Name of breed: Yakutian, or Yakut
Country of origin: Siberia, Russia
Breed origin: In the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s army forced the Yakut people to flee Mongolia. They took their horses and headed north to the frozen wilderness of Siberia, where they relied on their tough steeds for survival. But what is remarkable is what happened next. Those horses adapted to their extreme new environment so effectively that in just 800 years, physiological changes that normally take millennia had already occurred. To name a few, Yakutian horses developed a winter layer of shaggy hair that can grow up to 10 centimetres long, an incredibly thick mane and tail, genes known to have anti-freezing properties, and they became shorter and more compact. Today, they can survive without shelter in temperatures as low as -70°C (−94 °F)! Scientists have used the Yakutian horse as an example of how fast evolution can occur under pressure.
The Yakuts used their horses for a huge range of purposes. They were a mode of transport, they were used for herding, they were milked, their hair was used to make rope and, at the end of their lives, their meat fed their family while their coats were made into warm clothing. Alongside these functions, horses were also an important source of connection to the spirit world in the shamanic Yakutian culture. Their wild spirit was revered and they were domesticated just enough to be ridden, led and milked. The Yakuts were able to thrive in Sakha (or Yakutia, as the region was also known) thanks to their resilient, independent steeds.
Distinguishing features: Yakutian horses are compact and short, averaging 13 to 13.3 hands high. Their stout conformation helps them retain heat better, as do their dense mane and tail and remarkably thick, long winter coat. They are capable of gaining up to 35 kilograms of extra fat during the short few months of the Siberian summer, allowing for the loss of up to 20% of their total weight over winter. They have an acute sense of smell and very hard, wide hooves, which help them sniff out and dig up what little fodder lies buried under the snow. To help them conserve energy during the winter, their metabolism and breathing slow down and they generate less heat. Antifreeze compounds in their blood help Yakutian horses survive in the extreme cold. The most widespread colours are grey, bay and light dun, although many more colours are seen. Primitive markings such as a dorsal stripe along the spine and zebra markings on the lower limbs are common. Three types of Yakutian horse are recognised: the Northern type, which is the purest and most valuable, the Smaller Southern type and the Larger Southern type.
Modern day Yakutian: Although the Yakuts no longer rely on their horses for survival and the local equine population is decreasing, the Yakutian horse is still revered as a culturally and spiritually significant creature. It is a celebrated part of everyday life, festivals and ceremonies.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Yakutia Today