Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Wild Horses of Abaco

I wrote  yesterday about Stacy Gregg’s book Wild Horse Island, with its story about the Abaco Barb. I was intrigued by the idea of a breed of horses who had originated in Spain, and who were still galloping round the Abacos Islands today.

There is no herd: there is one, single horse.

Once, there was a herd of horses of Spanish descent, but a fatal combination of hurricane, invasive poisonous plants, ignorance and inbreeding has led to the horse’s catastrophic decline.

Although the horses were indeed descended from Spanish horses probably brought over by Columbus, it’s not that likely that they arrived on Abaco in the 15th century. Cuban logging companies who worked in the Abaco Islands imported horses to work the forests in the late 19th century. These horses were of Spanish descent, as Columbus established horse farms on Cuba. The Abaco horses were genetically tested, which showed that they were indeed of Spanish descent.

When the logging companies left in the 1940s, the horses stayed. They grew into a herd of about 200, but their existence was threatened once roads were built into the forests. With the roads came things you’d expect from the intrusion of civilisation into the wilderness: humanity, and traffic. Other, more insidious things were also brought into the horses’ grazing areas by the roads. Invasive and poisonous plants threatened the horses’ grazing, and killed them. The horses weren’t always treated well by humankind. They were killed for sport, and dozens were killed in retaliation after a local child was killed, trying to ride one of the horses. Numbers, which had sunk to three by the 1960s, were beginning to recover in the 1990s, with around 30 animals. The Bahamian Government had set aside a reserve of 4000 acres for the horses. Then a hurricane struck, and the horses were driven into grazing lands that were too rich for them, as well as into areas where poisonous plants flourished. The horses’ rate of reproduction plummeted, possibly not helped by the fact that with such a small gene pool, they were becoming inbred.

The video below shows the last three horses, but there is now just one, Nunki.

There are plans to try and re-establish the horse using eggs from Nunki, and using stallions of the right genetic make up to create embryo transfers. Finding the right stallion is complicated. You need more than one stallion to avoid inbreeding, and you need those stallions to be genetically close in type to the Abaco horses, so that you’re still producing a Spanish Colonial Horse. Dr Gus Cothran, from the Department of Integrative Biosciences at Texas A&M University, is an expert in equine genetics, and has found one suitable stallion. He is searching for four more possible stallion candidates. His research interests include the conservation of rare breeds, and you can’t get much rarer than one.

There are other problems. Nunki is a wild horse, and she needs to be worked with so the egg harvesting can take place. As I write (November 2014), Bruce Anderson (a horse whisperer, for want of a better term) is teaching Milanne Rehor to work with Nunki. The plan is to harvest eggs from Nunki next year.

Milanne Rehor has made it her life’s work to ensure the survival of the breed. She has set up two organisations, WHOA (The Wild Horses of Abaco Preservation Society) and Arkwild Inc, a not for profit, who work to look after Nunki and, eventually, breed new foals. You can follow Arkwild on their Facebook page, which is regularly updated.



Amanda Wills said...

Absolutely fascinating, Jane. I never knew these horses even existed. I shall be following the Facebook page with great interest and hope that one day the Wild Horses of Abaco make a comeback.

Jane Badger said...

I had no idea either until I read the book. The blog is fascinating, but desperate, reading, as one horse after another dies.