The Nisean horse, or Nisaean horse is an extinct horse breed, once native to the town of Nisaia, located in the Nisaean Plains at the foot of the southern region of the Zagros Mountains in Iran. The first written reference to the Nisean horse was in around 430 B.C. They were highly sought after in the ancient world.
The Nisean breed was commonly dark bay, chestnut and seal brown, but also had rarer colors such as black, roan, blue roan with a darker color, palomino, and various spotted patterns.
The ancient Greeks called him the Nisean after the town Nisa, where he was bred; the Chinese called him the Tien Ma – Heavenly Horse or Soulon-Vegetarian dragon. He was the most valuable horse in the ancient world, and, he was regarded as the most beautiful horse at that time.
The royal Nisean was the mount of the nobility in ancient Persia. Two gray Nisean stallions pulled the shah’s royal chariot, while four of the regal animals pulled the chariot of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of Persia and Medea. Silver coins from the days of Cyrus the Great show him hunting lions from horseback using a spear, presumably riding a Nisean.
During the reign of Darius, Nisean horses were bred from Armenia to Sogdiana. The Nisean horse was so sought after, that the Greeks (mainly, the Spartans) imported Nisean horses and bred them to their native stock, and many nomadic tribes, (such as the Scythians) in and around the Persian Empire also imported, captured, or stole Nisean horses.
Nisean horses had several traits that they passed on to their descendants. One of them was bony knobs on their forehead often referred to as “horns.” This could have been due to prominent temple bones or cartilage on their forehead.The Greeks exported many horses to the Iberian peninsula, where the Nisean greatly influenced the ancestors of today’s Iberian horse breeds, such as the Carthusian, Lusitano, Andalusian, Barb (horse), and Spanish Mustang.
The Nisean horse was first mentioned in great detail by A.T. Olmstead, in his History of the Persian Empire. Pure white Niseans were the horses of kings and, in myth, gods. Cyrus the Great was so distraught, when one of his stallions was drowned while crossing a river, he had the river where the horse was drowned drained. He did not believe that anything that could kill a horse so beautiful.
Olmstead also wrote that the Assyrians started their spring campaigns, by attacking the Medes, who were the first breeders of the Nisean horse.
The Nisean became extinct with the conquest of Constantinople in 1204.