The Cape Horse… A Living Monument

Written by: Sharon, Klaarstroom Guest House

The open-hearted, big-spirited, even-tempered horses we introduce riders to at Klein Karoo Horse Adventures belong to the uniquely South African “Cape Horse” breed. They represent generations of hardy stock that have withstood the challenges of living at the Southern tip of Africa and triumphed to thrive and be a worthy representative of this rugged and giving territory.

Hennie Ahlers, a great mentor in our horse breeding endeavours has shared the following fascinating background to this remarkable breed:

There are no truly indigenous horses in Africa south of the equator. The first horses to arrive in South Africa were brought to the Cape in sailing vessels by the Dutch East India Company from Java in 1653. That was at the urgent request of Jan van Riebeeck, the founder of the first permanent European settlement on the sub-continent in 1652. Van Riebeeck had hoped to get strong draught horses from Holland. Instead he received “Javanese ponies” who were, as has been established later, of Mongolian crossed with Persian origin. These horses were grazed on the open veld without supplemental feeding and had to escape becoming food for prey animals. In this way, only the toughest triumphed.

Later, this horse stock was supplemented by importing a few Persian Arabs in 1689. By circa 1750 it is estimated that there were approximately 6000 horses at the Cape. From these humble origins, with the later addition of South American stock in 1778, North American in 1792 and Spanish Barbs in 1807, the horse population in South Africa was increasingly seen as a definable breed, loosely called the Cape Horse. Lord Charles Somerset, who was governor of the Cape from 1814 to 1826, imported a number of English Thoroughbred horses and promoted the use of these stallions to raise the standard of the Cape Horse and particularly to increase its body size. After this infusion of “new blood”, the Cape Horse went from strength to strength.

The Basutho Pony developed from Cape Horses that were traded or taken as loot in skirmishes in the early to mid-1800s. In the extremes of high mountain terrain, grazing and weather conditions, these ponies were further tested for their tenacity and endurance.

At around the same time, the Cape Horse gained international recognition as a cavalry mount when the British government started exporting Cape Horses to its global imperial network:   India, Australia, and the Middle East. It is said that the famous Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854 was carried out on Cape Horses. However, it was during the Great Trek (1835 – 1840), on the mountain footpaths of Lesotho and in the three years of the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) from 1899 – 1902 that the mettle of these horses was really tested and brilliantly displayed, especially when compared to the often miserable performance of the hundreds of thousands of horses imported by the British army from different parts of the world in the South African War. In a thorough review of the veterinary aspects, carried out by a commission after the war, it was concluded that the Cape Horses (labelled Boer Horses by the English officers) and the Basutho Ponies (also a descendant of the Cape Horse) were far superior in their performance in the harsh field conditions encountered in the conflict.

The Cape Horses were able to take their riders up to 50 miles (80km) a day whereas the British mounts were averaging barely 30 miles a day. Soon the British army realised that their horseflesh was no match for the more agile Cape Horses that were so uniquely adapted to the terrain of the war. They went on to purchase more than 50 000 horses in Basutholand and the Cape in order to match their enemies’ capabilities.

Unfortunately, the South African War, and especially the destructive scorched earth policy adopted by the imperial forces, nearly sounded the death knell for the Cape Horse. Thousands of horses perished and breeding farms were devastated. Especially brood mares and foals were eliminated as they were the horses left unprotected on the farms with the women and children. There are many stories of horses escaping and finding shelter in kloofs and gorges, sometimes on their own and sometimes with the help of grooms. Approximately 500 000 horses and mules were killed in the war. 100 000 of these had belonged to farmers. The Cape Horse was nearly exterminated.

Here and there, nucleus populations remained. From the middle of the 20th Century, the Nooitgedachter Horse breed (representing the erstwhile Basutho Pony) and the S.A. Boerperd were developed as separate breeds. Both these breeds can be seen as descendants of the Cape Horse. The name “Cape Horse” was replaced by other names, mainly Boerperd.

The present-day Cape Horse is again carving a niche for itself in the equine world in South Africa. Although they are not bred to compete with the specialised strains in the disciplines of racing, show jumping, dressage and driving, they make excellent pleasure riding horses for children and adults alike and they have excelled in endurance riding. An excellent example is Handel, who, in bare feet, won under his junior rider over 200km at Fauresmith in 2010. The great qualities of the erstwhile Cape Horses are again evident in these individuals. They are hardy, tough and full of substance with good legs, oblique shoulders and short back, a finely chiselled head with a straight profile and large eyes, placed wide apart. They make comfortable rides, are honest, they make good friends and they are living monuments to the famous Cape Horse who made such significant contributions to the development of the country and its peoples.

Here at Klein Karoo Horse Adventures, we are committed to building up and improving, the breeding stock of this special horse. It is also our privilege to introduce riders of all skill levels to the experience of riding a uniquely South African horse, with all the advantages that offer, apart from contributing to the living history of the inter-reliance of man and horse in our landscape. Join us and become part of the adventure!


DR PJ Schreuder: The Cape Horse

DR FJ van der Merwe: Perde van die Anglo-Boereoorlog

DR Kobus du Toit: Boerperd

Die Geskiedenis van die SA Boerperd

Leave a Reply