The Unintended Victims of War: The Story of Refugee Horses from Karabakh

The impact of war is often incalculable. But there are those that cannot defend themselves, those that are the innocent victims of man-made tragedies. Those that don’t and cannot have a voice in their future. They are the lost victims of conflict that cry out in death and no one ever hears them. They are many, yet few also face the realization that with death also comes the specter of extinction. To this I offer up a homage to the lost refugee horses of Karabakh. 

Death is always tragic and permanent, but the senseless demise of an entire species is offensive to the most basic laws of nature; an irreparable devastation to the world, for every generation to follow. An Arabian Proverb states that “the wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.” Sleek, strong and majestic, for much of recorded time the horse has played a meaningful role in the story of man. Horses changed the world many times over;  a component of arguably the most intensified advances to mass communication, travel and warfare across history. More than all, for all of time and culture, the horse has served as a symbol for the qualities inherent; nobility, grandeur, the rush of speed, change and power.

In the Republic of Azerbaijan, images of the native Karabakh horse are found all over the country; on postage stamps, statues and storybooks. This exquisite, golden-hued thoroughbred is known by horse enthusiasts for its unusual combination of speed and tranquility, built to win races, yet also, sweet, like the distinct honey complexion of its mane. Once an abundant breed, the Karabakh horse has moved rapidly into endangerment, now facing the likelihood of extinction, in only the past twenty years.  Estimates on the number of Karabakh horses vary. According to the Karabakh Foundation, there are less than 1,000, other agencies believe there could be less than 10 mares that are one-half pure-bred.

Native to a diverse and picturesque region, the Karabakh horse is named for its birthplace, the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Karabakh has undergone dramatic transformations over the last twenty years, and these changes are directly responsible for the near disappearance of Karabakh horses. In the thickly forested foothills of Sheki, a small city 300km (187 miles) from the capital Baku, is one of world’s largest and purest Karabakh herds. 

Among those most affected by the turmoil of the last two decades were the horses. Since 1992, when Armenian forces invaded and laid siege to a large swath of Azerbaijan, most of the horses were permanently displaced and became “refugee horses”, almost entirely lost in the toil of national crisis.

Defenseless and unable to thrive outside of their natural habitat, the future of the innocent Karabakh horse depends on the possibilities of return. It’s a mostly unexplored area of injustice; a totally innocent creature that may become permanently lost to the world, in a nation grieving for the murdered victims and communities, uprooted and destroyed. At some point, the occupation will eventually end, and Azerbaijani refugees will be able to return to their homes in Karabakh. At that time, perhaps communities will once again thrive, and investments will transform and return the region to its former beauty, but the lost refugee horses of Karabakh may not survive into that day. 

During the attacks, great efforts were undertaken to protect the beloved Karabakh breed from what had quickly proven to be an extreme onslaught of violence; lasting several years, unthinkably brutal and indiscriminatory of victims. Repeatedly moving the horses away from growing and shifting danger, compounded with a lack of pasture, and many stress-induced mare miscarriages, have led to a dramatic decrease in the population of Karabakh horse.

Azerbaijan continues to address the crisis, but the ongoing occupation and destruction of the Karabakh horses natural habitat is the most significant barrier to repopulation, despite meaningful efforts, ongoing for many years. With so much of the breed lost amidst the storm of the massacres, the most optimistic estimates today of remaining Karabakh horses is around 1000 in the world. Some might assume that the Karabakh horse would flourish anywhere, distinguished by a nimble appetite, and bred to handle Azerbaijan’s often mercurial climates and mountainous terrain with ease, but the horse relies on this very climate to develop and survive.

The Karabakh horses have a unique and remarkable history. In 2013, a Karabakh horse won a race in the U.S., the very first thoroughbred in history to win on American soil; a testimony and inspiration to a hopeful future. Even during Soviet times, the Karabakh horse had a special place in the world. In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain was gifted a Karabakh horse on behalf of the Soviet Union. The name of that horse was Zaman, which in Azerbaijani means Time. In heartbreaking irony, time is a factor that will actuate their extinction. The longer the horse remains as refugee, so the chances of survival continuously narrow.

The symbology of the Karabakh horse offers layers of meaning; a majestic legend, that shines light on current realities; from a strong and noble nation, assaulted by the heartlessness and thoughtlessness of an unjust war. Whether or not the experts in Azerbaijan succeed in repopulating the Karabakh horse remains unknown, but  even in the story of their decline, the fabled horse evokes great lessons and meaning, capturing both the deep cultural richness of a culture and the horrific impact of recent tragedies. However more than all, with all its beauty and unbridled passion, its love for freedom, honor and tenacity, the Karabakh horse stands as a symbol of the defining spirit and culture of a brave and hopeful people and their homeland, of the perilous costs of unjust war, and the powerful hope for redemption. The uncertainty of their fate represents a bleak paradox; known for durability, grace and speed, this unknowing victim of strife and hatred has been rendered completely powerless against the toll of human savagery.

Amy Schmidt is an accomplished writer based in Southern California, who often writes about women’s and community issues.  She is a passionate about animal protection.

Amy can be reached at

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