In his travels, Marco Polo notes one peculiarity of India, and this is related to horse breeding in the country:
another strange thing to be told is that there is no possibility of breeding horses in this country, as hath often been proved by trial. For even when a great blood-mare here has been covered by a great blood-horse, the produce is nothing but a wretched wry-legged weed, not fit to ride.
While this note may be one of Marco Polo’s ways of highlighting the exoticism of this far-away land, research by twentieth-century scholars tended to stress the region’s reliance on horse imports from Persia and Arabia. Indeed, a number of studies have accumulated evidence of horse trade in medieval India from the twelfth century onwards. Simon Digby, in his influential War-horse and Elephant, says as much, and the assumption has gone largely unquestioned since. Irfan Habib is careful in stating that “better horses for cavalry use were largely imported,” but he goes on state that “India was not a country where good horses could be bred, or good-breeds, once imported, protected from decay.” On the other hand, Nazer Aziz Anjum claimed that while “north India got horses through inland as well as oceanic routes, south India mostly depended on the ocean.”
Thus, it has been widely accepted as a fact that medieval and early modern India relied on horse import from the distant Arabic peninsula, Persia and Iran, without inquiring into the reasons and rationale for importing apparently huge quantities of horses via sea routes, a process that must have been complicated, expensive, and prone to lead to the waste of a considerable number of horses. Even today, horses do not always fare well during sea voyages: they can suffer injuries to their limbs, be weakened due to sea sickness, inferior quality of feed and water, succumb to infectious disease or colic. Thus, a wholesale import of horses would have been a very expensive business, making the horse an elite animal, accessible only to the wealthiest and most noble members of the Indian society.
The import of horses by land into the north of India would have been an equally complicated and expensive affair. The so-called “Khorasan-India Road” connected “the Silk and the Fur Roads to the maritime Spice Route,” and was approximately 730 km long. Khorasan was a region in Iran, famous for its horses. The road was long, and, although it had pastures and studs on the way, it would take a long time to transport the horses along this route. In reality, the Khorasan-India road was used to import horses not only from Khorasan but also from other regions in Asia, including Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, etc. Ali Bahrani Pour claims that, “according to their breed and use, horses had been sorted out into four main categories: warhorses (Turkish, Qipchaq tribes’ breed of Cumania), horses for routine riding (from the Badgheis region), racehorses (Arabians), and ceremonial horses (a pure Arabian breed).” Still, it the appellation of Arabians is clearly anachronistic, as the concept of the breed did not exist in the medieval period, neither was the Arabian breed consolidated as such at that point. It is also hard to see how the distinction would be applied consistently throughout the period considered by Pour (13th to 17th centuries).
Much of the evidence for horse trade in India comes from writings by foreign travelers, such as Marco Polo in the twelfth century, or the fourteenth-century Arabic writer Ibn Battuta. The latter notes, for instance, that the best warhorses were imported by sea from the regions of Yemen, Oman and Fars. However, other medieval Arabic authors confirm that horses were used for transport, albeit it seems that these were the less elite, locally bred specimen, called tattu.
In fact, there is no lack of evidence both from the later medieval and the early modern periods that there existed a range of local breeds in India. Many of these local breeds were praised by the authors for their hardiness and endurance, although implicitly they were inferior to the imported horses. In the case of one breed, the legend has it that it originated from a number of horses from Arabia, which came from a shipwrecked ship and multiplied. This account, tracing the descent of a local breed to a limited number of imported (and implicitly superior) ancestors is not unique to India. The English Thoroughbred traces its descent to three Arabian sires, although recently the role of indigenous British horses in the formation of the breed has been reevaluated, especially with the help of the DNA analysis. No such work has been recently conducted for Indian indigenous breeds, so the proportion of imported blood from Arabian and Persian sires remains to be determined.
What these references to local breeds show, however, is that, contrary to Marco Polo’s statement that a locally bred horse in India was “not fit to ride,” indigenous horses were not only used for riding but also highly valued for their specific qualities, such as their endurance and ability to cover difficult terrains. Perhaps, we should view Marco Polo’s and Ibn Battuta’s statements about the superiority of imported horses and inferiority of locally bred specimen with a pinch of salt and inquire into the reasons for which these two authors wanted to highlight the difference between the two types of horses. Was owning and riding an imported horse a mark of status? Was it one more way to promote one’s belonging to a higher social class, as different from the lower-class people who had to ride locally bred ponies? By associating themselves with foreign, imported horses, their riders would not only appear superior by their ability to afford more expensive, imported goods (who, moreover, would require specialized foods), but could also possibly claim their affinity to imported cultural values.
On the whole, while there is no question any longer that horses are indigenous to India rather than imported, the question remains why India seems to have relied so largely on horse imports rather than local breeding and what was the exact role of imported horses in forming the Indian cavalry.
 Marco Polo, The Book Ser Marco Polo , the Venetian, Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East , translated and edited, with notes by Colonel Henry Yule, third edition, revised throughout in the light of recent discoveries by Henri Cordier (of Paris) London, 1903, vol. II, 342.
 Simon Digby, War-Horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate (Oxford, 1971).
 Irfan Habib, Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500 (Delhi, Chennai, Chandigarh: Centre for Studies in Civilization, 2011), 61.
 Nazer Aziz Anjum, “Horse Trade in Medieval South India,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 295-303, at 296.
 Ali Bahrani Pour, “The Trade in Horses Between Khorasan and India in the 13th-17th Centuries,” 124.
 Pour, 124, referring to Mazaheri 1993, I, pp. 36-39.
 Ibn Battuta, The Travels oflbn Battuta, A.D. 1325-1354, transi, with revision and notes from the Arabic text by Ç. Defremery & B.R. Sanguini, by H.A.R. Gibb, New Delhi, 1993, vol. 2.
 Barani, Tārīkh-i Fīrozshānī, 313, reference in Habib, 62.