The Murgese horse evolved in the dry limestone hills of the Murge district of Southern Italy at a time when the Spanish were masters of the land. Likely they were developed by breeding Barb and Arabian Horses with the local heavy horses such as the Neopolitan, the Avelignese as well as other heavy Italian horses.
Like the harsh Slovenian karst, the heartland of the old Lipizzaner, the Murge district area produces animals with good, dense bone, hard feet, and a sound constitution. In the 15th and early 16th centuries the horses bred in this region were in great demand as cavalry remounts. Then, about 200 years ago, interest in the Murgese died out, and the breed almost disappeared.
It was revived in the 1920s, but the modern Murgese horse probably does not bear any direct relationship to the old breed.
The new version is basically a light draught horse, of a sort similar, but inferior, to the Irish Draught. The best specimens fulfill a useful role as light draft horses that can also be ridden cross country..The mares provide a good basis for cross-breeding, for like the Irish Draught they are roomy and of substantial build. A good stamp of riding horse can be bred by putting Murgese mares to Thoroughbred or half-bred stallions, and the mares also produce the strong mules that are still needed in the area.
Today’s Murgese horse is the result of selective breeding from higher quality specimens selected in 1926 when a breeding register and herd book was created. They are leaner and more refined than the earlier version which saw many variations due to the great variety of horses used in its early development and few controls of breeding. Only 46 mares and 9 stallions were selected to recreate the breed as only this number of quality specimens could be found. Concerns were raised such a small starting point would lead to inbreeding problems however apparently this has not been the case
The redevelopment was conducted at the Stallions Stud(now known as the Institute for the Improvement of Horse Populations. Today there are over 1500 registered breeding Murgese horses. Before registration each horse must be blood typed. Physically its clear the foundation of the Murgese a coldblood with oriental influences but there is too much of a period where breeding details were not recorded closely to be sure of all of the breeds that went into the pot to create this breed. They are far from perfect horses with specimens exhibiting performance inhibiting traits as overly muscled yet flat withers combined with upright shoulders which inhibit a free flowing movement. As with most cold blooded horses, they are willing, energetic, easy to work with an inexpensive to keep. They stand 1.52 to 1.63m high at the withers and are most often chestnut in colour.
Health and Toughness
Today many Murgese horses are bred and raised in their traditional place of origin in Murge where they are left much to their own devices, finding their own food on poor quality grazing land. Only the hardies of horses thrive in these conditions making the resulting horses tough, economical and disease and injury resistant.
They are uncommon outside Italy, and unknown in Australia.