by Kristin Berkery
The story of the Caspian breed combines the romance of ancient history with the misfortune of modern political unrest. The survival of the breed is a testament to the resilience of the horses and their ardent supporters.
Near the ancient Persian (Iranian) capital of Persepolis, home of King Darius the Great, are stone carvings that depict small horses with Oriental characteristics. They were around nine to 13 hands in height with fine legs, concave faces, tiny ears, and horse proportions. Called Lydian horses, they were believed to have become extinct over 1,000 years ago. During their existence, Iran was possibly the first place on earth where humans bred horses for specific purposes, and the Lydian horses were put to work pulling chariots and carrying the king.
In 1957, an American woman, Louise Laylin Firouz, married Narcy Firouz of Iran’s royal family and relocated to Iran. That same year, she started a riding program for children of families living near the capital of Tehran, but had trouble finding mounts that were suitable for some of the smaller students. In 1965, Firouz discovered small horses living near the Caspian Sea and was captivated. While they were malnourished and scrubby-looking, their physical characteristics were unmistakeable. They had dished heads, large eyes and nostrils, small ears, high-set tails, and horse proportions – resembling small Arabians. The horses were called “Caspians” based on the location where they were found.
Over the next three years, Firouz studied the horses living in the area and estimated there were around 50 individuals with these same physical characteristics. Thirty of them were concentrated in one geographic area and therefore considered to be “purer” than the rest. Firouz began a Caspian breeding program and used the small horses in her riding school with great success. In 1971, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, heard about the Caspians and offered to care for any of Firouz’s horses in England in order to preserve the breed. Firouz gave two horses to Prince Philip, the mare Khorshid Kola and the stallion Rostam.
The Royal Horse Society of Iran took over Firouz’s horses in 1974, and Firouz started a new breeding program with all new animals in 1975. Surrounded by political unrest during that time, Firouz began sending Caspians to Europe to establish a new breeding program in a safer environment. The Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1977 and the Royal Horse Society seized Firouz’s herd, with many of those individuals lost to starvation and slaughter. A government ban was placed on the export of all Caspians. In an effort to stop the decimation of the Caspian breed, Firouz and her husband ignored the exportation ban and continued sending Caspians overseas. When officials learned of the illegal activity, the couple was arrested and detained, and at one point Firouz staged a hunger strike in protest.
Proving to be just as resilient as her horses, Firouz established another Caspian herd after the Iran-Iraq War. Her husband died in 1994, and due to financial problems, Firouz was forced to sell her beloved horses to Iran’s Ministry of Jehad. Firouz now consults the ministry in the care and management of the breeding program. Thanks to growing interest in the Caspian breed from outside the Middle East, Firouz was able to establish yet another breeding program in Iran in 1999.
Prior to 1994, no Caspian breeding program existed in the United States, but that quickly changed as Americans learned about the remarkable breed and began importing Caspians from England, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, anywhere from 500 to 900 purebred Caspians exist worldwide.With the progress of modern technology, the Caspian breed has undergone genetic testing in an effort to learn about its purity and origins. Based on his research, Dr. Gus Cothran of the University of Kentucky has theorized the Caspian is ancestral to Arabians, Akhal-Tekes, and Turkomans.
The Caspian can be found in bay, chestnut, grey, black, and dun. Overo and tobiano markings do not exist and the cream dilution gene probably does not either. Sabino does occur, although many Caspians have few or no white markings. Like Arabians, they have fine, dark, thin skin; a shiny, fine-haired summer coat; and thick, long manes and tails. Their heads tend to be concave (dished) with fine detail or “dryness” and small tippy ears. Caspians’ bodies are slim and horse-like, not pony-like. The breed standard calls for a natural floating, ground-covering trot; a smooth, rocking canter; and a rapid flat gallop. Caspians have natural jumping ability, but ideally they should not exceed 12.2 hands in height.
The Caspian is a remarkable breed that has proven its toughness over millennia. It’s also fortunate to have benefactors that were willing to sacrifice to preserve the breed despite economic hardships, political upheaval, and harsh terrain. The result is an intelligent and athletic small breed of horse that makes a loyal and beautiful companion.
Originally featured in the November/December 2004 issue of Horsing Around magazine.