Last Updated: April 6, 2021
China is one of the oldest civilizations on earth. They’ve been riding horses since the fourth century BC but were using them for sport much earlier than that. In fact, Chinese documentation of horses dates back to at least 1600 BC, so there’s a rich and diverse equestrian history in this large country. Over that vast time, many breeds have been created, improved, and even lost. Some breeds have been maintained for centuries, while others have originated more recently. The following 15 breeds are some of the most iconic and popular breeds in China, even if most are unknown to you now.
1. Baise Horse
Like many of the horses native to China, the Baise Horse is rather small; closer to the size of a pony than a full-sized horse. They’re generally around 11 hands when fully grown, with a large head and strong hooves and legs that are well-suited for the rough terrain of the Guangxi region where this breed is from. They’re often used in traditional weddings, though their main use is as pack horses and recreational riders.
2. Balikun Horse
Though small compared to many breeds outside of China, the Balikun Horse is rather large for a Chinese breed, standing 14 hands tall on average. They have thick necks and bodies that are covered in muscle with flat, strong backs. Their thick coats enable them to handle extreme temperatures as low as -40F. These horses are most often used for pack work and recreational riding, though their size and sure-footedness mean they’re also employed for draft work.
3. Datong Horse
Native to the Datong River Basin region of China in the northern part of the Qinghai Province, the Datong Horse breed has been around for several thousand years. These horses were long revered for their physical similarities to the Dragon Horse, which are horses that have been turned into legend through art. The Dragon Horses had two small “horns” sticking out of their heads, and Datong Horses can be born with similar traits. Today, the “horns” are noted as a flaw, so specimens exhibiting them are not used for breeding.
4. Ferghana Horse
You’ll find the Ferghana Horse depicted in a lot of Chinese Art; particularly from the time period of the Tang Dynasty. A Chinese emperor had sent a giant army to the Ferghana region with the hopes of capturing many horses. When they were defeated, he sent another army to negotiate, and they came back with about 3,000 specimens. Unfortunately, this horse doesn’t exist any longer, though they were notable for many reasons, including the belief that they sweat blood, which could have been caused by a small worm that created skin sores on the horse’s body.
5. Guizhou Pony
The Guizhou Pony has been used for agricultural work in the mountainous regions of China since at least 800 BC. Trade was focused on salt and horses, so the Guizhou Pony became a very popular and valuable trade item. This breed still remains pure to its original form as attempts to cross them with other breeds have been largely unsuccessful.
The name Guoxia translates to “under fruit tree horse.” These horses are gentle and hardy, though they’re too small to be used for much other than for children to ride. It was thought that this breed was extinct until 1981 when they were rediscovered. As such, they’re not reported as an official breed, though work is in progress to preserve the Guoxia breed.
7. Heihe Horse
Few horses are as hardy and versatile as the Heihe Horse, which originated along the border between China and Russia. This is an area of harsh terrain, with cold winters, hot summers, and an environment that’s constantly changing. The land is great for agriculture, but breeds must be hardy to endure here. Heihe Horses can handle temperatures as low as -30F without problem. The breed is known for its obedience and incredibly long ears.
8. Jielin Horse
The Jielin Horse is originally from Mongolia, though they’ve been in the Baicheng, Changchun, and Sipling districts of China for a very long time. This breed is quite small and didn’t meet local agricultural requirements until it was crossed with local Chinese stock to improve the breed’s size. The breed wasn’t officially recognized until the late 1970s, at which point they had grown to an average size of 15 hands.
9. Lijang Pony
This breed is new and currently restricted to just the Lijang District of China, which is where the breed gets its name. After WWII, the local horses in the region were not strong enough for the transportation needs of the region, and the local economy was on the verge of collapse. The pony breed indigenous to the region was crossed with several other horse breeds to create a much hardier horse. Some breeds included in the cross were Arabians, Ardennes, and several other Chinese breeds. Even though Lijang Ponies are just 12 hands tall, they display incredible strength.
10. Nangchen Horse
The Nangchen Horse is a bit of an anomaly in the horse world. This breed has been completely purebred since the 800s. They’re fast, powerful horses with traits similar to many hot-blooded breeds, though it’s believed that there are no common source influences in the breed’s lineage. Even though they’ve been around for a very long time, they were relatively unknown outside of China until 1994.
11. Riwoche Horse
The Riwoche Horse is another breed that was practically unknown outside of China until quite recently in 1995. This breed still looks primitive, and was believed for some time to be a potential evolutionary link between modern and ancient horses, though this was proven false. They do have a similar look to many horses depicted in ancient art, however.
12. Tibetan Pony
Though the Tibetan Pony might be descended from ancient stock, the breed has been pure-bred in Tibet for at least 1,000 years. They’re very small ponies, but display an incredible amount of strength. Ironically, they’re so strong that Tibetan Ponies are often used for draft work. They have incredible endurance with strong joints and legs. They’re even fast enough to be used for racing!
13. Xilingol Horse
One of the newest breeds on this list, the Xilingol Horse was created in the 1960s. They’re rather tall for a Chinese breed, standing about 15 hands on average. You’ll find them in all solid colors. Xilingol Horses are often used for draft work and riding.
14. Yili Horse
The Yili horse is considered a livestock breed in the Northwestern Xinjiang province where they’re from. Locals breed the animals for food purposes, harvesting their milk and meat. They were originally used as a trotting horse, but when the locals needed a new source of food, the breed was refined into more of a draft horse that could offer more sustenance. They’re still used for riding, though they’re mainly raised for food in Xinjiang.
15. Yunnan Horse
Yunnan Horses are still purebred, having been kept away from any outside influences. This breed originates in the Wuron Mountains of China, and can be dated back to 285 BC. Though the breed is very small, standing 11 hands on average, they were originally used to pull carts and chariots.
Many horse breeds in China have been bred for hundreds or thousands of years with no outside influence. This means that the blood of many breeds that have become staples in the rest of the equestrian world, having been used to establish many different breeds over the years, are completely missing from these Chinese breeds. The result is unique horses that are far different from what many in the western world are used to.
Several of these Chinese breeds are quite short, standing just 11 hands tall. Some are even used as sources of food for local populations. But all of these horses are majestic creatures worth taking a look at. After all, they’re probably a world away from the horse breeds you’ve come to know and love.
Featured Image: mickey, Wikimedia Commons
An avid outdoorsman, Dean spends much of his time adventuring through the diverse terrain of the southwest United States with his closest companion, his dog, Gohan. He gains experience on a full-time journey of exploration. For Dean, few passions lie closer to his heart than learning. An apt researcher and reader, he loves to investigate interesting topics such as history, economics, relationships, pets, politics, and more.