Tiny Caspian horse breed back from the brink
A breed of horse thought extinct for a thousand years is well and truly on the comeback trail thanks to the efforts of breeders like Pat Bowles.
The recent arrival of a Caspian foal at her British stud is yet another small piece in a remarkable jigsaw that has been growing since the breed was rediscovered in the mid-1960s by American woman Louise Firouz.
The breed, with a maximum height of 12.2 hands, or just over four feet, was found by Firouz living around a remote village called Amol in a mountainous region near the Caspian Sea.
This — their last refuge from extinction — was in the Elburz Mountains at the southern edge of the Caspian, where locals would periodically catch them and breed them as workhorses.
These finely built horses are now known, through DNA testing and other research, to be the forerunners of the native wild horses of Persia, and a key breed in the development of the Arabian horse by the Mesopotamians in the Third Millennium BC.
Pat Bowles says the breed is very ancient. “It was thought to be extinct for a thousand years when Louise Firouz, an American married to an Iranian, was looking for ponies for her kids and discovered these perfect little feral horses.
“She was so fascinated she did a lot of research and, with the help of Gus Cothran at the University of Kentucky who did all the DNA, rediscovered these perfect little horses that were once used to draw the chariots.”
The breed was depicted on the Seal of King Darius the Great around 500BC. Pat’s new arrival, Bytham Justin Time, arrived early on June 7, taking her number of purebred Caspians to 12, including three stallions. She also has six partbreds, crossed with her three Welsh Section A mares, as well as nine or so other horses of various breeds.
Her stud is also home to Britain’s Caspian Horse Society.
“I became interested in Caspians at the local agricultural show in 1993,” she explains. “I had been breeding National Hunt Thoroughbreds for over 30 years and was getting older and was wondering which way to go.
“I did not want to give up horses entirely, having been involved with horses all my life — I was an accredited instructor, hunted, showed and bred — so these little animals … seemed the answer.”
Caspians may be small, she says, but they are horse-like in both temperament and bone structure.
She bought two broodmares and a filly at a time when the world population of Caspians was put at only 400. The world ranks have now swelled to around 1600, with an estimated 350 in Britain alone.
“Since 1993, when the main thing was to get as many as possible on the ground, I have concentrated on the breeding and have exported Caspians to the United States, Holland, Germany, France and Belgium, where the breed is beginning to thrive.
“Without looking up the figures, I must have bred well in excess of 50 pure and partbreds.”
Caspians were used by the ancients to pull chariots, and it is a skill they do not appear to have lost over the intervening centuries. “The use of the Caspian today is mainly for driving,” says Pat. “They seem to have an inbred instinct — and also for lead rein as they can keep up with a big horse at all paces. “Being a horse in temperament they can be a bit sharp for the size of rider that they can carry.“With their fine but very dense bone structure they can carry a weight of nine stone, but the proportions have to be right. However, if they are in the hands of capable parents with the right children they can go to the top. They are superb jumpers, are amenable, and quick learners.”
Pat has 6 acres at home and a further 20 around the village at Castle Bytham, where she lives. At 79, she leaves the manual work to groom Tony Weldon. She is now completely dedicated to the breed and its promotion, being chairman of the Caspian Horse Society. “It keeps me more than busy,” she says.
Pat says care needs to be taken with diet, as Caspians come from arid conditions. “They have to be watched when they are on rich pasture for weight and (the risk of) laminitis,” she explains. “They get two bales of hay a week in winter but we have to make sure the grass isn’t too lush for them to graze in summer or they stuff themselves.” They need little in the way of hard food to thrive.
Pat has won many prizes at shows with her Caspians. Justin’s sire, Runnymede Felfel, is a three-time supreme champion, and the mare Henden Noor is also a top-class animal.
Interesting Caspian facts
They are shown in Persian statuettes dating back 3000 years.
They are considered a key foundation breed for the hot-blooded breeds of today.
The seal of King Darius the Great, held in the British Museum, shows the Caspian horse.
They were used to pull chariots.
American Louise Firouz rediscovered them near the Caspian Sea in 1965, during her search for suitable ponies for the equestrian centre for children she had set up in Teheran with her Iranian-born husband. About 30 were identified as pure, and seven mares and six stallions were bought to form the foundation stock.