Abaco’s equine heroes

One woman’s quest to protect the wild horses of Abaco

The Abaco Barbs. Photograph by Arnd Bronkhorst/www.arnd.nlThe Abaco Barbs. Photograph by Arnd Bronkhorst/www.arnd.nl

Only a heart beating to the galloping of hooves could have heard their whinnies echoing across the sea from a fortress of pine trees. However she knew, Milanne Rehor was guided across the salty waves to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. The treasure she hoped to find? Nothing that would have interested Blackbeard. A legendary herd of horses was said to roam the isle. Tugged by the romantic notion of wild horses on an island in the Caribbean, Rehor anchored off Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco and began her quest for the Abaco Barbary horses.

Having abandoned publishing after many years, Rehor shares why she chooses to catch her own drinking water and generate her own electricity: “Living on the water is a mental lifesaver for me. I row home at night and I am in a different place. It’s as close to escape as possible from the endless drama and strain of keeping the horse project going. When there is some tragedy, the sky, the stars, the vast clean open space of the sea remind me that I’m only a small part of a vastness that probably makes more sense than I could ever comprehend. It’s healing.”

The Abaco horses may have been shipwrecked on the slender limestone island when Columbus landed for the second time in the West Indies in 1493. Others think they were shipped from Cuba for labour at the peak of Great Abaco’s logging industry, and were later left to fend for themselves. The herd, once two hundred strong, has now been whittled down to eight: four mares and four stallions exactly.

It’s single-handed efforts like Rehor’s and fourteen years of lobbying, fund-raising, and education about the horses that can be credited for the survival of these precious last ones. Bahamian law has now provided for the Abaco Barbs by declaring part of the interior of the island a preserve. Rehor is optimistic that this measure will bolster support for the animals, as well as give them the space and the solitude they need to thrive. But despite her praises of the laws, she fears that enforcement, predictably, is inadequate.

The Abaco Barbs have led a tumultuous life. Their ancestry links them to Europe, where Barbary horses that the Moors brought with them to invade Spain were captured and bred with Iberian stock. The Spanish Barbs were crowded onto one of Columbus’s ships and endured a long, arduous voyage to the New World.Like the horses, Rehor made a sea voyage. And part of her kindred feeling is her instinct for survival, sheer ability to live off limited resources in nature, and a desire for solitude.

The world loves equine legends: the treacherous Trojan horse; Pegasus, winged horse of Greek legend; the American Comanche, the only survivor of Colonel Custer’s last stand. The Abaco Barbs are modern-day heroes of the Caribbean, having been forced to near-extinction but still holding on for dear life.

Rehor’s romance with the horses is the stuff of fairy-tales. As captain of her sloop Alnilam — “string of pearls” in Arabic — Rehor has always felt connected with the stars. Hadar, Adhara, Dubhe, Nunki and Bellatrix II, all fitting Arabic names for her charges, are also the names of navigation stars dubbed by the Moors, to whom the horses’ ancestors once belonged.

And, like any romantic hero, the Barbs are prone to displaying their quirks and sensibilities, too. These creatures are not oblivious to the activities around them, their protectress assures me. “Horses are too often sadly underestimated. Each of our horses is a character and has a definite personality. They are very observant.” One of the tasks Rehor has assigned herself, apart from the physical care of the horses, is the documentation of their behaviour. She describes how far maternal instinct can go. “I had to deliver some meds to a foal and used a dart. Her mother pulled the dart out and spit it on the ground. And to this day [seven years later] that mare is not very happy with me. The foal, now a lovely young mare, is fine with me.”

Now in Rehor’s loving care, a nearly extinct breed finally has a fighting chance for survival. The stars are aligned, and fate has safely delivered them into each other’s harbour.