Not even the sonorous voices of 20 young children singing “I am a Noma Horse,” was enough to put Erika, who really is a Noma horse, at ease.
Maybe she didn’t like being lied to.
Or maybe this pretty little horse — a rare native breed that Ueno Zoo says “possesses a quiet demeanor (and) is good for working with children” — was simply nervous in the presence of the guest of honor, Princess Mako, 16-year-old daughter of Prince Akishino.
Whatever it was, the moment didn’t go quite as planned. There was Erika, officially being handed over to Tokyo’s oldest zoo from the government of Imabari City in Ehime Prefecture, when she suddenly became a little stroppy. Hoofs were stomped. Nostrils flared. And if it wasn’t for the quick intervention of a handful of carrots, there’s no telling what might have happened.
The man with the vegetables was Katsuyuki Ozawa. He had made the trip up from Imabari to say a last farewell to the 14-year-old horse who was born and raised at Noma Uma Highland, the publicly-funded reserve that he heads, and which is charged with maintaining the only population of Nomas in Japan.
That population now stands at 84 animals — a figure that you’d expect would have conservationists stomping their hooves in fear. But, when you consider it represents a 1,400 percent increase on the population of 30 years ago — which was six — you can understand why Ozawa and Co. are more likely to be rearing up in celebration.
Yes, I said six. Through a well- coordinated breeding program, the Noma — one of Japan’s eight native breeds of horse — was brought back from the brink of extinction. Six have now turned into 84.
Stories like these are hardly rare in the history of horses. Of all the many hundreds of breeds of horse — who, scientifically speaking are all examples of Equus caballus (domestic horse) — dozens are known to have become extinct.
The thing is, horse breeds, like dog breeds, are essentially man-made creations engineered for a particular purpose. When horse-drawn carriages became obsolete, for example, in the early 1900s, the noble Yorkshire Coach Horse — bred for long legs, strength and good looks — went with them. That said, the Yorkshire’s “foundation breeds” — breeds that were mixed to create it — still exist, which means that if carriages ever do make a comeback, Yorkshires can be brought back with them.
Japan’s native breeds, such as the Noma, are in a more precarious position, as their foundation breeds, which were not officially recorded, can no longer be isolated. Were Erika and her kin to die out, the Noma would be no more.
Noma horses date back to the early 1600s, when a feudal lord in present day Imabari started a program of breeding horses for use in war. Horses over 121 cm (or about 12 hands at the “withers,” the ridge between the shoulder blades, where horses’ heights are measured from) were used in the breeding program, while smaller animals were given to local farmers.
As it turned out, what was bad for war was good for agriculture. The farmers took to the little animals for their ability to negotiate narrow mountain paths and steep slopes. Those qualities were accentuated as the horses were bred, eventually creating a recognizable and stable breed.
Erika’s 97-cm height, her large head, strong hind legs, short rump and graceful, long mane are the four characteristics that most clearly identify her as a Noma horse. (Purists may prefer to call Nomas “ponies,” which are generally defined as any breed of horse under 14.2 hands in height, but Ueno Zoo describes them as horses.)
Nomas grew in popularity till about the middle of the 1800s, when Noma Uma Highland estimates there were about 300. Then, what was initially their defining characteristic — an unsuitability for warfare — came back to haunt them.
During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Japanese army was shocked to see how big the horses used by their adversaries were. Fearing what in Cold War parlance you might call a “horse gap,” the Emperor ordered the breeding of large horses suitable for the trenches.
The bureaucrats took to the task with perhaps a little too much vigor: The Baseikyoku (Agency of Equine Affairs) was established, thoroughbreds and other large breeds were imported from the West, a horse-racing industry was nurtured and, most surprisingly, the breeding of small horses was outlawed.
As a result, Noma numbers nosedived, and the breed would have died out totally had it not been for some obstinate farmers hidden in the mountains of Ehime, who kept the horses for farm work.
After the war, the introduction of trucks and tractors saw the Nomas all but disappear from the farm. By the 1970s, only six survived — a pair at the Dogo (now Tobe) Zoo in Ehime and one stallion and three mares in the collection of a private breeder, who was determined to keep them alive for their historical significance. In 1978, all six were brought together by Imabari City, which wasted no time in rebuilding the population.
Erika and, indeed, all 83 of her kin, can be traced to those six horses. Then in 1989, Imabari centralized the breeding at Noma Uma Highland.
“The breed is now considered stable, and we are looking at ways to put them back into use,” explains Highland director Ozawa. He says the horse is particularly good for working with kids.
But you could have fooled young Princess Mako. At the ceremony at Ueno Zoo, Erika continued to stamp and grumble. Maybe she had realized she was in the presence of the great-great-great granddaughter of the man (Emperor Meiji) who, over 100 years ago, almost caused her breed’s demise.
Still, Ozawa reports that the young princess acted with considerable aplomb, helping him to placate Erika with handfuls of vegetables.
And what did Ozawa and the princess discuss while they were doing this?
“I told her about the history of the breed and the program to bring it back from near-extinction,” says Ozawa. “She seemed interested.”
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