Horse breeds and types have developed to serve the needs and wants of people. Although we don’t use horses for transportation or work as much as we once did, we still enjoy them for sport and companionship. And we continue to hone horse breeds as we have for centuries.
The Original Domestic Horses
A 2012 study found the wild ancestor of the modern domestic horse likely originated around 160,000 years ago in Eurasia. The scientists determined that horses were first domesticated roughly 6,000 years ago somewhere in the Eurasian Steppe.
Another study published in 2017 found all modern horses descend from two distinct lines: the Arabian horse and the now-extinct Turkoman horse (which was similar to the Akhal-Teke breed).
Horses spread around the world via trade, war, gifting, theft, and more. People began to selectively breed for desirable characteristics to meet their work requirements for the horses, such as speed, strength, and stamina. While people kept track of their horses’ lineage and traits for centuries, studbooks to maintain an official pedigree record didn’t come about until the 1700s. From this arose the multitude of breeds and types of horses we know today.
The Main Types of Horses
There are two primary types: horses and ponies. Horses are 14.2 hands (56.8 inches) or taller, and ponies are under 14.2 hands.
Breaking it down further, there are draft horses and ponies, driving types, stock horses used for working livestock, gaited horses, hunters, light horses for riding and racing, horses bred specifically for meat, and horses bred as companions. Many horse breeds fall under one (or more) of these basic types.
The Development of Horse Breeds
Most breeds developed during the time when horses were the major mode of transportation and power. For pulling heavy loads, we have the ponderous but strong Clydesdale, Belgian, or Percheron. And for horse racing, we have the American standardbred and the thoroughbred.
Cleveland bays and Hackney horses were developed to pull carriages and buggies, while Arabians were bred to carry their riders swiftly over the desert. And Kentucky mountain saddle horses originated to efficiently and comfortably carry their riders over mountainous terrain. Plus, several horse breeds, such as the Lipizzaner and Andalusian, were developed to carry soldiers into battle.
Moreover, the Shetland pony and Welsh pony had their place as working animals in mines and on farms. And for entertainment and companionship, we have the tiny Falabella and the miniature horse.
These breeds originated in different locations around the world, with people from each area developing breeds to serve their specific needs. This is a major reason why there are so many horse breeds.
Some horses are eligible for registration simply because they are a certain color (and often regardless of their actual breed). These colors are typically flashy and desirable, such as the palomino, buckskin, or pinto.
Certain color breeds have a pedigree component while others only care about the horse's coat color. Also, some horses with documented lineage are able to register with both their breed registry and a color breed registry. This tends to increase their value.
The Number of Horse Breeds
It's difficult to calculate exactly how many horse breeds there are. Many types of horses either are close offshoots of other breeds or have been blended into other breeds over time.
The Breeds of Livestock resource from Oklahoma State University lists 217 separate breeds of horses from the Abyssinian to the Zhemaichu. Meanwhile, “The Encyclopedia of the Horse” by Elwyn Hartley Edwards lists just over 150 breeds of horses, including many ancient breeds that no longer exist but are the ancestors of many breeds today.
Most of the breeds in "The Encyclopedia of the Horse" are horses with existing registries that can trace bloodlines to ensure purity. In general, the number of horse breed registries is increasing as equine lovers recognize the need to compile data about rare and endangered breeds and types of horses.
Although this information doesn't provide a definitive number of horse breeds, it does show how people around the world have manipulated the genetics of horses in myriad ways to produce a multitude of diverse traits. And it confirms that in the horse world, there is truly something for everyone.