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Friday, Dec. 28, 2001
By ROWAN HOOPER
* Japanese name: Nihon zairaiba * Scientific name: Equus caballus * Description: Hoofed animal that bears its weight on its central third toe. Its family, called the perissodactyls, also includes tapirs and rhinos. The first horse ancestor was doggish and dog-sized, with four toes on the front foot. The only descendents surviving today are the zebras, asses and donkeys of Africa, and true horses. Japanese native horses are small -- at under 147 cm at the shoulder, they are technically ponies. Their heads are relatively large, the neck held horizontal, the mane thick and flowing. They are typically bay-, brown- or chestnut-colored. * Where to find them: On New Year's cards this January, since 2002 is the Chinese Year of the Horse. Also in fields all over Japan, but native breeds are becoming rare. Horses probably first came to Japan in the Kamakura Period (1184-1333), when warriors from Korea and China brought cavalry, but they might have arrived even earlier, from Mongolia. Originally belonging only to the aristocracy, horses became more widespread and acquired domestic roles between the fourth and sixth centuries. Native breeds such as the Kaudachi horse of Aomori, the Yanaguni horse and the Yururi Island horse of Nemuro, Hokkaido, survive in isolated pockets of Japan. Holy horses are sometimes kept at Shinto shrines. * Food: Hay, grass and (if they're lucky) oats. Apples and sugar lumps go down well, too. * Special features: Extremely high endurance, an ability to survive on poor food and in severe weather. Japanese native horses also have tough hooves. They are symbolic of speed and perseverance -- the word "horse" derives from the Anglo-Saxon word hors (swiftness). The Bodhisattva Kannon (an enlightened being) has six forms for each plane of existence: On the animal plane, Kannon has a horse's head. The name Kannon originally meant "the one who listens," and stood for mercy, comfort, protection and longevity.