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In Search of Europe’s Wild Horses

July 2018 by Alex Mullarky

It is dusk. We have made camp in a sloping meadow at the end of a spur, tucked between hills and tree-filled valleys. The last of the light burnishes the long grass in gold. Our day has been spent clinging to the interior of an intrepid 4WD as it negotiated the full range of its capabilities, hiking across a plateau, swapping between binoculars and long camera lenses. We have come to Bulgaria in search of the new wild horses of Europe and with the help of Hristo Hristov, Rewilding Rhodopes’ horse project officer, we have been delivered straight to them on Day One. 

When I first hear the gentle snorts and rustling hoofbeats of approaching horses, I almost forget to be interested. These are commonplace sounds in my everyday life. When the realisation hits, my heart skips a beat. There, at the edge of the hill are a pair of ears, a pair of eyes trained on me. The mare comes gradually into view as she climbs the hill towards us. This is something we identify early on: several generations of living wild and the horses haven’t yet lost their curiosity.

The mare has a foal at foot, a cream-coloured fluffy toy almost too cute for words. Which only makes it all the more shocking when it turns away to suckle, presenting us with its hindquarters and we see the blood. Its short tail is working busily against the pervasive flies, smearing red across its butterscotch coat. A chunk of its rump, now in full view, has been cleaved away. 

At that moment, my instincts tell me to step forwards, catch the foal and call a vet. It’s human nature to want to intervene to prevent suffering, even in wild animals that would do anything to escape proximity to us. But, to do so would be counter to the objectives of this rewilding project. A vital part of living wild is the freedom to die wild.

When I let the foal go, in a way I am exhilarated. It might live; it might die. It is nothing to do with me at all.

Until the turn of the 20th Century, Europe had a native species of wild horse - the Tarpan. Mustangs, brumbies, almost all the wild horses we romanticise are, technically speaking, feral: descended from domesticated animals that have escaped back into the wild. Today, the world over, only Przewalski’s horse of the Mongolian steppe is considered a truly, genetically wild horse. 

Rewilding, the act of restoring to their rightful place species which have been eradicated from their natural environment, is a concept that acts as an antidote to extinction. Today, the movement is taking hold on almost every continent. But, this poses a problem for the European Wild Horse. After all, the species is inarguably extinct and cannot be simply relocated. 

In 2011, an organisation known as New Thracian Gold, now succeeded by Rewilding Rhodopes, sought a different solution: filling the gap in the ecosystem with a breed of horse with strong resemblance in conformation and character to the Tarpan.

Over the past seven years, herds of Konik horses have been introduced into mountainous, uninhabited regions of the Eastern Rhodopes of Bulgaria. More recently, herds of a local primitive type, called the Karakachan horse, have been rewilded in other locations around the Eastern Rhodopes. 

In June last year, I travelled with my partner, Lachlan, to Bulgaria to witness the rewilding of horses in action. Carrying everything we needed in our backpacks, we explored the region primarily on foot, sometimes hitchhiking down long stretches of road, occasionally taking the bus and once riding into a village on the back of a horse-drawn cart. 

We accepted help wherever it was offered. There is a great sense of community in the Rhodopes; no one passes a hitchhiker without stopping and people often went out of their way to ensure we visited local sites of interest. 

Universally, people were surprised to learn we had travelled from Australia to see the horses. As Desi, one member of the Rewilding Rhodopes team, put it: ‘Australia is where you go if you dig straight down!’ The region is known globally amongst birdwatchers for its rare vulture population, but wild horse tourism is a novelty and, to some, it lent greater credibility to the rewilding project.

In each location, we found the horses are in different stages of rewilding. Beginning in a large fenced area, the herds are gradually given greater freedom to roam, with the hope their home range will remain close to where they were first introduced. At one location, the horses will remain fenced, due to conflict over land use in the surrounding region. Their fenced area is, however, enormous and their numbers will be carefully controlled as the population grows.

In recent months, the practice of rewilding has been under fire since it was revealed over 3,000 animals had died during the European Winter in a reserve in the Netherlands. The 5,000 hectare reserve of Oostvaardersplassen was home to over 5,000 Konik horses, Heck cattle and red deer before the Winter, which now number around 1,800. The vast majority were, ultimately, shot by the reserve’s managers before they could die of starvation.

It is a highly contentious issue, but it is my belief where we impose boundaries on wild animals, it is our responsibility to ensure their numbers do not grow to unsustainable levels. This population control may be by capture and sale, sterilisation or humane euthanasia. It could, however, be argued overpopulation and resultant starvation is a natural process.

In Kostilkovo, where the Karakachan herds are fenced over a number of large valleys, the local manager intends to capture and sell a number of colts over the next few years. So far, the reserve’s resources have been more than enough for the existing population, and Rewilding Rhodopes wants to make sure it stays that way.

This doesn’t mean the rewilding process is without struggle. In the newest horse rewilding location in the Rhodopes, where Karakachan horses were introduced in 2015, we were confronted with a difficult sight. The horses’ small range was fenced, and would be for a while longer before they are released. 

Within that range, however, at the height of Summer, feed was low on the ground. Some of the horses and foals were severely emaciated; some had uncomfortably overgrown hooves. On the other hand, some members of the herd were in great condition, with hooves that needed no management. This is a part of the process - a process we are all familiar with. Those animals suited to life in the wild will survive and reproduce; those that are not, will not. But, it is one thing to grasp the concept of survival of the fittest, and quite another to witness it in practice.

That herd was the extreme. Elsewhere in the Rhodopes, where horses have been established far longer, we encountered animals that were not only surviving, but thriving in their environment. The herds of Konik made the greatest impression of all. Though in principle the concept of ‘breed’ becomes irrelevant once the horses are released, the different herds have not yet grown large enough or ranged far enough to intermingle; so, for now, it is clear who is who. 

Encountering the Konik felt truly like coming face to face with a wild horse. Their homogenous dun coats are outlined by dark dorsal stripes and zebra-like leg stripes - the markings associated with primitive breeds. Their hooves were tough and self-trimmed, their two-tone manes partially standing up, like the Przewalski’s horses. 

Above all, they behaved like wild creatures. When we first stepped into the trees where one of the herds was loafing in the shade, I was stunned to watch them startle and canter away. Though many of them were curious about who we were and what we were doing, they were far from tame. This is the result of multiple generations of living wild and the resurgence of ancient, formerly suppressed instinct. 

As a lifelong horse person, I was curious from the outset about how spending time amongst wild horses would affect the way I thought about my own, domesticated, horses. What struck me more than anything else was the impression I was seeing the life of a horse as it ought to be. I have never seen horses who looked more healthy, content and vibrant than those I saw in the established areas of the Rhodopes. 

In animal welfare, we talk about the concept of the ‘five freedoms’ for animals: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom from fear and distress, and freedom to express natural behaviours. This last one is the most important of all, and it could be argued the natural processes of hunger, thirst, injury and discomfort are what drive natural behaviours. Struggle and the relief of suffering are an integral part of a truly independent, fully lived life.

When I got home to my two geldings, I was confronted for the first time with just how blank and empty their fields were. They had plenty of space, and a rotational system to keep grass on the paddocks, but there was little to occupy their pastures. The wild horses of the Rhodopes have woodlands, valleys, streams, springs, hills, boulders and shrubs decorating their territory. 

Browsing - eating the twigs, leaves, fruit and bark of trees and shrubs - isn’t something the average horse owner thinks about as an integral part of horse behaviour. Yet, whenever we were in the company of wild horses, at least two or three members of the herd would be browsing at any one time. A foal would have its head stuck in a bush; the stallion would be craning his neck to pull leaves off the higher branches; mares would be hoovering berries off the ground beneath the trees.

It turns out horses really love mulberries. They would gather under the mulberry trees and systematically eat every edible part of the tree, from the twigs and leaves, to bark and branches and, most importantly, the fruit. Occasionally, we helped them out by giving a high-up branch a good shake and letting the mulberries rain down. 

Browsing is something we aren’t, on the whole, compensating for in the lives of our domesticated horses. Equine anatomist Sharon May-Davis, who has devoted much time and energy to the study of horses in the wild, is an advocate of the ‘hay high’ technique, in which hay is hung at varying heights to encourage horses to use a wider range of muscles as they eat, in order to develop a more balanced posture overall. 

It’s a technique all of us can implement to improve the mental and physical health of our equine partners. Other options to consider are creating more varied surfaces in our paddocks, opening up more rugged terrain to them if we have access to it, bringing in boulders and branches to at the very least offer them more stimulation. As for me, I’ve planted a tree in each of my fields. It’s a long-term investment, but a start.

In the Rhodopes, while the horses continue to live their wild lives, there are still bridges to be crossed before they are legally recognised as wild animals. Rewilding Rhodopes continues to push for the Bulgarian Ministry for the Environment to recognise their wild status as rewilded horses. 

In the meantime, research has been published by Sharon May-Davis which gives an insight into the unique anatomy of the Konik horse. These findings have far-reaching implications, shining a light on the ancestry of the Konik (and possibly other primitive breeds) and their divergence from domesticated horses. The research is open source and available for anyone to read.

When bureaucracy catches up and the horses’ status is recognised, it will be a landmark. Europe will have its first wild horses for more than a hundred years. But, in a way, that’s already true. Rewilding projects all over the continent, and indeed the world, are recognising the role of horses in ecosystems and giving them the chance to be free again. Horses are so much more than working animals, athletes or pets. Personally, this experience dramatically altered my perspective on what my horses need, what I need from them and how we fit into the environment together.

With sincere thanks to Rewilding Europe, in particular Hristo Hristov, Nelly Naydenova, Desi Kostadinova and Ivaylo Angelov, Kathmandu, National Geographic and Sharon May-Davis.