The Abaco Wild Horse
GREAT ABACO, BAHAMAS...Once, they
were a mighty herd, perhaps 200 strong: pinto, bay and roan horses rippling
through thousands of acres of pine forest. They were as free as the sea winds
that blew across the island they had conquered.
Their origins remained unclear until 1998. It
was thought that some of their ancestors came from domestic animals brought by
English Loyalists who abandoned North America during the American Revolution.
When some of the colonizing attempts failed, the horses were turned loose and
Others were thought to have come with the
logging operations that cleared Wilson city in the south of Great Abaco and
Norman's Castle in the north. And these logging horses may have come from Cuba.
When the logging company clear-cut itself into oblivion, the horses were
In 1998 it was discovered that the horses probably are Spanish Barbs. Pending
DNA testing, it is 99% certain that they are genetically pure - having been
'untampered' with for over 250 years.
|| Few horse wise people would
have expected those domesticated horses to survive in this place. Whether you
come by air or by sea, this does not look like horse country
After years of being fed, groomed and cared for, suddenly the gates were open.
The halters were gone. The mangers were empty.
After a sea voyage that could have lasted six
weeks or more, with little food or water to reduce manure they either were
wrecked or abandoned on this island.
|The horses stood for a while,
blinking in the sun. It grew hotter and hotter as the sun rose.
Slowly, they moved off seeking shelter, food, and
in the manner of horses, companionship
||And survive the horses did, as
they had been bred to do under appalling conditions. In fact, they flourished
flourished. They came from sturdy stock, with compact bodies and strong legs.
|Long tails and flowing manes
and gleaming coats made them beautiful.
||Abandoned on a sun-drenched and
salt-seared island, they found shelter in pine forests
||The pine forests of Abaco are
something few visitors know exist. In the Bahamas, the Caribbean pines
(Pinus caribaea), exist only on Grand Bahama, Andros, Abaco and New
Providence Islands. On Abaco, the forests provided a home for the tough,
romantic and equally rare wild Spanish Barb horses.
|In the dappled shade of the
pines the horses escaped the burning sun. They tramped out a network of
pathways among the grazing places and the sloughs and springs where they
pine forests had for millennia sheltered flocks of wild parrots and migrating
birds. Scores of species of orchids, other plants and thousands of insects
lived in the forest.
||The forests sheltered the
wildhogs, also abandoned by the early settlers, and they sheltered the
|In addition to shelter, the
forests provided food. After fires set by lightning bolts swept away the
underbrush, fresh grasses sprang up and provided a change of diet from the
grasses that grew in open areas.
The nourishing grasses probably had arrived as seeds in the crops of migrating
||Even in the worst droughts the
horses had water.
They had enough room to roam and graze, and they grew sleek. Only an occasional
horse was lost to people from the outer islands who captured a few for work at
sugar cane mills.
|Then, in the 1960's, disaster
struck. Neither a hurricane, nor a catastrophic drought nor a tidal wave. No
impossible fire, flood or disease. A road. A simple road was carved out of the
chalky limestone surface of Great Abaco. A road running from one end of the
island to the other so that Owens-Illinois could harvest the remaining forests
The shelter of the pines was shattered.
Suddenly humans had access to miles and miles of long-abandoned but still
passable logging roads from earlier operations.
Boar hunters, who once had to walk in after their
prey, now could drive pick-up trucks full of dogs, men and guns right into new
Once they had to carry out one heavy animal on their shoulders. Now they could
slaughter and carry six or seven.
||The hunters could also run the
horses down these narrow roads until they were close enough to be roped out of
the windows or until they dropped from exhaustion.
Many of these animals became legends, for their anecdotal lives, the vicious
cruelty visited on them, and their tragic ends.
Often, the hunters' dogs would chase the horses instead of the boars and just
as often the horses would trample the dogs in self defense. The hunters began
to shoot the horses. But few people other than the hunters knew about this at
"There aren't any more wild
horses on Abaco."
"The horses have all been killed."
"The horses have all died of pesticide poisoning"
"I've been going to Abaco for 20 years and I never heard of any
"There were horses once but they've all been shot."
"There were horses here, but when the big road went in some man tried to
capture one by throwing a spear at it. It died."
"They all died."
These were some of the things I was told before I sailed to Abaco in April of
And I heard more of the same after I arrived at Green Turtle Cay...
|The quest had begun with two
sentences buried on page 235 of the 1992 "Yachtsman's Guide to the
Bahamas:""The old settlement of Norman's Castle...in days gone
by...was a busy logging camp, but it was abandoned in 1929. Today few traces of
the settlement or the industry remain and the only inhabitants are herds of
As a horse crazy child I read every romantic horse novel ever printed and most
of them contained that mystical, irresistible combination of plucky youngsters,
mysterious islands and horses in need of rescue.
||When I later transferred that
equine passion into one for old wooden sailboats, I still had horses galloping
around in my heart. And my heart nearly stopped when, while planning the
sailing trip to Abaco, I read those two short sentences.
The only positive information I got was from the editor of the guide who said
she knew they were there, and from Gary Larson of the Bahamas National
Trust who said "Yes, they are there."
|I headed for Green Turtle Cay
which lies about two miles north of the area where I hoped the horses would be.
Day after day I poked around the town of New Plymouth pestering everyone about
the horses. A week went by with no clues, yet it was too soon to think about
quitting. It seemed odd, though. I was used to instantaneous communication.
There was the big island, just two miles away, and no one knew anything about
its wild inhabitants.
Finally, about eight days after I had arrived,
I heard that Stephanie Roberts, whose parents own Roberts Hardware in New
Plymouth, had not only seen the horses but had taken some photos of them during
a trip to Great Abaco in 1991. They were on a citrus farm in the Norman Castle
area. I was given the name of the farm manager, and through yet another stroke
of luck my very first call connected my to Lynn Key whose husband Henry was the
Manager of Bahamas Star Farms.
The Keys graciously invited me for a visit and
a few days later I was on the Green Turtle Ferry heading for a smokey green
swath on the horizon where there might be wild horses.
|Lynn and Henry met me at the
dock. Lynn and I rode in the back of a pick-up hanging on to cameras heavy with
telephoto lenses. With our free hands we clung to the truck cab as we bounced
over miles and miles of packed dirt roads.
When we spotted our first far off group I had to fight back tears as I fussed
with the manual focus on the camera. The horses were real.
After months of preparation, weeks of travel and days of negative response,
there there they were. Not ponies, not scruffy, shaggy little drudges, but big,
healthy bright-coated horses.
||Each time we spotted a group
we'd thump on the roof of the cab and Henry, with his knowledge of every bump
and ridge, would get us as close as possible
While we took photos Henry kept up with business via two-way radio and cellular
phone and he still spotted groups Lynn and I had missed.
|The horses were cautious but
not spooky. If we tried to approach on foot they simply turned and walked away.
Or managed to hide in very small places. There are two horses hiding in this
photo. Can you find them?
||One of the groups had a special
treat for us, a beautiful yearling stallion who was the image of one of the
foals Stephanie Roberts had photographed the year before.
|Here he was, growing well and
just full of sass and spirit. He has been named Antares and his mother is
Bellatrix. Bellatrix has a pink face from sunburn.
How had the wild
horses, slaughtered to the point of extinction in the 1960's,come to be alive
at all, let alone in a healthy, energetic herd of about 30 head which roams the
farm and nearby regenerating forest?
||No one is quite sure exactly how the decision
was made to bring the wild horses back. Certainly, Edison Key, Floyd Sawyer,
Gayle Cottman and Steve Albury all had a part in the seemingly casual events
that saved the wild horses of Abaco.
Edison Key and his brother-in-law Morton Sawyer were the partners developing
the farm. They provided the place, the approval and the manpower, probably the
original idea. Steven Albury was a young man working on the farm in the early
1970's. Morton Sawyer's son Floyd already had two wild hroses at the farm. The
mares were named Liz and Jingo. Jingo may have been Liz's foal. And Jingo
probably was named after the horse in the classic childrens' story Jingo,
Wild Horse of the Abacos, illustrated by Wesley Dennis.
| Senator Edison Key, Henry's
father, gave his version: "When we were clearing the land for the farm
project in the early 1970's, we found carcasses and bones all over.
"We were starting a cattle ranching effort. The Bahamas could have been
self-sufficient in beef production. We put about 400 acres into deep-rooted
grasses, high protein legumes that could get to the water. We built a corral,
drove posts, strung fences and then imported 200 head of steer from the
(Ed.Note: The cattle raising effort ended when Owens-Illinois left.)
||Steve said there was no big
premeditation, but at some point he and a man remembered only as 'Gunn,' who
had come over with the cattle imported from the Dominican Republic, and who was
'supposed to know something about horses,' went down to Marsh Harbour and
brought back a stallion named Castle. Gayle Cottman had been taking care of
And every pinto in today's growing herd bears his unmistakeable
|According to Gayle Cottman,
"They all look just like Castle." She was delighted when she saw the
first photos. Castle died a natural death around 1989, probably close to 30
The bays in the herd are from Liz and Jingo and
some of them bear the delicate features that Dennis gave Jingo in his
|Those three horses simply
lucked out. According to Effie Schneider, Edison Key's sister, the horses
shared buidlings, shelter, feed, grass and grain with the cattle. When a vet
came to check the cattle, he checked the horses.
|| One farm hand was assigned to
the horses full time until they became acclimated and were released. Today's
horses, descended from the last stallion of the original wild herd, returned to
the pine forests. The herd is growing slowly in spite of wild dog attacks which
kill several foals a year.
||The farm now covers 3000 acres
and the grasses imported for the cattle have spread. In the savannah-like areas
of the farm -- planted in limes, grapefruits and oranges -- are acres and acres
of forage the horses relish.
Henry Key says the soil is exceptional. It is red and clay-ey and holds
moisture well. The biggest pines grew here.
|In 1992, the future seemed
bright. Henry Key said simply, "We were brought up to not kill
||By 1997 the herd had dropped
from over 30 to 16. Individuals I had identified and knew by sight had
vanished. corpses and skeletons were turning up in alarming numbers.
As usual, it is human pressure that causes concern and it is the goal of the
Abaco Wild Horse Fund to try to remove that pressure. by 1998 with the survival
of four fillies, the herd was up to 21. It is hoped that this is a trend, and
not a glitch .
And the horses, to be truly wild, need the forest. They survived before without
the farm. The forest shelters the horses from the sun. The limey outcroppings
keep their hooves pared down and naturally trimmed.
After a burn, the forest floor is covered with
succulent new grasses for forage. If the horses are to remain wild, some of the
forest must remain wild too.
The AWHF, working in conjunction with the Boy and Girl Scouts of Abaco, hopes
to have the forest surrounding the farm declared a preserve.
||Wildfire is a critical part of
the wild forest cycle.
But too many (90%, according to one source)of these fires are started by man to
clear landfor cultivation and to drive hogs from the dense brush. Although
often severely charred, adult pines are seldom killed by flames.
|The younger pines are less
fortunate, though reseeding takes place quickly aorund the bottoms of the adult
trees whose pine cones are burst open by the heat, thus releasing the seeds.
But constant, deliberate burning will upset the forest cycle. New pine growth
will burn with the brush and the juveniles will never get a chance to mature.
Orchids and wildflowers die out.
||The saga of the wild horses and
their home in the pines teaches several important lessons. Left to their own
devices, things tend to seek a natural balance. Over-hunting, over-cutting,
over-burning all upset this natural order and the inevitable result is too much
dying. The inevitable result of too much dying is extinction
.Many people feel that the horses' survival may
point the way to a better future in Abaco. Henry Key looks toward this future
when he says "We need to publicize the concept of wild things being able
to peacefully interact with formal land use."
||Trees are still being cut down
too carelessly, too often, but the horses and the pines, the wild boar and the
hard-pressed parrots still survive, struggling symbols of a future where
beautiful wild things can still exist if humans will only lighten their heavy
The Abaco Wild Horse Fund, Inc., established to help support the wild horse
herd, gains support for its
Projects by offering
Sales, and a
Help section. In addition, a portion of the profits generated by sale of
items through ARKWILD is donated to the fund. Questions and comments welcome,
Send E Mail.
Article and photos courtesy of Milanne Rehor and the
Abaco Wild Horse Fund.