India is an ancient, beautiful country filled with culture and history. It also has its share of Indian horse breeds, many of which are completely native, others which have been influenced by other breeds. Some of the following are considered wholly or partly of Indian origin, and may have complex or obscure histories that means they are not entirely Indian, but here is a list of the most well known Indian horse breeds.
The Bhutia originates in Sikkim, and is a breed of small mountain horse. Their ancestry is unclear, but it is believed that they arose through extensive interbreeding between local horses and ponies in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, India and Bhutan. It resembles the Mongolian horses, with its large head, straight back and shoulders, deep chest and short straight legs.
The Bhutia stands between 12.3 and 14.3 hands, and are mainly used for light agriculture and carrying loads and people. They have a large, thick head, a short thick neck, low withers and a deep chest, straight shoulders and strong legs which are coarse and hairy. The main coat colors are bay and gray, and they have a quiet, willing character and are resilient and easy to keep.
The Kathiawari was originally bred as a desert war horse by the Kathi people of the Kathiawar peninsula. Indigenous horses existed in India well before the establishment of the Moghul Empire in the 16th century, and the Kathiawari are descended from those natives crossed with Arab horses imported by the Turco-Mongol invaders. These horses have been bred over centuries to be strong, hardy, able to withstand extreme temperatures and minimum rations, and also for temperament.
Kathiawari are renowned for their loyalty, bravery in battle, and even for being able to defend their riders when they were wounded. Kathiawari stand between 14.2 and 15 hands, and they have very distinctive ears, which curve in toward each other and sometimes even overlap. They have a short neck and body, and a tail that is carried high (possibly a hark back to their Arabian ancestry).
They are usually chestnut, but other colors exist – dun specimens exhibit primitive markings such as a dorsal stripe and zebra striped legs. Kathiawari were used as cavalry horses until the end of WW1, and nowadays they are mainly a riding or harness horse.
Although experts disagree on the exact origin of the Manipuri, it is widely accepted that this is an ancient breed, developed either from the Tibetan Pony, or a cross between the Arabian and the Mongolian Wild Horse. The breed was first mentioned in a document dating from 1584, and these ponies have been continually bred for centuries in the Manipur region. Manipuri ponies were the first ever used for the game of polo, which was brought to India by the invading Tartars.
This is a small yet elegant pony, standing between 11 and 13 hands, and it has a light head, a well-formed neck, deep chest and sloping withers. The legs are sturdy and the breed has good hooves. They are often bay, but also exist in pinto, gray and chestnut. Polo was, and still is to some degree, what makes these ponies famous, but these days they are also used for racing and military purposes.
The Marwari, like most of India’s other horse breeds, has a history dating back hundreds of years. India has always had native horses, and these ponies were small and hardy but had poor conformation – the addition of Arabian blood improved the breed immensely. Legend has it that a shipwreck off the shore of the Kachchh District left seven Arabian horses free to roam the Marwar district, where they became the foundation bloodstock for the breed.
The Rajput Cavalry were noted breeders of this brave cavalry horse, which were prized for their bravery, ability to respond to complex battle manueovres, and loyalty to their riders. The Marwari averages a height of between 14.2 and 15.2 hands, and has a high arched neck, pronounced withers, a deep chest and slender legs.
All coat colors are found in this breed. Like the Kathiawari, the ears of a Marwari curve in towards each other, and these amazing ears can rotate a full 180 degrees. These are popular horses, kept mainly for show, ceremonial and religious purposes. They have a natural ability to perform which makes them suitable for dressage, but they can have tenacious and unpredictable temperaments that can preclude their use.
The Spiti is similar to the Mongolian and Tibetan breeds, and it is close genetically to another horse from the Himalayan region, but the Spiti is not as well adapted to surviving in the high altitudes. The Spiti were traditionally used as pack animals because they were able to carry heavy loads on long journeys.
Spitis range between 9 and 12 hands, and they are a solid, compact pony. They have a convex face, deep chest, sloping shoulders, a short back and thick legs. They come in most colors, including white with black spots. Spiti are mostly used as pack animals and as general riding ponies; they have a very comfortable fifth gait using the laterals instead of the diagonals, which is ideal for long distances.
Only a few hundred of this breed’s pure bred animals remain, because of the interbreeding between other horses. The Zaniskari is from the Ladakh area of Northern India, and it is ideally suited to living in its harsh, high altitude home – despite the fact that it lies between 3000 and 5000 feet above sea level and temperatures may reach -40 degrees C.
The breed is considered endangered, and a conservation programme has been started in India to keep the bloodlines going. The Zaniskari stand between 11.3 and 13.3 hands, and they are a small, sturdy pony of compact stature. Thy are often gray, but bay, brown, black and chestnut also occur. The Indian army use the Zaniskari as a pack beast, and it is also used for riding and polo.