History of the Great American Horse Breeds

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The Lipizzan has a global population of less than 5,000 horses.
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This regal-looking Caspian is a rare horse breed today.
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Shire horses once agilely carried 400-pound, fully armored knights into battle.
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The Gotland has a gentle, friendly disposition that makes it an ideal mount for children.
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The Wilbur-Cruce is a great ranch horse supremely adapted to the climate of the desert Southwest.

When thinking of rural American horses, most folks envision the American Quarter Horse, Paints, Appaloosas or maybe even the Missouri Fox Trotter, among others. But those breeds are only part of the picture when it comes to horsemanship in the rural United States. If you’re looking to add a few steeds to your place, you’d be remiss not to consider these heritage horse breeds.

Shire Horse

Status: Critical

The Shire horse is a native English horse breed that descends from the Great Horse, a draft breed of medieval England. The breed was used by King Henry II’s army to carry 400-pound, fully armored knights into battle. Through the ages, these horses were crossed with Flemish stallions and Dutch Friesians. By the 16th century, gunpowder revolutionized war practices, meaning large horses were no longer needed for battle. The Great Horse moved from the battlefield to the homestead, where it soon gained the name Heavy Black. Families began using the breed for pulling, logging and other farm work.

In the late 1700s, noted English geneticist Sir Robert Bakewell worked to define the characteristics of the breed, shaping the modern Shire horse. The Shire’s popularity grew quickly, and, by 1884, the breed was officially christened with the Shire name. Shires were imported into the United States in the late 1800s.

Today, the Shire horse is known as the tallest of the modern draft breeds, averaging 17.2 hands (70 inches) at the withers, sometimes reaching 19.2 hands (76 inches). Their great height is coupled with a hefty size; most animals weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Shires come in a variety of colors, but bay, black, brown and gray are the most common. The Shire’s size, beauty and movement make it an ideal modern horse for pulling and showing. Farming and logging also are possible with the breed, but owners should be prepared for the management and care of a massive animal. Today, the Shire breed is considered globally endangered with fewer than 2,000 animals worldwide.


Status: Threatened

You may think that Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Sound of Music are Austria’s biggest claims to fame, but for more than 400 years the Lipizzan horse breed has reigned as a national symbol of history, culture and imperial might. The Lipizzan horse was born in the 1500s when Maximillian II of the House of Hapsburg introduced Spanish horses to the empire. The reputed Spanish horses were crossed with the fast, white, traditional horses, giving rise to a majestic, agile breed. The Hapsburgs established two royal studs, one in the town of Lipizza (now Lipica in present-day Slovenia), which years later gave rise to the Lipizzan breed’s name. For centuries, the best Lipizzan stallions were taken to the famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna – the epitome of equine artistry. It was here that the centuries-old art of horsemanship was fostered and preserved, making the Lipizzan a world-famous dressage horse.

During World War II, Austria was a center of bombing and fighting – threatening the future of the Lipizzan breed. In an amazing twist of fate, U.S. Gen. George Patton saw a performance by several evacuated Lipizzans. Patton was so impressed with the breed that he had the U.S. Army protect the Spanish Riding School, and he also rescued the royal studs that had been moved by the Germans. Over the past 30 years, Lipizzans have been imported to the United States, but still fewer than 1,000 Lipizzans are registered annually in the United States.

The Lipizzan is a light yet powerful and athletic breed that reflects elegance, nobility and style. Lipizzans stand 14.2 to 15.2 hands (56 to 60 inches) at the withers and weigh 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. Most are gray, but the light reflection of their coat causes them to appear almost white. Foals are typically born dark, and lighten between the ages of 4 and 10. Today, the Lipizzan breed is rare, with an estimated global population of less than 5,000 horses.

Gotland Horse

Status: Watch

As the only breed of horse native to Sweden, the Norse horse – or Gotland – is a Swedish national treasure. The breed has lived in the forest regions of Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea, since time immemorial. Natives call the breed the “Russ” or “Skogruss,” meaning little horse of the woods. The Gotland breed is named after the Goths, who inhabited the island of Gotland in 1800 B.C. The Goths used the breed for transportation and pulling large loads. In the centuries that followed, farmers on Gotland kept free-ranging horses in the forests and brought new blood into their herds as needed. By the mid-1800s, people began parceling off land, adding fences, and destroying the native habitat of the horses; the result was dwindling numbers for the Gotland breed. 

By the early 1900s, only about 200 Gotland ponies were left on the island, and the breed neared extinction. World War I led to more threats for the breed. Meat rations and food shortages led poachers to hunt the Gotlands. After realizing the threat, the Gotland Agricultural Society began preserving native habitats for the horses and promoting active breeding. In the 1950s, the first Gotlands were imported to the United States for use in handicapped riding programs.

The Gotland is a hardy, sound, versatile breed. Gotlands stand 11.2 to 13 hands (46 to 52 inches) at the withers. Dun and bay predominate in the breed, but all colors are allowed except albinos, roans and piebalds. The Gotland will grow a long, dense coat in the winter that will shed in the summer – reflective of adaptation to island temperature variations. With its gentle, friendly disposition, the Gotland makes an ideal children’s mount. Currently, the Gotland breed is listed as a watch priority, with fewer than 10,000 horses registered annually in the world.


Status: Critical

From the midst of antiquity comes the Prince of Persia, or the Caspian breed. Though they were thought to be extinct for nearly 1,300 years, Louise Firouz is credited with rediscovering the Caspian breed in 1965 in its native Iran. Firouz, an American citizen, was living in Iran with her Iranian husband where they owned a riding school in Tehran. The couple was in need of small mounts for children and smaller riders.

Firouz decided to explore a rumor she heard of very small horses living in remote villages near the Caspian Sea. During her exploration, Firouz unearthed small, wild, primitive mounts that were thought to be extinct. She brought some of the horses back to Tehran where she began a breeding program. She designated the breed the “Caspian” after the Caspian Sea.

While the breed was unearthed in 1965, it has been around for thousands of years. Historical evidence suggests that Persian kings used Caspian-like horses to pull their chariots, and the breed appears in Persian art and writing dating back to 3000 B.C. Wars and political strife have threatened the modern-day breed. In 1994, the first Caspians included in a breeding program arrived in the United States. 

The Caspian is a small, intelligent and athletic breed. Horses average 9 to 13 hands (36 to 52 inches) at the withers. Caspians are found in a variety of colors, with the exception of piebald and skewbald (pinto).The breed has a dished face, vaulted forehead, slim body and legs, high croup and dense coat. Caspians are gentle, making them a great choice for children. Many suggest they also make superb jumpers. Today, with less than 200 breeding animals in the United States and less than 2,000 registered animals in the world, the Caspian breed is a critical conservation priority. Quality stewards are needed to advance the breed. 

Colonial Spanish – Wilbur-Cruce

Status: Critical

Colonial Spanish mustangs were brought over by Spanish explorers and colonists beginning in the 1500s. In the late 1600s, Jesuit priest Father Eusebio Kino brought the first Spanish horses to what is now Southern Arizona. Father Kino established Mission Dolores and began breeding many types of Spanish livestock, including horses. Nearly 200 years later, a passing horse trader bought several hundred horses from Mission Dolores. The horse trader, on his way to auction, stopped by the homestead of Dr. Rueben Wilbur, one of the first doctors in the Arizona area. Dr. Wilbur purchased 25 mares and a stallion for his ranch.

Over the years, the Wilburs used the horses on the homestead. The horses that were not used on the farm were turned out into the hot, dry desert landscape and left to fend for themselves. The tough, little “rock

horses,” as they called them, survived in the wilds of desert Arizona. For more than 100 years, the Wilbur family kept the Wilbur-Cruce strain horses isolated on their ranch. In 1989, the Nature Conservancy purchased the Wilbur ranch, and the horses had to be removed. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy helped with removal and the dispersal of breeding stock to trusted stewards.

Today, the Wilbur-Cruce strain of Colonial Spanish horses is an excellent ranch horse, but it’s also good for trail riding and endurance riding. It is supremely adapted to the climate of the desert Southwest. Like other Colonial Spanish horses, the Wilbur-Cruce comes in a variety of colors including black, sorrel, chestnut, roan, grulla, dun and buckskin. The breed averages 13.3 to 14.3 hands (53 to 57 inches) at the withers. They are known for their gentle dispositions and even temperament. Today, there are fewer than 200 annual registrations of Wilbur-Cruce horses in the United States.    

Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Basset Hound and orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.

Published on Dec 12, 2011

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