The equine world is beautifully diverse. With around 60 million horses across 835 horse breeds, the variety between breeds is almost too great to name. Six thousand years ago, horses were domesticated for the first time, but the 'modern' equine evolved as early as 4.0 to 4.5 million years ago.
While equines have developed and diversified over the millennia, many of the endangered or rare breeds that exist today have remained unchanged for centuries and have an age-old, rich history.
They have played an important role in the advancement of human society, and have left a profound influence on local cultures across the world. From loyal warhorses, to vital roles in agriculture and transport, to becoming a part of the family and contributing to the health and biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they graze. Their intelligence, adaptability and willingness to work have always made them fill many roles.
Every breed has unique characteristics that have developed over centuries. Either through exposure to changing living conditions or selective breeding, horses have perfectly adapted to their environment.
Yet, the painful reality is that many breeds are slowly disappearing due to the effects of climate change, industrialization or political matters. Among mammalian species, horses have both the largest numbers (303 breeds) and percentages (32%) of breeds at risk of extinction. Already 98 horse breeds, equivalent to 11%, have gone extinct.
To prevent the extinction of the 303 horse breeds that are at risk today, it is important to take conservation initiatives and spread awareness.
Figure 1. diagram of threat status and numbers of horse breeds (FAO, 2021)
With increasing industrialization and machinery, horses have become redundant in farming practices in many places. However, in an ever-evolving world, many breeds have unique characteristics that can contribute to meeting challenges related to climate change and shifting futures.
More and more, we are learning about the damage that large fossil fuel based machinery can cause on nature. These include the deterioration of the water, soil and air quality, as well as the disruption of wildlife habitat.
For example, this is why some logging operators are choosing to go back to using draft horses when hauling the logs: as they only leave behind light hoof prints and skidding trails instead of the soil-compressing tracks of fossil fuel based machinery.
Horses can play an important role in improving biodiversity and increasing ecosystem stability and resilience, especially those living in their native environment.
Biodiversity is an important driver of ecosystem health. The greater the variety of nature in an ecosystem, the greater its capacity to withstand shocks, such as the negative effects of climate change. Hence, an ecosystem with low levels of biodiversity is more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Horses can increase biodiversity and help shape the landscape through their grazing habits. They disperse plant seeds and fertilize the soil with their manure which increases the resilience of the ecosystem.
The preservation of horses is therefore important both in terms of genetic diversity as well as for biodiversity conservation.
That is why we are on a mission to raise awareness for endangered or rare horse breeds. By creating and sharing high quality content in our coffee table book, documentary series and podcast series, we want to educate people on some of the most extraordinary yet vulnerable horse breeds.