Curly ears, ‘blonde’ manes and self-fracturing hooves are distinctive features of some of the world’s more unusual breeds. Martha Terry checks them out...
Here at H&H Towers, we like to think we know a bit about horses, but every day new facts surprise us. Did you know that William Fox-Pitt once contested a World Championship on a rare breed mare? Or that a Polish pony is being used to restore British wetland habitats? Brazil’s national horse numbers over half a million in its own land – but just one has found its way to our shores. Our competition arenas may be full of Connies, Dutch warmbloods and thoroughbreds, but looking further afield, here are five unusual breeds with their own USPs.
In a nutshell: an indigenous breed descended from an Indian warhorse, with “curly” ears touching at the tips. The breed is thought to go back to 2000BC.
Rarity: although there are none in England, they are not on any rare breeds list. They almost became extinct in the mid-20th century, but have been revived by the Indigenous Horse Society of India. Prospects for the breed have greatly improved over the past decade due to increased publicity and awareness of horse welfare.
Distinctive features: the Marwaris’ curved ears can be rotated 180 degrees to avoid sand entering. The ears are the first characteristic to be lost when crossed with another breed.
Price: an average riding horse is around £2,000–£8,000, though some stallions reach £100,000.
Caroline Moorey is chairman of the UK-based Friends of Marwari which, in partnership with the Indigenous Horse Society of India, works to promote the breed to a global audience even though there are no Marwaris here, due to it being on a restricted export list, as well as quarantine regulations.
“I went on a horse safari in Rajasthan and this breed touched me,” Caroline says. “Marwari have a spirit not found in others. They have great stamina; they are hot-blooded, intelligent, nimble, loyal and brave. They’re the Mo Farah of the horse world – excellent for endurance. Some people say they are Arab-like, but I think they’re more akin to an Anglo-Arab, hack or light hunter.”
The horses are used for safaris, tourism and ceremonial duties, such as parades and weddings, as well as in riding schools.
“They are versatile and suitable for general riding club activities,” Caroline adds, “but as there is not much of a training structure in India for civilian riders, the Marwari has not had the opportunity to flourish competitively. With sustained training and appropriate breeding, the breed could definitely secure its place in many equestrian disciplines.”
Black Forest Horse
In a nutshell: a small draught horse from south-west Germany, with a dark chestnut coat and flaxen mane and tail, whose original use was working in forests.
Height: 148cm–156cm (roughly 14.2hh to 15.2hh)
Rarity: demand for working horses dropped after the war, and in 1973 numbers fell to just five registered Black Forest (BF) stallions and 100 mares. However, thanks to a scientific breeding programme and introduction of two very similar Swiss breeds, the Noriker and Freiberger, there are now 700 registered BF broodmares and 35 stallions, 24 of which are at Marbach State Stud, Germany. There are just 12 BF Horses in the UK.
Distinctive features: their dark coat and “blonde” mane, plus they are renowned for an easy, friendly and workmanlike temperament.
Price: a quality foal will cost around €2,000 (£1,750), according to Dr Astrid von Velsen-Zerweck at Marbach. A quality youngster (aged three to four), started under saddle and in harness will cost €6,000–10,000, and a performance-tested young broodmare €8,000–10,000. Stud fee is €280–380, and stallions are not for sale.
Glenn and Elke Mckay work with Marbach to promote the breed internationally, and have “sold Black Forest Horses to rockstars”. They imported two five-year-olds, Maestro and Dante, as “family horses”.
“Now with climate control, people realise these working horses can protect forests, rather than using machinery, and they’re getting more popular,” says Glenn. “They’re such laid-back, interested and friendly characters, as well as looking spectacular. They were never fazed when we put a saddle on them and they’re keen to work.
“Jumping’s not their cup of tea,” adds Elke, “but they’ll do up to elementary dressage and can do nice piaffe and passage easily with their strong quarters, although they are not going to be Olympic horses.
“They’re ideal for vaulting or pulling though – and look stunning on a carriage for weddings.”
In a nutshell: a Polish breed – konik translates as small horse – displaying similar characteristics to the tarpan, an extinct wild European forest horse. The konik is now recognised as a key part of conservation plans to restore ecosystems using natural processes. The konik is recognised as a “keystone” species, according to the Wildwood Trust’s conservation manager Laura Gardner. “It changes its habitat by its actions, and in doing so benefits biodiversity.”
Height: around 13hh
Rarity: although the tarpan became extinct in 1910, Polish scientists found similar-looking dun ponies being born in herds where the tarpan had formerly ranged, and back-bred them in an effort to recreate the tarpan. The breed gradually repopulated Poland’s national parks. The Wildwood Trust introduced koniks here in 2002, and they are used in various wetland grazing projects. Its use in similar projects across Europe has been “extremely successful and therefore the breed’s prospects seem very good,” according to Laura.
Distinctive features: mouse-grey dun – turning whiter in winter – with dorsal stripe, and dark legs, manes and tails.
Price: koniks are typically loaned out for conservation grazing and habitat restoration rather than sold.
“Although no truly wild horses still exist, the konik displays many characteristics of the prehistoric wild horse or tarpan,” says Laura. “They are able to extract sufficient nutrition from poor vegetation, are hardy against disease and the UK climate, and are physically adapted for wet ground.”
Their hooves grow and spread out in winter to distribute weight on wet ground. When the ground dries out, this part of the hoof fractures off leaving a neat hoof. Laura likens them to the Exmoor, but points out: “The konik is better adapted for wetlands.”
In a nutshell: Brazil’s gaited national horse, typically used for cattle-herding.
Height: around 15hh
Rarity: Brazil has over half a million Mangalarga Marchadors (MM), America 300 and in the UK there is only one. Stringent export restrictions make the breed very rare outside Brazil, but some breeders are using frozen semen.
Distinctive features: the breed is gaited, with two natural ambling gaits, the marcha batida and marcha picada – which make for a smooth ride. It does not trot.
Price: Rick Schatz of Flying Oaks Ranch, Oklahoma, breeds Marchadors and estimates prices starting at $5,000 (£4,000) for an unbacked gelding, to $13,000–18,000 for a trained gelding, up to $40,000 for an imported stallion.
Rick’s interest in the breed was piqued riding out on a fazenda in Brazil.
“I was hooked, not only on the horses’ smoothness, but their demeanour is so easy-going,” says Rick, who imported eight horses from Brazil to America to start his breeding operation.
Lynn Kelley, of the US Mangalarga Marchador Association, imported nine, mostly pregnant, mares from Brazil, after falling in love with the breed – which she likens to a refined Lusitano appearance with quarter horse versatility.
“They have quality where it is needed, in bone, feet and their head,” she says. “They are the perfect entry horse in many disciplines and have the energy and work ethic for long trail rides. Their comfortable gait means riding for hours is a pleasure.”
In a nutshell: a rare Hungarian sport horse breed, with Arabian and thoroughbred blood, descended from one foundation stallion, Gidran II (1818). All Gidran mares have an ancestry traceable back to 1782, though the breed became official in 1855. It is a true “hussar” – a light cavalry horse.
Height: 15.3hh–16.1hh approx.
Rarity: in Hungary, there are now around 250 mares (which would put it in the critical category according to Britain’s Rare Breeds Survival Trust) and 26 stallions, with a further 60 to 80 mares in Romania and Croatia. Numbers dropped to as low as 13 mares in the Hungarian-Romanian War in 1920 when 74 mares were looted.
Distinctive features: exclusively chestnut, the Gidrans’ controlled breeding system is unique, meaning it hasn’t been blended with other elite breeds bar the thoroughbred and Arab. Foals by English thoroughbred or Arabian sires out of Gidran dams can be accepted, providing they are chestnut and show exceptional skills.
Price: €10,000–€12,000 for a quality six-year-old meeting FEI age-group requirements and qualifying for young horse finals.
Hungarian Lajos Kun has been breeding Gidrans for over 20 years, using top-class sports stallions, such as Gidran I-12 Kismitok, who qualified for the London Olympics under Dutch eventer Alice Naber Lozeman. He now has 25 Gidran mares, and sells horses for international sport. His son Peter says: “We pick stallions showing exceptional skills or with sports results. Our principle is that you won’t go far with mediocrity, so we look for something unique. Gidrans have proved to be suitable for top-class jumping, as long as there’s careful matching, sport-testing and selection in the breeding process.”
William Fox-Pitt competed a Gidran mare, Sohaj, finishing 12th at the World Championships (seven-year-olds) in 2004: “She wasn’t the best mover,” he relates in his autobiography, “but she did jump – and showed just how tough she was by jumping clean out of her paddocks 10 minutes after a gruelling 36-hour journey across Europe in a small trailer.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 14 May 2020