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The Wild Horses of Abaco - The 'Abaco Barbs'

Throughout history, 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 existence.

A 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 or breed. 

Although 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'.

The 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.

The 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.

How 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.

Another 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.

When 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, for in 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.

Abaco 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.

For 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.

Then 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. 

By 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 Harbour, Abaco. 

Milanne first heard about the horses in the 1992 "Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas", where she read: "The old settlement of Norman's 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 horses..."

Milanne describes her first sight of the Wild Horses on her web site:       

"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 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 website.

Today, entirely as a result of Milanne's efforts an Abaco Wild Horse preserve has been set up on Abaco with Bahamas Government approval. 

The 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 Mr. Ronald Thompson, Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister of the Bahamas. For further details click here.

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