Ancient China Horses

Horses in ancient China played an important role in society, warfare and recreation. Ancient China horses were raised like livestock to be tame.

In the beginning horses were used for a variety of reasons. Ancient China horses hauled heavy loads of cargo, participated in warfare, showmanship, and for racing.
A terracotta soldier with his horse

First known ancient China horses

Ancient China horses first appear on oracle shells during the Shang Dynasty. The oracle shells outlined the use of horses as a weapon of war.

Horses were used to pull war chariots and there were cavalry units in ancient China. In addition, ancient China horses were used to haul wagons with cargo and humans.

Heavenly horses

Ancient China horses came in several versions. In the southern regions ancient China horses were short and light. In the northern regions of the country, horses were larger with thicker bodies.

The Heavenly Horses of ancient China were unique. The horses were tall, had a small head with a long tapering neck, a long back, the body was shallow, their legs long and their mane was thin.

The most interesting thing about Heavenly Horses was their sweat. When they sweated the body moisture looked red similar to blood. The Heavenly Horses in ancient China had characteristics of a Fergana horse.
Ceramic Horse Statue

Symbolism of the horse in ancient China

Ancient China horses symbolized male strength or Yang and were thought to be more powerful than dragons. When the horse became confused with the dragon in ancient China symbolism, it was replaced by the dragon.

Horses were seen as a symbol of energy, speed, imagination and perseverance. The horse represents the element of fire and the sun. The horse is also one of the twelve symbols of the Chinese zodiac.

The God of Horse in ancient Chinese culture was worshipped for centuries. The ancient Chinese would leave statues of the god in stables and temples to ward off evil spirits.

The statues found of the God of Horse looked like an ogre with several arms carrying weapons with a tiny horse at his feet.
Flying Horse of Gansu

Ancient Chinese harnesses

The ancient Chinese invented many different harnesses for animals including the horse. The first harness invented by the ancient Chinese for horses was a throat-and-girth.

This type of harness restricted the breathing of a horse when the horse pulled against the harness. The throat-and-girth harness was inefficient although it was used in Europe until around 600 C.E.

The second harness the ancient Chinese invented was the breast-strap harness. The breast-strap harness was designed as an offshoot to the human harness system that used to haul boats along ancient China waterways.

Important facts about ancient China horses

  • Ancient China horses were domesticated like oxen and elephants.
  • Ancient China horses in the southern portion of the country were short and stalky.
  • In the northern portion of ancient China, horses were tall, long and sleek.
  • Ancient China horses named Heavenly Horses were revered by society.
  • The Chinese Zodiac includes the horse as one of the twelve symbols.
  • Ancient China horses were used in times of warfare to pull chariots.
  • Ancient Chinese invented two types of horse harnesses named the throat-and-girth as well as the breast-strap harness.
  • The breast-strap harness allowed horses to pull more weight efficiently.


1. What type of horse was revered in ancient China society?

Heavenly Horses

2. What type of harness system allowed horses to pull more weight efficiently?

Breast-strap harness

3. What size were ancient China horses in the southern portion of the country?

Short and stalky

4. Ancient China horses are symbolized in what part of Chinese culture?

Chinese Zodiac