For over 500 years, a mysterious herd of beautiful wild horses has roamed the pine forests and sandy beaches of Abaco in the Bahamas. Only in 2002, after a decade of research, were they finally identified and designated by the Horse of the America’s Registry as the Abaco Barb, descendents of horses brought over at the time of Columbus’s explorations – a new strain of the endangered Spanish Barb and perhaps the purest strain in existence anywhere.
The Abacos Barb is the most critically endangered breed on the planet.
The Abacos are part of the Colonial Spanish horses that include the Spanish Barbs, Spanish Mustangs, Banker Wild “ponies”, the Florida Crackers and the Carolina Marsh Tackys. Much like a group of Warmblood breeds, this historical group contains several related breeds and many strains within those breeds that have been greatly separated by time, distance and varying recipes but all share a common link; they trace back to the three general Spanish Barb types that the Spanish brought to the Americas during the exploration and colonization of the New World.
Horses first returned to the Western Hemisphere after Columbus’s second voyage. The Caribbean held important breeding stations for horses for exported both to North and South America for the colonies.Many ships transporting horses were wrecked on the islands of the Caribbean. Abaco is the site of over a dozen Spanish wrecks.
Initial DNA studies of the Abacos show a high degree of Spanish Barb traits, including the very unusual splash white gene. The Abaco Barb, perhaps even more so than the other Spanish Colonial breeds, are very significant because they represent a time capsule of genetics of the first area Iberian horses to reach the New World – genetics that were present during the Golden Age of Spain at the time the New World was being settled. More funds for studies are needed to better understand how the Abacos Barb fits into the general Colonial Spanish Barb family and what unique traits they alone may be able to contribute back to the world.
The entire population of wild Abaco Barbs that run free on the island of Abaco once numbered over 200 horses. However, beginning in the 1960s, several events took place that led to the breed’s severe decline from over 200 horses to just three individuals, including the paving of new roads through or near their territory, wild dog attacks on foals, and in the 1960’s a road opened up the forest to boar hunters, who shot the horses when their dogs chased the horses instead of boar.
Several Abaconians intervened against the slaughter and brought the three horses to a farm near Treasure Cay. A herd of 35 built up again, yet since 1992 over half those horses have died. There have been no foals since 1998, though there was one abortion and one fetus aborted for unknown reasons. By 2009, only seven Abaco Barb horses remained.
Recently, however, there has been a push to help preserve the breed. As the breed is critically endangered, it has been confirmed that no Abaco Barb horses will be sold on the commercial market. Instead, the remaining herd will run free on the preserve on Abaco.
Today, the young stallion Capella stands strong and proud among the tough survivors in this once-mighty herd. Full of life and spirit, he bears the beautiful white splashes, bright coat, and flowing mane that are characteristic of the breed. His tough, compact body and strong legs underscore the Abaco Barb’s stamina and endurance – two traits that will be crucial for the herd to rebuild and the breed to survive.
Milanne Rehor, head of Arkwild, Inc. and Project Director for WHOA (Wild Horses of Abaco Preservation Society), has worked since 1992 to save the herd and to publicize its plight.
Arkwild’s overall goals are to provide these rare and beautiful horses with a safe and secure future, whatever their origins, by educating the public about the inappropriate human intervention that has prevented them from once again reaching viable numbers. For information about Arkwild and WHOA, visit www.arkwild.org.
Developed on the Barbary Coast of North Africa, the Barb is a desert horse with great hardiness and stamina. Due to the amount of cross-breeding, it is difficult to find a purebred Barb today. The Barb generally possesses a fiery temperament and an atypical sport-horse conformation, but nevertheless has had an incredible impact on today’s modern breeds.
The Abaco Barb can come in different colors than the usual Barb, including pinto (including the relatively uncommon splashed white), roan, chestnut, black and other colors.
One of the remaining stallions, Capella, (on left) was made into a Breyer Model Horse in 2005. A portion of each model sold is donated back to the preservation of the Abaco Barb.