The gold standard
I spent today in the Gredos mountains in Spain, following a small band of feral Pottoka ponies together with a couple of ethology students and field study director Victor Ros. After morning coffees at the traditional stone hut where the hardcore students spend their nights (I'm in a flat in the village what with being totally dependent on charging my camera batteries and ..eh.. well having grown accustomed to indoor plumbing) we headed out on foot to see if we could find a colt named Eder. After a spell of running by himself, Eder had returned to the clearing near the hut early this morning and joined a small band of two bachelor colts and a filly. We wanted to watch as the ponies interacted.
Right now, the mountains are rather green and lush. Nothing like the parched brown Spain you have seen if you've been to Costa del Sol in August. Up here above the clouds in Estremadura (which means ”extremely tough”) the grass is juicy and the lavender is in bloom. There is still snow on the highest mountains and waterfalls are so common that one gets a bit blasé. Eder and his new band were grazing peacefully between some large, flat rocks which were quite tastefully mottled with sage green moss and tiny, matching pink flowers. Did I mention it's pretty here? Because it's really pretty here.
All day I watched the drama unfold – Eder took a fancy to the filly in his new band. But the elder of the other two colts already had a relationship with her. She made it clear she was not interested in Eder – she even kicked him in the face and rather impressively jumped a dry stone wall. The colts also had a couple of interactions with rearing and prancing and a lot of loud screaming. All intersperced with gentlemanly pleasantries and calm, parallel grazing. Horses are so incredibly civilised. Nothing like us humans. I was hoping for the filly and her black beau to run off together but that did not look likely as I headed back to town this evening. I hope I will see these ponies again tomorrow and get some idea of how it turns out in the end.
On my way back to the village, I thought about how much happens in the life of a feral horse. I am aware that today was particularly eventful for the horses I observed, but that doesn't change the fact that free living horses lead varied and interesting lives. They have families – not just members of the same species who happen to have been thrown in together whether they get on or not – but families who are either blood related or have made a choice to be together.
These horses are so calm and so peaceful. Even their tiffs are oddly tranquil - the way the colts take a break from competing for a mare and just hang out together for a while before getting back to business. You only have to look at these ponies to know that this is what it is supposed to be like for them. This is the gold standard to which we should all – as horse owners - be held. I know that keeping horses in the manner of the Piornal ponies is not really feasible in a domestic setting, but the fact that it isn't should not keep us from trying to achieve the closest thing we can.
I think about Eder and how free and strong and clever he is. How he thinks nothing of a levade or a bit of passage or of jumping around on huge rocks as if he were a goat. I imagine how cruel it would be to catch him and put him in a box stall without any possibility to see his friends and family. Bringing him out for an hour a day and forcing him to do tricks. I feel happy that nobody will ever do that to such a free spirit, such a live wire. Such a glutton for life. And then I remember that Eder is fundamentally no different from any other horse. Except that he is free and so it seems like a crime to take away that freedom. Our domestic horses were never free and so we forget to think about the gold standard of a wild equine existence. We imagine they are used to being held captive, so they probably don't mind. The truth is their needs are not sodifferent to Eder's needs.
Convinced your horse is just dandy in a box for most of the day? I challenge you to come to Piornal and see how horses live when they are free and to not change your mind. Watch how they organise themselves, how subtly they communicate, how little aggression they display. Stallions are just part of the family and not fenced in alone because they're stallions. Come and see – if you still believe a box and a few hours alone in a paddock is good enough for your horse when you have witnessed a true horse society, I will respect your informed opinion.