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© Diatom Graphics
THE CASPIAN HORSE
The picture seems to show a miniature horse pulling a heavy cart with two beefy, longhaired men. One is shooting a bow and arrow at a huge roaring lion. Where in the world can this be? It must be a pretty warm place because there is a palm tree, and the two fellows aren't wearing any shirts. How can that tiny, tiny horse be pulling so much weight?
The drawing is not a mistake. It is based upon a royal seal that archaeologists uncovered in Iran, known in ancient times as Persia, just north of the Persian Gulf. The seal belonged to a powerful king named Darius I (pronounced Dry-us), who ruled a huge empire from 522 BC to 486 BC from his palace in Persepolis, Persia. His holdings consisted of Greece, Persia, Babylonia, and the area occupied by the twelve Jewish tribes. Darius I, though hated by the early inhabitants of the Greek city-states, was well respected by the Jews because he was interested in restoring the Jewish state. It was under Darius' authority that the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt.
Darius was also a very enthusiastic hunter and used a chariot to hunt lions for sport. He loved the little native Persian horses that were both strong and beautifully refined. When archeologists found the royal seal in Persepolis, they first believed that the artist who had created it had simply not created the horse big enough to carry the heavy chariot and the two strong men. In any event, thought the archaeologists, if such a small horse had ever existed at all, it surely must have gone into extinction some two thousand years ago.
In 1965, however, an American named Louise Firouz, who was living in Iran with her Iranian husband, made some astounding discoveries about the little "extinct" Persian horses. While touring Darius' ancient palace Mrs. Firouz thought that the tiny horses depicted in the rock carvings strongly resembled the little stallion named Ostad that she had just bought in Iran to train as a children's riding pony. After Mrs. Firouz discovered and bought 30 more small horses from some villages in Iran's Elborz Mountains, she believed that her newly purchased "riding ponies" might be descendants of the little horses in the carvings. She chose the name "Caspian horse” because of Iran's closeness to the Caspian Sea.
After years of DNA testing using blood and bone samples from the buried remains of horses from Darius' time, scientists proved that Mrs. Firouz's theory was indeed correct. They determined that the thirty some horses in Mrs. Firouz' herd had descended from one of four breeds of primitive horses that existed in the world about 6000 years ago. Known as Horse Type 4, the original ancestor was a small animal between ten and twelve hands (40-44 inches, about the size of a typical newborn foal) from West Asia. The scientists also believed that this tiny Persian horse was also the ancestor of today's Arabian horse. Like the Arabian horse, the little Caspian horses had very thin skin, huge almond-shaped eyes, tiny ears, and dished faces. What made the Caspian horse distinct from any other breed, however, was the shape of its shoulder blade, which is wider at the base than at the top. The Caspian horse also had an extra tooth that it lost by its second birthday. Because the Caspian horse survived in the mountainous regions of ancient Iran, it developed very long, sharply angled hocks and very strong, hard hooves that did not require shoes for protection. Mrs. Firouz also discovered that her Caspian horses reached their adult height at the age of eighteen months instead of the five years required by most other horse breeds so she hoped to breed a large number to ensure their survival.
In the 1970s Iran was ruled by Shah Reza Pahlavi. The Shah loved the little Caspian horses and founded the Royal Horse Society to help protect Mrs. Firouz's herd and other Caspian horses that were discovered in Iran. Prince Phillip of the ruling Royal Family in Great Britain also admired the Caspian Horses and exported 26 to England to form the European Foundation Herd after Shah Pahlavi gave him a Caspian horse as a gift.
By 1974 the Shah of Iran was overthrown by followers of a religious man named Ayatollah Khomeini. Unfortunately, Iranian law under Khomeini made private ownership of horses illegal, and Mrs. Firouz's Caspian horses were taken from her. Somehow Mrs. Firouz was able to obtain 24 more of the little horses at great risk to herself. Mrs. Firouz was arrested many times by the new government of Iran because of her horses. She went on hunger strikes and endured very terrible times during her arrests, but she never forgot her beloved little Caspians. Because these were such difficult times for Mrs. Firouz, Prince Phillip arranged to have seven Caspian mares and one Caspian stallion safely transported to Great Britain to ensure preservation of this ancient breed. Of those horses that remained in Iran with Mrs. Firouz only one was known to survive; the others were slaughtered to feed Iranians during a famine.
In 1992 only 38 Iranian Caspian horses were listed in the Caspian Stud Book in Great Britain. In 1994 Mrs. Firouz was miraculously able to find more Caspians, all of which she was able to export to Great Britain. Today there are over 400 registered Caspian horses, and there are breeders in the United States. Gratefully, Mrs. Firouz, still the greatest fan and advocate of the little chariot horse, lives in California. Thanks to Mrs. Firouz and the dedicated people of The Caspian Horse Society of Great Britain, the plucky little horse that defied lions in ancient Persia is alive and well for the entire modern world to appreciate and love.