Caspian horse

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Caspian horse
Caspian Stallion (caspians are considered horses, not ponies).jpg
Other namesCaspian horse
Country of originIran and surrounding regions
Distinguishing featuresSmall horse breed founded in 1965 from stock believed to be of ancient origins; now bred in several other countries
Breed standards

The Caspian is a small horse breed native to Northern Iran. Although its height ranges between 9.2 and 12.2 hands (38 and 50 inches, 97 and 127 cm) it is called a horse rather than a pony because it has much in common with the proportions of horses in terms of conformation and gaits. It is believed to be descended from the oldest horse breeds in the world, from small Mesopotamian equines that, in competition with larger animals, had faded from attention by the 7th century AD.

The horse breed was founded in 1965 by Louise Firouz, an American-born breeder of Iranian horses living in Iran.[1] In 2011, the remains of a small horse dating back to 3400 B.C.E. were found at Gohar Tappeh, Iran, giving rise to claims that today's Caspian originates from the oldest known breed of the domestic horse.[2] It is also called Khazar Horse, after one of the Caspian Sea's native names in Iran.[2] It is also one of the rarest horse breeds and its population status is critically endangered.[3]


Caspian horses generally stand between 9.2 and 12.2 hands (38 and 50 inches, 97 and 127 cm) tall, although better conditions outside Iran often result in taller individuals. They have a short, fine head with a vaulted forehead, large eyes and short ears. The muzzle is small and the nostrils large and low on the head. Overall, the body is slim with a graceful neck, sloping shoulders, straight back, good withers, and a high-set tail on a level croup.[4] The legs are strong and so are the hooves, which are oval-shaped.[5] Despite its size, a Caspian closely resembles the Arabian or the Akhal-Teke, which are among its closest living relatives.[6]

Caspians were described by Louise Firouz as spirited, kind, intelligent, and willing. Even stallions can be ridden by experienced children. Their gaits are long and they occasionally exhibit an ambling "single-foot" gait. They are also natural jumpers. Their great length from hip to hock may be a factor in their incredible jumping ability.

Despite their small size, Caspians are morphologically and phenotypically horse-like; they were originally referred to as miniature horses. However, not to be confused with the Miniature Horse and Falabella breeds, horses bred to be 9.2 hands (38 inches, 97 cm) or smaller, the term is no longer used to describe the Caspian Horse.[7]

A bay Caspian bucking.

The Caspian Horse is extremely hardy, with strong hooves that rarely need shoeing unless they are consistently worked on very hard or stony ground. Their base coat colors are bay, chestnut, and black and other color modifiers include grey and dun. White markings may appear on the head and legs, but minimal white or no white markings are usually favored. Some lack chestnuts or ergots.[8]

Genetics and phenotype[edit]

There are experts who classify the Caspian horse as one that does not directly fall into the four ancestral types, namely the Northern European, Northern Steppe, Southern Steppe, and the Iberian/Mediterranean, making it unique and an important link to ancient horses.[9] It is this reason the Caspian is considered to be one of the rarest breeds of horses, along with the Akhal Teke.[9]

Although there are no records of breeding prior to 1965, the earliest foundation animals registered in Iran were proven by Louise Firouz to breed true to type, and their descendants have, for the most part, retained Caspian characteristics and established the breed. Improved living conditions outside Iran have produced Caspians that have grown larger than their Iranian foundation parents; modern Caspians tend to average between 11 and 12.2 hands (44 and 50 inches, 112 and 127 cm).

Research has shown that Caspian and Turkoman horses occupy positions in phylogenetic analysis that has given rise to a hypothesis that they carry genetics that are ancestral to all other oriental type breeds studied to date.[10] However, close study of Caspian and other equid skeletons by Firouz and others found several anomalies unique to the Caspian:

  • The skull has pronounced elevation of the inter-parietal bones and no parietal crest
  • The neck of the scapula is narrower and the head much wider than normally found in equines
  • The metacarpal and metatarsal bones are much longer and slimmer in relation to size [11]
  • The hooves are usually narrow and oval-shaped, and the frog is less pronounced than in other equines
  • The spinous processes of the first six thoracic vertebrae are longer than usual
  • They often possess an extra tooth each side of the upper molar where a wolf tooth would normally be.


Ancient history[edit]

A partial answer to the existence of the Caspian is the fact that the Persian Empire, which flourished in the first millennium B.C, has been called "the first great road empire." Before the Romans built their first road for marching men, the Persians constructed broad straight dirt roads, well maintained for speedy couriers and busy senior administrators. Herodotus wrote that:

"There is nothing in the world which travels faster than these Persian couriers. It is said that men and horses are stationed along the road…a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time, neither snow, rain, heat nor darkness."

The Caspian is said to originate from the mountainous regions of northern Iran, which explains how the breed is tough, athletic, and nimble.[9] Indeed, the oldest known specimen of a Caspian-like horse was found in 2011, in a cemetery dating back to 3400 B.C.E., in the archaeological dig at Gohar Tappeh in the province of Mazandaran in northern Iran, between the cities of Neka and Behshahr. Small horses were depicted in ancient art where they appeared in scenes pulling chariots.[4] The horse was identified by its form, figure, and size as having a light frame; thin bones; short, fine head with a pronounced forehead; large eyes; short ears; and small muzzle.[2] These small horses were first mentioned in recorded sources sometime in 600 CE.

The Persian Empire required land transport on a huge scale. They were the first people to breed horses especially for strength and speed. That these horses were very small by modern standards is shown by a miniature golden chariot, a toy or perhaps a votive offering, found in the so-called Oxus Treasure,[12] discovered in the extreme east of the empire but apparently made in central Persia. The vehicle was obviously built for speed. Its wheels are taller than the horses, which are themselves of lesser height than the two passengers – and not because of the status of the passengers. Neil MacGregor likens this vehicle to a Ferrari or Porsche amongst cars – fast and luxurious.[13] King Darius (the Great) trusted his life to the little horses during lion hunts, and honored them on his famous Trilingual Seal.[12]

As seen on the bas comfortes on the great staircase at Persepolis, the Persian Shah demanded tributes of only first class animals.[14] Those depicted were probably from Lydia in Turkey, judging by the grooms' appearance, and the horses are of similar size to the four in the Oxus Treasure. Skeletons with the same bone structure as the Caspian were found at Hamadan.

Yet the fine little horses so valued by the Persian Empire virtually disappeared from history after libraries and monuments were destroyed in the great Mongol and Islamic conquests. Almost no further mention was found of them after 700 AD. Until 1965, modern scholars believed that they had become extinct.

It is now assumed that the modern Caspian descended from the great pool of chariot stock that once formed the essential foundation of the Persian Empire. Caspians, known locally as moulek or pouseki ponies ("little muzzle"), now inhabit an area in the northern regions of Iran between the Caspian Sea and the Elburz Mountains. Horses potentially related and phenotypically similar to the Caspian have also been identified in a much wider range, as history might lead us to expect.

Establishing the breed[edit]

The individuals selected since 1965 originated mainly from peasant-owned stock and were not bred for type, so it may seem remarkable that animals of such characteristics have remained in a relatively unaltered form, possibly because they had adapted to their environment. In addition, peasants in the Alborz Mountains habitually turn their stock out on the hills in semi-feral conditions, where they are vulnerable to attack by predators. Natural selection would probably have favored an animal that was tough and athletic, but there is evidence that also suggests their small size may be due to recessive genetics, as occasionally larger mares and stallions will produce smaller foals.

Louise Firouz[edit]

The Caspian Horse was founded in 1965 from horses discovered in this mountainous region of northern Iran by American-born Louise Firouz, a breeder of Iranian horses who was searching for small ponies that could be ridden by children. She saw a small bay stallion with the body of a "well-bred oriental horse" pulling a cart in the town of Amol. She purchased the stallion and named him Ostad (and later referred to him as 'The Professor' due to his 'wise' nature[15]). Following her purchase, Firouz concluded:[16]

" ….. there was an elusive beauty and grace about this small horse which did not seem to fit into the accepted picture of ponies. Ponies are chunky, strong little equids generally developed under austere conditions of climate and food. Why a 'pony' on the relatively lush shores of the temperate Caspian [Sea] and, in spite of his small size, was the light, graceful animal on the Caspian a pony at all? Was there any historical precedent for a pony-sized horse in Iran and, if so, how well documented was it? These questions initiated a study in the spring of 1965 to determine the range, nature, and historical precedent for a horse of this size in Iran."

With seven mares and six stallions, Firouz began a breeding program at her riding school in Norouzabad, with the horses she named "Caspian" from the area where she had found them. The horses themselves were much enjoyed by the children; Ostad became a successful sire of children's ponies and was ridden daily in the company of mares. Firouz started the Iranian stud book in 1966. In 1973, the stud was sold to the Shah of Iran, who established the Royal Horse Society at the Norouzabad Stud.

In late 1965, while visiting her family in Great Falls, Virginia, Firouz told Kathleen McCormick the Caspian story and showed photographs of the ponies she had brought to Norouzabad. They decided to export a Caspian stallion from Iran to the United States and McCormick selected the foundation stallion Jehan from the photographs. In April 1966, William M. Santoro, DVM, accompanied Jehan on the four-day, 8,000-mile journey to New York. Due to the difficulties experienced in exporting Jehan from Iran, only a part-bred breeding program was established in the US at that time and plans to import mares were put on hold. In 1975, another stallion was exported to Venezuela from Iran.

Meanwhile, a new herd of twenty mares and three stallions, established by Firouz on the Turkoman Steppes, suffered repeated and fatal wolf attacks. This forced the emergency evacuation of six mares and a stallion to the Caspian Stud UK in 1976 and the remainder were taken over by the Royal Horse Society of Iran. They were later widely dispersed during the Iranian Revolution, leaving only one traceable stallion. The subsequent ban on keeping horses ended the breeding program in Iran until 1986, when Firouz found and purchased three mares and a stallion.

Iran-Iraq War[edit]

During the Iran-Iraq War, most horses were swept up to aid the war effort, but in 1989, Firouz was invited to inspect the remaining horses for possible Caspian breeding stock, resulting in six more potential foundation animals. These horses founded her Persicus stud. In 1994, seven of her Caspians were exported for breeding in England and in 1995 several Caspians from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand were shipped to the USA. After her husband's death, Firouz sold the Persicus stud to the Iranian Ministry of Agriculture, which has continued her breeding and research programs in Iran. Louise Firouz died in May, 2008.[17]

Although the Caspian is still considered rare, the combined efforts of breeders across the world have established the breed beyond the borders of Iran, in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America, with breed registries in each region that register Caspian horses.


The horses are mainly used in the towns of Amol, Babol, Shahi and Rasht in Northern Iran, as cart ponies. They are valued for their speed and ability to pull or carry heavy loads in the narrow streets and bazaars. During the late 1960s, Caspian stallions from the Norouzabad riding school were raced on the prestigious Tehran racetrack by small children wearing jockey silks, by courtesy of the late Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Caspians are known for their good temperaments and "horse-like" personalities. Caspians can be handled by experienced children, and with their comfortably narrow conformation, Caspians make excellent children's mounts. Their long, level paces, natural grace and balance make them very suitable for dressage. Sensible but active, they can be impressive in mounted games, gymkhana, and pony racing.

In harness they make a smart, responsive light driving pony and have successfully competed in national scurry and cross-country obstacle driving. Their extraordinary jumping ability makes them highly competitive for show jumping and eventing.

Part-bred Caspians[edit]

Crossbreeding with larger breeds, including Thoroughbreds and Arabians, Caspians can produce fine show ponies, show jumpers, and eventers for taller children or smaller adults. Another popular cross is with the Welsh Pony. The appearance, characteristics, and athletic abilities of Caspians are passed in good measure to their part-bred offspring, so the Caspian Horse is often included in breeding programs to produce ideal sports Ponies. Many of the Caspian horse registries or societies also recognize and register part-bred Caspians.

Further reading[edit]

  • Osteological and Historical Implications of the Caspian Miniature Horse to Early Horse Domestication in Iran, Firouz, Louise, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Imperial Horse Society of Iran
  • The Caspian Miniature Horse Of Iran, Firouz, Louise, Field Research Studies, Florida 1972
  • The Caspian Horse, (Dalton, Brenda), Allen Guides to Horse and Pony Breeds, (2000), ISBN 0-85131-797-9.
  • The Caspian Horse, Dalton, Brenda, ISBN 978-0-9549362-2-8 Reprinted in paperback 2009 – Plausible Publishing
  • Horses, their role in the History of Man, E. Hartley Edwards, Willow Books, 1987
  • The Ark, Alderson, Lawrence, Rare Breeds Survival Trust
  • Riding Through Revolution, Louise Firouz with Brenda Dalton, Advanced Global Publishing, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9549362-2-8.


  1. ^ Telegraph obituary of Louise Firouz
  2. ^ a b c The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. Oldest remains of Caspian Horse discovered in Northern Iran. 2011-04-29. Accessed 2012-07-09.
  3. ^ Perkins, Laura. "Conservation Priority List". The Livestock Conservancy. Retrieved 2022-03-23.
  4. ^ a b Haas, Jessie (2017). The Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing. p. 48. ISBN 9781612126784.
  5. ^ Glover, FJH (2011). 1000 Famous Horses Fact & Fictional Throughout the Ages. Xlibris Corporation. p. 343. ISBN 9781456885298.
  6. ^ "Horse Ancestry". Animal Genetics Laboratory (Juras Lab). Retrieved 2022-03-23.
  7. ^ Firouz, Louise The Caspian Miniature Horse of Iran, Field Research Projects, Florida, USA, 1972
  8. ^ Firouz, Louise. Light Horse. April 1966.
  9. ^ a b c Willekes, Carolyn (2016). The Horse in the Ancient World: From Bucephalus to the Hippodrome. New York: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 9781784533663.
  10. ^ E. Gus Cothran, Ph.D., Animal Genetics, Texas A & M University. (Initial studies took place at Kentucky University, 1990).
  11. ^ Sandor Bokonyi, "Once more on the Osteological Differences of the Horse, the Half-Ass and the Ass', Budapest, 1971.
  12. ^ a b Both c. 500 BC, British Museum, London
  13. ^ Neil MacGregor A History of the World in a Hundred Objects: Ch. 26, Oxus Chariot Model.;pp 165-`170 (2010)
  14. ^ The Horses of Persepolis, Royal Horse Society, Iran, & Firouz L, Light Horse, Vol.20, No.22, Aug. 1969
  15. ^ Ostad photo and biography
  16. ^ Firouz, Louise. Light Horse, April 1966
  17. ^ Obituary, Times (London), 7 July 2008: Louise Firouz: Horse breeder who discovered the Caspian Horse.

External links[edit]