It’s quite easy to talk about British, Spanish or German breeds, but what about Japanese horses? When you think of Japan, chances are you think of sushi, geisha girls, beautiful calligraphy and groves of flowering cherries. Horses probably are not the first thing you think of Japan exporting, but they have a grand total of eight native horse breeds. Let’s learn a little more about these Japanese horse breeds.
This pony is also known as the Hokkaido horse or pony, and is one of the only Japanese breeds that is not considered to be endangered. It is a descendent from the first horses brought to Hokkaido island from Korea by fishermen in the 15th century, and at some point the breed was influenced by Mongolian blood. Over the centuries the Dosanko has evolved into a stout, sturdy animal that can survive harsh winters and tough terrain.
The average height is between 13 and 13.2 hands, and they are a strong horse despite their small stature. The head is plain and shows the Mongolian influence, the legs are slender and light with silky feathers. Dosanko come in most solid colors, but most commonly roan. They have a willing temperament, and are used for farm work, military transport, heavy pulling and pleasure riding.
The Kiso is a critically endangered horse, and there are only about 150 of them left. They are thought to have originated from horses imported from the mainland, in the 6th century at the latest, and were drastically affected by the Imperial Japanese Army who wanted taller horses, and ordered that all the Kiso stallions be gelded and the Kiso mares be covered by imported stallions.
One single stallion escaped castration because he had been dedicated to a religious shrine, and his son, born in 1951, became the foundation stallion of the breed as we know it today. The Kiso is only about 12.3 hands, and they are stocky and pony-like. Most are bay or dark bay, and more than half have a dorsal stripe. Traditionally they were used as farm horses, pack animals, and before the advent of firearms, they were much used in warfare.
The Misaki is a well loved Japanese native – so well loved in fact that it was made a Japanese National Natural Treasure in 1953. They roam wild in a designated area on Cape Toi, on the island of Kyushu. The population is critical; only about 120 individuals remain, but these numbers are up from a low of 53 in 1973.
The breed was first identified in 1697, and like most of the Japanese horse breeds it is small, around 12 hands. Most are bay or black, with the occasional chestnut. The ponies are a great draw for tourists who wish to see wild horses in their native setting.
Horses have been found in the Miyako region for centuries, and this area has long been noted for its horse breeding programmes. During and after WW2 the Miyako were crossed with imported stallions to raise their height to around 14 hands, but in recent times the numbers have fallen drastically.
This is a very ancient breed, so efforts are being made to keep it alive; however in 1983 the number of living horses numbered just seven. In 2001 there were 19 individuals, and hopefully this number will continue to rise. Miyakos are small, are usually bay or dun in color, and have traditionally been used for farming purposes.
The Noma comes from the island of Shikoku, and is named for the former district of Noma. This breed is thought to have come from horses bred for military use; the larger ones were kept for that purpose while the smaller were given to farmers to use for pack animals. Numbers of the Noma fell sharply after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, when the breeding of small indigenous breeds was forbidden in favour of importing much larger horses which could be used for warfare.
The population dropped to six individuals in 1978, but a government funded reserve was set up in 1989, and by 2008 there were 84 Noma. They stand about 11 hands, and are compact, sturdy, agile horses. Traditionally used as a pack animal, the Noma is now mostly a tourist attraction. They are also used as riding horses for children, and for therapy riding.
The Tokara is also known as the Kagoshima horse, and it originates from islands of the same name. These horses were discovered on Takarajima in 1952; it was speculated that they were brought there from Kikajima in 1900. Upon its discovery, this little Japanese native was designated a National Monument of Kagoshima. When they were first discovered there were 43; this number declined in the 1960s due to mechanisation, and in 1974, there was one single horse remaining on the Tokara islands.
It was transferred to Nakanoshima where it was bred with other Tokaras that were reintroduced from the mainland, and there are now a total of 107 Tokara horses. They are between 10 and 12 hands, and are usually seal brown in color. They have a good tolerance to heat and are hardy and hard working, but there is little demand for them as working horses or riding horses these days. This is a problem that will continue to affect the breed.
From the Tsushima Island in the Korea strait, the Taishu is an ancient breed believed to date back to the 8th century. They have been protected since 1979 as they are very rare, and efforts are being made to keep the numbers up. They average between 12.2 and 14.2 hands, making them one of Japan’s larger native breeds, and they are a strong, sturdy horse. They come in all the common colors, and have traditionally been used as a riding horse, as well as for light draft and pack work.
The Yonaguni is another of the critically endangered Japanese horse breeds. Genetic analysis has found this horse to be more closely related to the Miyako and Tokara horses than the Mongolian breeds that influence many of Japan’s other horses. The average height of a Yonaguni is 12.2-11.3 hands, as they escaped being bred to larger horses to create a taller breed, meaning that this is one of the oldest purebred bloodlines there is.
They are a small but strong horse, and come in bay, brown, cremello and roan colors. They were originally used for farm work but there is little call for that these days and you will only find a few working Yonaguni.