Ah, the horse. A classic staple of barnyards and beloved by children.
I was no different. I, in my youth, was a horse girl.
Okay, to be fair, I was only a mild horse girl. I did spend 4th grade pretending to be a horse at recess, but that’s it! Oh, and in 5th grade, my horse-riding friend gave me a horse-riding lesson for my birthday. That was pretty great.
Long story short, I like horses. Now, there are plenty of people who are much more knowledgeable about horses than I am; so, for this post, I’m going to focus less on horses generally and more on breeds of horses that I think are especially cool.
Pony or horse?
Real quick, though, let’s answer a basic question: what’s the difference between a pony and a horse?
I consulted my friend who is super into horses, and she explained that the horse/pony distinction comes down to height. Ponies are below 14.2 hands at the withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades), while horses are larger. Some breeds are naturally small and will always be ponies; others are naturally large and will typically be horses. For other breeds, they can be a pony or a horse depending on how big they are in adulthood.
And how big is a hand? Originally, a hand was the width of, well, your hand. Nowadays, things are standardized so that one hand is 4 inches.
With that taken care of, now onto cool horses / ponies!
Chincoteague ponies are a breed of ponies living on Assateague Island between Maryland and Virginia. They grow to be between 12 and 13 hands tall and are stocky with a large, round belly.
Chincoteague ponies have been living on Assateauge Island for centuries and have adapted to the harsh environment and limited diet available. They primarily eat the salt water cord grass that grows in the marshes of the island. The salt water cord grass isn’t super nutritious, so Chincoteague ponies spend most of their day eating. The cord grass also has high amounts of, you guessed it, salt. To stay hydrated, Chincoteague ponies must drink twice the water that other horses do; this leads to their bloated-looking belly.
Now, the ponies are not native to Assateague Island, so how did they get there? One popular legend says the Chincoteague ponies are the descendants of Spanish ponies from a shipwreck centuries ago. A ship carrying ponies to the Colonies or South America wrecked off the coast, and the surviving ponies swam to shore.
And it looks like this legend may have some teeth, literally. According to NPR, a Florida scientist ran some tests on what was thought to be a cow’s tooth from Haiti. The tests revealed that it was actually a horse’s tooth, and the closest relative was the Chincoteague pony. This means that the Chincoteague ponies are very closely related to the horses that were used in the Caribbean Spanish colonies.
This doesn’t definitively mean Chincoteague ponies came from a Spanish shipwreck, but it definitely strengthens the possibility of the legend being true!
Icelandic horses are from Iceland. These horses arrived in Iceland sometime between 860 and 935 AD on the Viking ships of Norse settlers. Since then, the horses have adapted well to the harsh environment in Iceland – they grow a thick fur coat in winter to keep warm and are able to cross tough terrains.
The Icelandic horse is one of the purest breeds of horses in the world. Since 982 AD, the government has prohibited any horses from being imported into Iceland. As a result, they have been completely isolated from other horses for over one thousand years. And Iceland is very strict about this, too: while horses can leave Iceland, they can never return.
Another horse breed well-adapted to their island habitat is the Exmoor pony. These ponies are the oldest British ponies, and have adapted a ‘hooded-eye’ or ‘toad eye’ – a large upper brow to deal with the wind and rain of Britain. They also have a ‘snow-chute’ on their tail, a bunch of coarse hairs at the top of the tail that channel snow and rain away from the body.
Exmoor ponies are really ancient and have lived in Britain for centuries. In fact, there are records of Exmoor ponies in the Doomesday Book from 1086.
On the opposite end of the size spectrum from Exmoor ponies, we have the Friesian horses. These horses were domesticated in the Netherlands and usually have a black coat with a long mane and tail. Although they are large, they are very nimble and graceful.
Friesians were warhorses in the Middle Ages – they are large and strong enough to carry a knight in armor. They also tend to be relatively calm and unlikely to spook, which would make them good for being in the thick of a battle.
The Falabella horse, while definitely smaller than 14 hands, is actually a miniature horse and not a pony. Miniature horses are bred to look like mini-horses, while pony breeds typically have some characteristics that differ from horses (like shorter legs and a thicker neck). The Falabella horse is among the smallest of miniature horses. They grow to be 30 – 34 inches tall at the withers. Foals are even tinier – they’re 12 to 22 inches tall at birth.
Falabella horses come from Argentina. The story goes that the Spanish left their horses in Argentina after failing to conquer the country. The horses that were left behind became smaller and smaller as they tried to survive the unpredictable weather conditions of their new home. In the 19th century, a man named Patrick Newtall began gathering the smallest horses he could find and started breeding them to make a miniature horse breed.
First bred in the 12th century and used as calvary horses, Marwari horses are an ancient breed of horse originating in India. A key characteristic of this horse is their curved ears – they even curve inward so that the tips meet. Marwari horses can also rotate their ears 180 degrees!
Marwari horses are also a breed that has faced extinction. When India was under British colonial rule, Marwari horses were frowned upon as a ‘native’ horse and almost eliminated (the British preferred their own native thoroughbreds). Even after Indian independence, the Marwari were seen as a nobleman’s horse and fell further out of favor. But starting in the mid-20th century, Maharaja Umaid Singhji and his grandson Maharaja Gaj Singh II worked to restore the breed. Today, there are more than 900 Marwari horses in the world, and most of them still live in India.
Another ancient horse, Akhal-Tekes are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world. They come from the desert regions of Turkmenistan and are a hardy breed – they can survive well in both hot and cold climates. In addition, they have great stamina, and once a group crossed 225 miles of the KaraKum Desert with little water available.
One of the coolest parts of Akhal-Teke horses is how shiny they are. Due to a genetic trait, their coat has a metallic sheen: their hair follicles are hollow and catch the light like a prism.
We end with the last truly wild horse: Przewalski’s horse. While other horse breeds are more accurately feral (domesticated breeds that escaped and now live in the wild), Przewalski’s horses have never been domesticated. This breed is very old, but they are not the ancestor of domestic horses. Instead, genetic data show that Przewalski’s horses are distant cousins of our domestic horses.
These horses were once found across Europe and Asia; however, due to competition with livestock and environmental changes, they were pushed further and further east before eventually going extinct in the wild. Today, Przewalski’s horses have been reintroduced to the wild in Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan.