It may not be, theoretically, included as a wild animal, but the admirable Skyros pony is a living treasure of the natural and cultural heritage of Greece. Affable, sociable, intelligent and extremely rare, Skyros pony is the protagonist of the rugged mountains of Skyros island, where it lives in a semi-wild state for thousands of year. It is an indigenous horse breed whose history is almost as old as the Greek civilization. Many experts see great similarities with the horses depicted on the frieze of the Parthenon and one theory believes that they were introduced to the island by Athenian settlers, between the 8th and 5th century BC. Folk tradition connects them with the horses of Achilles when he went to Troy and with the horses of Alexander The Great.
There are many scientific opinions that have been expressed about their origin. A theory that connects Skyros pony with the prehistoric small horse called “Hipparion", due to size, does not apply. This is because the "Hipparion" had disappeared long before the appearance of the present horse. What is true is that the species is the descendant of a large tribe that appeared in the region of the southern Balkans, Asia Minor and North Africa and whose only few remains are found today mainly in Skyros. The ancestor of the Skyrian horse was larger and it seems that the horse "shortened" during the centuries due to the unfavorable conditions in Skyros, as has happened in the past with many mammals living on small islands, for example the dwarf elephants of Tilos island. Skyros horses are a subspecies of the species Equus cabalus named Equus cabalus skyriano or Equus cabalus Skyros Pony. It looks a lot like the well-known pony breed but there is no close genetic relationship. Specialized scientists classify it as a miniature phenotype of the Cretan or Aegean horse.
Morphology and character
Their body is particularly muscular with an impressive pulling force. They have a small body with a rather big belly and are thin-boned. Their height varies between 102 and 122 cm in stallions and 100 to 109 cm in mares and they are among the smallest breeds in the world. Their average weight is 151 kg. Their head is slender, elegant with erect small ears, large expressive and prominent eyes and thick snout. The neck is thick in proportion to the sternum and scapula. The mane is characteristically large as it covers all one side of the neck, while in some elderly individuals it can reach the ground. Many times the mane continues to the forehead and can cover the eyes. Their legs are thin with strong joints, and their hooves are small, dark-skinned, do not need shoeing and are covered with hairs. Their tail is tufted and long, reaching many times the ground, and has a darker color than the skin. Their color is usually brown-red (orphino) and more rarely white or gray (faia). Some of them have a white mark between the eyes (asterata or reba). They are robust, lively, intelligent animals with excellent endurance and speed. But what makes them truly lovable is their companionship and sociability, which makes them receptive to education, with a calm and friendly behavior especially towards children in which they seem to have a special affinity.
A rare breed in a rare habitat
Skyros pony is considered one of the most rare breeds of horses in the world. Their natural habitat is Kochylas hills -the “Mountain” as the locals call it- in southern Skyros, an area that belongs to the Natura 2000 network. A bare of trees, rugged place with hills, cliffs, deep ravines and slopes with rich bushy vegetation in which the horses lived and survived throughout the centuries. In the past they spent the winter freely on the mountain, fed on what nature gave them, while in the summer and due to lack of water most of them went up to the north. Today, in the area, still exist some small herds of one male and 5 to 7 females. Each herd has its own territory always preferring the most inaccessible areas of Kochylas hills.
The horses feed mainly on grass, weeds, bushes and leaves that fall from wild olive trees, maples and oaks. Unfortunately, however, the few horses of Kochylas live together with mules and donkeys that people abandoned. Although their coexistence is harmonious, it is a threat to the pure breed of the Skyros pony. The organized removal of other horses breeds is necessary for the maintenance of a pure wild breed in the mountains of Skyros.
Protection and problems
Nowadays most of the horses live inside farms and in a few small breeding units. The horses were used for years by the inhabitants for various agricultural work, mainly threshing, horse racing and demonstrations, playing a dominant role in the cultural life of the island. They lived in an almost wild state as people used them for their jobs for a maximum of fifty days per year before releasing them back to the mountain. Today, apart from the island where around 190 individuals live, Skyros ponies are found in owners in Euboea, Attica, Thessaly, Messinia, Corfu, Thessaloniki, Parnassos and elsewhere. Around 130 individuals live outside the island. The Skyrian pony has been included in the protected species of the wild fauna of Greece. In Skyros island operates the Skyrian Horse Society, a non-profit association, which aims to the rescue, recording, keeping a pedigree tree, medical care and promotion of the breed. Also the association operates a program of adoption of Skyros ponies.
Although there are many problems (over-grazing pastures, uncontrolled breeding, risks of loss of natural habitat from the installation of wind turbines and no financial support to the local owners) it seems that Skyros pony is gaining ground towards its survival. This is because the growing awareness of the Skyrians and the constant efforts of few but determined devotees to preserve this wonderful animal.
photos: Christina Georgiadou