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Free as the wind, old as the hills
Samantha Kett, thinkSPAINtoday , Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Their days of running wild in the Doñana national park could be numbered. The world’s oldest, most unique - and yet most ignored - breed of horses is dying out fast…

For more than a thousand years, these ethereal creatures have been roaming the hills and marshes of southern Andalucía. For a thousand years, man has mostly been unable to tame them, unable to clip their wings and halt their eternal flight. For a thousand years, the Retuerta, the wild horses of the Doñana national park in the province of Cádiz, a natural wetland that feeds off the river Guadalquivir, have run free as the wind.

Yet now, there are only 60 left.

An endangered species, the Retuerta is said to be the oldest surviving breed of horse in Europe, if not the world – and the most unique, having no genes whatsoever in common with any other known race on the planet.

Retuertas are usually grey or dark bay in colour, coarse-looking and of sturdy build. They rarely reach 16hh (1.6m or 5’4”) in height and, until recently, were considered an inferior, even useless, strain of equine, described as ugly and ungainly. As a species they were mostly ignored, mainly because of their standoffish character and the difficulty in breaking and schooling them – which in most cases was considered pointless as they are smaller in size and less strong than the more widely-renowned Pura Raza Española. In centuries gone by, Retuertas have been used for working the fields at times, but in general they are too difficult to domesticate even if anyone succeeds in catching them. Now, though, they have risen in status to being considered one of the most valuable gems of Spain’s natural heritage.

In fact, they are thought to be one of the only populations of horses on the continent that live in complete liberty and cut off from other species.

If you have ever taken a stroll or driven across Dartmoor, Exmoor, the New Forest or the remote parts of the Scottish Highlands, this may come as a surprise. In these and five other parts of the British Isles where ponies roam free, the animals are a protected species and have right of way on the roads – if a herd of them decides to meander along in front of your car, you have no option but to slow down and wait.

However, huge numbers of these ponies have been tamed, broken in, schooled, bred with other species and are seen all over the UK and Ireland at local shows and Pony Club rallies or working in riding schools. They are no longer exclusively wild, nor exclusively pure bred – and those that roam freely regularly come into contact with other wild ponies and cross-breeding occurs.

This is not the case with the Doñana horses, who live in a totally isolated nucleus in the marshy areas bordering the dunes (known locally as las retuertas, hence the horses’ name) where rainwater is collected in a natural reservoir during the dry season allowing the animals to survive.

A breed apart
Most of the world’s commonest breeds of horses and ponies have some connection to each other. Rather like the human race with its global gene pool that varies surprisingly subtly from continent to continent, the sturdy Welsh cob and the delicate, exotic Arab, the robust New Forest and the sleek thoroughbred seen on the tracks of Ascot and Cheltenham share the same bloodlines and many points in common in terms of their physical characteristics and their temperament.

The nine native breeds of British mountain and moorland ponies, for example, are anything but hybrids – the Welsh mountain with its dished face and high tail has a pronounced Arab influence, as do the Connemara ponies running wild in Galway Bay. Queen Victoria’s decision to let loose a handful of Anglo-Arab (thoroughbred-Arab cross) stallions into the New Forest meant the ponies’ characteristics would change for good – their stockiness became more refined, their coats sleeker and their heads more dainty and chiselled.

French Arabs used for racing have a good deal of thoroughbred blood in them, to make them, by nature, faster (which defeats the object, purists believe) and finally, the Argentinean ‘miniature’, the Fallabella, which stands at a maximum of 7.2hh (75cm or 30 inches) is thought to be related to the hardy, opinionated Shetland pony.

Yet the Retuerta horses of the Doñana national park apparently have no genetic connection to any other breed on the planet.

So, how did they get there? Scientists, nature-lovers and the horsy fraternity want to know. Well, the same could be said of the Basque language, which has no linguistic links to any other tongue. It appears the Retuertas, like Euskera, were beamed down from Mars without anybody having noticed.

A prehistoric race
According to the magazine Animal Genetics, which first published the results of studies on the Retuertas earlier this year, there is nothing on record about how the breed came into existence. Equine historians have a theory that they may have escaped being domesticated or crossed with other species many millennia ago.

Two basic strains of horses were in existence some ten or twenty million years ago, from which all others are descended – the Equus Caballus, whose descendents were eventually used for domestic purposes, and the Equus Przewalski, the wild horse of the Asian steppes.

For prehistoric quadrupeds, it was a woman’s world – there were vastly more mares than stallions on the planet and for this reason, if a huge number of the western world’s horses were to trace their family tree back to the year dot they would probably find most of them shared the same father.

Biologists found that the ‘Y’ chromosome in the various breeds of horse they tested was fairly similar, with the exception of the Retuertas who seemed to have escaped the worldwide equine family tradition.

Are these horses really so unique?
Studies into the Retuertas have been ongoing since the 1980s. The DNA of this endangered species of horse has been closely examined along with that of another ten breeds from Europe and North Africa, and was found to have nothing whatsoever in common with any of them. Neither the English thoroughbred nor the Pura Raza Española; neither Arabs nor British mountain and moorland ponies, and were found to be no relation whatsoever to native Spanish breeds such as the Losino, Mallorquín, Menorquín, Asturcón, the Spanish Trotter nor the Basque ‘pottoka’ breed.

This said, a breed of semi-feral horses known as Marismeño, were found to be physically similar to the Retuertas, even though their DNA is completely different - meaning that as a last resort they could be interbred with the latter in an attempt to increase the population.

Retuerta cross-breeds – Marismeño or Pura Raza Española (Spanish thoroughbred) crossed with the native Doñana strain have been found in homes and farms in southern Spain, claims Ciro Rico, one of the biologists behind the equine investigation, but non-wild pure Retuertas are extremely rare. Despite its exclusivity, speculation is rife that the Doñana horses may have a number of illegitimate children on the other side of the pond.

Biologists have yet to study the genetic makeup of the Retuerta against the most common breeds found on the American continent, which they say will prove vital to their findings as the Spanish colonisation and later trade links with the Americas meant the bloodlines of horses, as well as people, became diluted and radically altered.

Juan Vicente Delgado, head of the faculty of veterinary studies at Córdoba university, believes the other Doñana species, the more commonly-found Marismeño which shares many physical characteristics – although no DNA – with the Retuerta, was the forefather of the stereotypical cowboy mount in the wild west of the USA, the prairie Indians and the Argentinean gauchos. In fact, Delgado believes many of the horses on the American continent with Hispanic roots come from the Marismeño of the Doñana. He also believes the Marismeño shares its genes with one of Spain’s most popular breeds, the Pura Raza Española.

Given the physical similarities of the hybrid Retuerta and the more common, domesticated Marismeño, the possibility exists that the former was crossed with species from the Americas when links with Spain became established and migrants from both sides crossed the water to live and work.

Save our wild horses
Now, along with further studies, the important issue is to save these rare and highly-threatened horses from extinction. Ciro Rico, leading a team comprising representatives of the universities of Córdoba and Madrid Complutense, two large, well-known stud farms, the central government’s Ministry of Defence and various vets and biologists, says the future for the Doñana horses looks bleak unless they take action fast. An epidemic of any description could be enough for us to lose the Retuertas altogether.

The team is planning various actions such as breeding wild and in captivity, building up a sperm bank, artificial insemination, implanting frozen embryos in domesticated mares.

“Before investigating anything any further, we need to work on how we are going to save them,” Rico stresses.

How does the Retuerta differ from the Pura Raza Española?

The Pura Raza Española is usually grey, bay, black or chestnut and stand at an impressive 16-17hh (1.6-1.7m or 5’4”-5’8”). Of a balanced conformation and harmonious appearance, they are strong in appearance but beautiful to behold, with an arched neck and high tail suggesting distant links to the Arab. They are extremely tractable, easy to handle and to train and highly versatile – they are used for showing, driving, hacking, showjumping, eventing, although they are perhaps better known for their impeccable dressage skills. The Spanish Riding School is famed the world over and you may catch short displays of these stunning horses carrying out high-school dressage during local and regional fiestas.

By contrast, the Retuerta has always had a bad press, until the scientists and historians became aware of their presence and realised that, not only were they in danger of extinction, but were quite possibly the oldest and purest race in the world. Unlike the Pura Raza, which was crossed with Berber Arabs and Turkish breeds centuries ago to give them their present-day characteristics, the Retuerta is untouched by any other gene.

Usually bay or brown, occasionally grey, they are awkward-looking and of sturdy build, with a poor conformation that makes them an unlikely choice for any kind of equestrian activity. Smaller than the Pura Raza, despite their robust stature Retuertas were usually overlooked in favour of the former when man sought a four-legged friend to work the fields.

Now, the Retuerta is ready to stand up and be counted. Now, equestrian experts no longer look down their noses at this humble mountain breed – the Retuerta is set to be given the protection, care and status that it has always deserved.

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