Italy is not only home to spectacular art and cuisine, but is also the home of several fine horse breeds, including the Calabrese or Calabrian. This rare large warmblood breed gets its name from the area it originated – Calabria in the southern part of the country. Although crossed with other breeds in order to save it from extinction, the Calabrese has not lost its strength and good nature.
This is not the best looking horse in the worse, but beauty is as beauty does. The Calabrese averages 16 hands in height, has a lean frame, rump a little higher than the withers and a large, sometimes convex head like an Andalusian. The come in a variety of solid colors including chestnut, bay, black, grey and roan. White markings are permitted. They are known for excellent health and soundness.
According to International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds (Bonnie Hendricks, 1995) it is unknown just how old the Calabrese breed is, but is thought to have been established before the time of the Roman Empire. Hendricks theorizes that the Aryan peoples brought the Calabrese’s ancestors from Asia to Greece while also introducing the horse species to the Arabian Peninsula. These horses would later become Arabians, which would later on help save the Calabrese.
The Aryan’s horses were thought to be much more like the Arab or Barb. They were much smaller and temperamental than modern Calabrese. These small horses were then crossed with African Arabian – Spanish crosses brought to Italy by the Celtic Gauls. The result was a tall, strong yet level-headed riding horse.
The Calabrese was used for just about everything – farm work, riding, eating and for war. Hannibal (of war elephant fame) highly praised the Calabrese by targeting them for theft. He managed to steal 4,000 from the Roman army in 217 BCE. Julius Caesar also frequently used Calabrese in his campaigns.
But Italy has had a tough time of it in the last three thousand years, being the showcase to numerous wars and conquests. All horses had a hard time of it, too, including the versatile Calabrese. All horse breeds were hit hard in the 1700s by the general public’s preference for mules. Many mares spent their lives producing mules instead of horse foals. However, mules have many advantages over horses and so it is no wonder that they were in such demand by a society that depended heavily on animal power.
The breed was not considered well-liked by non-Italians. This sentiment made it to an encyclopedia published in 1832, where author David Brewster wrote that although the horses were “handsome in shape, spirited in their motions and capable of enduring great fatigue; but are in general of a small size, and seldom free from vice.”
The breed was nearly extinct in 1880 after a law closed all government breeding studs in 1874. By the early 1900s, public interest revived over saving the breed. But there were so few Calabrese left that continuing the breed was only possible through the judicious use of other breeds – including the thoroughbred, Andalusian, hackney and Arabian. Two main breeding herds were established. The Menton herd had more thoroughbred and hackney blood while the Luati herd had more Arabian-type blood.
- · International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. Bonnie Hendricks. University of Oklahoma Press; 1995.
- · International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. Jane Kidd. HP Books; 1986.
- · The Edinburgh Encyclopeadia, Conducted by David Brewster. David Brewster and “eminent gentlemen.” Vol. 11. A & E Parker; 1832.