It's all about the only native Finnish horse breed!

Early History Of The Finnhorse

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From Finnhorse (

The Finnhorse studbook was founded in 1907. But what had happened before, and does the Finnhorse have much common history with Norwegian, Swedish, Russian and Estonian native horse breeds?


Finnish horses and a horse-drawn tram in Turku, 1890

The ancestors of the modern Finnhorse were important throughout Finnish history, used as work horses and beasts of burden in every aspect of life from antiquity well into the 20th century. The modern breed’s precise line of descent is unclear, but numerous outside influences have been recorded throughout the history of Finland.

The earliest hard archaeological evidence of horses existing in what today is Finland dates to the Finnish Middle Iron Age (400-800 CE). The Finnhorse and its progenitors later became an indispensable asset for military forces from the region of Finland during the times of Swedish and Russian rule, and since independence as well. In addition to functionality as military and working horses, the Finnhorse has also been bred for speed in harness racing, and it can be argued that this sport was the main factor in the survival of the breed after its numbers crashed during the later half of the 20th century, from approximately 400,000 animals in the 1950s to 14,000 in the 1980s. In the 21st century, the numbers of the breed have stabilised at approximately 20,000 animals.


Although multiple hypotheses exist on the origins of the horse in Finland, an indigenous wild horse origin is thought improbable, as significant numbers of domesticated horses were imported from earliest times. The Finnhorse is most likely descended from a northern European domestic horse.

One theory suggests that horses arrived from the west, brought to what today is western Finland by the Vikings during the Viking Age, circa 800–1050 CE. These Viking horses would have been of northern European ancestry. The other main theory suggests that non-Viking peoples, who migrated into Finland from the southeast and south, brought with them horses of Mongolian origin that had been further developed in the Urals and Volga River regions. Both theories have merit, as there were two distinct horse types in the eastern and western regions of Finland that remained distinct from one another until at least the middle of the 19th century.

The eastern origin of the breed was first proposed by archaeologist Johannes Reinhold Aspelin, who published Suomalaisen hevosen kotoperäisyydestä (“On the Nativity of the Finnish horse”) in 1886–1887. Aspelin proposed that Finnish horses descended from an animal that had accompanied the Finno-Ugric peoples’ migration from the Volgaregion and middle Russia to the shores of the Gulf of Finland. A similar idea was suggested over a hundred years earlier by natural historian Pehr Adrian Gadd, and this theory has continued to receive some support into modern times. The veterinarian Ludvig Fabritius considered the proposed prototype a side branch of a “Tartarian” breed, and considered it possible that the same prototype also influenced Estonian, Swedish and Norwegian horse populations.


Contrasting early types: A small, stocky roan Finnish horse from Karelian Isthmus, photographed in 1909. 12.3 hands (51 inches, 130 cm) high. A roan (?) Finnhorse, 130 cm, from Karelian Isthmus, Finland, in 1909 Unknown – Photographed from Liinaharja: Suomenhevosen taival (Pesonen et. al, published by Otava)


Contrasting early types: A more refined flaxen-maned chestnut Finnhorse from Central Finland, photographed in 1910. 14 hands (56 inches, 142 cm) high. A flaxen-maned chestnut Finnhorse, 141 cm, from Central Finland, in 1910 Photographed from Liinaharja: Suomenhevosen taival (Pesonen et. al, published by Otava)

Later, agronomist Axel Alfthan (1862–1934) and veterinarian Kaarlo Gummerus (1840–1898) expanded Aspelin’s hypothesis, proposing that the horse population later diverged into Eastern Finnish and Mid-Finnish types, which had remained distinguishable as late as the turn of the 20th century.

Photographs support these claims: the small Karelian horse was blocky and stout, with pronounced withers, a short neck and large head. The small horse from central Finland, on the other hand, was “more noble”, with a longer body, lighter neck and more refined head. The Swedish professor Eric Åkerblom even suggested that the Finnish horse spread along river valleys to Troms, Norway, and was the ancestor of the Nordlandshest/Lyngshest, found around the Lyngenfjord.

The Norwegians continue to utilise Finnhorse bloodlines, having purchased the Finnish pony-type stallion Viri 632-72P for stud use in 1980. However, Åkerblom dismissed the possibility that the eastern Finnhorse came from same prototype as the western pony breeds.



Nordlandshest “Ninni”, Photo: Nimloth250

In 1927, veterinarian and professor Veikko Rislakki (then Svanberg) proposed a different theory in his doctoral thesis. He argued that three types of wild horses existed in Europe, one of which he believed to be the Przewalski’s Horse. Rislakki believed this unrefined and notably large-headed type was the horse the early Finns encountered about 1000 BCE.

He sugggested that the Finns later encountered other peoples and horses south of the Gulf of Finland, and that these peoples had better proportioned horses with a shorter muzzle and wider forehead, descended from the Tarpan. In addition, Rislakki suggested that the Finns came across European horses of Spanish and French origin during the first few centuries CE, larger in size and with narrow foreheads. Rislakki believed that his craniometricexaminations, carried out in the 1920s, proved the influence of all these three horse types.

Almost 20 years later, during the Continuation War, Rislakki also measured Karelian horses, and proposed they also came from an original Northern European animal descended from the Tarpan.  Modern studies have discredited theories suggesting modern domesticated horse breeds descending from the Tarpan or the Przewalski’s horse. The modern Konik horse resembles the extinct Tarpan however.


Only known photo of an alleged live Tarpan, which may have been a hybrid or feral animal, 1884

In the early 20th century, English J. C. Edward and Norwegian S. Petersen, proposed that Finland and the other countries surrounding the Gulf of Finland were the home region for the so-called “yellow pony”. A later ethnologist, Kustaa Vilkuna (1902–1980) supported this view, proposing that an “Estonian-Finno-Karelian pony” descended from a small forest horse previously widespread in the lands surrounding the Gulf of Finland.

Earliest horse equipment (bits) found in Finnish graves date from the Finnish Middle Iron Age, beginning from circa 400 CE. Breeds considered to descend from the same early types as the Finnhorse include the Estonian Native horse, the Norwegian Nordlandshest/Lyngshest, the Swedish Gotland Russ, the Mezen horse from the region of Archangelsk, Russia, and the Lithuanian Žemaitukas.


Estonian Klepper, photo by Rozpravka

At some point in their history, not clearly documented, horses bred in the western regions crossbred with horses that originated south of the Gulf of Finland. This made the western Finnish horse type larger and better suited to farming and forestry work. The characteristics of the original western Finnish type prevailed, however, even though influenced by outside blood and traces of outside influence could be detected for a long time. Later, this mixed type was further crossbred with larger horses from Central Europe during the Middle Ages. Foreign horses were also brought to Finland during military campaigns, and additional animals were imported to manor houses for driving. The crossbreed offspring of Central European and Finnish horses were larger than their Finnish parents, and even more suited for agricultural work.


Gotland ponies in Slottsskogen, Gothenburg. Photo: Malene

The earliest known documentation of Finnish trade in horses, both as imports and exports, dates to 1299, when Pope Gregory IX sent a letter of reprimand to the merchants of Gotland, who were selling horses to the non-Christianized Finns. Apparently the Finns succeeded in improving their horse population, as the predominant form of Finnish trade in horses eventually shifted from imports to exports.  A Russian chronicle from 1338 mentions “Tamma-Karjala” (“Karelia of the Mares”), presumably denoting a place of good horse breeding. As early as in 1347, King Magnus IV saw it necessary to put limits to the horse exports from Karelia to Russia.

Later, the 16th century writer Olaus Magnus mentioned the high quality of the horses used by the early Finns; in the 1520s, Gustav Vasa found the Finns exporting horses by the shipload to Lübeck, and strictly prohibited such trading, banning the sale of horses under the age of 7 years.


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