Horses have played a major role in the lives and political and military actions of a great many African peoples. This image shows Kanembu warriors (a group endemic to Chad); the horse shown here might be an Arab. Image in the public domain.

I’ve said on several previous occasions that domestic animals are far from outside the Tet Zoo remit. On the contrary, I find them to be of great interest, and I think that their diversity, evolution and behaviour is something that we should pay attention to more often. The article you’re reading now is a weird spinoff of the Tetrapod Zoology podcast (known in-universe as the TetZoopodcats) and relates specifically to a question we were asked by Tet Zoo regular Richard Hing. What, exactly, Richard asked, do we know about the diversity of sub-Saharan domestic horses? That’s a good question because what we do know is rarely synthesised and fairly obscure. While this matter was discussed at reasonably length in the podcast, I thought it appropriate to write up additional thoughts for appearance here at the blog.

I should say to begin with that it’s becoming ever-easier for me to write about domestic horse breeds and their history because I now own quite a few books devoted to these subjects. While there’s a very obvious European (and British) bias to these books, the good news is that at least some of them do discuss the breeds from places like sub-Saharan Africa.

There are quite a few good books on domestic horses, and at least some of them discuss the breeds of Africa.

Afro-Turkic origins. The majority of African horse breeds are derivatives of a domestication event that was centred in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean fringes. This is the region supposedly inhabited in the past by wild horses regarded by some experts as belonging to the subspecies Equus caballus pumpelli, the Afro-Turkic or Oriental horse. I really want to avoid the subject of pre-domestic horses and domestication history (and taxonomy) here since it’s very complicated and there’s lots to say. I will say that horses were seemingly domesticated several times, from wild populations that almost certainly differed in proportions and other characteristics. But the idea that some of the main differences seen in domestic breeds reflect differences present in their wild ancestors is somewhat controversial.

Anyway, breeds that appear to be derivatives of Afro-Turkic/Oriental extraction are short- and fine-haired, thin-maned, slender-limbed horses. They have proportionally long ears and a bulging forehead region that apparently reflects the presence of large frontal sinuses (Bennett 2008). Among the forms arising from the domestication of these animals are the several forms of north Africa – of Libya, Algeria, Morocco and so on – collectively termed Barb horses.

Barb horse in profile. Photo by Alexander Kastler, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Barb horses and the Iberian connection. Most comments made about the anatomy and appearance of the Barb are vague and generalised. This is a long-headed, long-legged horse with flat shoulders, a low-set tail and sloping hindquarters, and it can be virtually any shade of brown, black or grey. It is sometimes 15 hands (1.5 m) at the withers and has a strongly up-turned neck base, giving it a very erect neck carriage. Some sources say that Barbs have the bulging forehead and somewhat concave dorsal margin of the face typical for Afro-Turkic horses (Goodall 1965), while others say that a Barb has a straight or even slightly convex facial profile (Bennett 2008).

Barbs are said to be extremely tough, docile and hardy. They’ve repeatedly been crossed with Arab horses, so much so that a large pool of hybrids now exists, and several Barb strains have been bred. A form with a Roman-nosed appearance is associated with Tripoli, and smaller-bodied versions have been bred in mountainous parts of Algeria and Morocco. One hybrid population, mostly associated with Libya, has a distinctive-enough look that it’s treated as a distinct breed, the Libyan barb or North African horse. [Image below Notwist.]

Barb horses and riders in traditional dress, photographed in Agadir, Morocco. Image by Notwist, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Barb horses were taken to Spain at some point. This is often thought to have happened as a consequence of the 8th century invasion of Iberia by the Moors, and these horses have apparently had a major influence on Iberian horse diversity. From here, they were taken to South America where breeds like the Argentine Criollo, Puerto Rican Paso Fino and Marchador are apparently derived from them. I should also note briefly that Barbs may have originated in Spain in the first place, an idea which is consistent with archaeological and genetic data suggesting that the Iberian Peninsula was both a Pleistocene refuge for wild horses, and a domestication centre for animals that were later taken around the Mediterranean fringes and across northern Africa (Jansen et al. 2002, Lopes et al. 2005, Cieslak et al. 2010).

Nigerian and Dongola horses. At some point, Barb horses were taken south to Nigeria, and here the variable and poorly known Nigerian horse arose. It has powerful shoulders and lightly built hindquarters. Animals I’ve seen in photos have a gently bulging forehead and slightly concave dorsal face profile like that seen in North African Barbs. 14-14.2 hands is about typical.

Drawing of an intriguing piebald Dongola horse by F. Joseph Cardini from 1848. Image in public domain.

Another African horse that’s partly derived from Barbs taken southwards is the Dongola or Dongolawi, said to have originated in the Dongola Province of Sudan (Hendricks 2007). However, it’s also seems to incorporate genes from horses imported from Iberia that came via Egypt, with the ultimate origin of those Iberian horses being ancient Numidia (Hendricks 2007). The Dongola is apparently most abundant in northern Cameroon. These horses tend to be reddish, but bay and black animals are common too. Many comments made about the Dongola have a negative connotation: it’s described as having thin legs, a proportionally big, dorsally convex and unattractive head, a flat croup (= rump), and a long back. I think that these characterisations are often unfair since they compare these breeds to ‘ideal’ westernised breeds like the Thoroughbred.

1894 photo of Ras Mengesha Yohannes, claimant to the Imperial throne of the Ethiopian Empire and leader of forces in the opening battle of the First Italo-Ethiopian War. His horse may be a Dongola. Image in the public domain.

Over the years, Dongola horses have been extensively crossed with Arabs, Barbs and Arab-Barb crosses. Hendricks (2007) refers to the degeneration of quality in this breed and a 19th century concern that it was nearing extinction. Dongola horses were used in the Italian-Abyssinian War of 1895-1896, and were also exported to Ireland. These sorts of movements give some illustration of why domestic horse genetics – and the relationships that have been recovered between the many breeds – are so complex.

The Fulani and other west and central African horses. Several very similar breeds or strains exist across west and central Africa. They include the Fulani, the Bahr-el-Ghazal of Chad, the Hausa and Bornu of Nigeria, and the Bandiagara, Djerma, Mossi, Songhai and Yagha of the great ‘bend region’ of the Niger River (Hendricks 2007). These horses might all be regarded as strains of the Dongola (and collectively lumped together as West African Dongola), or they might be regarded as distinct breeds. Differentiating ‘strains’ and ‘breeds’ in domestic animals is often very subjective, and it’s made messy by the fact that many populations are hybrid swarms, or made distinct by a cultural role or function more than by genetics or anatomy.

The Hausa people (one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa) have a horse-based culture. This scene from 1911 shows the then Emir of Kano and associates on a march. Image in public domain.

The Fulani horse is associated with Cameroon and the nomadic Fulani people. Fulani horses are small and hardy, they’re highly variable in colour, and they have features indicative of an Afro-Turkic/Oriental ancestry. Pictures show a long, narrow face, slender proportions overall and a function as both a pack and saddle horse.

However, genetic data reveals complex relatedness at some level to Anatolian horses, the Cheju horses of far eastern Asia, the Portugese Lusitano and famous Lipizzan or Lipizzaner horses of Austria, and Arabs too (Lopes et al. 2005). I don’t know whether this sharing of genetic data with such widely dispersed breeds is typical of African horses but it should be said that many horses, when analysed in this way, reveal genetic affinities with surprisingly distant breeds. Again, it paints a picture of substantial movement of horse breeds, and a long and complex history of hybridisation and introgression (Cieslak et al. 2010).

Blench's (1993) map, depicting the present and inferred historical distribution of the west African dwarf pony.

Adding to the complexity of the horse story in west and central Africa is the idea that the horses of this region – derived from north African, Barb-type animals – lived feral for a while and (1) became dwarfed as a consequence of natural selection, (2) evolved partial resistance to trypanosomiasis, and (3) became more adaptable as goes dietary requirements and feeding behaviour. A surprising amount has been written about these horses and several authors have implied or argued that they should be regarded as a distinct race, “quite distinct from the Oriental, Barb and Dongola horses” (Blench 1993, p. 89). They really can be very small, with shoulder heights of 90-110 cm in cases. Linguistic data, rock art and historical accounts indicate that these animals have been in west Africa for some considerable time, perhaps for 1000 years or more.

In fact, it’s obvious that “[t]he importance of ponies in west Africa has been seriously underestimated because the process of replacement by the larger and more prestigious horses brought across the desert was already advanced during the period when the first observers were writing” (Blench 1993, p. 103). Horses have been – and are – far more abundant, more diverse, and more important in tropical Africa than the majority of us think.

Plateau ponies of Nigeria, war ponies of Chad and Cameroon. Several groups of people in what is now Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and elsewhere in western and central Africa are recorded as using and breeding horses, and of using them extensively in battle. Indeed, there’s good evidence that the use of horses was key in the military and political patterns of the region (Blench 1993). The Chamba people of Cameroon and Nigeria used a horse – seemingly known only as the Chamba pony – in raids and attacks, while the Nigerian Irigwe people apparently exchanged their small, pony-type horses for larger, north African-type ones at some point during the 19th century and thereby improved their aggressive capabilities.

Baguirmi cavalryman on armoured war-horse. Image from 1823, by Dixon Denham, in the public domain.

In Chad, the powerful Baguirmi Kingdom used mounted cavalry, equipped with quilted armour worn over leather and chainmail, during the 18th century at least, and armoured horses were in fact used extensively across central and eastern Sudanic Africa. Ceremonial use of these armoured horses persists today. The armour is often brightly coloured and spectacular.

Plateau State in Nigeria was inhabited by people with a rich and interesting horse-based culture. Horses were ridden in war, and were used as bridewealth payments, in ceremony, and as indications of wealth. The Piti people of Nigeria also used their small hill ponies when hunting game. Sadly, all of these animals seem to have declined substantially in recent decades with a 1990 survey finding only three in use among one of the relevant ethnic groups (Blench 1993).

A remarkable tradition apparently used by people across the region concerns the deliberate cutting of the horse’s back such that it bled, the clotting blood then being used as an adhesive to help the (bareback) rider stay in place. Blench (1993) quoted Kumm (1910) on this, and noted that it seemed so bizarre (and cruel) that it would ordinarily be worthy of dismissal as a traveller’s tale. However, it was mentioned repeatedly by those who visited the region between the 1850s and 1940s. Some authors provided extra information, saying that the skin was opened on the back such that a swollen pad (and eventually a giant roughened area of scar tissue) formed and functioned as a sort of built-in saddle.

There is a long and noble history of horsemanship in Nigeria. This image shows a horseman and horse in the Kano Durbar (a durbar is a annual Nigerian celebration). Image by Any Waite, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Lest we think that people abused or did not value their horses, Kumm and other writers also described the close bonds that were observed. A Berom man (the Berom or Birom are indigeous to the Jos Plateau in Nigeria) was quoted as saying “A horse is like a man; you send it out to bring a tired man home, you give it water to drink, you walk miles to find it grass to eat, it carries you to hunt and to war, when it is tired you dismount and carry your load on your own head. When you die, and they lead it towards your grave, its spirit may fly out of its body in its anxiety to find you” (Isichei 1982, p. 23-24). Ponies kept by the Berom were killed when their owner died and the corpse was then wrapped in the skin (Davies, in Blench 1993).

Blench (1993) recounted Maistre’s 1895 writings on the use of horses by the Gaberi people of Cameroon who used ‘Sara’ or ‘Laka’ horses when attacking and raiding. Axes, spears, saddles and bits and reins were used by these people as they rode, and Maistre apparently featured a remarkable image where Gaberi warriors, crossing the Logone River in canoes, are leading their swimming horses behind them (Blench 1993). Maistre also referred to the sight of 3000-4000 Gaberi warriors, about one-third of which were mounted, so they apparently owned a great many horses.

1909 illustration of a Basuto pony from C. G. Wrangel's volume Die Rassen des Pferdes. Image in public domain.

Ponies of the far south. What about far southern Africa? We’ll begin with the Basutoland pony or Basuto pony, a small, thickset, hardy horse associated with Lesotho (formerly known as Basutoland). It’s apparently has exceptionally hard hooves, relatively short legs and a longish back (Goodall 1963). These features are all related to its sure-footedness on rough, rocky terrain, and it’s this characteristic which had made the Basuto a popular and reliable horse used extensively during the Boer War. The Basuto seems to have originated as a cross between Arab, Persian and Thoroughbred horses during the middle of the 17th century and to have been brought to southern Africa by Dutch and Portugese people. It seems to be the same animal as that originally called the Cape horse. I mean to write about Boer War horse memorials at some stage.

It should also be noted that southern African is home to the South African miniature, a light draft riding horse less than 90 cm tall at the withers. The origins and history of miniature horses is confusing, in part because people have crossed small individuals of many breeds to create small-stature animals. In cases, they have therefore created hybrids that exhibit features of several larger horse breeds. Indeed, the South African miniature comes in forms that are essentially miniature Arabs as well as miniature draft horses.

Various other horse breeds are associated with South Africa. Incidentally, there’s also a Madagascar pony, an animal that I’ll have to discuss some other time.

Two Namib horses showing typical form and colour of this breed. Image by Gerald de Beer, CC-BY-2.0.

Namib horses. Finally, I have to make mention of an enigmatic group of feral, wild-living, desert-dwelling horses: the Namib Desert horses. Genetic data shows that these are Afro-Turkic/Oriental horses with a distant affinity with the Arab, though they are genetically quite distinct and with a very low amount of variation (Cothran et al. 2001). They probably descend from horses imported to the region for military purposes and don’t have (contra some ideas on their origins) any direct links to Basuto ponies used by endemic people. [Adjacent photo by Gerald de Beer.]

There are some indications that Namib horses have evolved a few specialisations for desert life over their short period (less than 100 years) of living feral, since they’re seemingly better at conserving water than other domestic horses. They’re predated upon by Spotted hyenas Crocuta crocuta. [Image below uploaded by Sven-Eric Kanzler.]

Namib horses at Garub. Photo uploaded by Sven-Eric Kanzler, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Here in Europe (and elsewhere, I’m sure) we tend not to associate horses with Africa, and we also tend to be tremendously naive as goes the use and role of horses in African culture and ceremony. I don’t know anywhere near as much as I might like, but the few sources I’ve consulted show that western, central and southern Africa at least have a rich and diverse history of equestrianism. Horses have also been used extensively in war, in ceremonial fashion or as working or riding animals in many African countries even well south of the Sahara. Furthermore, there’s a fascinating (and little written-about) history of horse trading, translocation and breeding that’s intertwined with the history of many African peoples. There are many spinoffs of this discussion that I aim to return to in time.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on horses, see…

Refs – -

Bennett, D. 2008. The origin and relationships of the Mustang, Barb, and Arabian horse.

Blench, R. 1993. Ethnographic and linguistic evidence for the prehistory of African ruminant livestock, horses and ponies. In Andah, B., Okpoko, A., Shaw, C. & Sinclair, P. (eds) The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns. Routledge, New York, pp. 71-103.

Cieslak, M., Pruvost, M., Benecke, N., Hofreiter, M., Morales, A., Reissmann, M. & Ludwig, A. 2010. Origin and history of mitochondrial DNA lineages in domestic horses. PLoS ONE 5 (12): e15311.

Cothran, E. G., van Dyk, E. & van der Merwe, F. J. 2001. Genetic variation in the feral horses of the Namib Desert, Namibia. Journal of the South African Veterinary Association 72, 18-22.

Goodall, D. M. 1965. Horses of the World. Country Life Ltd., London.

Hendricks, B. L. 2007. International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Isichei, E. 1982. Introduction. In Isichei, E (ed) Studies in the History of Plateau State, Nigeria. Macmillan, London, p. 1-57.

Jansen, T., Forster, P., Levine, M. A., Oelke, H., Hurles, M., Renfrew, C., Weber, J. & Olek, K. 2002. Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99, 10905-10910.

Kumm, K. 1910. From Hausaland to Egypt, Though to Sudan. Constable, London.

Lopes, M. S., Mendon?a, D., Cymbron, T., Valera, M., da Costa-Ferreira, J. & da C?mara Machado, A. 2005. The Lusitano horse maternal lineage based on mitochondrial D-loop sequence variation. Animal Genetics 36, 196-202.