shot at success. The opportunity to reassemble after expending the energy for an ‘all in’ effort, didn’t exist.

This, the wily warriors knew. The charge would become unstable after a time, and then the seemingly scattered warriors would turn and strike from all angles. The heavier cavalry would become splintered and vulnerable, no longer enjoying the safety of structure. Death was inevitable.

And this, the horse archers were masters of.

Emanating from the northern plains of the Altai Mountains, the area where Mongolia and China meet with Russia and Kazakhstan, the Sythians (7th century BC up until the 3rd century BC), a nomadic hunter-warrior people, found their influence was distinctly promoted by their use of horses and bows.

[Much of their history was recorded by Herodotus, the Greek historian born in 484 BCE and died in 425 BCE]

By 800 BCE, the Scythians had become widespread. They were one of the earliest horse cultures, made up of an Asian type of people, and big dusty haired, blue eyed people.

Their style of warfare dominated the Asian, Central Asian and European continents for thousands of years, growing out of a natural discipline established by a need to migrate hundreds of miles twice per year.

Hardened and tough, these highly skilled horsemem needed a much higher level of agriculture for their survival.

The solution was either to trade or plunder.

The way of the steppe warrior was given over strongly to the latter, given the speed and mobility afforded to them by their horses, and the deadly effectiveness of the missiles fired by their bows.They could kill, plunder and conquer with impunity.

They were unpredictable, deadly, untouchable and unreachable. The Sythians, the Parthians (part of the broader Sythian confederation), Attila the Hun (406–453) and Genghis (Chinggis) Khan (~1162 – August 18, 1227) and other groups, conquered all in their sights and built vast Empires with relative ease, instilling fear and horror in the vanquished.

An intense example of steppe warfare may be found when the merciless leader Tamarlane (April 9, 1336 – February 1405) , grappled with his arch rival, Toktamish. These two enormous groups of steppe warriors employed the same tactics, rode the same types of horses, and possessed the same types of weapons. Their final battle took place in 1391.

After heavy fighting, Toktamish’s warriors broke ranks and tried to make their escape. Tamarlane hunted them down, giving chase for three days, covering a distance of four hundred miles. Tamarlane rendered his enemy, accomplishing this tactical effort in a move that was more similar to the mechanized element of modern warfare, rather than the typical engagements of the ancient world. It was astonishing.

This was the heritage of Central Asia emerging from Antiquity, right through the Turkish conquest and onto the maintenance of the Ottoman Empire.

All due to the natural abilities of the Central Asian horse; horses that were highly valued for their tremendous strength and endurance.

They also possessed an uncanny intelligence navigating treacherous mountain areas, and are able to work at high altitudes. They were agile and cunning, enduring extreme heat and frigid cold, and could continue on for hours, surviving on meager rations.

The Kirgiz horse, part of the Mongolian group, remains today in the area from the Caspian Sea to Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and China (The Kirgiz Steppe)…an enormous area.

Captain Burnaby

Khiva West Gate (8145398402)

Over 2600 years after the Sythians were at the height of their power, in 1875, Captain Frederick Burnaby of the British Army, embarked on a journey to Khiva, a wealthy and remote caravan city in Central Asia.

This he did as a personal quest; his contribution to the discovery of Russian motives during the era of the ‘Great Game’.

The journey, one he recounts in his book – A Ride to Khiva Mounted adventures in Central Asia, published by The Long Riders Guild Press (, was considered to be a very dangerous and risky endeavor.

It took place during one of the coldest winters recorded in Russia and the steppes, at that time. Temperatures were commonly 10-18 degrees below 0 (Reamur), accompanied by anything from a crisp breeze to a cutting wind.

Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur lived from 1638 – 1757. He invented an alcohol based thermometer in which 0 degrees equaled 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and 80 degrees equaled 212 degrees Fahrenheit. -18° R is equal to -8.5° F.

Captain Burnaby, an imposing man of 6’4”, and weighing 220 pounds, recorded his experience on a 14hh Kirghiz pony…

“From Jana Darya we rode sixty versts, or forty miles without a halt. I must say that I was astonished to see how well the Kirghiz horses stood the long journeys. We had now gone 300 miles; and my little animal, in spite of his skeleton-like appearance, carried me quite as well as the day he left Kasala…We are apt to think very highly of English horses, and deservedly as far as pace is concerned; but if it came to a question of endurance, I much doubt whether our large and well fed horses could compete with the little half-starved Kirghiz animals…” (Burnaby, p. 238)

He went on to describe that the temperature was, painfully cold at 30 degrees below zero regardless of whether it was measured by the alcohol based Reamur system, or the mercury based Fahrenheit system. It was of interest to Burnaby, an avid horseman, to learn that a march made during the high heat of the summer (37 °R (Reaumur) is equal to approximately 117° F), with the same strain of Kirghiz ponies had little consequence on them.

Two hundred and sixty six miles in six days, and the ponies showed no ill-effect, except those sores caused by ill fitting equipment.

“These go to prove that the endurance of the Tartar pony is affected as little by heat as by cold.” (Gilbey, 1900)

From the Kirgiz type to the Oriental Subspecies

Tang - Ferghana War Horse

In the western region of Asia, a more refined animal had emerged. This was the Oriental subspecies that had adapted to the hot, dry environment of the arid steppes and desert fringes. It is now known as the Caspian pony, native to areas adjacent to the Caspian Sea.

The Caspian pony predated the ‘Barb’, the Arabian, very likely giving rise to these strains, along with the famed Nisean, Turkoman and Ferghana steeds. From this genetic tapestry of the ancient world, the elegance and notoriety of the Spanish horse emerged.

The Iberian horses were known for their good size, their stylish movement, and their haughty temperaments. Nisean horses, according to Strabo, were the ‘most elegant riding horses alive’. Ferghana horses were known for their height, color, stamina, endurance, and ability to withstand desert conditions. It was of this strain that Wu-ti [Wu-ti became Emperor in 141 BCE] lusted during his reign of the Han Dynasty in China. They were larger than the horses of his enemy the Huns, and he referred to them as ‘Heavenly horses’…

Alexander the Great and Bucephalus

The taming of Bucephalus by Andre Castaigne (1898-1899)

The rise of Greece was relative to the quality of its horses, and it is likely that the horses represented the stock from northern Africa and from Persia. It has been said that Philip of Macedon imported 20,000 Scythian mares, and his son Alexander claimed a tribute of 50,000 horses including Persian, Scythian, Nisean, Ferghana, and Caspian representatives.

One of the super horses of ancient times was named Bucephalus. He was a magnificent horse, large [Fifteen hands tall at the withers was considered tall during the Classical Era.] and black with a white star on his forehead. It was said that his eyes were mismatched (Xenophon, 1962), commonly referred to a ‘wall eye’, ‘china eye’, or ‘watch eye’. The color of one eye therefore was an off white or pale blue, the other was brown.

It is likely that superior stock raised in the lush pastures of Thessaly produced Bucephalus, a temperamental talent, with extraordinary wits and strength. And it may have been that these imported breeds were crossed with the stock such as the Pindos, Skyros, and other very tough native horses. Most of these horses ranged in height between 13.2hh and 14.2hh. The practice of out-crossing combined with excellent nutrition favored increased size.

Bucephalus did possess the attributes of several of these representatives. He was fiery, relatively tall, and he had speed. He also was hardy, and tough. His feet and his overall constitution were extraordinary, and he lived an abnormally long life.

War horses throughout history were subjected to the toughest of challenges, among them terrain and climate. The mortality rate was high, due to severe injuries to hooves from rocks, injuries sustained in battle, and exhaustion from hard work in harsh conditions.

As the story goes; the horse was brought to Philip’s court, where the savvy equine judge deemed him of tremendous value. He ordered his grooms to take the horse and demonstrate his abilities. They were each thrown mercilessly; the horse unwilling to suffer them. It is impossible to know for certain exactly what the horse was thinking, but it was said at the time, that he was afraid of his own shadow.

Alexander, seeing the horse’s behavior, believed that he could work with him, and begged for his father Philip’s approval. The nod was given, and Alexander took the reins. He moved with Bucephalus slowly in every direction, establishing a rapport. He soothed him, and coaxed him; taking the time necessary to build a fundamental relationship. He engendered the trust of the wary beast, and within a time was able to not only mount him, but ride effortlessly through all the paces. He was wholly loyal to Alexander, who at twelve years old unlocked the secret to this otherwise dangerous brute. Possessed of a high level of intelligence, it was the common sense and gentle approach that he favored.

Alexander and Bucephalus grew together, and when the boy came of age, they went to war together. It was estimated that the horse and the man were approximately the same age, both twelve when they first met. Together they conquered lands and engaged in fierce and bloody battles, sharing a bond deeper than Alexander had ever known, or ever would know.

In 327 BCE, Alexander rode recklessly into battle against King Porus of India; creating of himself and his horse, a singular target. The enemy pierced Bucephalus with spears, and, as the horse felt his body weaken and his mind dim, he removed Alexander to a point of safety. There he closed his eyes for the last time in gracious service to his friend. For Bucephalus, an honorable and fierce comrade, gave his heart and soul to the only man who ever cared to understand him.

Alexander, on his famous horse Bucephalus, led his men and their cavalry to extraordinary victories, and was the first military to engage the Parthians and succeed against their elite equestrian archers. Bucephalus was a remarkable individual, and upon his death, Alexander ceremoniously named a city after him, and was distraught at the loss.

Because the horse elicited the most enthusiastic response from his admirers, his ancestry accrued mythic proportions. Some say that he was of the Nisean stock, the super horse of the ancient world (Edwards, The New Encyclopedia of the Horse, 2000).

Others claimed that he descended from King Rhesus’ dangerous and unruly mares, stolen by Diomedes and Odysseus. The mares eventually came into the possession of Hercules, and this was said about them: “Those horses of warrior Achilles, descendant of Aeacus, are hard to manage or control for any mortal person, except Achilles, son of an immortal mother.” [ Translation by Ian Johnston, Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC.] “His horses are the best, the finest and largest ones I’ve ever seen, whiter than snow, as fast as the winds.” [ibid.] “They’re astounding, like rays of the sun.” [ibid.]

The Greeks are also famous for their depiction of Pegasus, the winged horse who descended from Chaos – the Universe itself. Poseidon, the creator of horses, master and god of the oceans and of earthquakes was his sire, imbuing Pegasus with power and grace. Just what inspired Poseidon to give this magnificent horse wings, something we can all identify with when riding a horse at a full blown gallop? Can it be more about how the horse actually gives us ‘wings’, through our relationship with him?

Bucephalus’ heritage may never be known, but the consensus brought forth from the past reveals that he possessed beauty, supreme intellect, loyalty, a magnificent ego, an incredible turn of foot, endurance, tough legs and feet, and a rather big but well defined, masculine head.

Indeed, he was a well celebrated super horse of his time.

Assisted Migration...long, long ago...

Long before Bucephalus was born, The Phoenicians (~1500 BCE), a sophisticated and wealthy sea-faring people dispersed hardy equid strains of Persia and North Africa, far and wide. They moved horses throughout Tunisia, Greece, Italy, Spain, and then through the Strait of Gibraltar they ventured, depositing their equine cargo along coastal regions reaching all the way up to the British Isles.

These native ponies were then crossed with indigenous strains, producing new generations of superior animals; those with increased size, fantastic coloring, and tremendous strength and ability. This provided the foundation for breeds like the Welsh Cob, the Irish Hobby, and the Galloway of Scotland. Descendants far into the future were to enter the stable of Queen Anne, and step onto the soil of the ‘New World’ during the 16th and 17th centuries.

One word can be said about the impact of the Afro-Turkic native pony in the old world, and that is ‘colossal’. It provided ‘genetic vigor’ and allowed a new ‘hybridization’ to ensue.

The Iberian native stock of Spain derived its vitality from this sort of opportunity, and several more opportunities like it, when people rode in conquest across the mountains and fertile valleys there. One such occurrence was during the Gothic invasion before the fall of the Roman Empire.

Another occurred when the Arabs got into the action. They had acquired the long kept breeding secrets of the Persians, along with the best of the Barb horses from Northern Africa. In this way they sequestered both knowledge and flesh in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. In 711AD, fueled by weapons, horses and religion, the Moors moved their way into Spain, and there, the ‘Spanish Barb’ was officially established. The horse of Saudi Arabia developed into the Arabian horse of today, known for their dished faces and their tremendous stamina. “The Iberian horses do have an ancestral relationship to the Asian horses through North Africa.” [Personal correspondence between the author and genetisist, Dr. Gus Cothran, dated Thursday April 1, 2010.]

Some X-factor thoughts...

The horse’s ability to adapt and survive epochs might have been largely due to this ‘X-factor – airflow – metabolism’ power pack. In the desert, the horse became a much swifter animal with the change in footing, and the need to endure an even harsher environment. Lush pastures in northern Africa would promote good size and quality.

The horse had adapted to his environment long before domestication, and humans benefitted for thousands upon thousands of years, even in ignorance.

Genetically and epigenetically well endowed horses were dispersed thousands of years ago by enterprising cultures starting with the Phoenicians.

They reunited with different versions of themselves, forming new representations, and exploiting greater environmental opportunities.

Here in the United States, we received a triple whammy, the ‘genetic and epigenetic’ home run with the bases loaded filled with many different sources of greatness.

First, the native stock of Spain arrived with the Conquistadors in the 1500’s. Second, the native stock of the British Isles and Denmark came with early settlers in the 1600’s, and third, the Thoroughbreds that had been produced by crossing Turkish horses, Barbs, and native ponies, set foot on our shores beginning in the 1600’s. This admixture was the highly vigorous foundation – which had nothing really to do with human beings, except for whims, luck and irrelevant breeding selections. 

The famous super horses of the future would reach the modern era on their own and in their own mysterious way. Human methods and networks were simply mechanisms.

Continue to the interesting (but never the ‘end’!) Conclusion of “The Legendary Hearts of Horses”: The Spanish Horses

Go Back to Chapter One: Legendary Hearts

Go Back to Chapter Two: The Godolphin Horse and the Byerley Turk

Go Back to Chapter Three (going back in time): A Little Equine Evolution

Chapter Four (going forward in time): Central Asian Horses

Continue to Chapter Five (going full circle): The Spanish Horses

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