H is for Heavenly Horses (hànxuèmǎ)

Ferghana horse, photo by Olga I., posted at Culture Trip.

They have a lot of names. Heavenly horses. Ferghana horses. The horses of Tianma, the Argamaks.

The vegetarian dragons (my favorite!) The horses that sweat blood.

Ferghana horses in Bactria, photo from Emory U.

They came from the Asian steppes; Ferghana is in Uzbekhistan. From Iran and Turkey, where they might be called Nisean. Of course they did, since equus originated on the plains of Asia. As you may know, those teeny weeny North American horse ancestors died out, and all horses in this hemisphere were originally imported. The wheel, after all, was invented in Mesopotamia and perfected by Asian steppe people like the Hittites who created chariots. Asia covers a lot of territory. Camels are good for plodding through sand, but horses are good for crossing a lot of hard, grassy ground, and Asia had plenty of that.

Chinese cavalry painting, courtesy of Terra prime fighting words.

The War of the Heavenly Horses

Wikipedia, for some reason, notes that the Ferghana horse was a Chinese import; in other words, it’s a creature known for the people who acquired it from somebody else. The somebody else’s story is long forgotten, whereas the Chinese prevailed and thus got to stamp their nicknames on the horses. They coined the phrase “heavenly” and noted the “blood-sweating thing.”

But the Han dynasty, equal in sophistication to Greece by 200 BCE was harassed by raiders on two fronts. The Xiong Nu came from the northwest, which would later be Mongolia, the first great eastern nomads. Their horses were squat and heavy, although fast and tough. Somebody did a nice job pulling the appropriate pictures from Mulan, where indeed they showed the difference between the smaller Mongolian horses vs. the Ferghanas. The Xiong Nu rode the squat ones, as many Mongol warriors did.

Photo from Reddit

The Ferghana horses were ridden by the Dayuans, people to the direct west of China, who were also harassing the borders. But they weren’t as formidable, and Emperor Wudi’s army eventually defeated them, taking a great number of horses–previously they traded for them–so that they could finally fend off the Xiong Nu.

Then they became “Chinese legend.”

Ferghana horses on postage stamps and in sculpture. From Journey to the West.

The Blood Sweating Thing

So what’s with the “horses that sweat blood”? For one thing, the Ferghanas have a very shiny coat, and perhaps the sweat made them appear a little reddish.

Some Ferghanas are shimmering blondes.

It also is true that riders on the desert steppes, if they got too far from a water supply, might drink a small amount of horse blood. Apparently, they knew where to nick a small vein, so that it wasn’t a hardship for the horse. Although that’s not sweating.

Modern researchers, who naturally would want to figure this out, think it might be two causes. Either the Ferghanas have smaller blood vessels that sit at the surface which burst. Or there might be a small parasite (nematode, whatever that is) that burrows and creates blood spots. (Either is a bit yucky.)

Still, Wudi thought that blood-sweating didn’t have the greatest ring to it, so he decided, along with a little help from the I Ching, that the horses were divinely inspired. Therefore they became the Heavenly Horses.

Gorgeous animals, don’t you think?

2 Replies to “H is for Heavenly Horses (hànxuèmǎ)”

    1. You are most welcome! These things we read about rattle around in our brain, ping ponging until they pop back into view! I read about these way back when too and came across them recently, so was happy to write about them. thanks for the comment!

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