Ancestral Breeds and Breeds' History
Although there is still some controversy over the subject, it is generally believed that horses did not exist in Japan during the Paleolithic, Mesolithic or Neolithic periods (Stone Age, Jomon and early YaYoi eras). It is also believed that all Japanese native horses are descended from animals brought from the mainland of Asia at various times and by various routes. Domestic horses were definitely present in Japan as early as the 6th century and perhaps as early as the 4th century.
Since that time the horse has played an important role in Japanese culture. Horses were widely used in warfare until the introduction of firearms in the late 16th century and horsemanship was one of the skills prized by the warriors who founded the Samurai class. Horses had an important symbolic role in Japanese religion and even today at certain shrines a sacred white horse is stabled. Oddly enough horses were not widely used in agriculture until the Meiji Era, oxen being preferred in most areas for working fields and rice paddies. Oxen also provided traction power, pulling wagons and carts. Horses, on the other hand, were widely used as pack animals to carry goods on the highways and for use in steep mountainous regions. People of the upper classes also rode them.
Throughout the centuries since they were introduced, various breeds of horses developed in Japan each adapting to the local environment. These horses were in general relatively small. As a result, various rulers and powerful leaders attempted to increase their size and strength by selective breeding and by importing foreign horses. Records from the Edo period indicating the importation of horses by the Dutch to be given as gifts to the Shogun. Although we cannot be sure, these animals, generally referred to as "Persian," may have been Arabians or perhaps a variety of Turkmen. Several improved breeds became popular in Japan including the Nambu, Miharu and Tosa breeds all of which have become almost extinct. During the early years of the Showa Era (1932) systematic breeding based on local Japanese bloodlines resulted in the creation of the Kushiro breed which has apparently totally disappeared.
Especially during the Meiji Era larger purebred horses from Europe and North America were imported to increase the size of Japanese horse and make them more suitable for military use. To encourage this the government introduced training classes throughout Japan to increase the use of horses in agriculture. The goal was to motivate farmers to breed larger horses to ensure a supply for the army. Foreign breeds imported included Thoroughbred, Anglo Arabs, Arabs, Hackney and several draft breeds including Belgian and Bretons. Two recognized breeds, Kandachi horse of Aomori and the Yururi Island horse of Nemuro, Hokkaido, are the descendants of native horses crossbred with larger European horses. The result of these many importations was the almost total disappearance of local Japanese breeds except in very remote areas or on islands. In Japan today there are eight recognized native breeds all of them identified with a particular region and each displaying some differences in color size and conformation.
Japanese native breeds share a number of characteristics: they are all technically ponies inasmuch as all of them stand under 14.2 hands (147 cm). Their heads are relatively large, the neck is carried horizontally, their manes are thick and flowing. In general, when viewed from the rear the croup is rather wide at the top, narrowing toward the legs. (This is felt to resemble an old style hat woven from grasses and is called, amigasa jiri.)
The most common colors are bay, brown, chestnut, roan and cremello. They do not, in general, have white markings on legs or face but a black dorsal stripe is extremely common. All of these local breeds are known for their endurance, their ability to survive on poor food and in severe weather conditions and they all share the characteristics of having extremely tough hooves.
Japanese Native Breeds
This breed has it origins in Miyazaki Prefecture. The modern herd of 88 animals now ranges on the cape of Toi. They average 12.2 to 13 hands (130 - 135 cm) in height. They first appear in history in 1697 when the Akizuki family of the Takanabe Clan took animals then grazing wild under its protection and created a stud farm. The system was based on giving the breeding stock full freedom and rounding them up once a year presumably to select horses for training and to check on health as well as perhaps castrate males thought unfit for breeding. The same system is used today; once a year animals are corralled at which time inoculations are given and the animals sprayed or dipped to eliminate insect pests. This breed has been designated a National Natural Treasure and the herd has become the focus of tourism.
These horses which are today found in several natural parks in Kagoshima Prefecture are the descendents of two dozen native horses brought to Kyushu from Kikai Shima about 1890. The breed was bred on Tokara Island and at one time was quite numerous throughout the Kagoshima region. However, the numbers decreased drastically during World War II and the breed was preserved only by strenuous efforts. The resulting horses have, under more care and selective breeding, become larger than the original which stood some times only 11 hands (115 cm) at the withers. In an attempt to preserve the breed in a near original form a number of animals have been taken to Nakanoshima in the Tokara island where they range freely during the year and are rounded up for pest extermination, inoculation and veterinary treatment once a year. The breed has been designated a Prefectural Natural Treasure. The are today 116 head of the Tokara breed.
Miyako jima has been long noted for horse breeding and the Miyako breed goes to at least the 13th century. Until 1960, when a motor road was constructed the Miyako horse was the major form of transportation on the island. In 1907, a number of larger horses of European and American origin were introduced and the average size of the breed increased to as much as 13.3 hands (140 cm). The original breed seldom grew taller than 11 hands (115 cm) and in modern times efforts are being made to restore the breed to its original form. The herd of 21 has become a tourist attraction and is often used for instructional purposes in the local high school. This breed also has been designated as a Prefectural Natural Treasure.
Also known as Dosanko, this breed is descended from several local breeds imported from Tohoku in the 15th century when Japanese immigration to Hokkaido began. Today there are about 2,928 Hokkaido horses. Most of them are allowed to roam freely in large grazing areas during most of the year, being rounded up for pest control and treatment once a year. Others are being raised on farms under more controlled conditions. This breed is somewhat larger than many Japanese local breeds, standing from 12.2 to 13 hands (130 - 135 cm) at the withers. They are extremely hardy and strong and can survive and even thrive under very servere conditions. Today they are used for trail riding, packing and harness. Many Hokkaido Washu are natural pacers.
The smallest of Japanese local breeds is the Noma horse, native to the Noma region of Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. It stands only 10.3 hands (110 cm). It is said that in the 17th century Lord Hisamatsu of Matsuyama Han charged local farmers with the breeding of horses. The smallest of these, the ancestors of the present breed, were particularly useful as packhorses on steep mountainsides and on remote islands. There are today 47 Noma horses being kept by several stud farms in the region. They are used as riding horses for children and as subjects of study in local schools.
There are records of horses being raised systematically in the Kiso region of Nagano Prefecture as early as the 6th century. The region was able to produce, according to legends, 10,000 cavalry mounts for Kiso Yoshinaka's army. The Kiso horse is medium sized, standing about 13 hands (135 cm). During the Meiji Era, Kiso horses were crossbred with many western breeds and the pure stain virtually disappeared. The breed is being preserved in the region centering on Kaida mura in Kiso County, Nagano Prefecture. There are today 117 Kiso horses, which are often seen in processions in local festivals. They are also used as riding horses.
This breed developed in the steep and hilly country of Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture where horse breeding was known as early as the 8th century. This medium-sized horse which stands about 12 hands (125 cm) was particularly useful as a packhorse in rough country and was also used for timber haulage. It is said to be a calm and easily handled horse. A picture of the Taishu Horse being ridden by a farm woman often symbolizes its calm disposition. The remaining 79 Taishu horses have become an object of interest for tourists.
This native breed was developed in Okinawa on the island of Yonaguni. The breed is small, standing about 11 hands (115 cm). Two small herds of about 108 horses remain on the island ranging free and are rounded up once a year for inspection, removal of pests and inoculation. It is interesting that the people of this island developed a special type of bridle called omogui, which required only a single rein for control. Today the horses are used for instructional purposes in local schools and for recreational riding.