Horses likely first came to the Ryukyus in the 11th century, from Kyushu. The first horse(s?) to be sent as gifts to Ming China were sent in 1374, with a mission led by Taiki, younger brother of King Satto, the first Ryukyuan mission to be sent to China. Records of Chinese merchants or officials journeying to Ryûkyû to purchase horses begin shortly afterwards. Sometimes looking to purchase as many as one thousand horses at a time, the Ming court was eager for a source of good warhorses that could be used in the Ming's continuing battles with the Mongols and others.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), horses were regularly sent as gifts from Ryûkyû to China, albeit in smaller numbers. In the 14th-15th centuries, each tribute mission carried roughly 30-40 horses to be presented to the Ming court; in the 16th century, this number dropped to around ten. Following the Manchu takeover, and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, however, demand for (or interest in) Ryukyuan horses dwindled, until finally in 1681 horses were removed from the list of tribute goods requested/demanded by China.
There are a number of horse breeds which derive from the Ryukyu Islands. The Miyako horse, Yonaguni horse, and Tokara horse are the chief breeds; all of them are small, island horses, deriving from the same geneological ancestry, and are difficult to tell apart purely on the basis of outward appearance. Though presumably not truly native, per se, in the sense of having arrived in the islands naturally any more than one or two thousand years ago, the history of their origins and arrival (or introduction) into the islands is unclear. It is believed that research into the origins of these horses could serve to help illuminate the history of human settlement in the Ryukyus.
Miyako horses tended to be about 115-125 cm tall, and about 120-130 cm long, with hard hooves; a roan color is most common, though some are closer to chestnut or fawn-colored. They are strong, and are often used for hilly riding, and as pack horses. In the early Shôwa period (1926-1989), they began to be used to pull plows, wagons, and the like. As horses became more essential to the sugar industry, demand increased. Horses were imported from other prefectures, and gradually interbred with the existing population, resulting in the "Miyako horse" of today. This new breed is 140-150 cm tall, and 145-155 cm long; the majority are chestnut or fawn-colored. Specimens of the purer "native" species can still be found, however, at the Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hirara City.
Yonaguni horses, meanwhile, tend to be around 116 cm tall, with a docile temperament. They get used to people easily, and are just fine with a simple diet. They have strong legs and hard hooves, and walk energetically. They have great stamina, and are used for agricultural work, and as pack horses. The details of the history of their arrival to the islands is not clear, but if there had been any purer or other breed of horse that might have been "native" to the island (or which might have arrived earlier), that other breed is extinct.
- "Kôba" 貢馬。 Okinawa Encyclopedia 沖縄大百科事典。Okinawa Times, 1983. vol. 2. p78.
- Umezaki Harumitsu 梅崎晴光, Kieta Ryûkyû keiba 消えた琉球競馬, Naha: Borderink (2012), 81.
- Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 71.
- "Miyako uma" ミヤコウマ。 Okinawa Encyclopedia. vol. 3. pp584-585.
- "Yonaguni uma" ヨナグニウマ. Okinawa Encyclopedia. vol. 3. p810.