Japanese horse breeds

Many people think that there were historically no horses in Japan, but that’s far from reality. I couldn’t find any one place with information about Japanese horse breeds, and after lots of research, decided to write an article on this topic.

There is a total of eight horse breeds native to Japan, and although all of them are ponies, they played an important role in the Japanese history, being used for work, pleasure, and in combat. Unfortunately, all of the breeds are very rare, and if not for the many recently formed organizations fighting for their survival, some of them would already be extinct.


Kiso uma (木曽馬) - Japanese pony horse breed

Although students are often taught otherwise, it is believed that at least one horse breed is indigenous to Japan, and that breed is Kiso uma (木曽馬, uma means horse in Japanese). If you’re into archeology, have a look at this excerpt from page 291 note 50 of Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai: Archaeology, History, and Mythology by Professor J. Edward Kidder, Jr. (emphasis mine):

Horses have come and gone from the ancient Japanese scene, one vocal school of thought claiming that fluorine absorption and carbon-14 tests on horse skeletons from “so-called Jomon sites” have proved to be of recent animals (Mabuchi 1993:4, 652). On the other hand, the shell-mound database indicates they had at least existed there, but perhaps were not seen within the Yamatai polity as they were not found to be of much use. The type was the small Kiso horse, named after the area through which the Kiso River runs, from Nagano prefecture through Gifu and into Ise Bay west of Nagoya city in Aichi prefecture. This database of the Jomon period lists 532 sites with horse bones, starting about the time of Late Jomon (Oikawa, 62:7). They apparently had not all been eaten or become extinct, as some Yayoi horses were a little larger (Mori 1974b:236-237), perhaps as a result of domestication. Why so many “modern” horses are said to be buried in shell-mounds is beyond explanation. Korean horses were introduced around the middle of the Kofun period, and were never very large…

Originally also used for military farming and combat, this small horse is nowadays mainly raised in Nagano and Gifu, and used for riding purposes.


Noma uma (野間馬) - Japanese pony horse breed

Perhaps the best known Japanese breed is the Noma uma (no, it has nothing to do with Numa numa, and is written 野間馬 in Japanese) from the Noma region of Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. Originating in the 17th century from Mongolian stock, it is the smallest of the native Japanese horse breeds. Valued for its gentle personality and strength, they were used for riding, light draft work, and as packhorses on the steep mountainsides in the rough Noma region. Nowadays, they are mostly used as riding horses for children and as study subjects in local schools.

It is said that in the early 17th century, Lord Hisamatsu of Matsuyama Han charged local farmers with breeding his warhorses, and the breed grew in popularity until the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, when the Japanese army were caught off guard by the much larger horses of their enemy. This led to a Japanese military breeding program and introduction of several breeds from abroad.

While this had many positive side effects, such as an increase of interest in breeding and racing horses, it also led to the near-extinction of native Japanese horse breeds. The newly formed Japanese Agency of Equine Affairs (ばせいきょく, 馬政局) banned all breeding of small horses and by 1970 there were just six purebred animals remaining. It is thanks to the stubbornness of a handful of farmers who illegally kept native horses for farm work that we still have the Numa ponies today. As of 2008, there were 84 purebred ponies in existence.


Hokkaido washu (北海道和種) or Dosanko (道産子) - Japanese pony horse breed

Another popular Japanese breed is Hokkaidō washu (北海道和種), more commonly known as Dosanko (道産子). It is said that the Dosanko were brought to Hokkaidō by fishermen from Honshū during the Edo period (1600–1867). They were used for transportation, but were left in Hokkaidō when the fishermen returned home in autumn. The ponies were expected to survive in very harsh weather, in a land with very little vegetation, covered with snow, which is how the Hokkaidō pony developed its exceptional enduring strength for which it is known today.

Unlike the Nanbu breed, of which the Hokkaidō pony is considered to be a descendant, and which no longer exists, the Dosanko is the most plentiful of the remaining ancient Japanese ponies, numbering at around 2000. Today, it is still used for heavy transportation in the mountains unreachable by truck. Some ranchers in Hokkaidō even continue to winter the horses in the mountains, maintaining the breed’s hardiness.

Hokkaidō pony feed mainly on bamboo grass and wander around in the mountains in search of it till spring when they return to the ranches without assistance to escape bears as they awake from hibernation and start to prey on the foals.


Misaki uma (御崎馬/岬馬) - Japanese pony horse breed

The third horse breed is Misaki uma (御崎馬/岬馬). Misaki is of pony height, yet it has horse characteristics and proportions. It was first identified in the historical record in 1697, when the Akizuki family of the Takanabe Clan rounded up feral horses and developed a pool of breeding stock. However, following the end of World War II, the Misaki were designated as a National Natural Treasure and nowadays they have returned to feral life, mainly in a designated National Monument on Cape Toi at the south end of the Miyazaki Prefecture, attracting many tourists to the region.


Miyako uma (宮古馬) - Japanese pony horse breed

Miyako uma (宮古馬) originated from Miyako Island in Okinawa, a prefecture known as a horse breeding area for centuries. In 1055, population of the breed peaked at around 10,000. Unfortunately, the increase of motorization caused this number to decline, and by 1983, there were only seven head alive. The population grew to 25 horses by 1993, but had dropped back to 19 by 2001, despite the great efforts to preserve this breed of great antiquity. The Miyako resemble Mongolian horse and nowadays they are mainly used as riding ponies, and sometimes for light draft work.


Yonaguni uma (与那国馬) - Japanese pony horse breed

The Yonaguni uma (与那国馬) is a breed native to the southwest of Japan, specifically the Yonaguni Island. In 1939, when all local breeds began to be improved to produce larger war horses, the Yonaguni on their remote island were excluded from the plan, and the breed has been preserved. Still, due to the mechanization of agriculture, their number progressively decreased. Today, fewer than 200 are known to live in Japan.


Tiashō uma (対州馬) - Japanese pony horse breed

Taishō uma (対州馬), also known as Taisu or Taishuh, originated on the Tsu Island of Japan. It is an ancient breed, believed to date back to the eighth century. In 1920, there were more than 4000 of them, but only about 65 head remain. Due to their gentle nature and strong willingness to obey, Tiashō are often ridden by farmers’ wives and children. Nevertheless, they are also known for endurance and ability to survive on little food and in severe weather, and may even be used for light draft. While in 1920, there were over 4000 Taishuh on the Tsu Islands, fewer than 70 of them remain today.


Tokara uma (トカラ馬) - Japanese pony horse breed

Another horse breed believed to be indigenous to Japan is Tokara uma (トカラ馬), raised in the Tokara Islands, a chain of Island in Kagoshima. They are known for their tolerance to heat and have been used for agriculture, conveyance and sugar cane squeezing.

The pony were found in 1952 by Shigeyuki Hayashida, a professor of Kagoshima University. When the Professor checked first, there were 43 ponies kept, however this number gradually decreased because of agricultural mechanization. There are now 107 Tokara ponies, some of them on display at Hirakawa Zoo in Kagoshima.

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  • http://twitter.com/TEFAfar The Envoy

    Thank you for your entry!

  • Miles

    Thanks for the post. I found some info on the Tokara in English here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokara_Pony

  • http://divita.eu/ seifip

    Thanks! I updated the article :)

  • http://divita.eu/ seifip

    By the way, on a somewhat related note, jockeys started using airbags xD http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/24/sports/24airb

  • http://twitter.com/thesoulofjapan Tony Alexander

    This is a lovely post. I did an article up on a similar topic some years ago.http://thesoulofjapan.blogspot.com/2009/01/hors

  • Franzi

    Nice post for the matsuri :)I've seen a documentary on Japanese nature once which also introduced a workhorse competition in Hokkaido (I think). The horses pull waggons through sand and over hills. It looked pretty interesting. Maybe you can find out more about it :)

  • Heritageofjapan

    Great article and particularly the photos! I've also written one: When did horses arrive in Japan? When were they domesticated?http://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/following-… I'm currently working on another article on the symbolism and history of sacred horses in Japan

  • http://roninyoshino.wordpress.com Shichimeitozoku

    Excellent article, pictures and info! This helped me a lot with my research. Now I can illustrate accurate illustrations of samurai on horseback. Too bad a lot of these breeds are so rare, they’re very unique and beautiful. Thanks again for the article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9800312 Travis Seifman

    Doing research on the Ryukyu Kingdom’s trade with other countries, I discovered that horses were among the tributary goods given by the kingdom to China, and among its chief trade goods to other countries. Not knowing anything about the Miyako and Yonaguni breeds, I thought this exceedingly bizarre, and kept it in the back of my mind to look into it sometime. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I don’t suppose you have any suggestions or recommendations of sources (articles, books) where I can learn more about the history of these breeds? Thank you.

    • http://divita.eu/ seifip

      I’m afraid there’s very little information out there, especially available in the open. Harvard Library seems to have a few books related to this topic but I didn’t have the time to read through any of them yet.

  • http://profiles.google.com/fernando.castro.mv Fernando Castro Meza

    Thank you very much for your research, for long time that I was interested in learning about the native horse breeds of Japan, but never found any information (except of the introduced racing breeds).
    as a breeder of the native breed of my country, I think it is important to know about the development of other countries in the horse breeding.
    Greetings from Chile.

  • Veda7thstar

    Thanks for this! I’m very interested in both horses and Japanese culture, and i’m so glad i found this! I was hoping for a little more information, such as average height and temperament for each breed, but this is good. Thank you again!

    • http://divita.eu/ seifip

      Unfortunately this is all the information I could gather :(  If you’ll ever find a resource listing the other info you’ve been looking for, please let me know!

  • http://twitter.com/Didoe84 Didoe

    Thank you for your post I want to do a work for my master of japanese or Japanese horse can your please telle me where do you find your information
    Thank you

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  • http://twitter.com/jseb_92 Seb

    interesting :)

  • Kaza No Uta

    Thank you. Easily the best article on the breeds named in Japan. I found an article from a genetics conference in Russia which said DNA was shared by Mongolian and other Asian horse breeds, including one example from Japan. It seems these breeds all come down from Mongolian horses. You have written a great article.

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