Europe Plans for Eco-Friendly (Re)wild Horses on the Edge of the Landscape

Visionary ecologists seek the very benefits of wild horses that American ranchers reject
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European ecologists envision a future landscape for their continent where horses are put to work doing what they do best: massaging the earth's ecosystem with their hooves and bodies. Everything that US ranchers revile about wild horses, the Europeans hope to spawn in a new vision of urban sprawl's backyards, from Spain to the Baltic. Photo Copyright Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe.

European ecologists envision a future landscape for their continent where horses are put to work doing what they do best: massaging the earth's ecosystem with their hooves and bodies. Everything that US ranchers revile about wild horses, the Europeans hope to spawn in a new vision of urban sprawl's backyards, from Spain to the Baltic. Photo Copyright Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe.

On one screen I have images of European elegance. Isabell Werth and Hans Peter Minderhoud cavort at this weekend’s Central Park Horse Show, of all places, in a dressage display that included poignant passages by American horse heroes Ravel and Rafalca. 

Sport horses in Central Park? What’s the world coming to? (Something wonderful!)

On the left screen is a barn full of too-thin horses in Black Forest, Colorado. They were found last week living among carcasses of dead former residents of the barn. Authorities haven’t removed the horses, probably because authorities tend to follow policy and go by the rules. But first the local media, and now the national media, are fanning the flames and animal lovers are demanding that officials get the survivors out. 

What’s the world coming to? (Something unthinkable!)

Everything elegant--a place we'd like to be but that is out of reach to most of us--is on the right monitor. We can build a Pinterest board and go there that way. Everything tragic--and often just down the road or across town, someplace we may remember but hope to never see again--is on the left. We can become activists and make a difference that way.

Which story to report? I go through this a few times a week. I’d like to report only the good news. I’d like to inspire people and send them out into the horse world energized with new ideas. But Black Forest is what is really going on. 

Good news from Black Forest, Colorado is months and months away. Perhaps by the time you read this, the horses in the barn will have been taken out of there for veterinary care they surely need.

That leaves me the opportunity to give you that little plug of inspiration I think we all need on the first full day of fall. It's the inspiration to make a plan, to embrace the future with hope, and to move ahead.

We know what a dilemma the Bureau of Land Management faces in the United States: we need a workable, agreeable management program for our wild horses, and we don't have one. What we do have is opinions. Everyone is a stakeholder, if only on an emotional or taxpayer level. Go to Australia and the wild horses are just as much in danger. There, the traditional management strategy has been to shoot the horses from helicopters in a mass cull.

Has there ever been a good year to be a wild horse?

Even as the US and Australia struggle with reported over-population of wild horses, something very different is going on in Europe. Today is the launch of “Rewilding Horses in Europe”, a project and booklet that addresses the concept of reintroducing wild horses in Europe in the future.

The project is part of the ecological visionary “Rewilding Europe” program. “Bringing back large herbivores in these landscapes is one of the key activities of Rewilding Europe, and the wild horse is one of the key species in this context,” writes managing director Frans Schepers, who declares wild horses to be extinct in Europe.

Will we be having this conversation one day in the USA? Rewilding Europe proposes to design a new boutique-type population of wild horses for the European continent, and to teach humans to live with untouchable wild horses on the edges of civilization. It’s about eco-science, it’s about sociology, it's about urban planning and it’s about the pragmatism of individuals who believe they need (not just want) to have non-domesticated animals as part of the landscape.

Rewilding Europe doesn’t propose to build preserves of precious, pure DNA from New Forest ponies in England or Konik ponies in Poland. Under this plan, mixing the breeds and types of native horses is on the table, since so many once-wild breeds often lack genetic diversity. Many of the breeds that Rewilding Europe is interested in are ones that we are unaware of in the USA: Hucul, Yakoet, Pottoko, Asturcon, Losino, Monichino, Retuerta, Karakachan, Myzegea, Pindos. Even the Camargue horse is up for addition into this genetic mixing bowl.

It sounds like the program is about what people can do for horses, and it is, but it’s also about what those horses can do for the land. To the Europeans, horse activity that is reviled by US ranchers is desired behavior: grazing, wallowing, treading, debarking, transporting seeds. Last week, a paper was published in Australia faulting wild horses for creating puddles in their hoofprints that could encourage propagation of invasive aquatic species ever further from the water hole where their lives begin.

Europe is asking people to envision a “future” wild horse. Many of us look at the wild horses we have now through the lens of the past. Rewilding Europe has a blueprint for re-building its own backyard that may not transfer directly to ours but the thinking process behind it will.

Not long ago, someone stood on a bare stage and told us to “Think Different”. We bought everything he had to sell and begged for more. Maybe we need to start to “think different” about wild horses. Otherwise, we may be planning trips to Albania or Croatia or the Italian Alps to gaze on herds of noble wild horses, not so unlike the ones we already have right here, but don't know how to agree to protect. 

We have everything but a plan: what we do have is horses who deserve one.

A 48-page booklet explaining the program, "Rewilding Horses in Europe", is available as a free download today.

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