Saturday, January 30, 2016

Heavenly Horses and the Emperor Wu-ti

Flying Horse, Wikipedia
Over 2000 years ago, the Chinese Emperor Wu-ti (or Wu of the Han dynasty) tried to purchase the fast and powerful Ferghana horses, Heavenly Horses, from Dayuan in Central Asia.  The Emperor recognized that he needed better breeding stock if his cavalry had any hope of combating the continually invading nomadic Huns mounted on their stocky ponies.  When his offer was refused, he sent an army to march 1000 miles across the dessert to capture these horses. The army returned defeated by battle and the dessert.  The Emperor sent out an even larger, better supplied army which besieged the capital of Ferghana.  The nobles killed their king and sent 3000 horses, including 30 Heavenly horses back as tribute to China with the much depleted Chinese army.

I recently came across this story in Bruce Chatwin's story "Heavenly Horses" in his collection What Am I Doing Here.  Chatwin speculates that these horses were originally Arabians from the Middle East based on contemporary sculptures and the following description: tails sweeping the ground, 'double spined like a tiger' (probably refers to a horse so in shape it has muscles riding above the spine), whiskers to their knees, hooves thick as a wrist,  and sweating blood in the sun.  He also claims that the stocky bodied Hun ponies were descended from the Przwalsky wild horses, which recent mtDNA studies show is false.  All domesticated modern breeds descend from the Tarpan, none from Przwalsky wild horses.

I went to the internet to see what these Heavenly Horses might have looked like.  Much to my surprise, the bronze statue of the flying horse from the East Han dynasty showed up. (Today this statue is one of 64 treasures of China that is so valued it can never leave China for exhibition.)  I have seen copies of this statue used as awards in relation to the Icelandic horse.  Why, because it so wonderful expresses the flying pace gait of the Icelandic horse.    This means the Heavenly Horses were genetically gaited.

We will probably never know the origin of the Heavenly Horses.  But I wonder if centuries later, Vikings picked up some stock  related to the Ferghana horses from their travels in Russia and Asia Minor and took the horses back to Iceland (or Norway and then Iceland).

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