Ban-Ei Horse Breed: History and Characteristics

Quite frankly, a lot of horse breeds are nearly identical, except for their names. But every once in a while, there’s a breed or breed type that really stands out in a horse lover’s memory – for good or bad reasons. One such breed is the rare Ban-ei Race Horse, created and nearly exclusive to the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The memorable thing about these race horses is that they are not Thoroughbred look-alikes, but are draft horses.

According to “International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), the Ban-ei is technically not a breed, but more like a type. However, they do have common physical features in order to win (or even finish) in their races. They are built to bull a heavy sleigh up and down a hilly dirt racetrack. It must be seen to be believed. And even then, you may want to have a stiff drink.

Brief History

1948 was not a happy time to live in Japan. The nation had been not only crushed by Word War II, but it was still dealing with radioactive fallout and being the butt of world’s jokes. But those Japanese that survived realized that they needed to do something different in order to bring in a steady revenue stream to Japan.

On the island of Hokkaido, it was thought that the local sport of horse-drawn sled racing, ban-ei keiba, would bring in gamblers and their deep pockets. But the native pony breed, the Hokkaido, was decimated by the war. They also were far too small for the impressive racetrack officials planned on building.

So, they decided to breed draft horses solely for the purpose of competing in these races. They crossed Bretons, Belgians with Percherons in order to get their ideal type of strength and spirit. Ban-ei racing spread to the other Japanese Islands. The horses average about 16 hands high, but can be as small as14.1 hands high. They come in all colors that Bretons, Belgians and Percherons do, mainly chestnut, bay and roan.

Racing Industry

One YouTube member described Ban-ei racing as “slower than baseball”. Horses compete in various weight and distance divisions. Horses draw sled that must weigh at least a half-ton or a full ton, depending on the division. “Jockeys” must weigh at least 160 pounds, but better horses are handicapped by having to pull extra weight. Horses can be raced as young as two years old.

Horses must stay in their own lanes, even when going up hills. In fact, many of the lanes have rope boundaries laid on the ground. The courses are dirt – or mud, depending on the weather. If a horse cannot pull the sleigh up a hill, they are disqualified. Unfortunately, “jockeys” are allowed to use bullwhips on the horses.

The “sport” has fallen on hard times and was to have stopped about 2007, but one track, Obihiro, still stubbornly goes on. Japan does not pension out retired racehorses, no matter what their breed. When they are retired and if not suitable for breeding, they are slaughtered and eaten.


“International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds” Bonnie Hendricks. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

“Which Horse of Course.” Mary Ellen Bauer. Xlibris Corporation; 2011.

Equinest. “Ban-ei Horse.”

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