Efforts to Save Endangered Equine Breeds

The Endangered Equine Alliance was launched to help preserve the now-rare breeds that helped form our nation.

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A Cleveland Bay stallion, an endangered equine breed
The Cleveland Bay breed originated in England but nearly became extinct by 1960 with only six stallions remaining. Today, there are perhaps as many as 1,000 worldwide, with 180 in North America. Pictured: Cleveland Bay stallion (and Breyer Horse model) Tregoyd Journeyman. Photo courtesy Cleveland Bay Horse Society of North America/The Livestock Conservancy

Without equines, we would not have the America we know today.

This is not at all exaggeration. Without the horses, mules, and donkeys that first came to North America, the early colonists would not have been able to survive the harsh climate, the West would not have been settled, farmers in the Midwest would not have been able to survive, and Native Americans would not have developed equestrian-based methods of hunting and warfare without the use of the mighty horse.

The equines of early America were hardy creatures that often had to fend for themselves. The rugged landscape and challenging climates, combined with scarce food and lack of veterinary care, shaped these horses and donkeys into tough, resilient breeds.

A Wilber-Cruce horse
The Wilbur-Cruce is a strain of the threatened Colonial Spanish horse breed. Pictured: Wilbur-Cruce horse Lorenzo in trail class competition. Photo courtesy Alana Carden/The Livestock Conservancy

Hundreds of years later, the so-called “heritage” equine breeds are under threat. Competition from the tractor and automobile, along with two World Wars, helped wipe out equine populations around the world early in the 20th century. While a number of them survived the industrial age, some fared better than others. The heritage breeds that remain are some of the rarest and hardiest equines in the world.

Today, a handful remain in North America, representing what’s left of the original animals that worked alongside our ancestors, providing them with transportation, help on the farm, and even companionship.

Fight to Preserve

In 1978, an organization called The Conservancy was formed with the purpose of preserving these once common equines, along with other North American livestock. This nonprofit membership association works to protect endangered livestock breeds from extinction and is currently trying to save 150 breeds of cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, poultry, horses, and donkeys. Of those 150 breeds of livestock, 37 are equines.

Two Poitou donkeys
The Poitou is a French donkey breed valued for the production of mules for over 1,000 years. Fewer than 80 Poitous lived in 1980, but numbers rebounded to 2,500 by 2012. Poitou donkeys Babette and foal Kenny pictured. Photo by Patrick Archer, Texas Poitou Donkeys/courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

In 2006, the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization estimated that an average of two domestic animal breeds are lost worldwide each week. In the U.S., The Livestock Conservancy is fighting to stem this tide. One of these efforts spawned the creation of the Endangered Equine Alliance, which held its first summit in 2018.

“The Endangered Equine Summit came about in response to a decades-long decline in horse breed registrations, not only for rare breeds, but also for more popular breeds, like Arabians and Saddlebreds,” says Charlene R. Couch, Ph.D., senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy. “The economic challenges for all equine breeders are significant, but they are even more so for those who breed endangered horses and donkeys.”

Two Baca-Chica mares, members of an endangered equine breed
The Baca-Chica is a strain of Colonial Spanish horses, which were nearly extinct by 1950. Baca-Chica mares pictured. Photo courtesy Annette Garcia/The Livestock Conservancy

According to Couch, ancient breeds such as the Akhal-Teke and Caspian, which have been human partners for thousands of years, are now gravely endangered.

“Even the iconic Cleveland Bay, Clydesdale, and Lipizzan horses are rare,” she says. “In our lifetime, we may bear witness to equine breed extinction.”

A large group of riders aboard Mountain Pleasure Horses, an endangered equine breed
The gaited Mountain Pleasure Horse was developed in the Appalachian Mountains for riding and driving over rugged terrain. Photo courtesy Robin Little/The Livestock Conservancy

If the history of these breeds isn’t enough to inspire their preservation, their ability to contribute to modern equine gene pools should be.

“Heritage-breed horses are not just useful and beautiful—they are an irreplaceable reservoir of equine genetic diversity,” Couch says. “These animals offer valuable traits that were developed over centuries, such as stamina, unique gaits, hardiness, sound feet, and good skeletal structure. Many were important in the formation of America’s more popular breeds, like the American Quarter Horse. In many cases, the ancestral sources of these heritage breeds no longer exist, and that breed cannot be recreated. They are a true genetic treasure, and every loss could be significant for the future of the horse industry.”

The Endangered Equine Alliance

Shortly after the 2018 Summit, more than 50 equine breed associations, plus scientists, sporting groups, and horse industry representatives united to form the Endangered Equine Alliance. The Livestock Conservancy facilitates the exchange of information among Alliance members and serves as a central outlet for educational resources that support equine breed conservation.

So far, the Alliance has accomplished some significant goals, according to Couch.

“We have created a germplasm bank for endangered horse breeds,” she says. “The collection is a sort of ‘doomsday’ vault of genetic materials for breed conservation emergencies. Through the Alliance’s network, we facilitated the banking of semen from Newfoundland Ponies, the Marsh Tacky, Akhal-Teke, and Caspian horses so far, with other breed collections on the horizon.”

A man jousting aboard a Marsh Tacky horse
The Marsh Tacky is a critically endangered breed of Colonial Spanish horse from South Carolina, with only about 400 individuals remaining. Pictured: David Grant ring jousting on his Marsh Tacky. Photo courtesy Carolina Marsh Tacky Association/The Livestock Conservancy

The Alliance has also worked to provide breeders with discounts from companies for semen and tissue collection of endangered equine breeds; published the Manual of Methods for Preservation of Valuable Equine Genetics, designed to help owners learn more about new reproduction technologies and how to use them to save breeds and bloodlines; hosted webinars and question-and-answer sessions with equine experts on DNA testing, advanced reproduction techniques, and marketing; and developed an Endangered Equine Alliance website for sharing articles and links, and a Rare Equine Breeds Facebook group that now has more than 2,000 followers worldwide.

“July has been designated as National Horse Month by The Livestock Conservancy, and throughout the month, we provide social media content and interviews with key individuals in the rare horse breed community,” Couch says. “Since 2018, The Livestock Conservancy has given out seven microgrants for rare horse and donkey-related projects.”

Help from Grants

The first National Endangered Equine Summit was made possible in large part by a grant from the USA Equestrian Trust, which is affiliated with U.S. Equestrian, the national governing body for most equestrian sports in the United States.

“The grant enabled The Livestock Conservancy to bring together representatives of approximately 50 endangered horse breed groups for the first summit,” Couch says. “The delegates to the Summit represented thousands of horse owners, and included participants from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. The group was tasked with identifying the leading causes of equine breed population declines, and deciding [upon] actions that could be taken to stabilize the loss of breeds.”

A woman performs archery aboard a Canadian Horse, an endangered equine breed
The Canadian Horse has slowly rebounded from fewer than 400 individuals in 1976 to 2,000 today. Pictured: Canadian Horse doing mounted archery. Photo courtesy Kimberley Beldam, Heritage Stone Farm/The Livestock Conservancy

Through the support of the USA Equestrian Trust, experts from the greater horse community, including sporting groups, equine-assisted therapy providers, university scientists, and national associations participated in the Summit. Panelists included partners at the American Horse Council, Texas A&M University, Virginia Tech, Uppsala University, the American Endurance Ride Conference, Natural Lifemanship Equine-Assisted Therapy, Rare Breeds Survival Trust/Stallion AI Services (U.K.), the Arabian Horse Association, the National Animal Interest Alliance, and the National Driving Society.

“The vision and support of the USA Equestrian Trust was crucial in bringing together such a wide representation of members of the equine industry,” Couch says. “Together, the participants saw the potential to accomplish great things by uniting in their efforts to conserve endangered equine breeds.”

Ongoing Support

In addition to work by the Endangered Equine Alliance, The Livestock Conservancy conducts an annual census of horse and donkey breeds to monitor their population growth and declines.

“We encourage registration of horses so that their numbers can be counted,” Couch says. “We maintain a large list of breeders and breed associations to help owners and enthusiasts connect with each other, share herd genetics, or collaborate on projects.”

A galloping Irish Draught Horse
The Irish Draught has roots as far back as 500 B.C., numbering fewer than 8,400 purebreds globally in 2011. Pictured: Irish Draught stallion at Bellwether Farm. Photo courtesy Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock Conservancy

The Conservancy also offers a competitive microgrants program to all heritage livestock and poultry growers, including horse and donkey breeders, to help boost their capacity for breeding, raising, and selling animals. They also assist owners in saving germplasm of valuable, rare bloodlines and individuals from breeds on the Conservation Priority List through discounts, networking, and other resources.

Some current research projects include genetic studies for Suffolk Punch, American Cream Draft horses, and Poitou donkeys, with the goal of uncovering genetic information that will help guide efforts to reduce the risks of inbreeding and support effective conservation.

“The Livestock Conservancy is all about education, research, and networking of owners and breeders so that we can safeguard the future of important breeds,” Couch says. “Together with owners, breeders, and the equine community, we want to move the needle for each breed, and make a meaningful contribution to its long-term survival.”

For more, visit www.livestockconservancy.org/aboutus/endangered-equine-alliance.

Breeds Needing Conservation

The Livestock Conservancy has placed the following horses on its list of critical and threatened endangered breeds:

Akhal-Teke
American Cream Draft
Baca-Chica
Banker
Canadian Horse
Caspian
Choctaw
Cleveland Bay
Clydesdale
Colonial Spanish Mustang
Dales Pony
Dartmoor
Fell Pony
Florida Cracker
Galiceño
Hackney Horse
Highland Pony
Irish Draught
Lipizzan
Marsh Tacky
Newfoundland Pony
Puerto Rican Paso Fino
Rocky Mountain
Santa Cruz
Shire
Suffolk Punch
Sulphur
Wilbur-Cruce

The Dartmoor pony, an endangered equine
The Dartmoor pony originates from southwestern England. It was customary to turn ponies loose when they were not being used for riding, agricultural work or coal mining, resulting in a breed that could thrive on rough terrain and poor forage. They nearly disappeared in the early 1900s but are now estimated at 2,000-3,000 worldwide. Photo by Nicole Ciscato/Shutterstock

This article about endangered equine breeds appeared in the March 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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