Horse administration (mazheng 馬政) was a term for the breeding, use and procurement of government-owned horses of the imperial period. While horses played an immensely important role in former ages for transport, agriculture and warfare, the territory of China was not in all places suited for the breeding of equines. It was therefore important that the government took over the duty to care for a sufficient supply of horses.
Chinese historians believe that already during the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), there were horse officials, as can be seen in some statements in oracle bone inscriptions. The Confucian Classic Zhouli 周禮 speaks of an official (xiaoren 校人 "director of the studs") who was "administering the King's horses" (zhang wang ma zhi zheng 掌王馬之政). He was assisted by overseers of the grazing lands (mushi 牧師), chief grooms (yushi 圉師), equerries (quma 趣馬), horse medicos (wuma 巫馬) and cavalry officers (souren 廋人, all transl. according to Édouard Biot). They supervised, trained and fed government-owned horses, and also cared for their medical treatment. Such an administrative structure did not only exist at the royal court of the Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), but in each of the regional states.
Horses were classified according to their colour, weight, strength and constitution as breeding horses (zhongma 種馬), war horses (rongma 戎馬), "multiple-use horses" (qima 齊馬), courier horses (daoma 道馬), horses for hunting (tianma 田馬), and coach horses (jiama 駑馬).
The Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) regime continued this system and created the post of Chamberlain for the Imperial Stud (taipu 太僕). In the border regions, six pasturelands (mushiyuan 牧師苑) were created that were overseen by *pasture directors (mushi ling 牧師令). Among the surviving documents of Qin-period administrative law (see Shuihudi texts), there is a regulation called Jiuyuan lü 廄苑律 which fixed the duties of the horse officials.
During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) the Imperial Stud (taipusi 太僕寺) was divided into three commandments and five directorates (sanling wujian 三令五監). It is known that there were 36 pasturelands. During the reign of Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE) in the early Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), there were 30,000 employees serving in the horse administration, caring for 300,000 beasts.
From the fourth century on many nomad peoples roamed northern China and brought with them the custom of horse-breeding. There must have been an abundant number of horses in the north during that time. In the region of Hexi alone 河西 (modern Shaanxi), there were 2 million animals during the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534), while another 100,000 beasts were to be found in Heyang 河陽 (Henan).
When the Tang 唐 (618-907) reunified the empire, the horse administration system was fully developed. In the central government, the Court of the Imperial Stud was divided into six directorates of horse pasturages (liufang mujian 六坊牧監). There were furthermore the Bureau of Equipment (jiabu 駕部), the Bureau of the Imperial Saddlery (shangchengju 尚乘局) and the Commission for the Palace Corrals and Stables (xianjushi 閑廄使) which took care for the carosses and vehicles used by government officials. There were more than 60 pasturelands in the Tang empire, and the government owned 700,000 animals. This was the highest documented number of horses ever owned by the government in Chinese history.
Unlike the Tang, the Song 宋 (960-1279) had the problem that they were not master of the wide grasslands in the northwest, which was occupied by the Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227) of the Tanguts, while the Kitans and then the Jurchens controlled the north, and Tibet the west. The supply of horses was therefore always a critical point through the Song period, and there was no stringent policy any more to rely on. Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (r. 997-1022) created the office of horses (masi 馬司) which had to register all horse markets and their commodities, in order to have a sufficient pool of animals to fall back on. There were 14 horse pasturages (mujian 牧監) in total. During the Jingde reign-period 景德 (1004-1007) several pasturage commissioners (mushi 牧使) were appointed to fulfill the task of supplying horses. When Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086) implemented his new policy the procurement of horses became a responsibility of the local communities (see baomafa 保馬法) that had to care for their own defense and to muster troops (the baojia system 保甲).
From the tenth century on it became common that horses were not exclusively raised inside imperial territory, but animals were traded against tea, a beverage that had become an indispensable part of the diet of the nomad people in Tibet and the northwest. While China produced tea, the nomad peoples bred horses, and thus both sides profited from each other. In 1074 officials were dispatched to Sichuan, to estimate the amount of tea production that could be used to pay for horses from Qinzhou 秦州 (modern Tianshui 天水, Gansu) in the Western Xia empire. From that time on there was a tea-purchasing official and a horse-purchasing official that cooperated with each other to supply the Song state with animals (see tea-horse trade).
During the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) there were horse pastures in all fourteen provinces, but the exact number of animals raised is not known. The custom that private persons were allowed to raise horses (so-called kuoma 括馬 "concentration of horses") was prohibited.
The horse administration of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) was the most advanced, but also the most complex system. In both capitals (Beijing and Nanjing) was a Court of the Imperial Stud which shared their responsibilities for northern and southern China, respectively. There were also five branch courts of the imperial stud (xing taipusi 行太僕寺) located in border provinces, where border garrisons (weisuo 衛所) were located. The Pasturage Office (yuanmasi 苑馬寺) supervised the breeding of horses in the pasturelands. In the western provinces there were tea-and-horse offices (chamasi 茶馬司) that continued the Song-period custom to trade tea against horses from Amdo, Kham and Tibet proper. All these institutions were subordinated to the Ministry of War (bingbu 兵部). There was, in the end, a branch of the Court of the Imperial Stud in practically all northern provinces, and likewise a local pasturage office in each prefecture. In the metropolitan provinces of Shuntian 順天 and Zhili 直隸 (present-day Hebei, and Jiangsu, respectively), there were also special officials commissioned to supervise the horse administration.
This system was by and large adopted by the Manchus, but they also brought with them their own system of horse procurement, and served themselves of that of the Mongols. The horse administration was supervised by the Palace Stud (shangsiyuan 上駟院) under the Imperial Household (neiwufu 內務府) and the Court of the Imperial Stud. Institutions caring for horses needed by the military were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War (bingbu 兵部), mainly the Bureau of Communications, Chariots and Carriages (chejiasi 車駕司). The institutions of the Imperial Stud, the Palace Stud, and Office of Imperial Pasturages (qingfengsi 慶豐司) owned their own pasturelands in the northern grassland zone, with a size of 300,000 "square" li 方里.