Although the general theory is that horses were brought to Japan from China in the 400s, there is some archaeological evidence that the small Kiso pony already inhabited some Japanese isles. Fossils of Kiso-like ponies have been found in soil dating back to the Neolithic period, according to the Negishi Equine Museum.
DNA tests of Kiso ponies and other Japanese breeds show that they most likely are decedents of Mongolian horses that covered the steppes of central Asia and then came down the Korean peninsula and then arrived in Japan, perhaps when there was a land bridge. But however they arrived, some Kiso ponies still exist in Japan, although they are a very rare breed and are not found outside of Japan. It is estimated that less than 120 exist.
All Around Pony
The Kiso River flows in what is now the Nagano Prefecture in Japan, hence the Kiso pony’s name. This environment here can be very harsh which may have lead to the ponies becoming smaller than their Mongolian ancestors over time. But they still retained pony strength and were used for just about anything a larger horse could do – riding, agriculture, transportation and for eating.
But the Kiso is thought of as a great war horse, being obedient enough for a soldier and yet bold enough to charge into battle. Some 10,000 are said to have made up the cavalry of Yoshinaka Kiso (1154 – 1184). The legendary warrior may be another reason for the Kiso pony’s name. What is known is that the Kiso’s excellence as a war horse had spread throughout Japan. Breeding Kisos for war was encouraged during the Edo era (ca 1600 – 1867.) But they were not tall enough or strong enough for the wars in the 1900s.
One Stallion Left
According to “International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds” (University of Oklahoma Press; 1995) by World War II, any colt or stallion as small as the Kiso had to be castrated in order to produce larger horses. But one Shinto shrine kept one stallion named Shinmei intact and put him to the last pure-blooded mare they could find. Their colt, Dai-san Haruyama, is the ancestor of all of the Kisos remaining in Japan today. Foaled in 1951, he was put to mares that resembled Kisos but were of mixed or unknown ancestry.
But all breeds can be recreated and such was the case of the Kiso. Now considered a national treasure, they are often used for public displays of traditional Japanese mounted archery. They mostly live near Mt. Ontake in the Kaida plateau.
Although Kisos came in several colors, after World War II they only come in shades of bay. The most favored coloration is with a black dorsal stripe. They average 13 hands high, are close-coupled with a thick neck, wide head and strong, short legs. They have a heavy mane and tail. Their eyes are bright and full of curiosity and intelligence.
“International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds.” Bonnie Hendricks. University of Oklahoma Press; 1995
Heritage of Japan.”When did horses arrive in Japan? When were they domesticated?” http://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/following-the-trail-of-tumuli/rebellion-in-kyushu-and-the-rise-of-royal-estates/in-the-news-ancient-horse-trappings-dug-up-at-burial-mound/when-did-horses-arrive-in-japan/
Kisoji.com. “Mt.Ontake.” http://www.kisoji.com/english/Attractions/nature.html
USA World of Horses. “The Kiso Horse.” http://www.worldofhorses.co.uk/horses_usa/Breeds/horse_breed_Kiso_Horse.htm