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    How Many Horse Breeds Are There?

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    There are more than 200 breeds of horses in the world today. Breeds like the American Quarter Horses and the Thoroughbred are plentiful. Both populations easily exceed 1 million. For example, the American Quarter Horse Association registry includes more than 4.4 million.

    Others are far less common. Two examples: the Nakota® and Cleveland Bay horse populations are fewer than 250.  

    How is a horse breed defined?

    Horse breeds fall into one of three categories: heavy breeds, light breeds, and ponies.

    Heavy breeds

    Heavy breeds are stout, short-backed horses built to pull heavy loads. Also known as draft or work horses, these large horses tip the scales at 1,400 to 2,700 pounds. Belgians, Clydesdales, Shires, and Percherons are examples of common heavy horse breeds.

    Light breeds

    Most riding horses fall into the light breed category. These breeds of horses have a finer bone structure, a more defined withers area, and weigh between 800 and 1,500 pounds. 


    Ponies  are the smallest of the three. Most organizations use 14.2 as the maximum height to define a pony. While shorter, these breeds tend to be stockier than light horse breeds.

    Lineage and “type” also define a horse's breed. Registries have varying requirements about a horse's bloodlines and/or characteristics to determine its breed. Grade horses may have qualifying parentage but be unregistered for various reasons, or they may be a mix of breeds and ineligible for registration. 

    More specific horse breed reads

    Shopping for a horse is exciting, especially if you are a beginner. It can also be a little scary. Learn more about what makes the best beginner horse from age and size, to temperament and breed.
    Read more about work horse breeds, what makes these horses different, and we answer the question - is a Clydesdale considered a work horse?

    7 unique horse breeds

    Given the popularity and thriving populations of some breeds, it can be hard to believe so many types of horses exist today. However, while some breeds are simply less well known, many horse breeds have dramatically smaller population numbers, with some considered rare, threatened, or critically endangered. 

    Here's a look at seven less well-known horse breeds, nearly all of which are used in a variety of disciplines.

    The Akhal-Teke is a rare horse breed listed as a “threatened breed” in the United States. Nicknamed the "Golden Horses," they are known for their unique metallic sheen. The Akhal-Teke is considered one of the oldest horse breeds and is likely a descendant of the Turkoman horse. The Turkmen people decorated their horses with exquisite hand-crafted tack made of gold, silver, bronze, and precious stones. Breed enthusiasts keep the  traditions alive  by riding these horses in traditional tack at expos, demonstrations, and competitions.  

    The Cleveland Bay Horse hails from northeast England, known as the Cleveland area. The Church significantly influenced the Cleveland Bay’s development as it bred them for use as pack horses to move goods between Abbeys and Monasteries. In the late 18th century, the Cleveland Bay became a fancy carriage horse and matched pairs were highly prized. Considered a rare breed today, the Royal family boosted the breed numbers. Former Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather took an interest in breeding Cleveland Bays, and she continued the tradition.

    The Curly Horse (American Bashkir Curly Horse) is like the poodle in dog breeds. As the name suggests, this breed has curly hair—not just waves in the mane and tail—but in the entire coat and even the eyelashes, which is especially noticeable in wintertime. Curlies have a gentle temperament and are the only hypo-allergenic horse breed. Their wavy hair and an extra layer of fat allow them to thrive in the coldest winter conditions. Experts believe the Curly originated in Russia and migrated across the Bering Strait. 

    The Lipizzan (Lipizzaner) dates  back to the late 1500s  when Archduke Charles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire founded a stud farm at Lipizza near the Adriatic Sea. His goal was to develop a breed that could excel in war, classical riding, and as a carriage horse. At about the same time, the  Spanish Riding School began to preserve and promote the art of classical horsemanship with the Lipizzan, its featured breed. The Lipizzan was in grave danger during WWII when Germany invaded Austria. United States Colonel Charles Reed coordinated a daring rescue and evacuation effort to save the famous white horses. The story is featured in the book “The Perfect Horse,” and the 1963 Walt Disney Movie Miracle of the White Stallions.

    The Marwari Horse is easy to spot because of their distinctive inward-curved shape to their ears. These horses were first bred in the 12th century to serve as cavalry horses in Marwar (Jodphur) in northwest India. By the 20th century, the breed came close to extinction. In 1995, British horsewoman Francesca Kelly established the Marwari Bloodlines group to preserve the breed. She imported the first Marwari horses to the United States in 2000. There are about 1,000 Marwari horses worldwide today.

    Nakota ® Horses trace back to the last surviving wild horses that lived in the Little Missouri badlands in North Dakota. Though a wild horse in the west, the Nakota ® is distinct from the more widely known Mustang. The Mustang is somewhat smaller and is descended from the Spanish colonial horses. While the Nakota ® has Spanish influences, the bloodlines also include Canadian Horse influences brought to the region by French explorers. Ranchers also crossed these wild mares with larger stallions to create a hardy, working ranch-horse.

    Przewalski’s Horse is the only remaining wild horse, and it lives in the rugged Mongolian steeps in the Gobi Desert. Other “wild” horses, like the Mustang, the Chincoteague Pony, and others, originated from once domesticated horses that escaped from ranches or farms. Many of these horses have since been adopted or purchased and used as companions and riding horses.

    However, the Przewalski's horse has never been domesticated and is genetically considered a distant cousin to domestic horses. According to the Denver Zoo, these horses became extinct in the wild in the 1960s. Nearly 30 years later, 16 captive-bred horses were reintroduced to a protected area of their native habitat. About 1,500 exist today.

    Where can I see different horse breeds

    Equine expos famous for clinics and tradeshows often feature a breed pavilion and encourage breed registry representatives and horse owners to promote less well-known breeds. Usually, the horses are on display and featured in demonstrations to showcase the breed’s traits and characteristics.

    Popular events include the Equine Affaire, held in Columbus, Ohio (spring) and West Springfield, Massachusetts (fall), the Minnesota Horse Expo, the Southern Equine Expo, the Horseworld Expo in Pennsylvania, and the NW Horse Fair & Expo.

    The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington offers another opportunity to see many breeds in one place. The Park's Breeds Barn features nearly 30 breeds. During the summer months, the Park organizes a Parade of Breeds that showcases a variety of breeds, including the rare Marwari Horse, in a performance that is set to music and shows each breed in period attire.

    Select zoos across the United States also feature horses. Ironically, the most endangered horse—Przewalski’s horse—is the most common breed found in zoos and can be seen in San Diego, Denver, Colorado, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C., the El Paso Zoo in Texas, and others.

    Learn more about horses

    Meet these cute little horses (not ponies). Find out what makes a miniature horse so wonderful and how to care for them.