THE CASPIAN HORSE
The intersecting paths of an adventurous American woman and a little horse that lived along the shores of the Caspian Sea, would change bother their destinies, and re-establish the Caspian as an extant equine breed.
The small, elegant Caspian horse, whose origins date back to 3,000 BC, was presumed extinct for over one thousand years, until its rediscovery in the mid-sixties by American Louise Firoux. The Cornell University graduate, who married Narcy Firouz, an Iranian prince, first caught sight of what would become her passion and lifelong work in Amol, a coastal market town in northern Iran near the Caspian Sea.
The slim, fine-boned, spirited animal with the body of a “well-bred oriental horse” was pulling a ramshackle cart heavily laden with goods. The little horse was no more than 11 hands, and was covered in ticks and parasites. Undaunted, Firouz convinced the owner to sell her the bedraggled animal whose name was Ostad. The adventuresome young mother had been searching for a small mount for her own children, and for the children who attended the riding academy she established after marrying and settling in Iran.
For centuries, archaeological, archaeozoological and genetic scholars working in Persepolis (once the ceremonial capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ca. 550-330 BC) had been looking for the missing horse depicted in historical friezes, artifacts and ancient writings. The identity of the diminutive equine memorialized in stone bas-reliefs on the great staircase at Persepolis, the palace of Persia’s King Darius the Great, was elusive. The graceful, strong and fearless horse King Darius trusted to pull his chariot in lion hunts also appears on the famous Darius or Tri-Lingual Seal, ca.500BC, currently housed in the British Museum. Even before this, small horses with pronounced foreheads, elegant carriage—and stature that reached only to their handlers’ waists—appeared in stone reliefs of Persian kings Ardashir I (AD224) and Shapur (AD260). It seems the Caspian horse had originally secured its place of honor in the ancient Persian Empire, “the first great road empire,” by being a speedy courier, enabling efficient land transport on a massive scale.
The mystery of the missing horse would ultimately be solved by Louise Firouz, and the implications and results of her discovery would rock both history and the horse world, bringing to light the missing link of an elusive breed.
After obtaining the fine-boned little cart horse, Firouz set out to find more like her Ostad, in a search that would take several years. Although prominent and greatly revered in classical antiquity, this extremely rare breed was essentially unknown outside of a small mountainous area in northern Iran. The villagers she queried referred to the horses as “Mouleki” or “Pouseki” meaning “small muzzle.”
Unlike other Iranian horses, the Mouleki were not deliberately bred. Ultimately, Forouz found only a handful of the horses over a widespread area of inhospitable terrain near the Persian shores of the Caspian Sea and the northern shores of the Elburz Mountains. She brought five back to her farm in Teheran to be used as children’s mounts. An intelligent and inquisitive woman, Firouz was intrigued by her horses.
“. . . . . there was an illusive 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: and, in spite of his small size, was the light and 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.”
The subsequent survey was conducted between 1965 and 1968, to more precisely determine the number and range of the “little pony” that would turn out to be morphologically, osteologically and phenotypically horse-like. Only about fifty small horses with definite Caspian characteristics were found, scattered along the entire littoral of the Caspian Sea.
The rare Caspian is, in fact, an ancient equine that today is considered to be the “possible prototype” for the Arabian. According to the findings of a University of Kentucky genetic study, the petite Caspian, along with the Turkoman horse (an extinct Oriental breed that once roamed the steppes of central Asia) holds an “ancestral position to all breeds researched to date.”
In the meantime, Ostad thrived and flourished under Firouz’s care and regular nourishment. Along with his regular duties in her riding school, Ostad became a successful sire and was part of a breeding program from 1965 to 1970, that included seven mares and six stallions. Louise called her horses “Caspians” after the provenance in which they were found.
With increasing interest abroad in these exotic little equines, Firouz first began exporting the Caspians in 1966. Her stallion, Jehan, went to her friend Kathleen McCormick in the USA. In 1971, a mare and stallion were presented to HRH Prince Phillip in the UK. Joan Taplin, a friend of Firouz’s who had accompanied Louise in her search for the little horses, took two mares and a stallion back home to Bermuda.
The International Stud book, established by Firouz when she first discovered the breed in 1965, was first printed officially in the UK in 1978. While war and revolution in Iran would thwart Firoux’s efforts on behalf of the Caspians for many decades, it did not deter her determination and passion to keep the breed extant. Her decision to begin exporting her beloved Caspians would prove fortuitous, and instrumental in the breed’s ultimate survival. A small nucleus of devoted breeders in the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia has ensured their survival today.
Riding through Revolution, Louise Firouz’s autobiography, written with Brenda Dalton, documents her remarkable life and the trajectory of the Caspian’s history.
Breed Characteristics and Standards
Caspians are known for their amiable temperaments, elegant proportions, movement and conformation. An inherent grace and long level paces make them suitable for dressage. They are excellent in harness and are highly competitive for show jumping and eventing.
In general, the limbs, body and head of a Caspian should all be in proportion to each other. Eyes are prominent, almond shaped, dark and set low. Large, low nostrils are finely chiseled. Short, alert, refined ears are often in-pricked at the tips. Foreheads are wide and vaulted. Jawbones are prominent with the head tapering to a fine, firm muzzle. Necks are long and supple, shoulders long and sloping. Caspians are generally slim with deep girths. Their limbs are slender but dense. Hooves are oval and neat. Caspians have a silky coat that takes on an iridescent sheen in summer. They have little or no feathering at the fetlock.
Caspians come in all colors, except piebald or skewbald (pinto). The average height is 11.2 hands high.
Caspians are light and agile with a natural floating action at all gaits. They have spectacular jumping ability for their size. They are highly intelligent, kind and willing companions.
The International Caspian stud book is the only official registry the for purebred Caspian horse, although not all Caspian societies adhere to these standards. Today, there are only approximately one thousand Caspians worldwide. The breed’s status is listed as “precarious” with the Livestock Conservancy.