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Louise Firouz and the Caspian Horse

In 1965, on a small expedition to the mountain villages above Amol (‘it was all dirt roads then, not like now’) Louise encountered the first examples of the ancient, diminutive breed. They were pitifully neglected and mistreated, scarred and tick-covered, and their owners knew nothing of their illustrious ancestry. But the features were distinct: big bold eyes, prominent jaws and the high-set tails which so distinguished their larger cousin, the Arab. They were on the brink of extinction. Louise rescued three, and made a survey of the area to discover how many might still exist. Only a few dozen were thought to survive. Seven mares and six stallions were eventually bought, and became the foundation stock for the world’s first Caspian breeding centre.

The encounter would send tremors through equine gospel. For generations, it had been held that the Arab was the true ancestor of the thoroughbred, and the only pure-bred horse of oriental origin. Louise was not the first to posit the idea of a miniature horse ancestral to the Arab; but she was only one stubborn enough to prove it. Its conformation had already been accurately established by skeletal remains and the study of graphic artefacts; but as it was thought to be extinct, claims to any ancestral role remained speculative. The evidence, in the form of living examples, was now reviewed: the shared traits with the Arab were unmistakable.

Another native breed, the Turcoman – a slim, tall, elegant and swift horse – was put forward by Louise as the other ancestral parent of all better European strains; a distant predecessor, in other words, of all points along the Heavenly-Shabdaz-Buraq-Bucephalus-Beynard-Bayerly-Rosinante-Black Beauty line. The Turcoman had been much favoured by the Greek overlords of Persian territories more than two thousand years ago and Alexander, according to Herodotus, had sent fifty thousand back to Greece. Strabo, calling these horses Nicean, wrote of them as ‘the most elegant riding horse in the world’. Sheathed in glittering coats of chain mail, Turcoman horses bore the Parthian archers who ravaged the massed legionaries of Crassus and Mark Anthony; the Han emperors of China sacrificed armies to obtain just a few*. Later they were given as gifts by the Parthian kings to Roman emperors, and introduced into the roman cavalry. They were the chosen mount for the guard of the Caliphs of Baghdad, were much sought-after during the Crusades as trophies by the western conquerors of the Holy Land, and in the sixteenth century, it was the Turcoman that carried the ostrich-plumed Janissaries of Sultan Suleiman and the billowing green banners of the Islamic faith on their fateful journey through the passes of the Carpathians and the penumbral forests of Transylvania all the way to the terrified and encinctured defenders of Vienna.

This did not all go down well in orthodox equestrian circles. It suggested an unacknowledged debt to Persia, the diversity of whose native breeds, selectively nurtured nearly three millennia earlier, had provided the raw material for the favoured horses of later civilisations. And though Iran was home to a fascinating range of native breeds, Western equine history, hypnotised by the beauty of the Arab, tended to come a halt at the Euphrates

Louise’s efforts to preserve the purity of these ancient breeds courted controversy within Iran too. Within a few years of her discovery she was breeding and exporting Caspians to foreign buyers: prince Philip was presented with a stallion and mare on his visit to Iran; the Shah bought dozens. But as a private venture the breeding centre became financially impossible to maintain, and the Iranian Royal Horse Society took over her herd a few years later. She began another, rebuilding her stock from rescued animals, on the edge of the Caspian’s original heartland (where we were now sitting on the veranda of her house). But its closure was ordered in 1977, after a ban on exports was declared by the government.

As the shadow of revolution fell over the country two years later, the Caspian’s (as well as Louise’s) association with royalty brought her into conflict with the nation’s new rulers, who could not make up their minds whether to give her a medal or to put her in prison. They chose the latter. She and her husband were repeatedly arrested: imprisoned with a broken ankle, she chose to starve herself in protest and was released several weeks later. (‘What else could I do? I knew they didn’t want to kill me, and I had the horses to feed.’) But a subsequent and crueller edict threatened owners and breeders of the steppes in possession of more than one horse with the confiscation of their property. Forced to surrender all but one mare, her founding stock was again wiped out. The horses were auctioned as pack animals or for meat, and were never recovered.

Thirty years after her research had begun, the correspondence between the historical, graphic, archaeological evidence was finally confirmed by genetic studies. Blood tested from a wide range of horses affirmed that the Caspian occupied the most ancestral position of all oriental horse breeds, followed closely by the Turcoman. Alongside the discovery of the Przwalsky horse and the Tarpan, the rescue of the Caspian is one of the most exciting discoveries in equine history. It had come, I suggested, at a high price. ‘That’s not the point, really,’ she replied. ‘If I had to do the whole thing again, I would. The point is to have lived.’

We had talked for hours, but it had never occurred to me to ask: Did she have any Caspians at the ranch? Could I see one? She had rescued one quite recently, she said: a young mare which had been shot in the eye by a boy with an air-rifle. We walked to the stables, where a dozen chestnut heads and twitching ears loomed over the doors of the stalls at shoulder height. To the upper straps of their bridles were attached headbands with long multicoloured tassels to keep flies off; and incongruously I thought of Haight-Ashbury girls dressed as squaws. At the far end in a lonely stall stood a dark and unexpectedly diminutive-looking and gentle creature with a cruelly scooped concavity where its left eye should have been. Its withers rose no higher than my waist and it looked like a pony; the kind of creature a hobbit might choose to ride. It did not seem an obvious contender for chief ancestor of the mighty Sons of the Desert who thunder over the home stretch at the Grand National and the Kentucky Derby; nor, indeed, one whose distant predecessors had carried the Aechamenid King of Kings from Pasargadae  to Lydia, watched Croesus burn at Sardis, wheeled East along the Oxus as far as Bactria and, clattering under the gates of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquered palace at Babylon, witnessed, with a snort and a swish of tail, the birth of the world’s first empire.


Louise Firouz discovery caspian horse pony