OTSU, SHIGA PREF. – A farm that raises only indigenous Japanese horses has opened near a shrine known as a “sacred site of horses” in Shiga Prefecture, and its owner is intent on breeding more of them to preserve the species.
Japanese horses were once raised across the country to work in fields and transport goods and people. However, the indigenous horse population declined as modern transportation developed and there are only some 1,700 left, the Japan Equine Affairs Association says.
Ikumi Isobe, the 33-year-old owner of the Mikarinonomori farm, was engaged in projects to preserve indigenous horses and promote traditional horseback military arts at a different farm she used to work for in Yamanashi Prefecture.
The Mikarinonomori farm in Omihachiman, has four horses comprising two breeds from two different regions in the country, Hokkaido (Dosanko) and Nagano Prefecture (Kiso). Isobe plans to cooperate with other farms in breeding indigenous horses.
For her horse farm she picked a lot about 500 meters away from Kamo Shrine, which is dedicated to the Shinto gods that protect horses. She opened the roughly 1,350-sq.-meter facility on May 1. According to the shrine, Emperor Tenchi is said to have established a farm that occupied vast swaths of the region in 668.
Visitors can feed and ride the horses, and also try their hand at yabusame (horseback archery) there.
“I used to ride horses and I wanted to try it again,” said a female visitor from the city, who brought carrots for the horses.
According to Isobe and the horse association, eight breeds of indigenous Japanese horses can be found from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
The others are the Noma (Ehime Prefecture), Taishu (Nagasaki Prefecture), Misaki (Miyazaki Prefecture), Tokara (Kagoshima Prefecture), Miyako and Yonaguni (both Okinawa).
Japanese horses are gentle-natured and have strong bodies, although they are smaller than thoroughbred racehorses. The height of their withers — the part between the shoulder blades — is around 1.3 meters, while that of thoroughbreds is above 1.6 meters.
Other characteristics include relatively large heads and thick flowing manes.
According to the horse association, it is believed that all Japanese indigenous horses are descendants of animals brought from mainland Asia at various periods via routes dating back to the sixth century or earlier.
Horses played an important symbolic role in Japanese religion, and even today certain shrines stable sacred white horses.
The Dosanko breed is a descendant of several local breeds imported from the Tohoku region when Japanese began migrating to Hokkaido in the 15th century, according to the association.
Records indicate that the Kiso breed was raised systematically in the Kiso region of Nagano Prefecture as early as the sixth century.
“I fear that Japanese horses are close to extinction. I want many people to visit the farm because we protect them,” Isobe said.