Horses and humans have worked together for over five thousand years. So it’s no surprise that in that time they have evolved slowly but surely into a huge variety of different breeds. A horse might just be a horse when you first think about it, but compare a Shire horse to a Shetland pony to a thoroughbred, and you’ll soon get the idea!
Some breeds are more distinctive than others, however. Here’s our pick of some of the most unusual breeds on the planet:
Akhal-Teke – the Golden Horse
Unique for its looks alone, the Akhal-Teke is famously appears to be golden. Yes, that’s right… gold horses really do exist! The breed originates from Turkmenistan, in Central Asia, and is the country’s national emblem. As a result the capital, Ashgabat, is home to numerous golden statues of them, and Akhal-Teke racing is popular. You can find them on stamps, coins and the national coat of arms, too – all in various shades of gold.
So what of their golden coats? Akhal-Tekes can be any colour from grey to dark bay, but it’s the copper coloured ones that draw in the crowds. The high shine factor is believed to be due to the structure of the hair shaft, which allows light to pass through it in such a way that the whole coat appears to glow.
Falabella – the smallest of them all
We all love a miniature equine, and the tiny Falabella is the smallest of them all. They are rarely taller than 32 inches – not much above waist height – and a foal which claimed to be the smallest horse in the world measured in at just 14 inches high – smaller than a school ruler.
Despite their size, Falabellas are definitely horses rather than ponies, with a slim frame, unlike a chunky pony! It might sound weird, but their size, intelligence and willingness to learn means that they make surprisingly good guide horses. They certainly make a change from a Labrador.
Fjord horse – the Punk Rocker
With their punk-style zig zag manes, it’s hard to believe that the Norwegian fjord doesn’t come with its own hair stylist. The thick black stripe down the middle of their manes makes for a very dramatic look, which can be styled into all different kinds of artistic cuts… triangles, diamonds and even hearts have all been spotted. Younger horse lovers might recognise them from Disney’s Frozen.
The Marwari – the one with the curly ears
This Indian breed can be spotted by its unusual ears, which curve inwards and touch at the tips. Praised for their bravery in battle, their unique ears can rotate 180 degrees, which people believe makes them far better hearing than most horses.
Native to the Jodhpur area of Rajasthan, the British Empire has been blamed for their downfall. When the British came to India, their preference for thoroughbreds meant that the ‘native breeds’ were looked down on and persecuted. Now, however, the breed is becoming more well-known, although Indian rules on the export of native breeds means that they are still relatively unheard of abroad.
The Shire horse – the Gentle Giants
The BFG of the horse world, the Shire horse is a real gentle giant. An average height is around 70 inches – that is, measured in the normal horsey way, to the top of its withers. The largest recorded Shire horse stood at 86.25 inches, and weighed in at a whopping 1,524 kilos. Bear in mind that an average-sized thoroughbred weighs around 500 kg, and you can see why they were the horse of choice for medieval knights in their suits of armour.
Bashkir Curly – the horse for people allergic to horses
These curly coated horses do just what they say on the tin. No one is sure how exactly they got their curls, but we do know that wild, curly-coated mustangs were sighted in Nevada in the 1800s.
Their curly hair makes them hypoallergenic, which makes them perfect for horse-lovers with allergies. Maybe the Duchess of Cambridge, who is allergic to horses, could be the one to turn them into a royal favourite?
Przewalski’s horse – The Untameable Stallions
The only surviving species of truly wild horse, the Przewalski’s horse – pronounced shuh-val-ski – is also the only breed to never have been domesticated.
The Przewalski is classified as being ‘endangered’, with only around 1,500 left in the world. The breed can be found in various zoos and wildlife parks, as well as in national parks in Mongolia, China, Southern Russia – and strangely enough, the nuclear exclusion zone around Chernobyl.
At the end of the 1950s, however, there were only twelve Przewalskis left; many of the wild herds had suffered from habitat loss and overhunting, and one herd in the Ukraine was slaughtered during World War II.
The horses that exist today are descendants of nine of those twelve. They’re identifiable by their small size and their striped legs and dark dorsal line along the back, which are both typical of primitive markings.
The Thoroughbred – the Speed Machine
Compact, super-fast and elegant to boot, thoroughbreds were designed to run fast – and that’s exactly what they do. You’ll see them at racecourses all over the world, but they also excel in many other disciplines, from polo to dressage. They might not have the best reputation in all circles as they can be highly strung, but fans of the breed wouldn’t swap them for all the tea in China.
The Black Forest horse – The Blonde-haired German
The one thing that makes the Black Forest horse unique is its flashy colouring. With a very dark chestnut coat and a thick, golden-blonde mane and tail, these German horses certainly stand out in the crowd. The breed was almost extinct in the 1970s, but thanks to serious conservation work by the Marbach stud (the oldest of Germany’s state-owned breeding farms), there are now over 1,000 of them.
The Hackney Horse – The Original London Cabbie
A hundred years ago, you’d have seen these harness horses almost every day as they pulled hackney carriages – the original London cab – around cities. Nowadays they’ve been replaced by taxis (or Ubers!), and the breed, famous for its high-stepping gait, is becoming rarer and rarer. You’ll still spot them in show rings, but in 2012 they were put on the ‘critical’ list by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, as there were under 150 breeding mares in the country.
There are plenty of other breeds that stand out from the crowd. After all, horses come in almost all shapes, sizes and colours these days. If you fancied it you could even get hold of a zorse – a zebra crossed with a horse, which has a funky striped coat. Or how about a smaller version, known as a ‘Zetland’? (Zebra cross Shetland, of course!).
What is it about your horse that people always comment on? Let us know in the comments below.