Karabakh horses, valued for their endurance in mountainous terrain, mild temperament and rich chestnut colour, are the national animal of Azerbaijan. The horses are a cross breed of Akhal-Teke, a Turkmenian breed, the Turkoman horse, an Iranian breed and Arabian horses, and have close links to Central Asia. The Karabakh region was long renowned for the quality of its horses.
The breed attained its current shape and characteristics during the 18th and 19th centuries. At this time, Ibrahim-Khalil (1763-1806), khan of the Karabakh khanate, owned a large number of the breed, with a herd numbering between 3,000 and 4,000. From the 19th century onwards this horse breed became increasingly popular in Europe. Thus, in one of the first big sales in 1823, an English company purchased 60 pure Karabakh mares from Mehdi-Kulu Khan, the last ruler of the Karabakh khanate. After Mehdi-Kulu Khan, his daughter Khurshidbanu Natavan took care of the breed. In a series of successes her Karabakh stallions received the highest awards in various exhibitions during the 19th century.
Unfortunately, it was also during the 19th century that Karabakh numbers started to decline. In 1826 the Russo-Iranian war led to many being killed, but the breed remained intact. The population declined again during the 20th century due to civil and ethnic wars in the Caucasus and Karabakh region. Most recently, the numbers have reduced due to the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
If it were not for the dramatic 1993 rescue of hundreds of Karabakh horses from a stud farm in Agdam, a town near Karabakh that is now under Armenian occupation, this national treasure would probably have been lost. The horse evacuation was undertaken by two separate groups of horse keepers, who, acting on their own initiative, risked their lives to re-enter the farm while the area was under bombardment by Armenian forces.
In 2007, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Agriculture drew up a 15-year plan for preserving and publicizing the breed.
In 2013 Chovqan, a traditional Karabakh horse-riding game in the Republic of Azerbaijan was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Chovgan is arguably the origin of modern day polo.