Horses have been such an important part of human history. Before we invented the steam engine, they happened to be the main transport we used on land.
We can track some of the oldest breeds even thousands of years back. Some of them were especially important for the creation of the horse breeds we see around today.
People have been crossbreeding different horse breeds throughout history. That way they have been able to develop many different horse breeds, and each has its own strengths and advantages, depending on their tasks.
Today we’ll talk about the seven oldest breeds of horse, their history, things that characterize them, and other features you might find interesting.
Let’s get going!
Table of Contents
How Come There Are So Many Horse Breed Varieties?
Originally, it was believed that all horse breeds descended from a single lineage that lived in the western Eurasian Steppe, although no one knows the exact location and the full details of their origin.
However, a 2012 study supported by the British Biodiversity and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Leverhulme Trust revealed that horses both originated and were domesticated all over Europe and Asia.
So, many distinct cultures that inhabited these two enormous continents all understood well how valuable these elegant, strong, and clever animals were.
They saw their enormous size as a potential that would come in handy for use in many ways and in performing diverse tasks. This led them to engage in the domestication of horses.
People domesticated horses because they needed them to perform difficult tasks such as carrying heavy stuff, transporting goods and humans over long distances, doing work in fields, etc. Each breed has its own peculiar strengths and was therefore created for specific tasks it was good at performing.
Evolution and Origins of horses
People from different countries across the world contributed their share when it comes to the domestication of horses. Still, the majority of horse breeds we’re familiar with today may be traced back to just two prehistoric lineages.
So, the story goes like this. More than 700 years ago, these historic Middle Eastern lines were introduced to Europe.
Mrs. Barbara Wallner, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna extensively studied all breeding records she could find all the way back to the 1700s.
Mrs. Wallner and her team went backward and tracked the pedigrees of different horse breeds for hundreds of years using contemporary DNA sequencing techniques.
According to her, we can trace breeds we know about today to two ancient lineages only – the line of Arabian horses that came from the Arabian Peninsula and the Turkoman horses from the Eurasian Steppe.
The Turkoman horse originally came from Turkmenistan. It was mostly bred in Iran, and it is a breed that is an important part of the history of horses across the world considering how many modern breeds Turkoman horses influenced.
With their slender build, they ranged from 15 to 16 hands. They came in some quite traditional bay, chestnut, and black colors. People loved them for their endurance, so they were especially useful for all the activities that demanded strength and stamina.
Turkoman horses are thought to be extinct today.
The second ancient breed of immense importance are the Arabian horses. We’ll discuss more about this peculiar breed further in this article.
7 Oldest Horse Breeds
Let’s now check the oldest horse breeds you can find.
The Icelandic Horse
The Icelandic horse breed is thought to be among the oldest in the world, considering their history goes back at least 10,000 years. The Vikings brought them to Iceland in the 8th century.
They have heavy, double-layer coats that come as great protection from the harsh temperatures in Iceland.
The Icelandic horses come in more than 40 assorted color combinations, with over a hundred variations. We’re talking about pretty friendly and easy-to-handle animals that love being around people.
Their temperament is lively, but they’re also known for their extremely workable character.
They are among the strongest breeds in the world, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that by just their looks. People mostly used them for laborious tasks like clearing fields and lugging hefty cargo.
Even though they’re smaller than average-sized horses, this breed performs exceptionally well and fast in horse racing competitions.
Today, farmers still use Icelandic horses to herd their sheep. The fact that crossbreeding is prohibited in Iceland is one of the primary reasons why this breed still exists today.
In addition to that, any Icelandic horse that travels outside of the country is prohibited from coming back.
People who own them traditionally raise and keep Icelandic horses in herds. This way, these cute animals can develop their intelligence and social skills more easily.
Since their structural development is not finished until the age of 7, owners mostly don’t start to train them until they’re 4 years old.
The Caspian Horse
This breed, often called the Khazar horse, can be traced back to Iran in the year 3,000 B.C. Due to its quickness, fearlessness, and intelligence, the Caspian horse used to be among the most highly prized breeds.
However, the Caspian horse was formerly believed to be extinct until horse breeder Louise Firouz found it once again in the 1960s. Louise was crucial to the growth and increasing numbers of this particular type of horse, up until her passing in 2008.
Despite its small size, it’s not proportioned like a pony. The Caspian is a tiny horse that stands between 9 and 12 hands. Some of its distinctive features include a slim body and legs, and a high croup.
Also, its body is covered in a dense coat. You can find Caspian horses in basically all colors except for skewbald (pinto) and piebald.
Grey Caspian horses tend to transition through multiple shades of roan before they fade to almost white when they reach a fully matured age.
This species is highly intelligent and alert. Because of this, they are often chosen as an excellent choice as children’s mounts.
They’re also elegant and possess extraordinary jumping abilities, which makes them excellent event horses. People tend to use Caspians for driving horses too.
The Arabian Horse
The Arabian is a rather popular one, especially when discussing elite horse breeds. It showed up more than 5,000 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest breeds across the globe. It’s also one of the world’s first domesticated breeds.
Arabian horses were bred in the Middle East. Later on, however, their owners introduced them to Europe and the rest of the world. This breed is also among the most expensive ones as well. People pay good money for them for a good reason – they’re strong, tough, and full of stamina.
Arabian horses are also known for their affection and sense of loyalty. People either kept them in tents or outside, but with no place to tie.
These horses lived among the people. They especially spent a lot of time with nomads, which is why they got used to moving a lot.
You can easily distinguish them by their specific physical characteristics such as the broad forehead, big, wide-set eyes, relatively small, curved ears, and big nostrils on their dish face.
This breed is absolutely stunning! They’re bred to resist the harsh desert environment and its unpleasant conditions. You will most often see these horses in white Sabino, black, bay, gray, or chestnut colors.
Still, beneath their coats, all Arabian horses have black skin. The exceptions are spots underneath true white hair. Since they live in desert areas, black skin comes in handy to protect them from the sun.
Measuring around 14 hands, the Arabian is actually quite a small horse. Still, it is truly an animal that will draw your attention, especially considering the combination of its astonishing look and elegant walk.
The Fjord Horse
A unique look is something that definitely sets these beautiful animals apart. The Fjord horses come in ‘dun’ colors. Dun is the expression that refers to a coat color dilution that lightens the coat but leaves the mane, tail, lower legs, and head undiluted.
Most of them are brownish, but some come in gray, red, white, and yellow colors. Few of them have white markings.
The Fjord horse is one of the oldest breeds that migrated to Norway over 4,000 years ago. They’re not so tall, considering their standard height which measures up to 14.3 hands. However, we’re still talking about muscular and strong animals.
They’re known for their extremely thick coats. The Fjord horse is a pretty durable breed that easily adapted to the low temperatures and extreme conditions in the mountain regions of Norway.
They are not a breed you would often see in the United States – the majority of riders have perhaps seen them once or twice in their lifetime. The Vikings formerly used the Fjord horse breed as a war horse.
The Fjord often spent its days working on farms in Norwegian fields when it wasn’t riding into fights. They have a reputation for their strong work ethics.
Another important reason people love this animal is its docile temperament and generally pretty calm personality.
Mongolian Horse (4,000 Years)
The Mongolian Horse, a really ancient type of combat horse, could be the oldest horse breed still in existence. The breed’s high genetic variety shows that humans played a relatively small role in its evolution.
Short and stocky in build, Mongolian horses have a height of 12 to 14 hands. And they often come in a variety of colors.
Their body is stocky with large heads, short legs, and low-set shoulders blending directly into their back. This gives Mongolian horses a bit of a primitive look.
Their mane has short, stiff, black hairs that stand straight, but no forelocks. The average horse is about 350 kilograms or 772 pounds in weight and measures 12 hands tall at the withers.
The Mongolian Horse’s ancestors are unknown, just like those of other ancient horse breeds. The first mentions of this type of horse date back 4,000 years ago, but the breed’s ancestors most likely date way further back.
According to genetic research, several contemporary horse breeds may have their roots in the Mongolian Horse.
Some believe this type is the only truly wild horse you can find in the entire world. They are grazers so they mostly consume leaves they find on shrubby trees and grass. Mongolian horses have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. Their herds are not big, and they comprise young, mares, and stallions – even though there are bachelor groups too.
No one can deny horses truly fall into the group of some of the most majestic and elegant animals on Earth.
However, the Akhal-Teke is in a category of its own when it comes to its magnificent appearance – even by horse standards!
We’re talking about the oriental breed that comes from Turkmenistan – or to be more specific, the Karakum desert. The members of the Teke tribe established this graceful breed thousands of years ago.
These horses are really unique when it comes to their character, abilities, and appearance. You’ll recognize them for their long, sleek bodies and insanely fine skin.
If that doesn’t charm you, you certainly won’t be able to resist their almond-shaped eyes.
You can especially distinguish them by their characteristic metallic shine. They appear in all solid hues but are most frequently cream or palomino. Still, don’t allow their looks to fool you. The Akhal-Teke was a specific type of horse bred for war.
Soldiers from Turkmenistan rode it to the war they had against the Russian Empire. That’s why they are known for their superior stamina and speed. They’re mostly up to 16 hands tall.
This breed is adjusted for traveling on harsh desert terrains, especially because of their strong hooves. Even though this is an incredibly old breed, their conformation hasn’t changed much throughout history.
American Quarter Horse
The American Quarter horse is definitely not one of the oldest breeds in the world, but it is one of the oldest in the United States!
They are sometimes called the “all-American horse” having originated around the 1660s. It occurred as a mix between Spanish-born native horses utilized by the first settlers and English horses brought to Virginia around 1610.
These horses were successfully raced over quarter-mile courses in Virginia and Rhode Island by the late 17th century – which eventually earned them the name Quarter Horses. They’re the fastest for short distances.
These performance-oriented horses are especially fast runners. They have a large amount of Thoroughbred blood, together with characteristics from some other lines. Thoroughbred is a breed from England, developed specifically for jumping and racing.
The population of the American Quarter Horse is constantly growing. It’s the most popular breed in America.
By 2020, there have been more than 6 million quarter horses registered – counting since 1940 – with about 80,000 new registrations being made annually.
Because they have a relatively wide gene pool, these horses have a healthy lifespan of up to 30 years. Still, in many cases, they live for even much longer! As a matter of fact, the oldest living horse that we have records of was Old Billy. He was a thoroughbred who lived to be an amazing 62 years old.
Some Final Words
Humans have made horses an important part of their everyday life throughout history. These elegant, stunning creatures came in handy for many tasks and jobs we couldn’t do, starting with work on the farm and in the field as well as being our transportation before the steam engine was invented.
We bred many different horses to create breeds with specific advantages needed for specific tasks they were great at performing. One thing we all ought to be proud of is that we did manage to preserve the pure breeds our ancestors developed hundreds, even thousands of years ago.
The oldest horse breeds of the world are the Icelandic, Caspian, Arabian, Fjord, Mongolian, and Akhal-Teke.
We also talked about the American Quarter horse whose lineage doesn’t go that far in history but is still the oldest and most popular breed in the United States.