- HEIGHT: 13 hands
- PLACE OF ORIGIN: Spain
SPECIAL QUALITIES: Colorful, Spanish-trait horses; some rack or pace; only 12 living representatives of breed in existence
The Bahamas is a chain of 700 islands with a total landmass of 5,360 square miles, a bit smaller than Connecticut. The original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, migrated there from South America between 400 and 750 CE. Within a few decades of Columbus’s landing in 1492, however, the Spanish completely depopulated the islands, shipping thousands of Arawak to work as slaves in the mines of Cuba and Hispaniola.
Horse-breeding farms began on Hispaniola soon after Columbus brought the first horses from Spain to the New World in 1493. Within about twenty-five years, horse ranching was established on other islands in the Caribbean, starting with Puerto Rico and then Cuba. Soon ranchers on Jamaica, Trinidad, and the lesser islands began to graze horses and other livestock. In 1513, Ponce de León visited Great Abaco, one of the larger Bahamian islands, where he noted the presence of wild hogs but not horses.
Sometime during the early sixteenth century, however, Spanish horses arrived at Abaco. During that period, Caribbean breeding operations were sending horses to North, South, and Central America, while ships from Spain continued to bring horses to the New World. All this shipping over poorly charted, reef-strewn waters resulted in numerous accidents and shipwrecks, which provided many opportunities for horses of Spanish breeding to reach the islands of the Bahamas. In 1595 alone, the Spanish lost seventeen treasure-laden galleons off the coast of Abaco.
Pirates and other opportunists also infested the reefs around Abaco. Not only did they find and loot shipwrecks but they also lured or drove ships onto the reefs and gathered the plunder. It wasn’t until 1825 that the first lighthouse was built to light the way for ships, and even then many locals, having grown wealthy from plundering wrecks, did everything they could to stop its construction.
By then there may have been attempts by the Spanish to develop ranching on the island; however, its geography was not suited to this type of agriculture. France tried to establish a colony on Great Abaco in 1625. No one is certain what became of this early settlement.
Horses may have been deliberately imported to Abaco during the American Revolution, when groups of colonists who wanted to remain loyal to the British Crown moved to various Caribbean islands. They most likely acquired horses of Spanish descent from nearby sources such as Cuba rather than shipping them long distances from the colonies. When some Loyalists moved back to England, they left their horses behind.
Near the turn of the nineteenth century, Cuban settlers clear-cut the pine forests of Abaco and hauled out the logs with horses. These workhorses were almost certainly of Spanish stock from Cuba or Puerto Rico. When the loggers left, they abandoned some of these, although they were most likely geldings and thus did not add to the reproductive capacity of the feral herd. A veterinary authority in Nassau has stated that there was no mingling of workhorses with the wild herds.
Typical of Spanish-type horses, the Abaco’s head is long between eye and muzzle, with large nostrils and heavy bone above the eye.
Logging continued on Great Abaco from the 1700s until about 1929. It resumed in the 1950s for about ten years. As one part of the forest was taken, other parts were recovering. The horses found shelter in the recovering forests and managed to survive and even thrive.
Fresh water and forage were always abundant enough on the island to support a moderate-sized herd. In fact, for centuries Abaco was something of an equine paradise, and human interference appears to have been minimal.
Discovery and Decline
A herd of about two hundred healthy horses was discovered in the 1960s when commercial loggers from the United States built a road from one end of the island to the other in order to harvest all the remaining forests for pulpwood. This opened up the most remote areas of the island, which suddenly became accessible to pickup loads of boar hunters. These hunters were not averse to shooting horses, running them to exhaustion, and even spearing them. Their dogs killed foals. In a few years, herd numbers dropped to a low of three animals.
Horses may have swum to Great Abaco from shipwrecks, or they may have arrived with Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution.
When two local residents, Edison Key and Morton Sawyer, started a cattle operation at one end of the island, they brought the three remaining horses, a stallion and two mares, to safety. Initially the herd blossomed, sharing the grasses planted for the cattle and reaching a high of thirty-five animals. In the 1990s, however, the cattle operation proved unprofitable, and the entire farm was converted to citrus production.
Living among the orchards was less than ideal for the horses. They were left to themselves as they had been when they grazed with cattle; however, this time the outcome was quite different. The rich legumes planted for the cattle still grew among the citrus trees, but now the horses no longer had to compete with the cattle for the best grasses. They quickly became obese and too tame as they hung around the easy, rich grazing. In addition, the plants now contained pesticides that had been used on the citrus trees.
Reluctant to leave the best grazing spots, too many horses congregated in small areas. Stallions fought, horses died from infected wounds, and dogs continued to kill foals. Perhaps because of extreme obesity, perhaps because of farm chemicals, or perhaps merely by chance, several mares died giving birth. Founder became a serious problem. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which tend to accumulate in fat cells, were suspected of causing reproductive problems in the remaining horses. If they were to survive, the horses needed to return to the pine forest.
Of the twelve living horses, most are pintos and the rest are bay or strawberry roan.
Rescue and Recovery
In 1992, Milanne Rehor, a woman with a keen interest in wooden sailboats and a lifelong love of horses, found a notation in a yachting manual about wild horses on Great Abaco. Further research led her to the cattle ranch, where she hoped to see the remaining wild horses she had read about. The instant she saw them, she was completely taken by the beauty of the endangered wild Abacos. Drawn to help them, she began to publicize the plight of this tiny herd that had survived for four hundred years but was teetering on the brink of extinction. She researched their history and genetics and promoted interest in the horses in the Bahamas and around the world. It was her dream to see a strong herd again living safely in the pine forest, and she lobbied hard for a preserve.
The unprotected herd numbered twenty in 1996. By mid-2004, the number had dropped to twelve, but by then Rehor’s tireless work had begun to pay dividends. Genetic testing from three different universities confirmed that the horses descended from old Iberian lines and are among the purest of any such remaining populations. Largely through the Internet, interest in these rare horses was sparked, even in some unexpected places. In Salmon, Idaho, a model horse 4-H Club began campaigning to raise awareness. It convinced Breyer Animal Creations, well-known makers of model horses, to produce a model of the strikingly marked Abaco stallion Capella. The company contributes a portion of all sales of the model Capella to the fund to save the Abacos.
The government of the Bahamas recognized the great historical and genetic treasure of the Abaco Barb horses in 2002 and generously donated a 3,800-acre preserve for their use. At present the horses have access to 200 acres, soon to be expanded to 600 acres, and are contained by a solar-powered electric fence. Although no foals have been born in several years, normal reproduction may resume now that the horses have been returned to the forest preserve, where they are losing weight and no longer ingesting agricultural chemicals.
A COMMON ANCESTOR
The history of the Abaco Horses brings the almost extinct Spanish Jennets to mind. The Jennets were small, smooth-gaited Spanish horses, known to have been brought to the Caribbean among the earliest shipments of horses from Spain. In addition to having a gentle nature, smooth gaits, and a capacity for work, this famous breed, which was old even then, was reported to come in remarkably wild colors.
Sadly, in 2005 there is a new peril for the little herd. Haitians fleeing terrible economic hardship in their own land have established semipermanent tent camps in the preserve on Abaco, cutting acres of the forest. Without government supervision, the mere presence of so many profoundly impoverished human beings greatly endangers this tiny semi-feral herd.
Although the horses are considered a national treasure, owned by the Bahamian government, Rehor and her organization, Arkwild, oversee their well-being. The horses find their own food and water and are handled occasionally for necessary vaccinations and hoof trimming. They are afraid of ropes and are head-shy. Great care is taken to minimize human contact and handling, because if too tame, they could easily be captured and harmed by humans.
These horses stand about 13 hands high, with an estimated weight of 900 to 1,000 pounds. Milanne Rehor reports that several of the horses are smooth-gaited. “One mare was seen to rack,” she writes. “We’ve had several pacers. Most exhibit the swimming of the forelegs that is characteristic of Paso Finos.”
BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES
Milanne Rehor founded Arkwild in 1999 to lobby for a preserve for the Abaco Barb. Now that a preserve exists, the organization continues to oversee the health of the horses as well as to make efforts to disseminate information to the world about this rare herd. Arkwild also produces an informative newsletter about the horses for a nominal membership fee.
As of February 2005, there were only twelve living Abaco horses, seven mares and five stallions. There have been no foals born in several years but hope remains that normal reproduction will resume.
The war bonnet pattern features brown ears and a brown mane with a white face.
The Abaco horse shows strong Spanish traits. The head is inclined to be fairly long from the eye to the nostril, with heavy bone above the eye. The profile of the face below the eyes is strongly convex. The nostrils are large and open during exertion but crescent- shaped when the horse is at rest. The neck is moderately long and well arched.
The back is fairly short with a long underline. The shoulder is well laid back. The croup is sloping with a low tail set. The Abaco has a deep heart girth, but seen from the front, the horses are not built on a particularly wide frame. The bone is dense and heavy relative to size, and the fetlocks are well angled. The feet are in proportion to the size of the body.
One of the Abacos’ most obvious and remarkable traits is their color. Many are dazzling pintos with extraordinary patterns. Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, horse geneticist, suspects that this little population has segregated a form of the “splash” gene, which is associated with the overo color pattern.
According to Milanne Rehor, there are three distinct pinto patterns among the twelve living horses. One is white with brown ears and a brown mane, a pattern known to horsemen as a war bonnet. Another is brown on the front and on the rump with a wide white swath in the middle. Finally, several horses have white rumps and are brown in front on their neck and chest. All the pintos have white faces. Even the bays carry white blazes and stars and some have splashes of white on their undersides. Several horses have high white markings on the legs. Only two of the twelve show no patches of white, and both of these are strawberry roans.