Louise Firouz, 74; Horsewoman Known for Caspian Breed in Iran

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Louise Firouz, 74, an American expatriate in Iran credited with saving the pony-sized Caspian horse from extinction and championing an ancestral link to the prized Arabian breed, died May 25 at a hospital near her home in northeastern Iran. She had lung and liver failure.

Mrs. Firouz spent part of her childhood on her family's farm in Great Falls, where she developed an interest in animal husbandry. After her 1957 marriage to an Iranian aristocrat, she became a horsewoman in her adopted country. She was looking for a suitable horse to saddle-train children when she pursued rumors of a breed of small horses in the north near the Caspian Sea.

When she traveled to the region, she observed the horse treated as a beast of burden and eaten in lean times. But she was amazed at its resemblance to small horses depicted on ancient Persian friezes and seals -- animals long thought extinct.

On that trip, she said, she watched the horse "trot serenely back into history."

The Caspian horse, which averages 9 to 13 hands in height, is as short as a pony but has the stride and jumping ability of a horse. It also has an Arabian horse's facial shape and finely proportioned legs.

Mrs. Firouz's efforts to preserve, promote and breed the horse led to genetic testing that won broad acceptance of an ancestral link to the modern Arabian horse. A definitive connection is impossible because of the limits of genetic testing, said Gus Cothran, who performed the tests for Mrs. Firouz in the early 1990s and is now a clinical professor at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Mrs. Firouz was also pivotal in finding people who had the resources to establish breeding populations outside Iran, including Prince Philip of the British royal family. Her work became urgent during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when the Iranian government auctioned off most of the breed or used the animals to detect land mines.

Cothran said there are "viable populations" of Caspian horses in the United States, Great Britain and Australia -- all because of Mrs. Firouz's export of the breed in the early 1970s and, briefly, in the early 1990s.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, N.C., places the Caspian horse on its list of most-endangered animals, meaning there are fewer than 200 annual registrations of purebreds in the United States and an estimated global population of fewer than 2,000.

Louise Elizabeth Laylin was born Dec. 24, 1933, in Washington, where her father was an international lawyer. After her parents divorced, she spent summers on her father's farm in Great Falls, known as Hidden Springs, but mostly was raised in New Hampshire.

It was her intention to become a veterinarian, but she failed a required physics course and instead majored in classics and English literature at Cornell University in 1956.

During her junior year, she studied abroad at the American University of Beirut and met her future husband, Yale-trained civil engineer Narcy Firouz, during a side trip to Iran. He was descended from Iran's Qajar dynasty, which ruled before the Pahlavis overthrew it in 1921.

She and her husband raised horses in Shiraz, near the Persepolis ruins, and later near Tehran at Norouzabad, where they started an equestrian center for children.

She first spotted the Caspian horse in 1965 on a trip to the northern town of Amol and spent the next three years trying to buy as many as she could find -- at best count, about 50 along the entire southern coast of the Caspian Sea.

Mrs. Firouz took three of her horses, two mares and a stallion, on a tour of the United States and generated interest in the breed. She shipped nine Caspian stallions and 17 mares to Europe between 1971 and 1976, and they became the foundation for the breed's survival outside Iran, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

During the next several years of political strife, which included the start of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, the Firouzes lost the bulk of their possessions and were briefly jailed. Mrs. Firouz was said to have gone on a hunger strike to win release.

Afterward, she and her family retreated to a farm they had bought in Ghara Tappeh Sheikh, in the remote northeast, near Turkmenistan. She slowly commenced horse-breeding efforts, work that became financially difficult after her husband's death in 1994.

Despite hardships, she said she was content in Iran. The Bloomberg news service quoted her saying: "I love the freedom of not having fences. U.S. and Europe are too conformist, too confining."

For the past several years, she managed to keep one Caspian and 50 Akhal-Teke racehorses. She funded her stud farm by taking Western tourists on 10-day riding treks into the mountains near her home.

In December, she told an interviewer from Reuters news agency that she had defied a doctor's orders not to ride because of her age. "I'm not too old to ride," she said. "I'm too old to fall off."

Survivors include three children, Roshan Reddaway of Dublin, Ireland, Ateshe Larsson of Bois de Lessine, Belgium, and Caren Firouz of Tehran; a brother, David Laylin of Great Falls; a half-sister, Laura Nichols of Great Falls; and six grandchildren.

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