Can We Save The Historic Abaco Wild Horses?

By Ellen Kohn

L to R, mares Spica, Bellatrix II and Alnitak on the farm, knee deep in the grasses planted for cattle, overweight and under exercised.

INTRODUCTION

The wild horses of Abaco Island, The Bahamas, are a rare breed of Spanish Barb whose ancestors were very likely the original horses brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers during the time of Columbus.

Over the last 40 years, their story changed dramatically from a thriving herd of 200 to three lone horses in the 1970s. Thankfully, the three surviving horses were rescued, placed on a citrus farm and released back into the forests when the herd was up to 12 horses. The highest number in recent years was 35 horses in1992, when an individual named Milanne (Mimi) Rehor discovered that the herd did exist, and made it her life's work to save them.

Presently, the herd is again in danger of extinction due to a cascade of events beginning with Hurricane Floyd in September, 1999. Hurricane damage, compounded by resulting fires and windfall, devastated the forest habitat. The horses retreated to the citrus farm where they gorged themselves on grasses originally planted for cattle. Their hooves began to grow long from lack of wear. The resultant obesity, laminitis and founder stopped reproduction.

As of October 2002, a 3800-acre preserve was established to protect the remaining horses and return them to their natural habitat. The first phase of the Preserve encompasses 160 acres. The wild horses now have a chance for survival and reproduction within a familiar, appropriate and secure area.

However, problems still remain, and the small herd of 13 Abaco Barbary horses needs help in many ways. It is critical that horsemen and horsewomen worldwide take note of their precarious situation and come to their aid.

HISTORY

Abaco Island, located in the northeast part of the Bahamas, is only 150 miles off the coast of Florida. The origin of the wild horses of Abaco dates back to the Spanish breeds that were brought to the Americas by sailors navigating the Atlantic, Caribbean and the North and South American continents. These horses appear to be direct descendants of the Spanish Barbs, which were bred in the Barbary Coast of North Africa and taken to Europe by the Moors. Explorers and sailing merchants brought the horses to the New World.

It is believed that the horses may be the survivors of one or more shipwrecks off Green Turtle Cay. Data exist identifying no less than 17 Spanish shipwrecks spread along the reefs off the shore of Green Turtle. Since water and forage were present in the pine forests of Abaco, the horses were able to survive and thrive on the natural vegetation, increasing in population for centuries.

In about his third year, stallion Regulus had a spectacular mane and tail. He was the most typey of all in the herd. He died in December of 2003 at the age of about 7 from a wound that he suffered in the spring of 2003, which apparently did deep nerve damage.

The historic forest habitat for the Abaco horses was ideal. The pines provided shelter from the Bahamian sun, there was plenty of food, and the horses were untouched by human development or intervention of any kind. Their paradise was shattered in the 1960s when a central logging road was built over the length of the island.

There were several problems, which encouraged the killing of the Abaco horses. Boar hunters could easily gain access to the forests via the road, and the horses were prey for their dogs. Some horses were killed for sport. A tragic incident involved the death of a young girl who tried to ride a captive and gentled wild horse unattended. She was killed when the horse spooked, sparking the slaughter of all but three of the entire Abaco herd. The herd was in critical danger, facing extinction.

The last three Abaco Barbs were rescued by former Senator Edison Key and several friends in the early 1970s. The three horses were taken to Bahama Star Farm, where grass crops were planted for beef production. Senator Key explained that during planting, 'there were bones of dead horses everywhere.' In spite of the cruelty that had befallen their predecessors, the three horses survived and the herd grew to 35 in the ensuing years, moving between the regenerating forest and the farm.

The 1990s brought another rash of incidents that drastically reduced the herd and again threatened their survival. Mares died giving birth; foals were savagely attacked and killed by wild and domestic dogs; and humans intervened to the point of causing fatal wounds and death. The horses were free roaming and it was difficult to track them. They were becoming accustomed to the farm's center, where their diet consisted of banana plants, sugar cane and other crops too rich for the equine constitution in addition to the rich grasses originally planted for cattle. They were also consuming food often covered with residue of the pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers used on the citrus trees. The result of the changes in diet and habitat was overweight, unhealthy horses with foot problems resulting in laminitis and founder.

In the midst of these seemingly insurmountable problems in the early 1990s, Mimi Rehor came onto the scene. She had heard about these unique horses and was determined to see for herself whether the herd still existed or not. As a first time traveler from Miami to Bahama's Marsh Harbour via her sailboat, little did she know that she would anchor there almost permanently and commit herself to saving the Abaco horses.

One of the first actions needed was the identification of the remaining horses. In 1997, the identification process was complete, verifying 30 horses, but that number has gradually fallen to the present 13. Skulls of deceased horses were collected; most were under six years of age. In 1998-1999, four horses were spared from death by timely medication, but two others were lost. Four fillies were born and survived, but two other foals died. The population increased and decreased in this way but was slowly diminishing, and then all reproduction ceased in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. By 2000, there were only 18 horses left. The herd was facing extinction once again.

ARKWILD

Stallion Altair on his first day in the Preserve. He died in February this year from fighting. Because of inability to work with stallions on the farm, it was discovered after his death that his teeth had very large points and he was not digesting his food sufficiently to make up for the energy lost fighting.

Mimi Rehor formed Arkwild, a non-profit organization whose goal was to educate the public and raise funds to protect the Abaco horses. A website (www.arkwild.org) was created, housing historical information about the herd as well as contact information for those interested in helping rescue the horses. A newsletter containing pertinent facts is part of the website. The local support group in Abaco, WHOA, Wild Horses of Abaco Preservation Society, was also founded. Many individuals have worked closely with the Bahamian government towards the goal of saving the herd, which has resulted in a 3,800 acre preserve being granted in October, 2002. Phase I, consisting of 160 acres, enclosed by electric fence, was completed in November 2003 and eight horses currently are in residence. The remaining five await completion of Phase II so that unattached stallions can have their own area.

Another important task was completed at the start of the herd rescue efforts. Names were given to the members of the herd. The horses are named for the navigational stars, the same ones sailors have used for centuries to direct them to the Bahamas.

Once the horses were identified and named, it was time to determine their breeding.

DNA ANALYSES

The horses were DNA tested from 1999-2001. The tests were performed by three organizations that conducted separate and unrelated analyses. The findings by all three entities suggest that the Abaco horses closely resemble the Spanish Barb. The fact that the Abaco wild horses have five lumbar vertebrae, instead of six, is also an indicator of their historic breeding. In addition, many of the horses are gaited; they pace and they rack.

The first blood sample was drawn from a stallion named Regulus in 1999. Regulus, who died on December 15, 2003, was the most exotic looking of all the Abaco stallions; his features most closely resembled Spanish type horses. Hair samples taken from another horse, a filly named Spica, were also used for analysis.

There were three independent sources for DNA blood and hair analyses. The first set of samples was analyzed by UCLA Davis. These results indicated the Abaco wild horses most closely resembled the Paso Fino breed. The University of Kentucky also analyzed the DNA results. Over the two year period, samples from 11 Abaco horses were tested by the U. of Kentucky Equine Parentage Testing and Research Laboratory.

The University of Kentucky blood type results suggested the possibility that the Abaco horses were related to the original breeds from the Iberian Peninsula. Although the genetic markers analysis was somewhat limited by a small sample size, the University of Kentucky findings are consistent with UCLA that the Spanish heritage is present in the Abaco herd.

Moreover, the Abaco horses also portray a characteristic that makes them a fine subject for genetic research: the 'splashed white overo.' Paint breeders and other horse enthusiasts are curious about how this consistent pattern is showing up so frequently in the small Abaco herd. It is a trait that may show other rare qualities that these horses have other than their Spanish heritage.

A third round of DNA testing was performed by Thomas Jansen of the Institut fur Molecularbiological Diagnosis (IMD) GmbH in Germany. He stated, 'all samples show the sequence pattern we found in mustangs of the Sulfur Springs HMA and in many Spanish horses. This indicated a possible relatedness of these horses to this population through their maternal line.' The IMD findings were also appraised by Hardy Oelke, who has researched the rare Sorraia breed of Spain. He noted that 'the Abaco horses demonstrate the typical sequence pattern found in most Iberian horses.'

This means that at a minimum, the maternal lineage of the Abaco herd may be traced to the Iberian horses. The blood tests also indicated a completely identical sequence pattern, tracing them to a single maternal source. Thus, the original three horses rescued from the slaughter in the 1960's provided the gene pool for the present day testing. If it were not for the founding mare, Liz, the stallion Castle, and Liz's filly Jingo, we would not have the invaluable proof today that the Abaco horses are a rare and historic treasure that must be preserved.

The DNA testing is the single most important key in understanding the genetic treasure the Abaco horses represent to the world. This herd has been genetically untouched for several centuries and the horses are the last pureblood breed that came to the new world. That is why it is so critical that our international equine community embrace and support this cause.

WHY SUPPORT THE CAUSE? READ THESE CASE HISTORIES.

Polaris

A rare pinto colt was discovered on May 29, 1997. He was found a mile and a half away from the deceased mare Shaula, who was seen alive three days earlier. There was no proof that he was her colt; however, her death was caused by a prolapsed uterus and massive hemorrhage, suggesting she had recently given birth.

The colt, named Polaris, was placed in a fenced compound. He was nourished with Foal-Lac® and baby vitamins. He became stronger quickly as Mimi Rehor nursed him back to health. She spent hours each day preparing his food, bedding his enclosure and exercising him by walking him around.

Polaris was introduced to the herd, to friendly dogs, and to people. He was a calm, healthy colt. His rescue was supported by the Bahamian Agricultural Department, which supplied Mimi with the Foal-Lac that was brought in on the farm plane so she could feed him a proper diet.

On June 6, Polaris was found in severe shock, with an unexplained blow to the right eye. The left eye was also dilated and glazed over. Even if a vet had been able to administer immediate care to Polaris (distance precludes immediate veterinary care for the herd), Polaris couldn't have been helped - he was almost dead when he was found.

No one witnessed an attack; no one saw Polaris injure himself. His pen was safe and he was absolutely fine on June 5 th, but dead the next morning. His life lasted less than two weeks from his swift recovery to his sudden demise, which remains a complete mystery.

Acrux

The four year old pinto stallion Acrux died on March 4, 1999. An aggressive fighter, Acrux was often observed with wounds and bruises. He had a cantaloupe-sized facial abscess in September 1998 that had improved, but his disappearance in February 1999 made it difficult to monitor his health. When he reappeared, his condition had worsened tremendously. He was very thin, and his upper and lower lips were infested with maggots.

A veterinarian named Dr. Robert Allen of Marsh Harbour examined Acrux. Since Acrux was a particularly tough stallion, many more tranquilizers were needed to sedate him. He was given a strong dose of antibiotics and the facial infection was cleaned.

By the next morning, his condition had worsened. In spite of the valiant efforts by Dr. Allen and Gayle Cottman of the Bahama Star Farm, Acrux had to be put down. Like many of the wild horses that required medical care, Acrux's care was costly, and used up much of Arkwild's funds.

Vega

First day in the Preserve for mare Alnitak. Note bloating from farm food. Notice more shade and plenty of forage but far less rich than that on the farm.

Vega died shortly after Acrux's death in March. The strawberry roan stallion Vega was found dead on the Bahama Star Farm main road on April 8, 1999. There was no evidence of physical harm, nor any blood found near him. Veterinarians Drs. Robert Allen and Brian Weeks determined Vega was not poisoned. Most of the Abaco horses are too shy to accept treats from humans. It is possible that he died from a tetanus infection resulting from 'battle' wounds; however, other stallions have recovered quickly from fights without any complications.

The deaths of Acrux and Vega in 1999 reduced the herd size to 19. The cost of caring for these horses depleted the Abaco Wild Horse Reserve funds. All future projects had to be put on hold until more donations were received.

THREE IN THE PAST YEAR:

The three most recent deaths have emphasized how close the Abaco herd is to extinction. Adhara

A 13-year-old mare named Adhara suffered injuries to both hind feet beginning with a puncture wound to the right hind foot, followed by an injury to the left hind hoof. These injuries led to lameness in the left and a tendon injury in the right. She received the best medical care available under the circumstances (the horses are treated in the wild without the benefit of hospital stalls and rest); pain killers were administered to her as she struggled to stand. Eventually, she gave in to the pressure and began to lie down. A brace was even placed on one of her legs but in the end, she was unable to survive.

Regulus

Regulus died on December 15, 2003. His loss was particularly unfortunate because his conformation and headset were quite typical of his Spanish ancestry and would have been passed along to his offspring. The equine vet that examined him said that he probably suffered a spinal injury from fighting and it caused neurological damage to his lower spine. There were no other signs of illness or infection. He was about seven years old.

Altair

  • Regulus had been an ‘assistant' stallion to stallion Altair. Altair died on January 20, 2004. Altair was especially vulnerable after the loss of his assistant because he was blind in one eye. He too, suffered severe wounds from fighting with other stallions. He had multiple wounds; one facial wound may have interfered with eating and caused the severe weight loss which led to his collapse. Also discovered after his death were teeth badly in need of floating. Adhara's death upset the entire social structure of the herd, and one particularly aggressive stallion caused all the ensuing damage. He has been ousted from the preserve and awaits his own area along with the other ‘bachelor' stallions.

Most, if not all, of these deaths could have been prevented with consistent care and observation of the herd. Immediate veterinary care and separation of the bachelors from the herd would greatly increase the chances of survival for wounded or ill horses. The herd moved freely about the farm, making observation and treatment difficult when not impossible. The chances of saving those horses under those conditions were slim. The problems arising from various injuries and hoof problems in the last few years have reduced the herd to 13 as of February 2004. However, with the core breeding group now back in the forest under close observation, needed weight loss and hoof improvement are already apparent.

THE WILD HORSE PRESERVE

L to R, mares Acamar, Alnitak's mother, and Nunki. Note trimmed down belly, easy standing on rocks, not possible before the move. Foraging on 'toasted' greens after fire swept the Preserve. Plenty of green still available, moving farther and better

Horse enthusiast and friend of the Abaco horses Bob Hyer chronicled the history of the preserve as the Bahamian government supported the project. In October, 2002, Hyer wrote, 'a roar was heard rumbling through the House of Assembly in Nassau as Bahamian Parliamentarians thumped their wooden desks in unison, joyously sharing their delight in creating a preserve to save the last 15 horses from extinction.' The Bahamian Prime Minister, The Right Honorable Perry Christie, gave a powerful speech before Parliament, describing how the herd of wild horses had been decimated during the last century, and required the protection of the government to preserve its Spanish lineage.

As of October 23, 2003, the 3,800-acre preserve adjacent to the Bahama Star Farm was officially set aside for the Abaco horses. The preserve, which has been endorsed by the Bahamian government, offers the Abaco horses a strong chance to escape extinction a second time.

Not only does the preserve offer protection from dogs and other predators, it will keep the horses in their natural habitat, away from the rich grass planted at the farm, and encourage them to eat a healthier diet. Once their diet improves, their hooves will follow suit, then less lameness and injury will occur. Returning the horses to a safer environment will encourage breeding, thereby aiding the herd size to increase.

Although the preserve is a tremendous accomplishment for Arkwild and the supporters of the Abaco herd, the survival of these horses still remains threatened. The minute number left, 13 at present, can still be diminished by infighting and disease. The cost of bringing in medical equipment and supplies remains high. There are individuals taking care of these horses, and they continue to spend countless hours improving the fencing of the preserve and observing the horses.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Contributions are needed for the following:

Fencing: A recent forest fire in December, 2003 destroyed a third of the fencing intended for the original preserve. The section that was burned was replaced with material that should have been used for the new section. Insulators are needed and will cost several thousand dollars.

Containers: Arkwild needs two containers, one to be used for a medical clinic and the other will house security personnel to guard the horses. Each container will cost $1000.00 to make it habitable. An additional $5000.00 would be used to build a floor and roof, and possibly a second floor with sleeping quarters.

Equipment Rental: The rental of a front-end loader is needed to clear more preserve area and fire breaks.

Visit the website for the Abaco horses: www.arkwild.org. If you would like to make a tax deductible donation, send a check or money order to: The Abaco Wild Horse fund, 2829 Bird Avenue, Ste. 5, PMB #170, Miami, Florida, 33133. Arkwild is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt corporation and receipts are provided upon request. To e-mail Friends of the Abaco Barbary Horses, please write to: arkwild@iname.com.

SIMPLE IDEAS FOR FUNDRAISING

Mare Bellatrix II, chewing happily on cabbage palm, first day in the Preserve

Start a wild horse club through your local pony club, hunt club, equestrian center or neighborhood. Send regular donations from your group to the horses.

Hold a one-time fundraiser in your home, local community center, or equestrian center. Make the wild horses the theme, and print information off of the website showing the obstacles faced over the last 40 years. A video is available for purchase that can be shown at your fundraiser.

Send a donation yourself. Visit the website listed above and learn more about the history of the Abaco horses and why your help is vital to their survival.


Natural Horse Magazine and Ellen Kohn extend heartfelt thanks to Milanne (Mimi) Rehor for not only her invaluable help in preparing this article, but for all her efforts to save the Wild Horses of Abaco.

About the author:

Ellen Kohn is a horse enthusiast and freelance writer whose former career involved energy consulting. She has three horses, one of whom is a rescue himself.

For more information:

The Abaco Wild Horse Fund

2829 Bird Avenue, Ste. 5

PMB #170

Miami, Florida, 33133

www.arkwild.org

arkwild@iname.com

 

closer

 

<