The Wild Horses of Abaco
- The 'Abaco Barbs'
Mankind has harnessed the wild, domesticating many species and adapting
them to his needs. By selective breeding, he has produced specific
animals for specific purposes - speeding up the process of natural
selection and carrying out his own evolutionary processes.
Of all the animals that
Mankind has domesticated, the horse is certainly one of the most
important - if not the most important, for the horse was the precursor
of the automobile; the only rapid and reliable method of transportation
for probably the best part of 2,000 years. In many places, it still is
the only reliable and rapid method of transportation.
The Wild horses of
Abaco have been known for as long as the Bahamas has been colonised.
Until recently however, their importance was never known. Today, though,
through the tireless work of one woman, the Wild Horses of Abaco are now
recognised by the 'Horse of the Americas Registry' as being some of the few Spanish Barb horses remaining in
few other groups of Spanish Barbs have been discovered in North
America, including the 'Wilbur-Cruce Mission Strain'. In the late
1600's, Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest and missionary, first
brought the Spanish horse to the an area in what is now southern
Arizona and northern Mexico in the San Miguel river valley,
approximately twenty-five miles east of Magdalena. All these
groups of horses have in some way been isolated from other horses and
have maintained much of the original gene pool of the horses imported
by the Spanish, for geographical isolation is one of several mechanisms
for the maintenance of genetic purity in a species, subspecies, variety
horses have subsequently been introduced to the Bahamas from
both North America and from Britain, DNA testing on the Abaco horses has
shown without doubt their relationship with the Spanish Barbs. The
horses are now officially known as 'Abaco Barbs'.
story begins almost thirteen hundred years ago, back in the start
of the eighth century when the Moors invaded Spain. At
this time, the African Barb, or Berber horse was crossed with the
resident horse of Iberia to produce the Spanish Barb.
These horses were carried by the Spanish to America, where they quickly
became adopted by Native Americans as well as being used by the
settlers where they gained fame with the Pony Express, by serving
in the cavalry and by hunting Buffalo. Their distinctive markings
and their exploits are recorded in history by important American
painters of the West such as Remington and Russell.
breed almost died out until a breeding program in the USA at the
start of the twentieth century re-established the Spanish Barb.
Meanwhile, unknown to horse breeders in both Europe and the United
States, a valuable gene pool of Spanish Barbs still roamed the
pine forests of Abaco.
the horses got to Abaco in the first place remains unknown. Columbus was
the first European to set foot in the islands in 1492. He was rapidly followed
by various Spanish conquistadors who passed through the Bahamas en route
to Hispaniola and Central America and who captured many of the native
Indians as slaves to work in the gold mines and to dive for pearls off
the coast of Venezuela. In a Royal Decree 0f 1493, the Spanish crown
had ordered that every ship to the New World had to carry at least two
broodmares, so it is quite probable that one or more of the
early Spanish expeditions released horses on the island of Abaco - and quite
possibly also the Wild Boar found on both Abaco in the north and Inagua
in the south.
possibility is that the horses swam ashore from one of the many Spanish
shipwrecks that occurred at this time in the shallow reef-infested
waters of the islands. In 1595, a whole Spanish fleet of seventeen ships
was wrecked off Abaco. Any horses being carried by these ships would
have been able to swim ashore.
Ponce de Leon visited the Bahamas in 1514, he found no sign of the the
Indians. There were no more natives, and the Bahamas certainly had no
gold so the Spanish were not interested in these low-lying scrub covered
islands. For more than one hundred years the Bahamas had no human
population. They were not colonised by Europeans until 1648, when
William Sayle and his 'Eleutherian Adventurers' established the first
colony at Governor's Harbour on the island of Eleuthera to avoid
religious persecution. The name of Sayle does not remain in the Bahamas,
1657, Sayle returned to England, although, he left behind families -
many of which settled on the island known today as Spanish Wells
and whose names have spread throughout the islands including
Pinder, Sands, Sawyer, and Knowles.
is one of only three Bahamian islands that supports forests of the
Caribbean Pine ( Pinus caribaea ). In these
forests, the hardy Spanish Barb horses survived on the sparse
vegetation and coarse grasses - no doubt aided in this harsh
environment by the genes
provided by their north African ancestry.
possibly hundreds of years, the Abaco horses survived alone in the
pine forests with just a few being captured to work in the
short-lived sugar cane industry on the island.
the logging company Owens-Illinois negotiated a contract to harvest the
Abaco pines for wood pulp. They drove a road through the island, which
gave access to the forest as never before. Although the logging camp
closed in 1929, the road remained. Now the inhabitants could capture and
chase the horses. In
an unfortunate incident, a young child trying to ride a captive Abaco
horse was dragged to her death. This resulted in many of the horses -
maybe as many as 200 - being killed.
the early 1960's there were only three Abaco wild horses alive.
Fortunately they were saved by Abaco residents Edison Key and Morton
Sawyer who took the horses to the Bahama Star farm - a 3,000
acre Citrus farm near Treasure Cay. The herd bred there, reaching a peak
number of 35 in 1992. Since then, many have died and only 12 remain
today. However, living on the farm does not suit the horses. Nutrient
rich feed and soft ground has caused obesity and abnormal hoof development.
They need to be back in the Pine forests.
The latest chapter in the
history of the Abaco Wild Horses began when writer and media consultant Milanne Rehor
became interested in them. Today, she lives on a boat at Marsh
Milanne first heard about the horses in the
1992 "Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas", where she read: "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 wild
Milanne describes her first
sight of the Wild Horses on her web site:
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."
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.
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
months of preparation, weeks of travel and days of negative response,
there they were. Not ponies, not scruffy, shaggy little drudges, but
big, healthy bright-coated horses."
And so began her campaign to save the
remaining Abaco Wild Horses. Full details of her efforts and monthly
updates can be seen on her Arkwild
entirely as a result of Milanne's efforts an Abaco Wild Horse
preserve has been set up on Abaco with Bahamas Government
photo on the left shows Mr. Gary Sawyer, a member of the Board of Directors of W.H.O.A.,
(Wild Horses of Abaco Preservation Society) with
Ronald Thompson, Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister of the
Bahamas. For further details click
For information about how you can
help, visit the website Arkwild
or join the Friends of the Abaco Barbary Horses, call 242-367-4805
in Abaco, or visit 'A Buck a Book' in the Abaco Shopping Plaza.
It’s in a container in the back, just find Kentucky Fried
Chicken and keep going to the end.
Rod Attrill 2004