Horses

Horse Life

When we photographed a domestic horse on a coastal California hill, I was excited to feature the horse as animal of the month. However, there is so much to write about horses that it is overwhelming. This profile will concentrate on two rare types of horses: Exmoor ponies and a brief description of wild horses in the U.S.

Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor ponies have kept their wild ways by living in an area of high moorland that they share with plant life, such as heath and gorse, that like the ponies, are beautiful in a unique way. The cliffs of the Bristol Channel mark and protect the northern boundary of the moors on which the horses live in Devon and Somerset in the Southwest of England. All of the ponies have the same markings: a brown coat, cream markings on the face, and blue hooves, appropriate to blend in with the same landscape.

They are determined survivors; when it snows in winter, the snow stays unmelted on top of their thick, insulated coats. They have a strong will, and those that have tamed them have had to respect their personalities. The early Celts convinced them to serve as pack animals, and I picture a small family crossing the moor with their belongings carried by this small, tough pony.

Despite their isolation and tenacity, sadly the ponies have faced challenges. In World War II, they were used for target practice. There were also more benign intentions of "improving" them, but the horses bred could not survive the harsh winters.

Now these ponies, descended from wild horses who crossed the land bridge from continental Europe before there was a channel, have the protection of devotees of wildness, horses, and moors alike. Every autumn, there is a gathering of the horses galloping over the heather and out of the fog, so that there can be an official count to track efforts at conservation.

American Wild Horses

In a different landscape, a similar story is taking place. The wild horses of Pryor Mountain in Wyoming have survived due to the isolation of their home. They have been so isolated for 100 years that they still have stripes on the backs of their legs, the marks of the horses brought by the Spaniards in the 1500s and the ancestors of those horses from Northern Africa. (American wild burros share a similar story.)

These horses travel in groups of females, young foals, and one stallion. The stallion stays at the back of the group to defend his extended family from other males. The wisest mare leads the group to water holes, feeding grounds, and hiding places. Foals leave after one or two years in order to maintain the diversity of the population.

Wild horses were so numerous in Texas in the 1800s that some maps labeled large portions of the territory, simply and boldly, "Wild Horses." The Comanche Native Americans were enslaved to care for the horses. This role was the key to winning the freedom of both the Comanches and horses. As the Comanches became adept at caring for the horses, they were able to escape with them.

Symbolism

In the Chinese zodiac of 12 animals, the horse is the number 7 animal, after the snake and before the goat/sheep (More on sheep in the Chinese zodiac.) It is associated with fire and the direction of south. Appropriately, the horse is a symbol of speed, and more poetically, its steady way of moving is a metaphor for the precise movement of the stars.

In Celtic mythology, many horse carvings have been found at sacred wells. Scholars theorize that these carvings were offerings to two horse goddesses, Epona and Macha. In addition to protecting the land and harvest, these goddesses helped guide babies as they were being born.