Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Wild horses and the images they conjure up touches a yearning deep within even the most domesticated of us. You may think that the opportunity to observe and live alongside such creatures is the stuff of dreams, but luckily for us there is the chance to do just that in the unique European reservation for the wild Pottoka (pronounces po-choc-a) ponies, which has been set up and is cared for and run by the equine ethologist Lucy Rees, in the Extremadura mountains of Spain. I spent a week there with Lucy and some other students in April this year.
I discovered that it was possible to study wild horse behaviour with Lucy after reading her book ‘Horses in Company’ and searching on the internet. I had been on a quest to understand the behaviour that is expressed by horses that live as close to a natural life as possible, with no interference or management by people. Lucy’s book describes those behaviours in detail and backs them up with solid studies and examples from horse herds all over the world. It lays down the baseline of normal horse behaviour that, once understood can help us with the management and training of our own horses. ‘Horses in Company’ is the result of Lucy’s decades of research combined with her extensive experience as a horse trainer. It has become my manual for gaining insights into the complexities of horse behaviour.
I spend my first night in Spain in Lucy’s house. This small haven nestles into a wildflower meadow. The space is filled with the fragments of a life spent around horses, with tack and horse skulls alongside scientific journals and papers. Every shelf is overflowing with fascinating books and magazines which could keep you engrossed for months. The ceiling is adorned with the nests of swallows because, while Lucy was abroad some years ago there was a thunderstorm which blew open the windows and the swallows came in. They return year after year, their numbers increasing gradually and their nests moving throughout the house. Their chattering is the background noise throughout the daylight hours, outdoing even our lively horse chat. Lucy, an ethologist to her core has informally studied these birds whilst living with them. Throughout my time in her home she peppers her conversations with fascinating examples of swallow behaviour. She is able to capture the essence of the birds swirling around our heads. It somehow invites a new perception of them as individuals rather than just beautiful creatures, that make your breath catch as they perform their joyful aerial acrobatics.
The next day after driving up almost vertical twisting mountain roads we arrive at the Pottokas reserve. This is the 1200ha of mountainside, woodland and moorland where the Pottokas have the freedom to live their lives as horses have evolved to. This was Lucy’s motivation behind creating the reserve. She said she “wanted to give people the opportunity to learn about horse behaviour and well-being from the masters, the horses themselves”. Driving along a track flanked by heather almost as tall as I am we see a green open space with a small band of ponies grazing. We pull over and watch them from the car for a short while before we approach a rocky outcrop which gives us a better view. Moving across the stony ground the intense smell of wild thyme rises up as we unintentionally crush it underfoot, our attention fixed on the ponies up ahead who draw us like a magnet.
“Gabiri there you are!” Lucy is delighted to see him and and the 3 mares and two youngsters alongside. She is relieved to find them as this group hadn’t been seen for some time. Gabiri is a stunning piebald stallion, who calmly turns to look at us before carrying on with the more important business of grazing. Lucy tells us of his life, a rich tale of adventure. He’s quite the escape artist, and as his usual range is right on the border of the reserve he often heads out to explore on other side of the fence. The varied relationships he shares with the mares and his outstanding gentleness with his offspring is fascinating to hear about. Lucy knows these animals intimately and is able to describe the life and personality of each pony, which gives an astonishing wealth of information and insights.
This isn’t a brief moment in time with a study group of unknown individuals, this work records each individual life and the experiences they have had, the social structures and interactions, the physical highs and lows of a life spent as it should be and the lessons that life in the wild has taught them. It brings the facts together into a tapestry of information which gives us the possibility for truly understanding the fundamental nature of horses. This is the bedrock of her studies and the reason her research and conclusions are so well respected.
After the band moves out of sight we travel to the majada which is the old shepherds bothy which is our home for the week. Situated on a small grass plateau amongst the oak forest it is almost dead centre of the Pottokas range. While boiling water over an open fire for tea Lucy drily comments that this “is a good place for watching all the teenage soap operas that unfold”, as the adolescent members of the bands often gather in this area during natal dispersal. Inside the majada the walls are covered with the remnants of past studies and teachings, photos, posters, charts and descriptions of horse behaviour. This is bothy living at its most basic with limited electricity only when the sun shines, basic cooking facilities and an outside toilet. You enter a more simple way of life which puts you in the right frame of mind for studying wild animals. Lucy is in her element. Her life is not about creature comforts and prestige but raw living as closely aligned as possible to the experiences of the horses, up close and personal with the animals she studies and strives to understand.
My week is filled with observing, learning and making new friends, Lucy, her assistants, human and animal, the other students and the Pottokas themselves. I begin to recognise and feel I am getting to know a few of them. Sitting on a rock in the middle of a forest surrounded by the smell and sounds of a contented group of horses slowing grazing their way towards you is as close to heaven as any horse person could hope for. The anticipation of who you might see and what behaviour they might show you makes observing horses addictive. The wonderful freedom of not knowing what each day will bring creates a liberating learning environment. Lucy is very clear about her teaching, but lets us first blend with the horses lives before picking the appropriate time to share relevant information, which is made all the more understandable when you are observing the behaviours that are being described. One of the most important things I learn during my time there was how dull the lives of most domestic horse can be. Observing wild horses opens my eyes to the complexity of what creates a fulfilling equine life. The stimulation of almost constant decision making and problem solving, alongside movement and grazing, creates a fit and healthy animal who is engaged in their life. The ever present social interactions establish and strengthen their social bonds and create stability within each individual and the group as a whole.
The Pottokas themselves are beautiful and captivating. They are the physical expression of equines in the peak of health. The breed itself is a primitive remnant of Basque mountain ponies whose DNA, traced to the Pleistocene era and shows little or no effects of domestication. They thrive in this environment. They are almost constantly on the move, travelling over stony terrain that sculpts their hooves to perfection. They eat a wide range of grasses, herbs, heather tips and leaves, self selecting as they go. These ponies are not managed or interfered with, no rounding up or other stressful experiences which could make them frightened of humans. Instead, as they are regularly observed, they ignore people and will allow us close enough for detailed observation. With the typical curiosity of young animals, the foals and adolescents will sometimes approach to investigate, but this is the only human contact they experience which is completely on their terms. Throughout the week one of the ponies I follow is Esku, a young piebald filly who is chased out of her band by the stallion. She spends a few days on the periphery of the herd, unsuccessfully attempting to reintegrate before giving up and travelling almost the whole distance to the other end of the reserve, where on my last day I see her with her new family. This a small band led by a young stallion who seems delighted to have little Esku with him.
It’s not often you get to meet your childhood heroine but luckily for me on a mountainside in Spain I did. She was as inspiring then as she was to me as a child and so generous sharing her wisdom and lifetime of experience.
As a child I was deeply touched by a documentary that I watched about two very different people training mustangs. It showed the traditional cowboy way of ‘breaking’ a horse alongside a quiet woman slowly and gently gaining the trust of a terrified horse. This example of compassionate horse training has stayed at the back of my mind throughout my life and I often thought of it when dealing with frightened horses. What I didn’t realise until the end of my week with her was that Lucy was that woman and that she has been my heroine all my life.
This is part of a blog series: