Horses of China
 By mosquito   •   11th Jul 2010   •   24,393 views   •   0 comments
Horse breeds from most of Europe and North America are generally fairly well known, and breeds from these continents have had significant impact on other breeds around the world. Even some South American breeds, and of course the Arabian from North Africa and the Near East, have established themselves around the world. More recently, Russian and Central Asian breeds such as the Akhal-Teke and Russian Trotter are finding new recognition, and Australia and New Zealand-bred horses are becoming increasingly sought after. But what about the rest of the world? How have horses influenced Africa, India, or China, and what breeds are popular there? Why don’t we hear more about their native breeds?

Horses of ChinaWe’ve seen some articles on Ponybox about important African breeds, like the Nooitgedachter, or the Marwari from India. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the horse breeds of China, where they’ve come from, and what they are like now.

China has a long history of horsemanship. As early as the Shang dynasty, around 1600 B.C. there is evidence of horses being used to pull chariots. In the early centuries A.D. during the Han dynasty, organized breeding programs for horses began, and good horses were celebrated in beautiful bronze statues. These statues suggest that the Chinese horses were related to some other Asian and central European breeds, being similar in appearance to today’s Andalusian and looking very similar to the horses of ancient Greece and Rome. The Han dynsaty’s love of these western horses is clear in Han poetry, where Turkish And Russian horses are called ‘heavenly horses’ and believed to have the ability to fly. Here too, the horse developed in Chinese religion and fable, believed to be able to carry their owners to heaven, and there are many stories of the ‘longma’, a winged cross between a dragon and a horse.

Imports of western breeds (like the ancestors of the Arabian) continued and the fine horses we see in some of the most prized examples of Chinese art are the T’ang dynasty glazed horse sculptures. After the end of the T’ang dynasty, and with the rise of the Mongols in the 13th century, these lighter Chinese horses began to disappear, to become replaced with by the sturdy horses of Mongolia and the Asian steppes, which were much more similar to the Prezwalski.

Horses of ChinaDelicate and lovingly crafted painting of the relationship between the Chinese and their horses abound form all periods of Chinese history, so there’s no doubt that the horse has been an integral part of Chinese life for thousands of years. These paintings are often well dated, so they let us follow the evolution of Chinese horse breeding. Paintings of horses from after the thirteenth century show a marked difference in the type of horse – the Chinese horse becomes smaller, very stocky with relatively short legs, and often in dun and other ‘pointed’ colors all of which points to the growing influence of the Mongolian ponies.

China, throughout its history, was characterized by strong regional communities, often defined by rugged geography and limited communications. That’s why today’s Chinese horse breeds represent many different regional variations, some have which have been bred virtually in isolation for centuries. Yet somehow, they all tend to share the same typical ‘Chinese horse’ characteristics, staying fairly true to their native Mongolian ancestors.

The Balikun, Yanqi and Yili from Xianjiang, the Guongxi from Yunan and Sichuan, the Sanhe from the northern region from the better known Chinese breeds. There are asteriated to be over thirty distinct regional horse types in China, even though they are not all recognized as breeds. The Sanhe has been carefully managed since the 20th century, and with the reintroduction of Russian breeds the Sanhe, as well as the Mongolian Xilingol, is perhaps the closest example of the type of horses favored in China before the influence of the Mongolian ponies.

Horses of ChinaHorses in China today often have to work being used as farm horses predominantly. Mounted games like polo, and hunting form horseback, are still popular, and farm ponies become especially prized when they have the speed and agility to win in local or regional games and tournaments. Participation in western equestrian sports, in particular the Olympic events, has been a focus of Chinese horse breeding only in the last couple of decades, but they are taking it seriously. The Chinese equestrian federation has set challenging targets for Chinese riders at the last few Olympic Games, and is becoming increasingly competitive in the Asian Games. Horse racing too is finding new popularity since the reunification with Hong Kong, and there are believed to be over 3000 racing horses in China today.

Native Chinese breeds, although prized for their historical value and their functionality, are not well represented in international equestrian events. Almost all the horses used for the developing equestrian training programs have been imported, and top riders still travel to Europe and America for training. Interestingly, the best riders almost always come from the areas known for native breeds, like Xianjiang, where traditional horsemanship gives them strong foundations for competition. Maybe one day some native Chinese horses will be integrated in the competition programs too, and we will see the return of the original Chinese horses of two thousand years ago.
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