The History of Horses in Sri Lanka

The Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of ancient Lanka, tells us of the skill of Velu Sumana, the first and foremost warrior of Sri Lanka’s hero king, Dutu Gemunu (161-137 BC). Even as a youth Velu Sumana was renowned for his horsemanship. The governor of the province had a beautiful “Sindhu” horse which would let no man ride him. However when he saw Velu Sumana the horse neighed joyfully and the governor asked Velu Sumana to try and ride him. Mounting the horse, he made him gallop in a circle, so fast that it seemed that there was only one horse in a continuous circle. As the onlookers burst into applause, Velu Sumana took off his mantle, wrapping and unwrapping it as he galloped round and round. The horse was one of the most prized breeds in ancient times, a Sindu, “a horse from the Indus country;” this was Sind in Pakistan.

The Mahavamsa also recounts King Dutu Gemunu’s skill as a horseman, even mentioning the name of his horse, the mare Dīghathūnikā. It was this horse which decided the fate of the battle which finally gave Dutu Gemunu victory over his brother, Prince Tissa, later King Saddhatissa (137-119 BC). Near the city of Mahagama, Tissamaharama today, the two armies fought a great battle and the two brothers met each other in single combat. King Dutu Gemunu rode his mare, Prince Tissa rode the royal elephant Kandula.

In 326 BC horses had been used against elephants at the Battle of the Hydaspes River where Alexander the Great had defeated the Raja Porus. The battle was fought in the Punjab somewhere in modern Pakistan. It is said that even Alexander’s cavalry had refused to face the elephants but King Dutu Gemunu rode his horse in a circle round and round Kandula. Finding “no unguarded place,” he jumped Dīghathūnikā over the elephant’s back. As the mare leapt over, he shot a dart which wounded Kandula. Enraged, the royal elephant threw Prince Tissa and returned to his master, King Dutu Gemunu.

Cavalry is a tradition which Sri Lanka’s kings and warriors have maintained for centuries. In 1559 the Portuguese were defeated at the battle of Battle of Mulleriyawa by a cavalry charge. It was perhaps the last time horses were used in open battle.

During the British Raj this tradition become a sport and an industry. Racecourses sprang up all over the country, in Colombo, Galle and Nuwara Eliya and in 1948 shortly after Independence, there was a huge horseracing industry in Sri Lanka. The sport of horseracing and riding continued into the first decades of Independence. Polo was also played and there were fast and furious games on Galleface Green.

During the 1960s political attitudes began to change. Horseracing and even horseriding began to be seen as an elite and colonial sport. Horseracing was discouraged and as the sport withered away, the number of horses in Sri Lanka became fewer and fewer.


Over the last two decades things have begun to change. The number of horses throughout the country have gradually  increased as the art of horseriding has begun to take root once more.

Currently, Sri Lanka lags behind the rest of the world, including its immediate neighbours, in terms of equine sports and infrastructure, with 400 plus stables in India, 140 riding stables in Thailand, 100 in Dubai and 40 in Singapore alone. The industry as a whole is not being capitalized and developed as it should, due to the lack of know-how, investment and recognition of the significance of this industry to the economic development of Sri Lanka as an economic hub. Horses attract high net worth individuals, especially when the horses are bred, trained and managed at a high standard. The initiative to re-ignite a passion for racing, and the introduction of international standards brought good knowledge and infrastructure to the country, but the last three years has taken its toll and I can see the RTC has a journey ahead to rebuild, especially after the terrible floods last year.

Most people in Sri Lanka think of racing when you mention horses; they have little knowledge or exposure to riding disciplines which include classical skills such as natural horsemanship, dressage and showjumping as well as trail riding and eventing. Being around horses, is an aspirational life-style that traditionally attracts the rich, the famous and the royal. Today, Sri Lanka has little to offer visiting equestrians and locally-based riders, in terms of equestrian activities. There are only two internationally recognized riding schools, a number of other unaffiliated and unregulated stables and resorts and around 300 individually owned ponies offered for tourists to ride.

It is long overdue that we unite behind a set of common objectives that put animal and human welfare first, education second and professional business ethics at the heart of an industry potential that is "hidden in plain sight". Recently, the Sri Lanka Horse Society was inaugurated with the aim to consolidate the industry behind a set of common goals.