Seven Italian horse breeds with ancient ancestry

Seven Italian horse breeds with ancient ancestry

When the Etruscans first populated the fertile countryside of Tuscany, Lazio and Campania, they arrived with horses.

As plains-dwellers, Etruscan tribes were dependent on horses. The remains of horse skeletons recovered from ancient settlements confirm their position as elite animals used in racing, warfare, and leisure. 

Farther south on the peninsula, Spartan and Aegean colonies also prospered with herds of horses. These colonies became centres of Hellenic culture and served as cultural mixing pots for exchanging horsemanship ideas between Italian people like the Romans, and Samites.

In the now-famous treatises of Xenophon, writers of Greek horsemanship lay the foundations for cavalry training and horse breeding throughout Italy and the ancient world, and when those ideas spread to the Ancient Romans who conquered the entire Italian peninsula (including Magna Grecian areas), the horses and ideals that they acquired during their campaigns were mixed with local horses left over by Greeks tribes. This combination provided them with larger, stronger mounts to conquer lands further afield.  

As a result of trade, warfare, and colonization Italian bred horses spread all over Empire, and many of these are the ancestors of popular breeds you know today. 

Read on to discover the ancient equine ancestry of seven little-known breeds still living in Italy today.

Salernitano Horse

In Europe, formal studbooks and registries are a relatively recent development. In the past, horses were classified according to their geographical location and suitability for a specific riding style. Modern Italy has around 30 registered breeds, all with ancient bloodlines, some dating back to ancient Rome and Greece.

It is said that Salernitano horses are the ancestors of Ancient Greek horses that were bred for chariot racing thousands of years ago on the fertile Sele River plains. 

In the centuries that followed, Salernitano horses were crossed with Neapolitan, Andalusian, Norman, Thoroughbred, Turkish Berber, and Prussian bloodlines. Due to their powerful conformation, tough hooves, and high-stepping movement, these horses were popular for both riding and pulling carriages.  

Today they are bred mainly for sport, and while suitable for most disciplines, they are most often seen in jumping events. In 1956, a Salernitano horse named Merano, ridden by Raimondo d’Inzeo, led the Italian team to victory at the World Showjumping Championships, and Posillipo assisted Raimondo in winning gold at the 1960 Summer Olympics.  

The breed is characterized by an expressive head, large eyes, a well-proportioned body and strong limbs and hooves. 

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Salernitano horse | Image by Cecile Zahorka

Persano Horse

The Persano horse first appeared in the north of Cilento, near Salerno, Italy, during the reign of Charles III of Bourbon.

In the 1880s, the horses were known as the Reale Razza of Persano. For breeding, Charles sourced mares from stud farms around Italy and crossed them with four imported oriental stallions donated by Ottoman Ambassador Huseyin Efend. Later, Mecklenburg and Spanish bloodlines were added to increase size and movement. 

Following the unification of Italy, the armed forces disbanded the stud and auctioned all the horses. In just a few weeks, a century of carefully cultivated breeding was lost.

Italian authorities realized their mistake soon after, and hunted down the lost horses across the country to make amends. They sourced seventy-eight horses and moved them to a state military facility where they were bred with Anglo and thoroughbred stallions for cavalry use.

Horses from the Persano breed served in both World Wars and were part of the famous regiment that rode against the Russian army in what is considered the last successful full-scale cavalry charge. Few horses survived the charge, and those that did, went down in history as war heroes.  

One of the best-known Persano horses was a gelding named Pagora. Just 14.2hh in height, this brave-hearted little horse helped Italy win the silver team medal in the 1956 Stockholm Olympics with his rider Salvatore Oppes.  

One of the last remaining herds of endangered Persano horses was auctioned off by the state and purchased by Count Alduino of Ventimiglia di Monteforte. 

These horses now form a breeding herd at the Sito Reale of Carditello near Naples, a historic estate that also once belonged to Charles III.   

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Persano Horse

Murgese Horse

During medieval times, Frederick of Swabia II bred horses on the Murge plateau of Puglia because the barren, rocky terrain was only suitable for the toughest horses.

The Murge plateau produced horses with rock-hard hooves that could carry armoured knights long distances without shoes (the kingdom reached from Sicily to Jerusalem), making them highly desirable to knights all over the Empire.

Sensible and calm, yet capable of maneuvering quickly once amidst the conflict, these horses were crossed with local stock raised by the original inhabitants of Puglia and crossed with Arabian, Iberian and Berber stallions. 

Sought after throughout the kingdom, these horses often caught the eye of crusaders on their way to Jerusalem and old texts note that the emperor forbade his southern Italian subjects from selling horses to crusaders ‘who were eager to buy them’. He allowed animals to be sold, but his horses were to be kept in the kingdom.  

After the emperor’s death, the black horses of the Murge were said to have been utilized by the Ghibelline soldiers who fought valiantly against the Guelphs.

While throughout the Renaissance era, riders from the Venetian republic and Spanish rulers were fond of the horses bred in Puglia, the Murgese fell out of favor in Italy during the Victorian era. There was a period when many studs produced only the easiest to sell horses, usually large and heavy working horses that were easy to sell. The baroque style of Murgese horse, that resembled modern day Lipizzaners, nearly went extinct. 

Luckily, forward-thinking breeders recuperated the Murgese horse, which was officially registered as a breed in 1926. 

All of today’s Murgese horses descend from the following stallion lines. 

  • Granduca di Martina (1919-1944) 
  • Nerone (1924-1946) 
  • Araldo delle Murge (1928-1949) 

Nerone was from the Conversano stud, one of Puglia’s most prestigious breeding farms. This stud also produced the Lipizzaner stallion Conversano (exported to Austria). 

Murgese horses are black, brown (no white markings allowed) or blue roan and stand 165-168 cm at the withers. In addition to being well-muscled, horses should have hard hooves and a harmonious appearance. 

Over the past twenty years, the Murgese population has rebounded and is now growing throughout Europe and the world. Over 60% of stallions registered in 2018 were sold to foreign buyers. Check out ANAMF for more information and photographs. 

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Murgese Horse

Maremmano Horse

Horses and cattle were extensively bred in the Maremma region during ancient times. Unfortunately, when the Romans abandoned the area, the Ombrone river flooded the plains, transforming them into stinking, dangerous marshes full of mosquitoes. To survive on the plains, horses had to adapt and become stronger and more resilient.  

Known as the Badlands of Italy for centuries, the region was rapidly depopulated due to malaria wiping out most of the inhabitants. If malaria didn’t kill the locals, then wild animals, feudal lords constantly at war with each other or Ottoman pirates raiding from the sea often did instead. Even Dante wrote about how the area was to be avoided at all costs.  

This remoteness and lawlessness of the area made it popular with brigands – criminal highwaymen escaping punishment for their crimes elsewhere in Italy. Ex-mercenaries also drifted to the area between wars. These hardened and often traumatized soldiers were not afraid of what lurked around the murky swamps, and they took jobs as solitary cowboys, leading hard lives out on the marshes tending cattle with horses as their only companions.  

Until the late 1800s, Maremmano horses bred in Tuscany were highly prized throughout Europe as versatile riding and carriage horses. The region, however, experienced a dark period in the early 1800s when a wave of malaria hit particularly hard, causing the breed to lose popularity. This led to the closure of two important breeding studs in the early 1900s. The remaining mares were bred to outside stallions without forethought and the breed fell further from grace among international admirers, even declaring that it should not be classified as Maremmano anymore. 

After serving Italy in both world wars as cavalry mounts, the numbers of Maremmano horses were further decimated. 

To protect the remaining horses, a group of breeders in Tuscany and Lazio established a formal breed association and stud book. In the 1940s, after the swamps were finally drained and the area was declared malaria-free, the breed began to recover.  

Four stallions were registered as foundation sires for the studbook, and all Maremmano horses today can be traced to them:  

  • Ingres 
  • Aiace 
  • Othello 
  • Ussero 

In addition to being a powerful working breed, the Maremmano is still the traditional mount of the Buttero (Italian cowboy).  

The breed is almost always bay. Broodmares are allowed to be chestnuts, but colts that are born chestnut are instantly gelded and cut from the breeding program.  

The classical type has a simple, honest head, a muscular neck, a full chest and sloping shoulders. The back is short, the legs solid and sturdy with nicely formed hooves. The height ranges from 15hh to 17hh.  

Despite recent infusions of thoroughbreds into the breeding pool, the Maremmano remains a working horse with an innate sense of cows, extremely resilient to harsh climates and long days in the saddle.

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Maremmano

Haflinger 

It is believed that the ancestors of Haflinger were set free in the South Tyrol region when Goth troops fled the Byzantines and abandoned their horses.

Over the centuries, these semi-feral horses played an important role in the farming life for Tyrolese smallholders. Even today, they carry the local nickname of Alpine tractors. 

Because of the seclusion of many of the valleys, alpine communities have always relied on animals for transport and farming, and horses remain an important part of the local culture.

The term Haflinger was originally adopted to describe a hard-working, light-footed, robust, compact and versatile horse (not a breed). In 1898, the Ministry of Agriculture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire decreed to officially recognise the Haflinger as an official breed. 

All Haflingers today are ancestors of an important stallion named Folie, who was a cross between an Arabian stallion 133 El Bedavi XXII and a locally bred mare. Folie had a distinctive golden chestnut coat with a dorsal stripe and is remembered as a magnificent, strong horse with a wonderful temperament. Traits that make the Haflinger such a popular recreational horse today. 

Raised in the valleys and steep slopes of the Dolomite mountains, Haflingers are a product of their environment: strong, sturdy horses with the sure-footedness of chamois with a tough of Arabian elegance and nobility.  

With unwavering dependability and resilience, these horses can plough fields, carry children to school, and deliver supplies along the steep and narrow farm trails. 

Until the end of the first world war, when South Tyrol was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Italo-Hapsburg border was the scene of ferocious mountain combat during the First World War, which transformed the landscape completely. Roads, cableways and railways were constructed; and the Dolomite craggy peaks were fortified with tunnels, trenches, and underground passages. Soldiers created narrow tracks so their horses could pull heavy artillery, transport supplies and wounded soldiers up and down the mountains.  

The easy-going and unwavering nature of the Haflinger horses made them particularly suitable for this kind of Alpine warfare, and during World War I, heavy losses almost caused the breed’s extinction.  

When the region was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1919 as a recompense for joining the allies in 1915, the South Tyrol Haflinger Horse Breeders Federation made it a priority to preserve and improve the physical and character traits of the autochthonous breed in its original diversity. 

Horses are still an essential part of the area’s deeply rooted identity and are celebrated for their versatility in various sports: trail riding, dressage, working equitation, western disciplines and even skijoring. Particular importance is placed on keeping their sturdy constitution, friendly naturee, strong nerves and intelligence. 

Today they are Italy’s most popular breed nationally and internationally.  

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Haflinger horses working in unison

 Tolfetano 

The Tolfetano horse was raised in the mountainous area of Tolfa between Viterbo and the northern provinces of Rome. Horses played an important role for tribes in Lazio and were used for racing, war and leisure.  

The early horses resembled the Iranian Caspian horse. Pony-sized, with the proportions of a horse, they were later mixed with larger breeds such as the Barb, Spanish and Neapolitan to create a horse suitable for warfare and farming. 

The horses adapted to the rocky, arid terrain over thousands of years but sadly almost went extinct during the industrialization of the Italian countryside in the 1950s when many farmers turned their horses loose and abandoned them to head into town and start a new life.  

The formerly domestic horses grouped into small herds and lived semi-feral in the mountains of Tolfa until 1994, when a group of breeders and enthusiasts gathered them up and created a formal breed standard for them.  These horses are extremely resistant to harsh climates and a lack of quality pasture and are popular as working horses or trekking mounts.  

Usually dark bay, the registry also allows light bay and brown horses to be registered. 

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Tolfetano

Monterufolino  

High in the mountains between Pisa, Grossetto and Volterra is the largest natural reserve in Tuscany: The Monterufoli-Caselli Park. This microclimate is characterized by bitterly cold winters and stiflingly hot summers, where grass and forage are scarce. 

Having lived rough for a hundred years, the Monterufolini breed is renowned for its hardiness and ease of care. Their lively yet docile temperament makes them excellent therapy animals and children’s mounts. Almost always black or dark bay, they stand between 13hh and 14hh and have a strong neck, sturdy legs and a long, thick mane. 

Gherardesca counts purchased the Monterufoli estate in 1913, thus establishing the breed. Along with the land, they gained 2000 native ponies which were roaming wild on the estate. The breed no longer exists, but was renowned for its robustness and sure footing.

At the time in Europe, there was considerable demand for small horses to pull gigs and buggies, so the Gherardesca family rounded up the wild ponies and crossed them with larger and finer Maremmano and Arabian stallions to improve their conformation and gaits. 

During the year, the estate organized a roundup of the horses (which were raised in herds around the nature reserve). The horses were then branded, castrated, broken to saddle and sold via auction. They made excellent ‘all-rounders’ to drive to church, bring children to school and help with farm tasks. 

Loggers also used the breed to bring wood down from mountains. The event was a bustling social gathering that drew aspirational buyers and horse enthusiasts from all over the country.

Monterufolini horses were rendered jobless by the agricultural revolution that occurred in Tuscany during the 1950s and 1960s.

Roads and railways were constructed, cars replaced buggies, and tractors replaced logging horses. In 1956 the Gherardesca estate was sold. 

A few herds of horses were turned loose in the nature reserve, and they continued to roam the hills until 1989, when the Val di Cecina Mountain community gathered 11 of the remaining horses.

In 2008 the Cavallino di Monterufoli association was founded in Pomerance (near Volterra) in a last bid attempt to save the now critically endangered breed and in 2011 the community of Pomerance adopted the last mares roaming the hills of Monterufoli and entrusted them to the association. 

In the past ten years, the association has done an amazing job of promoting the breed nationally by marketing its tremendous versatility in regional and national competitions and fairs. They did this by sending young, trained horses around the country to be ridden in different disciplines to get the breed exposure.  

Thanks to careful adoption and breed promotion, the Monterufolini can now be found winning competitions in driving, pony games, endurance, dressage and trail riding. The idea worked, and now there is a waiting list for young horses bred by the association. The Italian forestry police also use the breed as patrol horses.   

Equine ancestry
Monterufolini

Do you want to find out if your horse is related to any of these breeds?  

A horses ancestry goes beyond a simple paper pedigree. Genetic testing is a helpful tool to understand each individual horse’s unique role in equine evolution.  

There are more than 58 million horses spread around the world, and more than 500 breeds with the process of equid domestication beginning 5,000–6,000 years ago on the Eurasian Steppe.  

Thanks to the depth of data available from whole genome sequencing, Victory Genomics provides horse owners with the most comprehensive view available of their horse’s ancestry with one test.  

By distilling sophisticated DNA sequences into a clear, easy-to-read report – we demonstrate the closest genetic relatives your horse has and show how your horse fits into the wider story of equine domestication.    

Deep ancestry – Discover your horses ancient heritage  

Did you know that through the horse genome, we can trace your horse’s ancestry back thousands of years? Each distinct genomic grouping tells an extraordinary story of movement, migration, domestication and, ultimately, survival. 

Find out about these extraordinary horses and breeds, locate where they originated from, and how they feed into the ancient ancestry of your own horse.   

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