Name of breed: Basuto, or Basotho
Country of origin: Lesotho and South Africa
Breed origin: The story of the Basuto pony begins with a shipment from the Dutch East India Trading Company that arrived on the shores of South Africa in 1653. On board were four ponies of mixed origins, probably with some Arabian, Barb and Persian bloodlines. These ponies acclimatised very well to the environment in South Africa and the offspring of these ponies and the local horses soon became known as Cape horses. By the 1800s, two separate breeds had emerged. The Cape horse now had a heavy dollop of Arabian and Persian bloodlines (and became the foundation of the Boerperd horse), while the Basuto pony remained true to the original type.
To survive and thrive in South Africa (and later, Lesotho, a country completely encircled by South Africa), the Basuto pony had to adapt. It developed thick-walled hooves to navigate the rocky mountains, and a two-beat lateral gait called the ‘triple’ that allowed it to travel quickly but efficiently. It also became tougher and better able to cope with varied grazing and extreme temperatures.
Both the Cape horse and the Basuto pony earned quite a name for themselves in battle, especially during the Anglo-Boer war. The Basuto was especially prized, as it had a robustness that the Cape horse lacked. Basuto ponies were exported to many neighbouring countries, being known for their speed, strength and courage. However, this almost led to the breed’s downfall, as the cavalry wanted geldings, so most of the best-quality stallions were neutered before export. Over 30,000 Basuto horses left South Africa and Lesotho. This, combined with a terrible blizzard in 1902 and unregulated breeding, had dire consequences for the Basuto. By the 1950s, it was on the verge of extinction, with many of the remaining horses being poor quality.
In 1973, the Basuto Pony Project was established as a joint effort by the governments of Lesotho and Ireland (of all nations!) to revive this much-needed breed. Arabians from Egypt and Connemara ponies from Ireland were introduced and five years later, a national stud was established. The Connemara breed was chosen because it shares common ancestry and many features such as conformation, temperament, size and hardiness with the Basuto. These two governments are still working together to safeguard the future of the Basuto, which has since regained its former strength and vigour.
Distinguishing features: Basuto ponies have more horse-like characteristics than pony-like. A stocky breed, they are a comfortable size for light adults at around 13.3 to 14.2 hands high. They have a long neck and back, straight shoulders and a well-muscled, sloping croup. Their legs are sound and strong, their hooves are exceptionally hard and they have a rather heavy head with a straight profile. Quick on their feet, Basutos have a long stride and can perform the ‘triple’, a two-beat lateral gait that is both comfortable and ground-covering. They are renowned for their agility and endurance. Coat colours include bay, brown, black, chestnut and grey. Basuto ponies are incredibly hardy, able to endure extreme cold and heat and live on sparse pasture when needed. They are intelligent, good-natured and relatively docile.
Modern day Basuto: Today, Basutos are mainly found in Lesotho, where their population currently sits at around 93,000 to 112,000. They are still used by many people for transportation and farm work. Newer pursuits include tourist trekking, racing, polo and pleasure riding.