The Horse of Messara, or otherwise Georgalidiko, Giorgalidiko or Cretan horse is a domestic horse breed native of Crete, which does not exist elsewhere in the world. The breed exists on the island at least since the Preminoan Era, because horse skeletons have been found in excavations dating back before 1700BC and, thus, it is considered the oldest breed in Europe. The Cretans call it horse of Messara because of initial breeding that in the plain Messara of Crete.
In early ‘90s there were in Crete only 80 animals left (from 6000 in 1928), but now the future looks promising, as many Cretans own horses throughout Crete and the population has overcome 1000 animals soon.
The Cretan horses have more stamina than the common horse and are ideal for the conditions of Crete. Although they have survived for centuries because of their resistance to the hard work in the rugged and inaccessible parts of Crete, the horses are today used primarily for equestrian competitions, held every year around Crete. One of the most famous games is held in spring and autumn in Stroumboulas Plateau.
The horse Messara was probably introduced in Crete from Egypt, while some believe that it is a descendant of the Tarpon breed in Russia. The horse was used by the Minoans (found also in paintings, coins and sculptures) and was later mixed with the resistant horses of the Arab conquerors, to improve the breed characteristics. During the Second World War many horses were moved to Albania. Most of them died there, and those that survived were moved to Peloponnese, where you can find their descendants even today.
The horse of Messara has smaller body and is muscular with a height of 1.40m, thin feet, small head, narrow chest, and usually dark brown, bay or grayish color. It is very strong and used both for riding and hard agricultural work. They are very intelligent, lively, irritable, and develop strong relations with their owner. It can mate the second year of their life, the pregnancy lasts 11 months and it gives birth to one foal.
The most striking feature of the Cretan Horse, however, is the special way of gait, that the Turks called rah van, known as aravani. More specifically, the horse can pace like camels, by lifting alternately the two right and two left feet. Indeed, this behavior is not acquired, but inherited. When the horse makes aravani, the rider does not rise and fall, like the galloping of other horses. The elderly Cretans say that when a Cretan horse makes aravani correctly, then the rider can hold a glass of water without a drop falling. This gait makes the horse durable and fast, while makes traveling in the rough Cretan terrains very comfortable for the rider. In the games mentioned earlier, Cretan horses compete also in aravani gait.