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Free as the wind, old as the hills
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 the
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