How to get good horses in medieval China

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

During the Northern Song period (960–1127), the best regions for horse breeding had been snapped up by powerful steppe empires. So the Chinese state had to turn to other means to obtain good horses, coming up with a variety of innovative and ambitious schemes in the process.

The following is an ancient Chinese parable which has been immortalized as the proverb “An old man at the frontier loses his horse”:


Now fortune and misfortune can change course and arise in concert. These transformations can be difficult to perceive. On the frontierlands there once lived a man who was proficient at soothsaying. One day, for no reason, his horse was lost and ran into the barbarian lands. Everyone lamented this. He said, “Should this not become a fortunate thing?”

Several months later, the horse returned, bringing with it a fine barbarian steed. Everyone commended this. He said, “Should this not become a misfortunate thing?”


His household became affluent in regard to good horses, and his son loved to ride them. One day, the son fell off and broke his thighbone. Everyone lamented this. His father said, “Should this not become a fortunate thing?”

A year later, a great many barbarians breached the border. The able-bodied men took up their bows to fight. Of those who lived on the frontierlands, nine out of ten were killed. Only the son, owing to his lameness, and his father, were saved. Thus, fortune can become misfortune, and misfortune fortune. Such transformations are never-ending and their profundity is unfathomable.

The parable has been invoked down the ages to illustrate how unfortunate incidents can turn out to be blessings in disguise, and vice versa. But it has more to tell us than that.

First, why should it be that horses, of all animals or property, are used a stand-in for good fortune itself here? After all, it is easy to imagine a version of this story which replaces the horse with gold, treasure, wine, or an impressive specimen of any other farm animal.


Horses were of course of great value for their uses in agriculture, transport and hunting. However, the events of this story offer a further clue. On the volatile northern frontier regions, border incursions and raids by nomadic peoples, like the incident recounted in the parable, were a constant threat. Horses, particularly well-bred ones with power and stamina, were a key technological advantage in Chinese warfare, as was the case across much of the Eurasian continent during the Middle Ages. Good horses meant the ability to fend off attacks from outside. They meant safety and the protection of one’s livelihood. In other words, a good horse was good fortune incarnate.

Pottery Figure of an Equestrian Soldier, 5th-6th century. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The second thing to notice here is that the “fine barbarian steed” arrives from beyond the border. This acknowledgement that the best quality horses were found not within, but without, speaks to a wider truth. Throughout its history, China has had dire trouble breeding quality horses which could compare favorably to those of the lands to its north and west.

This was partly a territorial issue. Firstly, not much of its southern land lends itself to roaming livestock. But more importantly, most people in China depended on agriculture and lived in sedentary communities. In contrast, the nomadic lifestyle of groups to the north made horses with great speed and endurance especially valuable. As a result, centuries of selective breeding and accumulated horse knowledge had produced some formidable breeds on the steppe.


The lands immediately to the west had also gained a reputation for fine horses. These became the stuff of legend in medieval China. Particularly coveted were the Fergana steeds, nicknamed “blood-sweating horses” (hanxue ma 汗血馬). Famous for their impressive endurance over long distances, they appear in countless stories and myths.

Some would argue that China never really overcame this disadvantage before horses were rendered largely irrelevant by technological advances in weaponry, perhaps with the exception of the Tang dynasty (618–907). But this was not for want of trying. The Chinese state was acutely aware of its horse problem, which became the impetus for a variety of impressive large-scale policies and ambitious action. This article will look at a few such schemes during the Northern Song (960–1127), a period in which the balance of peace at the borders was particularly precarious.

Border Issues of the Song State

The Song territory was much smaller than that of some its predecessors like the Tang. To the detriment of its horse procurement efforts, it was smaller not towards the south, but the north, an area from which the Tang had sourced many of its best horses.

In addition, the Song state now found itself surrounded by powerful and well-organized kingdoms and empires. The biggest threat was the Liao dynasty to the north. Liao encompassed a large area of what is now northern China (including Beijing) and Mongolia. Peace was maintained largely by treaties which stipulated Song annual huge annual tributes of silver silk.

The Song state and its surrounding regions in 1025. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The precariousness of this balance broke in 1127 when an enormous swathe of its territory was lost to the invading Jurchens from the north. The remaining southern part of the empire spent the next two decades in constant peril until a peace treaty was agreed upon in 1141. This would hold until 1279, when another horsebound invasion from the north, this time by the Mongols, destroyed the Song dynasty and its empire once and for all.

Perhaps no amount of blood-sweating horses could have spared the dynasty from its eventual fate. Nevertheless, it was what turned out to be a correct prediction of this fate which fueled governmental emphasis on equine issues, and spurred on the innovative and ambitious schemes discussed below.

The Tea and Horse Agency

For the first part of the period, Song was still able to obtain horses through trade with Liao and Xixia, the two empires to the north. But Liao authorities soon realized that selling off its equines to strengthen its would-be enemy was unwise. An embargo was placed on horses to Song. While some horses continued to be obtained illicitly, the main, official sources dried up completely. This put the Song in a tricky situation.

When a state finds itself lacking in an essential raw material, there are only two possible routes of action. Either it must procure the resource from elsewhere, or it must better equip itself to produce the resource at home. The former was the goal behind the Tea and Horse Agency 茶馬司, a government superintendancy put in place in 1074 under Grand Councilor and reformer Wang Anshi 王安石 (1026–1086).

The idea behind the Agency was simple: what did the Tibetans have that China wanted? Good horses. And what did China have that Tibetans wanted? It is not a trick question: tea.

The climate and altitude of the Tibetan plateau did not lend itself to tea farming, certainly not on a scale to satisfy huge local demand. Thus, the vast majority of tea consumed by Tibetans was already being procured through trade with neighboring kingdoms.

Detail from the scroll painting “Washing Horses in a River,” dated 1309. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

And so the Tea and Horse Agency was set up in Sichuan, western China. Sichuan was hardly the only region in China that could produce tea. But it happened to be conveniently located next door to Tibet, making transport straightforward.

The government placed a state monopoly on the tea trade in Sichuan, by banning the sale of tea to traders without official authorization. Under the supervision of the Agency. Once there, officials could ensure that the tea was traded primarily for the highly desired horses, which were delivered directly to the center or wherever needed.

This enterprise managed to procure fifteen to eighteen thousand horses annually, with an enormous amount of tea left over to sell on the Chinese market. At face value, then, the Agency was a resounding success. But just as the parable has warned us, when fortune arrives, it may well bring along its own kind of misfortune.

These were pre-existing markets, which took to this new government intervention in unpredictable ways. The Sichuanese tea producers made the most of this new guaranteed buyer by shifting from small-scale production of high quality tea aimed at the Chinese market to products of lower quality on a larger scale. And a similar phenomenon played out on the Tibetan side. Since horse quality was not the primary concern for zealous Song officials bent on filling their equine quota, most of the horses procured were not the highly coveted warhorses. It is also unlikely that Tibetans were willing to relinquish their best quality horses in what was a time of disunity and warlordism on the plateau.

This is not to say that the horses procured through the Agency were completely useless. On the contrary, they were irreplaceable for their use in agriculture, the postal system, transport and state ritual.

Horse Breeding Initiatives

Wang Anshi and other top officials were aware that the dependency on foreign equines was not a satisfactory long-term solution. More pressing than the horse quality issue was that during times of unrest or belligerism, its supply would be severed precisely when it was needed most. Ideally, the Song should also take measures to develop self-sufficiency by building up a nationwide system of horse breeding.

Systematic breeding had always been a concern of the state, and the civil bureaucracy had conducted much research into the many different Chinese breeds across the empire. Creating horses suited to warfare was far from the only goal. A breeder also aimed to produce higher levels of fertility and disease resistance, as well as horses which could survive well in any of China’s various climates.

Taking a horse to water in “Washing Horses in a River,” dated 1309. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

One major limiting factor of the pre-existing state-run breeding farms was overcrowding, and veterinary treatises of the time showed a growing awareness of the dangers of inbreeding. And so the state decided to spread its breeding program out over a wider area.

Under a new scheme, one family in a ten-household unit was provided with a horse and entrusted with its care. The animal would be conscripted into the military whenever the need arose. But during times of peace, it could be used around the neighbourhood and assist in farming activities. Thus the scheme also played a small role in famine prevention. As an incentive to take good care of the animal, if a horse died, the ten-household unit was collectively fined.

Due to political reasons, this scheme was abandoned too early to properly evaluate its success. It has been suggested that since the desirable qualities of a good farm horse and a good cavalry horse are quite different, this system was doomed to produce mediocre results. But fortune and misfortune are never easy to predict.

For more about the Song dynasty, here is a short overview:

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

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Top Image: Detail from the scroll painting “Grooms and Horses,” dated 1296 and 1359. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art