This year marks the 50th anniversary of the remarkable discovery by American woman Louise Firouz that a horse breed thought extinct for 1300 years had in fact survived in a mountainous region of Iran.
Firouz then led the push to revive the fortunes of the Caspian horse.
The breed, with a maximum height of 12.2 hands, or just over four feet, was found by Firouz living around a remote village called Amol in a mountainous region near the Caspian Sea.
This – their last refuge from extinction – was in the Elburz Mountains at the southern edge of the Caspian, where locals would periodically catch them and breed them as workhorses.
These finely built horses are now known, through DNA testing and other research, to be the forerunners of the native wild horses of Persia, and a key breed in the development of the Arabian horse by the Mesopotamians in the Third Millennium BC.
Firouz had been looking in 1965 for ponies suitable to be used by children at the equestrian centre she had set up with her Iranian husband in Teheran when she came across the perfect little feral horses around Amol.
She undertook a lot of research and, with the help renowned equine geneticist Gus Cothran at the University of Kentucky, confirmed the rediscovery of the ancient breed that had once drawn chariots.
Firouz was fascinated by the find, but also alarmed by how few of the horses remained.
She established a breeding herd near Teheran, which she managed to sustain during the political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s.
The breed now exists in sustainable numbers in several countries, including Australia, America, New Zealand and Britain. Globally, around 1000 of the breed remain.
Firouz was born Louise Elizabeth Laylin in Washington. She spent a year of her studies in Beirut, and visited Iran, where she met Narcy Firouz, a civil engineer. They were married in 1957 and settled in Shiraz.
She set up the Norouzabad Equestrian Centre, and when she heard that there were small ponies in the mountains near the Caspian Sea she decided to look for them, reaching the most remote areas on horseback.
In Amol she came across a bay stallion that was like nothing she had ever seen or read about: it was small, slight and finely proportioned, like an Arab horse in miniature. It had large protruding eyes, large nostrils, a prominent jaw, a dished face (curving inwards slightly) and a high-set tail.
She soon found others, many in poor condition, but she was struck by their resemblance to the horses depicted on the rock relief carvings of the ancient Persian capital Persepolis. DNA testing revealed a direct link to them and to the horses of ancient Egypt.
Firouz bought three of the Caspian horses – overworked domesticated animals – and took them back with her.
She reported that they became affectionate and interested companions for children, and delightful rides.
“They are built to carry the weight of a child with the gait of a horse, and, except at full gallop, the speed of a horse, as I have established at our farm in Tehran,” she reported at the time.
“They could, in fact, become the perfect children’s ponies, if steps were taken to preserve the breed, which, I fear, is in serious danger of extinction.”
Firouz estimated there were only 50 Caspian horses along the whole southern coast of the Caspian Sea — about 30 of those occupying an area of 5200 square kilometres between Amol, Babol and Kiakola in the Elburz Mountains.
She acquired six stallions and seven mares and founded a breeding herd.
She and her husband financed it themselves at first, but in 1970 a Royal Horse Society was formed, with the Crown Prince, Prince Reza Pahlavi, as its patron, to protect and maintain Iran’s native breeds. The society bought all Firouz’s Caspians, by then numbering 23.
Between 1971 and 1976 Firouz exported to Europe some 26 Caspian horses of different bloodlines, which constituted the European formation herd. In 1974 the royal society took complete control of Firouz’s remaining horses.
She started another herd in Ghara Tappeh Sheihk, near the Turkmenistan border. Two mares and a foal were killed by wolves, and she arranged for eight horses to be exported to Britain. The society was angered by this, and in 1977 ordered her to hand over all but one of her horses.
The society banned the export of Caspian horses and collected all those remaining in Iran, many of which were eventually auctioned for use as beasts of burden or meat.
After the Iranian revolution of 1979 the Firouzes were arrested and imprisoned – Narcy for six months and Louise for a few weeks, and much of their fortune was confiscated.
She gradually rebuilt her life, and was eventually able to establish a new herd of Caspian and Turkoman horses.
The British Caspian Trust, which had evolved from the Caspian Stud UK – the original recipient of some of her Iran-bred horses, played an important role in the breed’s survival, keeping detailed records of horses and preventing inbreeding.
Caspians are known for their good temperaments and “horse-like” personalities.
They make excellent children’s mounts. Their long, level paces, natural grace and balance make them very suitable for dressage. Sensible but active, they can be impressive in mounted games, gymkhana and pony racing.
In harness they make a smart, responsive light driving pony and have successfully competed in national scurry and cross-country obstacle driving. Their extraordinary jumping ability makes them highly competitive for show jumping and eventing.
In her last years Firouz took tourists on treks into the forests and mountains. Her husband died in 1994. She died on May 25, 2008, aged 74
Source: Horsetalk archives/Wikipedia
Interesting Caspian facts
- They are shown in Persian statuettes dating back 3000 years.
- They are considered a key foundation breed for the hotblood breeds of today.
- The seal of King Darius the Great, held in the British Museum, shows the Caspian horse.
- They were used to pull chariots.
- American Louise Firouz rediscovered them near the Caspian Sea in 1965, during her search for suitable ponies for the equestrian centre for children she had set up in Teheran with her Iranian-born husband. About 30 were identified as pure, and seven mares and six stallions were bought to form the foundation stock.